France's much-praised system of using sweeping arrests and aggressive interrogations and prosecutions to combat terrorism violates the rule of law and prevents suspects from receiving a fair trial, according to a human rights report that was made public Wednesday.
France prides itself on having the most efficient counterterrorism strategy in Europe. French counterterrorism officials insist that the flexibility of the country's laws and judicial system has been crucial in their ability to respond to the threat of international terrorism and has helped prevent attacks on French soil.
But an 84-page report issued by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, titled "Preempting Justice," says that French practices result in too many arrests and convictions based on scanty evidence, putting the country "on the wrong side of the law."
There was no immediate comment from the French government.
Specifically, the report states that the broad and much-used charge of "criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking" is so sweeping that it is in essence "guilt by association" that allows authorities to arrest and interrogate large numbers of people even when they have nothing to do with suspected terrorist activity.
The charge is used in a number of other countries in Continental Europe.
"No specific terrorist act need be planned, much less executed, to give rise to the offense," the report says, adding that even family members, friends, neighbors and casual acquaintances can be detained.
It also faults the French judicial system for giving suspects only minimal access to legal counsel, particularly in the early stages of an investigation. Suspects are allowed to see a lawyer for the first time only after three days in custody and then only for 30 minutes. The lawyer does not have access to the case file.
Suspects can be held up to six days without being placed under formal investigation or sent before a judge. They may be subjected to what the report calls "oppressive questioning, at any time of the day or night, without a lawyer present." The report notes that the "police are under no obligation to inform suspects of their right to remain silent."
The use of information gathered from foreign intelligence services that use torture to extract confessions only worsens the problem, the report says.
"Some defendants in France who credibly allege they were tortured in third countries have successfully had the confessions excluded as evidence," the report said.
The report cites testimony from people held in police custody on suspicion of terrorist activity suggesting the routine use of "sleep deprivation; disorientation; constant, repetitive questioning and psychological pressure." It adds that there are "credible allegations" of physical abuse of terrorism suspects in police custody.
In unveiling a strategic plan last month for a major overhaul of the French military, President Nicolas Sarkozy identified terrorism as the main threat facing the country.
Source: IHT (English)