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India Passes Tough Anti-Terror Law - 2002-03-26

Indian legislators passed a tough anti-terror law after the government convened a rare joint session of Parliament to break a deadlock over the controversial legislation. The law faced strong resistance from opposition parties.

After a daylong debate, the anti-terror bill was passed easily with 425 lawmakers voting for the bill, and 296 against it.

The government convened the joint session of Parliament after earlier efforts to pass the bill failed. Last week, the lower house passed the bill, but the upper house, where opposition parties hold the majority, rejected it.

The controversial law gives the government the authority to arrest and detain suspects for up to three months, without filing formal charges. It allows security forces to confiscate property and intercept the communications of suspected terrorists or those suspected of harboring them.

Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani told Parliament the country needs the law to score a decisive victory against terrorism.

"Terrorism, and more particularly state-sponsored, cross-border terrorism, is a kind of war, it is not just a law and order problem," he said. "This is the first factor which has been responsible for the government thinking in terms of an extraordinary law."

Opposition parties strongly rejected the government's argument. Critics say the legislation's strict provisions will undermine basic freedoms and threaten human rights.

Parliament erupted in angry shouts on several occasions as opposition lawmakers charged that the increased powers will be misused by police and security forces. Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi said the law posed more of a threat to ordinary citizens than to terrorists.

Some provisions of the bill have been in force under a presidential decree since October last year. Opposition parties accused authorities of misusing these provisions to detain a large number of Muslims after sectarian riots erupted in the western state of Gujarat earlier this month.

Communist Party leader Somnath Chaterjee told Parliament the law could be used to carry out political vendettas and target minorities. He says the measures have failed to prevent terrorism despite being in force for the past six months.

"It has been hastily brought to terrorize the minorities and the opposition parties," he said. "They have not been able to prevent a single terrorist act, they have not been able to cite one instance where because of this law they could prevent some action being taken."

Tuesday's session was only the third joint session of Parliament since India's independence. The bill becomes law once it receives the president's assent.