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Little Change in Controversial Anti-Terrorism Bill: Sept 2023 Version Echoes March 2023 ATA

In a recent analysis, legal expert Ermiza Tegal, an Attorney-at-Law, has shed light on the striking similarities between the Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATA) gazetted in March 2023 and the revised version published in September 2023. Tegal’s preliminary observations highlight that the contentious provisions of the March 2023 ATA remain largely intact in the September 2023 iteration.

Key concerns with both versions of the ATA include:

  1. Broad Terrorism Definition: The bill retains a sweeping definition of terrorism that could be used to target dissent, freedom of expression, assembly, and association.
  2. Extensive Law Enforcement Powers: Both versions grant wide-ranging authority to police, armed forces, and coast guard, allowing for arrests, searches, interrogations, and seizures.
  3. Detention Powers: Police can transfer suspects from remand custody to police custody based on a Deputy Inspector General’s order.
  4. Restrictive Orders: Senior Superintendents of Police (SSPs) can request expansive orders to curtail movement, travel, rallies, and suspend public transport.
  5. Presidential Authority: The President holds significant powers, including proscribing, seeking restriction orders, declaring curfews, designating prohibited areas, running rehabilitation programs, and making regulations.

While there have been some minor changes in the September 2023 ATA in response to criticism of the previous version, these adjustments do not represent substantial improvements. Notable changes include:

  1. Removal of the Death Penalty: The death penalty, introduced in the March 2023 ATA, has been eliminated.
  2. Magistrate Discharge Authority: Magistrates now have the discretion to discharge suspects in the absence of a Detention Order, introducing some judicial review.
  3. Change in Detention Order Issuing Authority: The power to issue Detention Orders (DOs) has shifted from Deputy Inspector Generals to the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, aligning with the previous Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
  4. Shorter DO Duration: The original DO duration has been reduced from 3 months (March 2023) to 2 months (Sept 2023), with the possibility of extension upon application to a Magistrate, accompanied by a confidential report.
  5. Elimination of Board of Review: The provision for the President to appoint a Board of Review to hear appeals from DOs has been removed, although this was rarely effective. Magistrates still lack the authority to review DOs, leaving individuals with recourse only to the Supreme Court, which presents challenges in terms of access and efficiency.

Tegal’s assessment underscores that grave concerns expressed about the March 2023 ATA Bill are equally relevant to the September 2023 version. Furthermore, there is a notable absence of any demonstrated necessity for such a law, raising questions about its true intent. Critics argue that the bill appears to be primarily aimed at suppressing protests and dissent, and it lacks provisions for compensation and redress in cases of wrongful use—a concern that has been documented in the past under the PTA.

In summary, the fundamental issues and criticisms surrounding the Anti-Terrorism Bill persist in the September 2023 version, prompting continued scrutiny and debate among legal experts and civil society advocates.

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