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Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 15:41 GMT
India passes anti-terror law
Men in custody
Terror suspects could be held for 90 days without trial
The Indian parliament, meeting in a rare joint session, has voted in favour of controversial anti-terrorism legislation.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee
Vajpayee: Confident
The Prevention of Terrorism Bill was passed by 425 votes to 296 in the historic session - only the third of its kind since India gained independence in 1947 - after a stormy debate lasting more than nine hours.

Opposition parties voted against the bill, saying they feared the increased powers would be misused by the security forces, and describing the measures as draconian.

The legislation lays down provisions for curbing funding for suspected terrorists, confiscating their property and allowing for the detention of suspects for up to 90 days without trial.

Emotional debate

The day-long debate was marked by frayed tempers and emotional scenes as Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee rejected accusations that he was pushing through the bill under pressure from Hindu hardliners.

"I am not under any pressure from anybody," Mr Vajpayee said.

Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO)
Detention of up to 90 days without trial
Capital punishment if the crime leads to a death
Life sentences for anyone convicted of conspiring in any act defined as terrorism
Permits police to seize cash from suspects and forfeit property
Authorises tapping of private telephones
Bars citizens from suing the government in connection with the legislation
"If I was, my allies and colleagues in government would have deserted me."

The charge was led by opposition leader Sonia Gandhi, who accused the government of seeking to exploit the constitution.

"There is neither moral integrity nor sincerity of purpose among those trying to force this law on the nation," she said.

"It poses a larger threat to the freedom of ordinary people than to terrorists."

Earlier in the day, Home Minister LK Advani introduced the bill, saying India has been faced with a "terrorist war" for the past two decades.

"We cannot score a decisive victory against terrorism unless special laws such as this are enacted," Mr Advani told parliament.

Elements of the bill have been in force under a presidential decree since earlier this year, but they will lapse early in April if not passed into law.

The lower house approved the bill last week, but the government was forced to call a joint session after the upper house rejected the bill.

'Selective use'

Despite the government's assurances, critics of the bill say it could be used to carry out political vendettas and that its strict provisions infringe basic rights.

A rioter destroys property in Gujarat
Sectarian violence claimed hundreds of lives in Gujarat
They also accuse the authorities of the allegedly selective use of the bill during a recent security crackdown that followed an outbreak of sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat which claimed 700 lives.

Critics say the bill was used to detain a large number of Muslims suspected of taking part in the attack on a train that triggered the violence, but not a single Hindu was arrested.

A subsequent decision to withdraw POTO cases against Muslims was seen by some opponents of the bill as a further proof that it was misused.

The two previous joint sessions of the Indian Parliament were held in 1961 and 1978.

The BBC's Jill McGivering reports from Delhi
"The government says the sweeping new powers are needed"
See also:

23 Mar 02 | South Asia
Boost for India anti-terror bill
21 Mar 02 | South Asia
India anti-terror bill rejected
19 Mar 02 | South Asia
India anti-terror bill progresses
25 Oct 01 | South Asia
India launches anti-terror law
06 Dec 01 | Americas
Analysis: Who is a terrorist?
26 Mar 02 | South Asia
POTO's controversial measures
22 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: India
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