Rights Concerns Stalk Terror Fight

As the U.S. marks the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, Asia's counter-terrorism campaign faces human rights questions.
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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Smoke billows from the top floors of the World Trade Center Towers in New York following terrorist attacks, Sept. 11, 2001.

Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, some Asian nations have cracked down on political dissent and increased repression of ethnic minorities in moves experts warn could fuel unrest in the region.

As the United States turned its back on many civil and political rights following the September 11, 2001 attacks, China has stepped up persecution of religious, ethnic, and cultural minorities, according to human rights groups.

Among those targeted by Beijing were Muslim Uyghurs in the western Xinjiang region, and monks in Tibet and Tibetan-majority areas, the groups said.

Most governments in Asia have introduced or beefed up anti-terror laws or delayed revising draconian legislation, such as those allowing detentions without trial, in the wake of the 9/11 mayhem.

This gave some of the establishments cover to label peaceful dissidents as terrorists, silence political opposition, commit torture on suspects, and carry out extra-judicial killings, the rights groups said.

Some of these actions have, however, fueled violence that governments had intended to end, said Zachary Abuza, an expert on terrorism issues at the U.S. National War College.

"You know, a lot of the popular support for movements has to do with the fact that most people do not believe that the state is just," he told RFA.

Not spared

In China, violence in Xinjiang, where Muslim ethnic Uyghurs say they have been marginalized by an influx of China's majority Han to the region, and unrest in neighboring Tibet and Tibetan-majority areas have increased despite heightened security and stiffer laws, reports indicate.

Uyghurs fleeing China for sanctuaries overseas are also not spared as Beijing uses its diplomatic and economic clout to track them down and drag them home for punishment.

This year alone, pressure from the Chinese government has resulted in the deportation of Uyghurs from Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand, Kazakhstan, and Laos.

The deported Uyghurs face torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and execution, Uyghur exile groups said.

"The Chinese authorities found in 9/11 the perfect excuse to crack down on all forms of peaceful political, social, and cultural Uyghur dissent," said Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled head of the World Uyghur Congress.

China considers terrorism part of a vague charge of "endangering state security," arresting more than 7,000 people over the last decade on such accusations, mostly from Xinjiang.

“The frequency with which terrorist activities are carried out in the region is rising, and it must be curbed," the Public Security Bureau of Xinjiang said in a statement last month.


Like China, there is a tendency by other nations to brand any group that is against the state as a terrorist organization.

Vietnam has labeled a U.S.-based organization, Viet Tan, which is fighting to protect human rights in the communist ruled nation, as a terrorist group. It had arrested several Viet Tan members.

"I think we have to be very strict in our definitions. To me a terrorist group is a group that engages in indiscriminate violence against an unarmed civilian population and I just don't see the Viet Tan as a group that does this," Abuza said.

"You should always be concerned when states are too quick to apply the terrorist label, hoping that in the post 9/11 era they'll get a pass."

Human rights abuses under the facade of countering terrorism also occur in Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, according to the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

The events that followed 9/11 "marked a turning point in the way many countries in Asia handled groups and individuals labeled as terrorists by national authorities and/or the international community," the FIDH said.

Cue from U.S.

Some had taken the cue from the United States, whose harsh post 9/11 measures remain controversial until today.

The measures include the establishment of the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and facilities like the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the CIA's network of secret prisons abroad.

U.S. President Barack Obama had pledged to shut Guantanamo after taking office in January 2009, but missed his self-imposed one-year deadline for closing down the facility housing alleged terror suspects.

His administration has struggled to find nations willing to take the dozens of prisoners designated for release while lawmakers opposed sending detainees to U.S. soil for trials in civilian courts.

While the U.S. struggles to strike a balance between protecting the country from terrorist attacks and preserving civil liberties, experts are keeping a close eye on the counter-terrorism strategy in Southeast Asia, the "second front" in the much-touted U.S. “war on terror” after the Afghanistan/Pakistan region.  

In Thailand, Abuza said, there have been "real problems" in the Muslim-dominated southern provinces where more than 4,700 people have been killed since an Islamist insurgency erupted in 2004.

A year after the conflict started, Thailand introduced an emergency decree giving authorities the right to detain suspects without charge for nearly a month but it has attracted charges of human rights violations.

"The abuses by state officials have fueled the violence," Abuza said, referring to problems such as "disappearing suspects" and "death squads."


In another bid to highlight human rights abuses in counter-terrorism efforts in the region, Abuza cited the Philippines, where a Muslim insurgency in the south of the archipelago that began in the 1970s  has claimed more than 150,000 lives.

"The police and military are still very abusive in the Muslim south. They do not respect human rights, they do not follow rule of law, they engage in extra-judicial killings, they plant evidence," he charged.

In the Philippines as well as in Indonesia, counter-terrorism laws have also been enacted to expand powers of arrest and detention by national authorities.

"The absence of accountability has led to greater levels of impunity in the name of national security and the confusion between the fight against terrorism and other forms of repression," the FIDH said.

In Malaysia and Singapore, governments continue to rely on British colonial era security laws to detain suspects indefinitely without trial, saying the two neighboring nations face threats from the Al-Qaeda-linked group Jemaah Islamiah.

"I think that 9/11 is probably reason for those governments to never consider repealing them. They still see them as extremely effective and absolutely necessary," said Abuza, who specializes in Southeast Asian politics and security issues.

But he has mostly praise for Indonesia, which has been hit by a string of suicide bombings that killed more than 260 people since Sept. 11, 2001.

The world's most populous Muslim nation has put nearly everyone of the 500 arrested for suspected terrorism on trial, he said.

Some terrorism suspects got extremely light sentences, but Abuza said, "The fact is that these people were sentenced in courts of law."

"In fact, I cannot think of another country in the world where effective counter-terrorism has not come at the expense of democracy and human rights but probably helped it."


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