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EU Improves Law Enforcement, Judicial Cooperation - 2001-11-13

The recent terrorist attacks on the United States have spurred European countries into taking radical measures to improve law enforcement and judicial cooperation against terrorism. European governments, acting individually and as a bloc, are boosting the powers of their police and judiciary. The European Union is moving to adopt a Europe-wide arrest warrant that it hopes will dramatically streamline cross-border investigations.

The September 11 attacks have galvanized European governments into reviewing laws that make it easy for terrorists to operate both within their countries' borders and across those borders.

Italy last month pushed through a decree widening the authority of police and magistrates to go after suspected terrorists. One of its measures allows police to carry out wiretaps, phone taps and computer taps without the authorization of judicial authorities.

Germany, which until now has only defined groups planning attacks on German soil as illegal terrorist organizations, plans to extend that to organizations plotting strikes against foreign targets. That comes after evidence that a Hamburg-based cell planned and carried out the attacks on New York and Washington. Germany also wants to exempt extremist Islamic organizations that advocate violence from the country's freedom of religion statutes.

Britain, too, is considering expanding its definition of illegal incitement to include religious as well as racial hatred in order to deal with Muslim leaders who take advantage of the country's freedoms to preach violence.

All of this is sure to please the French, who have the longest experience in fighting Islamic terrorism. Under a 1986 law, France created special anti-terrorism prosecutors, magistrates and no-jury courts to try suspected terrorists. Police are allowed to detain suspects without firm evidence and hold them for up to four days. France has convicted more than 200 people under this law since a series of deadly bombings by radical Algerian insurgents during the mid 1990s.

The most dramatic moves in the new war on terrorism, however, are coming from the European Union. Steven Simon, a former U.S. counter-terrorism official now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says the attacks on the United States created a momentum for action on a Europe-wide basis. "There's a move in Brussels to basically harmonize European laws and procedures regarding terrorist investigations and, in particular, with efforts to trace money," he said. "We'll see how far those efforts get, but certainly, you know, the momentum seems to be strong at the moment."

Most significant among the EU proposals is a plan to create a European arrest warrant that would replace lengthy extradition procedures. Under the plan, if law enforcement officials in Italy, for instance, were hunting a terrorism suspect in Belgium, they would issue a European warrant, and Belgian police would be required to arrest the person and hand him over to Italy within a set period.

EU justice ministers are now under pressure from their heads of state and government to reach agreement by early next month on a common definition of terrorism and common sentences for terrorist offenses.

Security analyst Matthew Dunn at Control Risk Group in London says those measures, and the Europe-wide arrest warrant, will help law enforcement authorities deal more speedily with suspected terrorists. "It should improve the situation," he said. "So you won't have a situation where the French government claims that the people it wants to investigate are living happily in London and, in some cases, even claiming benefits from the British government."

Under normal circumstances, EU justice ministers would spend months or even years working out common definitions for the offenses covered in the European arrest warrant and minimum and maximum sentences for terrorist crimes. But the attacks against the United States forced EU leaders to lock the ministers into a December 7 deadline. The European Union has declared the arrest warrant a central plank of its own anti-terrorist action plan.

Still, analyst Jonathan Stevenson, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, cautions against supposing that anything subject to EU debate and the EU legislative process is going to happen soon. "If and when it does happen, I do think it will improve somewhat transnational cooperation in anti-terrorist enforcement," said Jonathan Stevenson. "But I do think the de-facto mobilization in the wake of September 11 has already created connections than are better than those that existed before. But it's going to take a concerted engagement on the part of the United States and its allied governments to try to crystallize this de-facto mobilization into sort of a standing institutional readiness."

A top Italian magistrate agrees with Mr. Stevenson, saying the September 11 attacks gave the European plan a formidable push. But he says it is still too early to know whether the surge of support for the common arrest warrant is merely an emotional reaction that will disappear once the haggling over details starts.