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India launches anti-terror law

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India launches anti-terror law
A new anti-terrorism law is now in effect in India after President K R Narayanan signed the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance late on Wednesday evening

Human rights groups as well as opposition parties have expressed strong reservations against the move, which they say violates citizens' fundamental rights. 

The new legislation is intended to replace the controversial Terrorism and Disruptive Prevention Act (TADA), which was allowed to lapse by the government nearly five years ago.

TADA was widely criticised for its draconian powers and for discriminating against minorities. Legislation soon Indian Government spokesman Pramod Mahajan told reporters after a cabinet meeting that the Prevention of Terrorism Bill will also be introduced for approval in the next session of parliament which begins on 19 November. President Narayanan put the law into effect, but parliament still has to approve it However, since the president has already signed an ordinance, the proposed law is already in effect. Mr Mahajan said the government wanted a consensus over the issue and was confident of achieving this. One of the most controversial features of the new law is a clause which makes it a duty for all citizens to report any suspicious terrorist activity they notice. It also empowers the police to arrest and keep in its custody for three months without filing any charges anyone suspected of involvement in terrorist activity. Proscribed groups Twenty-three organisations seen as encouraging terrorist activities have been outlawed in the ordinance. These include a number of separatist groups active in Kashmir, such as Lashkar-e-Toyeba and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. Several rebel groups operating in Punjab and Assam have also been banned. Human rights groups as well the opposition parties say such provisions will make people more vulnerable to harassment by the police. But the government rejects these allegations. According to the Junior Home Minister I D Swamy, a number of safeguards have been introduced in order to prevent its misuse.

These include:
Provisions for a quicker interrogation process so that people do not languish in jails for years without trial
The requirement that security officials notify relatives of anyone arrested under this act immediately after the arrest
Allowing the accused person's lawyer to attend interrogation sessions.

The federal coalition headed by the National Democratic Alliance has been keen on a special anti-terrorism law for a long time. The opposition parties accuse the government of seizing the present climate against terrorism to introduce an arbitrary measure. The earlier anti-terrorism law, TADA, which was enacted in 1985, was allowed to lapse ten years later. It came under attack for its misuse against the minorities, particularly during the Sikh separatist movement in the 1980's, the period following the destruction of a disputed mosque in Ayodhya, and after a series of bomb blasts in Bombay in 1993. Although TADA no longer exists, hundreds of people arrested under the law continue to languish in various Indian prisons.

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