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Anti-Terror Law Under Fire

Critics warn new legislation could violate civil rights, while supporters argue it will protect national security.
By Raghad Ali
A leading international human rights group has called for major amendments to Iraq's new anti-terror law, saying it is "fundamentally flawed".



Human Rights Watch, a United States-based rights watchdog, heavily criticised the law in an email interview with IWPR. Senior legal advisor James Ross said it "invites easy abuse and colossal miscarriages of justice by the courts".



He said vague language on terrorism could be used to prosecute individuals for crimes unrelated to terrorism or acts "poorly defined as abetting terrorists".



Ross warned that rather than combat terrorism, the law could harm the development of Iraq's criminal justice system and undermine the rights of Iraqis.



"International law prohibits as arbitrary criminal statutes containing elements of injustice, unreasonableness or disproportionality," he asserted. "This law contains all of these."



The anti-terrorism legislation went into effect in mid-November, a little over a month after it was approved by the National Assembly. The law passed under the radar of many Iraqis - it was not widely published in the press and few critics spoke out against it, although a vocal minority of lawmakers strongly opposed it.



Anti-terror laws throughout the world have come under fire for combating terror at the expense of civil liberties. Similar criticism is being directed at the Iraqi law, particularly its harsh penalties and loose definitions of terrorism.



The government has taken an increasingly hardline stance against insurgents in recent months as it tries to control security in the country. Defence minister Sadoun al-Duleimi praised the law last month, shortly after announcing he would bulldoze the houses of those believed to be terrorists, or to be sheltering them.



"Iraq is passing through a difficult period," said Hussein Shaalan, a National Assembly member from the Iraqi List bloc, and a supporter of the legislation. "We want to stop the bloodshed which is claiming the lives of thousands of Iraqis."



The law defines terrorism as "any criminal act carried out by one or more persons against the security and stability of the state, and/or against persons or groups of persons, deliberately or unwittingly."



It also criminalises "any act that may threaten national unity or affect the security of the state".



Individuals convicted of committing, planning or financing terrorist acts can receive the death penalty under the law. Those convicted of concealing terrorist activity or sheltering terrorists may be punished with life imprisonment.



Ross said these terms - concealing terrorist activity and sheltering terrorists - are "impossibly vague", and that the death penalty stipulation opposed United Nations guidelines.



Human Rights Watch is also concerned at a provision that criminalises as terrorism any act "that exceeds the freedom of expression guaranteed by virtue of the law".



Ross said non-violent acts could potentially be punished as state security crimes under the law. He called for the legislation to be "promptly and substantially revised, because it is unjust and unpredictable".



The anti-terror legislation won wide support from lawmakers in October, but a small group of National Assembly representatives criticised it for trampling on civil rights.



"This law is a crime against the people," said lawyer Faiza Baba-Khan, a Kurdish member of the National Assembly, adding that this move resembles "the beginnings of a repeat dictatorship".



Baba-Khan has called for amendments to define terrorist acts more clearly, and expressed concern that the law would be used to suppress gatherings or activities critical of the government.



Many Sunni Arabs believe the government's anti-terrorism stance is directed against their community. They have accused the Shia-led government of conducting mass arrests and torture under the guise of cracking down on terror.



Leaders of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of a handful of Sunni Arab parties participating in next week's parliamentary election, have promised to review the law if they are elected.



"The security forces interpret this law as [meaning] targeting Sunnis more than targeting terrorism, which doesn't distinguish between Sunni, Shia or any other Iraqi group," said Muhammed Abdullah, an Iraqi Islamic Party leader in the Karkh area of Baghdad.



National Assembly member Shaalan said it was important to implement the law properly to ensure it does not cause friction among different groups, and protects human rights.



"The law is above all in the interests of the country," Shaalan said, "and individuals are the foundations of this."



Mahmood al-Sheikh Rathi, a National Assembly member from Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's United Iraqi Alliance, has said critics of the law are not serious about the war on terror, according to a report in the newspaper al-Sabah.



"I support every law that puts an end to terror," said Samia Aziz, a lawmaker from the Kurdish Alliance bloc. "The principle of reward and punishment should exist in the new Iraq."



Raghad Ali is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad. Tiare Rath is the Iraqi Crisis Report editor, based in Sulaimaniyah. IWPR trainee journalist Daud Salman also contributed to this report.