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Southeast Asian Countries Under Pressure to Step Up Anti-Terrorism Reform - 2002-06-13

Asian countries - particularly in Southeast Asia - are under considerable pressure to step up legal reforms to prevent the spread of terrorist groups in the region. The reforms are part of increased regional cooperation in policing potential terrorist threats.

The changes to legal systems in Southeast Asia are largely driven by United States and European pressure after last year's terror attacks in the U.S.

Since then, reform have been underway to create more uniformity and cooperation between the countries, and especially in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - ASEAN. The region's foreign, interior, and justice ministers have held regular conferences since the September 11th attacks on Washington and New York.

Thailand agreed in May to back Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia's moves to sign an anti-terror treaty aimed at strengthening border controls and enabling the countries to share airline passenger lists.

The Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, or PERC, in Hong Kong, says the underlying trend is toward greater cooperation and legal reform. PERC managing director Bob Broadfoot says there are pressures on police and court systems to reform and cooperate since last year. The focus is on cross-border criminal activities such as drug trafficking, money laundering, arms trading, piracy, cybercrime and human smuggling.

"The U.S. is viewing terrorism as a cross border issue," Mr. Broadfoot said, "and to deal with it certain laws regulations and approaches have to align more than they were in the past. It's not really in a great negotiating mood for this."

Mr. Broadfoot says this means a new approach to legal reform in Asia, where in the past, any push for change came from special interest groups.

Broadfoot continued, "This particular impetus is not coming from special interest groups. It's coming from a global urgency push by the United States and the [European Union] and you have Russia and China on the same side of the fence. This is very different from other types of momentum for legal reform."

He says individual countries such as Singapore and Malaysia view terrorism as a local problem with cross-border links. Thailand also is aligning its efforts against terrorism with other regional countries. Indonesia, he says, while slower to revise laws and crack down on terrorism, is heading in the same general direction.

But Yusril Ihza Mahendra, Indonesia's minister for justice and human rights, cautions governments over drafting anti-terrorism laws that do not respect human rights and the rule of law. He spoke on the matter at a recent conference on regional security in Kuala Lumpur, saying, "The philosophy we use to draft the terrorist law, we call the equal distance of principles respect for human rights and the rule of law. That is the two characteristics of the due process of law, protection of the victims and the witnesses and also factors of defense and security of the state."

Mr. Mahendra says some countries' draft terrorist laws fail to respect human rights, and sometimes violate the rule of law and are discriminatory. He claims that Indonesia has not followed the example of Singapore and Malaysia's tough internal security laws. Those laws allow detention without trial and have been used to arrest dozen of local militants.

"In Indonesia we respect the human rights and the rule of law," he said, "The governments cannot arrest anybody without preliminary evidence that they are involved in such terrorist acts." He pointed out that while Singapore has supplied intelligence reports to Indonesia of alleged terrorist groups, the information has been insufficient to prosecute anyone under Indonesian law.