China puts finishing touches on anti-terror laws

China puts finishing touches on anti-terror laws

It wasn't until terrorists targeted the very heart of Beijing in 2013 that many Chinese citizens realised the true nature of the threat and its close proximity.

At noon on Oct 28, six people died and 39 were injured when a jeep was deliberately driven into a crowd and burst into flames at Tian'anmen Square. Three of the dead were tourists, and the others were the occupants of the jeep.

The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group that has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United States, China, Saudi Arabia and other countries, claimed responsibility for the attack, and it warned of similar incidents to come.

The attack, which caused widespread shock in China and overseas, also accelerated the process of drafting the country's first anti-terrorist legislation, which is expected to be passed into law soon, according to legal experts.

The international impact of the attack was also significant because it sent out a strong signal that the terrorists' sphere of activity has spread outside the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in Northwest China, the traditional battleground of China's war on terrorism, said Liu Renwen, a criminal expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Liu said he began to see the flaws in China's approach to the fight against terrorism, such as the lack of a legal definition of terrorism, in the wake of the attacks in the United States on Sept 11, 2001.

Xinjiang, home to 52 per cent of China's Muslims, has recently witnessed a marked rise in the number of terrorist attacks, a phenomenon attributed to the influence of aggressive religious extremists and separatist groups.

"The attacks at Tian'anmen Square and elsewhere made the lawmakers understand the urgency of enacting comprehensive anti-terrorism laws to address the worsening situation, instead of simply amending the current Criminal Law to fight terrorism," said Liu, who gave his views on the first draft of the proposed law to the National People's Congress, the country's top legislative body.

In fact, the NPC began conducting research into the feasibility of introducing anti-terrorism legislation in every administrative region in August 2011, with the aim of countering the increasingly serious threat.

After three years of legal research and public consultation, the first draft of the law was brought to the table in August, and has now undergone two readings and amendments by the Standing Committee of the NPC.

The draft is expected to pass into law after its third reading, which means it should be on the statute books within a year, if the customary procedures are followed.

Once passed, the law will reinforce China's counterterrorism efforts by providing a legal framework for the courts and security forces, said an official familiar with the legislation, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the latest version of the draft, the definition of terrorism has been widened to include inflammatory comments and activities that could provoke fear-mongering, jeopardize public safety, or attempt to coerce the Chinese government or international organisations by the use of threats, violence or destructive acts.

The task of identifying terrorist groups and their members has been delegated to the anti-terrorism departments at the State and regional levels, and to courts at all levels.

The draft seeks to strike a balance between combating terrorism and protecting the rights of the individual. In particular, the authorities' access to citizens' private information via electronic technology will be subject to "strict approval procedures", and the information obtained will only be admissible for use in counterterrorism operations.

"The draft also makes it clear that security checks on people, goods and vehicles in major public places must be conducted in accordance with the law and regulations," the official said.

The Legal Affairs Committee of the NPC also decided to introduce an article requiring the departments responsible for the control of airspace, civil aviation and public security to tighten their procedures and aviation-related activities, to prevent aircraft from being targeted.

In May, the NPC sent the draft research group to Xinjiang to learn from the region's long experience of fighting terrorism, and to seek advice, said Wang Yongming, deputy director of the Standing Committee of the Regional People's Congress.

President Xi Jinping also weighed into the debate after a visit to Xinjiang in April last year. On the day Xi left the region, three people were killed and 79 were injured in a bomb and knife attack at a railway station in the regional capital Urumqi, that the police identified as the work of terrorists.

However, even though only a few articles have been made public, they have stirred up controversy, especially a proposal added to the second draft that would allow armed police units and the People's Liberation Army to assume command of anti-terrorism operations if the police are unable to deal with an incident.

"Both the armed police and the PLA have heavy weaponry.

If this right were to be misused or a situation was assessed incorrectly, the consequences could be unimaginable," said Qi Baowen, a former commander in the Xinjiang People's Armed Police, who has dealt with a number of terrorist attacks in the region.

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