December 18, 2008 / 12:05 PM / 9 years ago

India seeks to soothe public with new terror law

<p>Indian policemen stand guard at a police complex believed to be housing the lone surviving gunman, Mohammed Ajmal Kasab from the recent attacks in Mumbai December 11, 2008.Arko Datta</p>

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The Indian government will rush a new law through parliament on Thursday that will allow police to hold suspects for up to 180 days, a move legal officials said is an attempt to allay public anger over the Mumbai attacks.

But the Congress Party-led government, facing an election by May, could also be courting trouble by making the bill similar to an old law which it had repealed earlier.

The law was proposed amid barely contained public anger over last month's attacks in Mumbai which killed at least 179 people, exposing glaring holes in India's security and intelligence network and which led to the security minister's resignation.

India's lower house of parliament unanimously passed two bills on Wednesday, one allowing the police to hold suspects for 180 days without charge and the other to create a national police agency similar to the FBI in the United States.

The two laws need approval from members of India's upper house of parliament later on Thursday, but lawmakers said it appeared that vote would be a formality.

Experts say India's main political parties ignored concerns that the law could be misused in the absence of an independent supervisory body to monitor the new police force.

They said the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, similar to an anti-terror law repealed by the Congress party-led government when it came to power in 2004, could cause serious human rights violations and could be abused by politicians.

<p>An Indian Christian writes a message dedicated to the victims of the Mumbai terror attacks in Mumbai 14, 2008.Jayanta Shaw</p>

"What we have is old wine in a new bottle, they brought back the old law without addressing the concerns of the people," prominent Indian lawyer Colin Gonsalves told Reuters.

"After the Mumbai attacks, people wanted the police to protect people not politicians, their demand was for professionalism of the police force, doing away with torture and corruption," he said.

India blames Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba for the Mumbai attack and wants Islamabad to do more to stamp out militants on its soil. But experts say that is not enough and that India needs to find ways to stop attacks rather than reacting after them.

"Basically the government is saying terrorism will continue and they have a law that deals with offenders after the event has taken place," said Claude Alvares, senior member of a Supreme Court of India committee which acts for minority communities.

But Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told parliament late on Wednesday that the new laws would act as a deterrent.

"What these laws do is, one, give a sense of confidence to the people that criminals will be punished and two, give a sense of confidence to the police forces that they are armed with sufficient legal powers to take actions," Chidambaram said.

The Hindustan Times newspaper said in an editorial that, by incorporating a few safeguards and ensuring that the law is not abused, India could have a strong anti-terror capability.

"It will act as a deterrent, but how it is implemented will be more important," said Farhana Shah, a lawyer in an earlier bombing case in Mumbai in 1993.

Editing by Paul Tait and Sugita Katyal

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