Fighting terrorism with law

By Liang Chen Source:Global Times Published: 2014-5-7 19:48:01

Armed police officers stage a counter-terrorism drill in Changsha, Hunan Province, on October 16, 2013. Photo: CFP

Like most Chinese citizens, Liu Hongyu, a Beijing lawyer, was outraged by the terrorist attack at the Kunming Railway Station in March that killed 29, but it was not only the senseless killings which infuriated her.

She had noticed that the police on-site were not equipped with guns, and the only tools they had at their disposal were batons and clubs. One riot policeman who arrived on the scene was not able to decide whether he should shoot the terrorists and instead fired into the air.

"If there had been one specific law to define such activities as terrorist activities, and the local authorities and the police had been able to take proper measures to strike down the terrorists according to the law, more lives could have been saved," Liu, who has been pushing for a counter-terrorism law, told the Global Times.

As a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Liu has long been aware of the glaring lack of an overarching counter-terrorism law. She said the relevant authorities and government departments failed to take proper actions to stop the terrorists in a timely manner, which resulted in more deaths.

In response, Liu proposed a bill, calling to enact a counter-terrorism law within one week, before the two sessions started.

Subsequently, a large number of CPPCC members and NPC delegates from all over the nation proposed similar bills, which all called for a counter-terrorism law. A delegation from the Xinjiang Uyghur Regional Committee collectively made a proposal, calling for legislation on counter-terrorism.

The situation has been exacerbated by the recent bomb attack on an Urumqi railway station which took place on the last day of President Xi Jinping's four-day inspection tour to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and has again triggered a round of calls for such a law.

With the intensifying challenges from terrorist activities, many countries have already passed counter-terrorism laws that clearly define terrorism and enact a series of coping mechanisms. However, China still lacks a comprehensive anti-terrorism law.

"China has long been considering how to introduce a counter-terrorism law. However, considering the complexity of the anti-terrorism situation, and difficulties of coordinating so many government departments and military forces involved in the issue, the counter-terrorism law still isn't on the books," Li Wei, an anti-terrorism expert with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times.

Need for clarity

China has been dealing with various forms of terrorism ever since it was founded. Early in the 1950s, the Chinese government started counter-terrorism activities against sabotage by remnants of the Kuomintang working in concert with foreign spies. But right up until the 1960-70s, the Chinese government rarely officially referred such activities as "terrorism."

After China's reform and opening-up, with intensified international communication and cooperation, terrorism picked up steam.

According to statistics from the Information Office of the State Council, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement has conducted at least 200 terrorist attacks in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, killing 162 and injuring over 440. Some extremists detonated bombs in public places.

"The East Turkestan Islamic Movement terrorist forces fired the opening shots in the ongoing bloodshed," said Zhao Bingzhi, dean of the College for Criminal Law Science at Beijing Normal University.

"From then on, the Chinese government began to realize the real danger of terrorism."

Back in the 1990s, people commonly believed that terrorist attacks only took place in Xinjiang and there was no nationwide attention focused on terrorism, which was part of the reason for the lack of a national strategy.

On July 5, 2009, a massive terrorist attack that took place in Xinjiang left 197 dead, drawing nationwide attention. Subsequently, a series of terrorist attacks occurred in Xinjiang in 2013.

But then a spree of terrorist attacks began to take place in unexpected regions outside Xinjiang, including Beijing and Kunming.

"Such a high incidence rate of terrorist activities has shown that terrorism has begun to penetrate into other parts of China, which poses threats to our national security. We have to cope with it with legal weapons," Li Wei told the Global Times.

All over the world, countries have been grappling with ways to incorporate counter-terrorism legislation into their legal frameworks.

After the September 11 terrorist attack in 2001 on New York's World Trade Center towers, a lot of countries, including the US, Russia and England, have passed new bills targeting terrorism.

In China, Hong Kong and Macao also passed corresponding counter-terrorism laws and regulations.

Tough legislation

In the Chinese mainland, there is already some counter-terrorism legislation based on constitutional law, criminal law and extradition law, but there are evident flaws and the various laws lack a cohesive framework binding them together.

Li Wei said one problem is that the definition of the crime of terrorism remains blurred.

In 1997, the Criminal Law included the crime of "organizing, leading and participating in terrorism activities" for the first time.

In 2001, in order to punish the crime of terrorist activities, some charges were amended and added into the criminal law amendment. Harsher penalties were also imposed on terrorist activities.

For a long time, China heavily relied on clauses and provisions of the Criminal Law referring to terrorist activities to deal with terrorism.

But this kind of legal structure would have negative influences on the counter-terrorism situation, Li said.

"Technically speaking, crimes are one kind of criminal activity while terrorist attacks have totally different characteristics. Plotting terrorist activities is a recessive act, but after it takes place it causes a lot of high-profile damage. Deterring these acts requires a different strategy," Li told the Global Times.

Li pointed out that the harshest penalty for criminals is the death penalty, but terrorists, who often engage in suicide attacks, are unlikely to see this as a deterrent.

On October 29, 2011, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress passed resolutions strengthening counter-terrorism work, clearly defining "terrorist activities" for the first time. It also specifies the departments responsible for counter-terrorism activities.

The resolution is symbolic, said Zhao Bingzhi, director of the law school at Beijing Normal University. "It shows that the Chinese government has begun to take solid steps on making legislation to counter terrorism," Zhao told the Global Times.

However, Li said that the progress toward a nationwide counter-terrorism law has still stalled.

"Before the terrorist attacks happened in Beijing and Kunming, counter-terrorism was merely regarded as a regional and localized problem, which has influenced the legislative process for a national law," Li Wei said.

The next step is making legislation.

Liu Hongyu insisted that the counter-terrorism law would need specific rules on how to conduct gun control, take prevention measures and guard against the use of explosives.

"If the law can clearly point out how the police should handle the situation when terrorist attacks happened, less damage would have occurred," Liu, told the Global Times.

Li said that an anti-terrorism law, rather than a counter-terrorism law, which also focused on prevention, would have a more lasting effect.

In fact, endeavors toward legislation against terrorism started as early as 2005. Nine years have passed, but there is still no comprehensive law.

Analysts said laws to combat terrorism have been bogged down due to the complexity of the situation and the overlapping responsibilities of the government departments, organs and agencies involved.

"A counter-terrorism law involves multiple legal aspects, such as administrative, criminal and military laws. When making legislation to combat terrorism, one has to make sure that the clauses remain consistent with current laws, to maintain the harmony of the legal system," Zhao said.

Formulating legislation to guard against terrorism would have to involve the most advanced political authorities, including administrative, legislative and military departments. If the scope of the legal boundaries remains unclear, the law could infringe on people's civil rights or influence the development of the legal system, Zhao said.

Human rights and security

There is also the complex issue of human rights.

Back in 2001, when the US government introduced the Patriot Act to allow a broader amount of domestic surveillance than it had publicly disclosed, it sparked controversy and outrage among the public. People worried that the expansion of police powers could infringe on public rights, and numerous concerns were aired over the use of wiretapping and surveillance.

The wide scope of the laws used to combat terrorism meant that they often focused on prevention rather than responses, and created situations where due process could be bypassed, Li Wei noted.

Considering the weak foundation of China's legal system, the Chinese government should be cautious and clearly set boundaries to define private and public rights, Li said.

Newspaper headline: Anti-terror legislation stymied by interdepartmental complexity

Posted in: In-Depth

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