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Indonesia's Plan to Strengthen Anti-Terror Laws Worries Human Rights Advocates

In the wake of the July 17 terrorist bombings in Jakarta that killed seven people, the Indonesian government is proposing stronger anti-terror laws, such as lengthening detention times for suspects. The plan has set off a debate about balancing the need for security with the rights of the individual in a democratic society.

The Indonesian Security Ministry has asked lawmakers to amend the 2002 anti-terror law, which was enacted after bombings in Bali that killed 202 people.

The country's counterterrorism chief, Ansyaad Mbai, says attacks since then, including the July bombings of two international hotels in Jakarta, prove that stronger measures are needed to prevent violence.

"We feel, based on our experience in the last seven years, we feel that we need to enhance our legal capacity to extend the power of detention and the power of detention without charge," he said.

The amendments would allow authorities to detain terrorism suspects for 30 days without filing criminal charges. Currently, they can be held seven days. And it would boost from 120 days to two years the time a suspect can be held before being brought to trial.

Mbai says these proposed changes are similar to laws in other countries, including neighboring Malaysia and Singapore. He says Indonesia's less strict laws attract terrorists from other countries, like Malaysian Noordin Top who is the suspected mastermind of the recent Jakarta bombings.

"We are surrounded by countries with very tough laws, while we are very weak, so it is not surprising while many terrorists from other countries found their hotbed in Indonesia," he said.

Indonesia is a relatively new democracy and the proposal to expand police powers reminds some human rights groups of the country's authoritarian past. They say the changes excessively limit the rights of the individual and could lead to abuse.

Jim Della-Giacoma with the International Crisis Group challenges the premise that the amendments will make Indonesia safer.

"This is a partial solution that appeals to people who want a quick fix and it is not going to solve the problem, it will not prevent the recruitment of terrorists we have seen. It will not stop the dissemination of the jihadi message and it will not help police find Noordin M. Top," he said.

Della-Giacoma argues that broad arrest powers can be counterproductive.

"This has a great potential for being a very wide net that catches the wrong people and in fact does not take the targeted approach that is required to address the problem of these small terrorist networks," he said.

He says arresting innocent people could turn more people against the government.

Both sides in this debate acknowledge the threat of terrorism, but are divided over how to prevent it and how to preserve the country's democratic values.

Indonesia has arrested and convicted scores of people involved in terrorism since 2002. Most remain in prison.