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Monday, 3 December, 2001, 15:20 GMT
EU to push through terror laws
French police and soldiers at Charles de Gaulles airport
Rights groups say Europe is becoming a police state
By European affairs correspondent William Horsley

European Union ministers in Brussels are to approve plans for a radical extension of EU powers aimed at protecting Europe against terrorism.


Human Rights Watch in Brussels says the anti-terrorism measures will allow the EU authorities to harass and prosecute those who take part in legitimate protests

The drastic new measures follow evidence that suspected Islamic terrorist cells were intending to use chemical weapons or bombs to attack high-profile targets in Paris, Brussels and Strasbourg.

They will enable police and prosecutors in any part of the EU to arrest suspects anywhere else on the continent and put them on trial promptly.

But justice and interior ministers are to push the plan through with little public debate.

Civil rights groups are warning that the meeting may lay the foundations of turning Europe into a police state.

Shock response

Evidence of planned attacks uncovered by police and security services has shocked the 15-nation European Union.

Wreckage of World Trade Center
Authorities are desperate to prevent a similar attack in Europe
It has been quick to respond with the new powers for police and prosecutors to hunt down those involved with acts of terrorism or other serious crimes.

The governments want to overcome a host of differences in legal systems and police practices built up over centuries.

The EU's dismantling of most of its internal borders has created a "single market in crime". Now the aim is to match that with a "single market in law and order".

The plan:-

  • All 15 EU states are signing up to a common definition of terrorism. This is needed to make the new police and judicial powers effective across an area with a population of nearly 400 million people. Later all the EU applicant states in eastern Europe and the Mediterranean will sign up too.
  • The EU will create a system of "pan-European arrest warrants". This will mean that a court in Spain or Italy can issue a warrant for a suspect in, say, Germany or Britain, for any of a wide range of serious offences. Then the authorities in the country where the suspect lives only needs to confirm the person's identity, and he or she should be handed over within a few weeks. Appeals procedures which can now result in delays of several years in extradition cases will be curtailed and loopholes closed.
  • Minimum penalties, some more severe than at present, will be agreed among all EU states. The European parliament wants Europol to be transformed into a cross-border police force with powers similar to those of the FBI in the US.
  • Europol has already set up a new Anti-terrorism Task Force to identify suspects and potential targets in Europe and it will receive much more complete intelligence from police and security services in memberstates. The whole system will be administered by "Eurojust", which should clear away obstacles as the EU takes over new authority in law and order areas which until now have been jealously guarded as the preserve of national sovereignty.
  • The EU should sign an accord with the United States to remove the current maze of obstacles to close cooperation with US authorities in investigating terrorist suspects and extraditing them to America.
  • EU heads of government should approve all this at a summit in Laeken near Brussels on December 14-15th.

Serious barriers

A number of serious barriers could still derail parts of this grand plan.

Austria, Denmark, Greece and Luxembourg all have constitutions or laws which are incompatible with it, as they ban the transfer their nationals to any foreign jurisdiction.

Hamburg police arrest terrorist suspect
Suspected cells have been uncovered across Europe

Some national parliaments may baulk at such a sudden leap forward in European integration.

In the past Britain has been slow to agree to requests from France for extradition of wanted North African suspects implicated in bombings in Paris in the mid-1990s.

The French appear to have turned a blind eye to Basque militants wanted for acts of violence in Spain.

Also, the EU bans extraditions to any state where the death penalty may be applied, and is fiercely critical of the US over its dozens of judicial killings every year.

Any new code on that subject would be very hard to agree and maintain.

Would the EU really refuse to extradite a prime suspect like Osama Bin Laden if he happened to be arrested somewhere in Europe?

Civil rights

But the most determined opposition comes from European civil rights organisations, some of whom are warning openly that Europe is becoming a police state.


A number of serious barriers could still derail parts of this grand plan

Human Rights Watch in Brussels says the anti-terrorism measures will allow the EU authorities to harass and prosecute those who take part in legitimate protests.

It also fears that the "fight against terrorism" will be used to justify tougher rules on asylum and immigration, undermining Europe's commitment to the Geneva Convention on Refugees and poisoning race relations in European countries.

Fair Trials Abroad, which campaigns for the rights of people facing abuses of justice across the EU, says the new measures will make serious miscarriages of justice more likely.

Stephen Jakobi, its director, points to the way the Italian police responded to July's mass protests in Genoa by beating up dozens of activists visiting from abroad, and then keeping them incommunicado from their lawyers for days.

"We cannot afford that kind of thing in the new Europe," he said.

Fierce opposition

Civil rights groups object fiercely to new security laws in individual countries.

Britain will permit foreign terrorist suspects to be detained indefinitely without trial.

Armed British police at Heathrow airport
Britain will allow indefinite detention without trial
Germany is discarding half a century of self-restraint in matters of internal security since the defeat of Hitler and his Gestapo, to enact laws giving police extra powers to eavesdrop, to monitor private bank accounts and to deport "undesirables".

French police have been given new powers to stop and search citizens at will, in the hope of catching terrorists or those who support them.

The creation of a virtual European state in law and order is happening in a great rush, in response to fears aroused by the attacks on 11 September.

European governments believe the terrorists have forced liberal societies to re-evaluate the limits of tolerance.

In doing so, are they sweeping away rights and safeguards of individual freedoms that were hard won over generations?

It is a difficult question for EU heads of government who want to show they are doing all that is needed to defeat the enemy within.

Investigation

European police have made more than 30 significant arrests since 11 September and uncovered the following cells:

  • Hamburg: Police find flat used by Mohammed Atta and others who took part in the atrocities in the US. Three more suspects are still at large
  • Madrid: Phone-taps lead to the arrest of eight suspects with alleged links to Mr Atta, who were planning further attacks in Europe.
  • Frankfurt and Munich: Several arrests are linked to a planned bomb attack of the Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg, home of the European parliament
  • Brussels: Police arrest one man after the discovery of bomb-making materials in the basement of an Arab restaurant. This arrest and others in Milan linked to plan to blow up the US Embassy in Paris or the Nato headquarters in Brussels.
  • London: Several Islamic clerics are suspected of terrorist links but remain free, pending new emergency laws. The city has long been the headquarters of exiled Arab dissidents seeking to overthrow their own governments at home. US attempts to extradite four Arabs from London for trial over the 11 September attacks and the 1998 bombing of two US embassies in east Africa - also blamed on al-Qaeda - have so far failed.

See also:

13 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Ministers defend terror crackdown
13 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Terror laws at-a-glance
13 Nov 01 | UK
Lessons of 'internment'
12 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Terror detention move under way
13 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Anti-terror laws unveiled
12 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Law boosts terror cash crackdown
15 Oct 01 | UK Politics
UK anti-terror measures unveiled
28 Sep 01 | Business
Net closes on terror cash
26 Sep 01 | UK Politics
UK to review extradition measures
20 Sep 01 | UK Politics
EU must act fast on terror - Blunkett
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