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War shifts to the courts

world Updated: Sep 11, 2011 01:37 IST

At least 35,000 people worldwide have been convicted as terrorists since the September 11 attacks on the US. But while some bombed hotels or buses, others were jailed for waving political signs or blogging about protests. Before 9/11, just a few hundred were convicted of terrorism each year.

This shows a surge in prosecutions under new anti-terror laws, often passed at the urging and with the funding of the West. Even tiny countries like Tonga and Luxembourg, which have never experienced terror attacks, passed laws.


It shows how the war is shifting to the courts. But also suggests that countries are using terror as an excuse to curb political dissent.

Turkey and China, although secondary battlefields to terrorist attacks, represent half the convictions worldwide. Turkey had a third of all convictions - 12,897. China, meanwhile, has arrested more than 7,000 people, merging terrorism with separatism and extremism as the "Three Evils".

Conviction rates vary. The US has a 90 per cent conviction rate. The country saw 2,934 arrests and 2,568 convictions since 2001 - eight times more than in the decade before.

But even now no one agrees on what makes a terrorist. Definitions range from almost impossibly high bars set for terrorism to those who arrest any opponents of the government. The US has been criticised for not defining terrorism clearly. In fact, the FBI, the CIA, the Defence Department and the State Department don't agree on what terrorism is.

In 2005, the UN named Finnish law professor Martin Sheinin as special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism. His job is to report on anti-terror prosecutions. After six years, Sheinin agrees with the need to sweep out terrorists but says the brush being used is too broad.

"Originally the approach was the stronger the counter-terror laws, the better for the security of the world. But that was a serious mistake," he says. "Nowadays people are realising the abuse and even the actual use of counter-terror laws is bad for human rights and also bad for actually stopping terrorism."

China has an anti-terrorism statute, but it considers terrorism part of a vague charge of "endangering state security". In 2009, Dilshat Perhat, an Uighur entrepreneur in China, asked visitors to his Uighur-language website not to post illegal political comments. When someone posted a call for a demonstration, Perhat deleted the comments and informed the police, as required. But he was arrested anyway, amid violence that killed 197 people in the Muslim-majority northwest. Perhat was convicted in a one-day trial, and sentenced to five years in prison on charges of endangering state security.

Pakistan has seen the steepest increase in terror arrests in recent years. Arrests have gone up from 1,552 in 2006 to 12,886 in 2009. Since amending its terror laws in 2004, Pakistan has made 29,050 arrests, says the independent Pak Institute for Peace Studies. Yet attacks are still rising. Pakistan suffers more deaths from terror than any other country, except Iraq.

Only about one out of 10 terrorism cases in Pakistan ends in conviction, according to their human rights commission. Witnesses usually refuse to testify because of death threats and lack of protection. Anti-terror laws may make things worse.

When arrests go up, so do attacks, says Syed Ejaz Hussain, a Pakistani police officer who has studied thousands of cases. And when police arrest hardcore terrorists, Hussain found, casualty rates go up almost 25 percent.

"It's defiance. Terrorists want to punish the government in a bigger way after the arrest of their hardcore group member, and one way to do so is to commit a mass-killing event," he says.