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French anti-terror laws criticised for breaching rights

Text by Marie Sophie JOUBERT

Latest update : 2008-10-24

France's aggressive judicial counter-terrorism program is seen as highly effective, but a new report by Human Rights Watch says it violates rights, such as the right to a fair trial.

The first major report on France by Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based international non-governmental organization, spares no one.

The report, titled "Preempting Justice" looks at French counter-terrorism laws and procedures. The author, Judith Sunderland, Europe and Central Asia researcher at HRW, denounces the French legal system’s reliance on a catch-all offence known as “criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking".

The charge, which enables justice officials to take preventive measures before a crime is committed, too often means a breach of human rights, HRW says. “France is too quick to trade human rights for efficiency,” writes Sunderland.

“Using the criminal justice system is the right way to fight terrorism,” Sunderland said in a HRW press release. “But prosecuting people because of who they know and what they think sacrifices basic rights, and that is wrong in principle and dangerous in practice.”

Mathieu Guidère, senior fellow of the US-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies and director of the Strategic Information Analysis Unit at the Saint-Cyr military academy in France, rejects the accusation. “Compared with many other European countries and the US, France respects people’s rights, even when security is at stake,” he says.

“Many other European countries take France’s “preventive doctrine” as an example,” he adds.

“Since Sept. 11, many countries have been envious of the French system,” says Ali Laidi, a France 24 terrorism expert. “British, American, German and Spanish officials have come to France to get a better understanding of it.”

Violating defendants' rights

According to the report, the French criminal justice system violates international standards and fails to guarantee a fair trial. Among the violations listed by the report, HRW cites longer periods of police custody, delayed access to counsel, facilitated police searches, increased penalties and curtailed rights to effective defence against prosecution.

Emmanuel Nieto was arrested in October 2005 on suspicion of plotting attacks in Paris. The arrest was based on statements allegedly by a man who was detained arbitrarily in Algeria. Neito says he was subjected to police brutality during the four days he spent in police custody. He said he was forced to kneel down for long periods of time and grabbed by the throat. He was questioned for a total of 45 hours in 13 different sessions.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to Eric Plouvier, a Paris-based criminal lawyer who defended Mohammed El Ayouni, who was convicted of involvement in an Islamist network that recruited in France for fighters to go to Iraq.

“The system badly violates individual liberties and defence rights,” Plouvier says. “When they are in police custody, suspects can be woken up at 2 in the morning then again at 5. They can’t sleep at all,” he explains.

"Terrorist attacks have effectively been thwarted”

The first of human rights is the right for an individual not to die in a terrorist attack,” says Philippe Coirre, a counter-terrorist prosecutor in Paris. He says the only efficient way to avoid attacks is to be able to charge someone for "criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking".

The system has proven efficient, he adds. Although France is regularly the target of threats by al Qaeda, it hasn’t been struck by an Islamist attack since December 1996, when the Armed Islamic Group, based in Algeria, detonated a gas bottle at a suburban-railway station in central Paris.
Thanks to the "criminal association" offence, Judge Coirre confirms that "problems with Corsican nationalists or Spanish Basques have been avoided."
Coirre, who recognizes the validity of HRW’s approach, admits that the notion of "criminal association" is "very flexible", but he adds, "it is subjected to a certain number of conditions. A simple exchange of ideas is not incriminating."

Date created : 2008-07-06