JOANNE MARINER: Terrorizing Social Protest


Richard Moore

anyone surprised?

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Terrorizing Social Protest
Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2007

A disturbing trend is afoot. In the past couple of months, in two countries, 
governments have relied on broadly-worded terrorism laws to put down social 

Political demonstrators in El Salvador and London have found police deploying a 
new weapon against them: laws designed to prevent and punish terrorism. In the 
town of Suchitoto, El Salvador, during a mass demonstration in early July 
against a water decentralization plan, fourteen protesters were arrested and 
charged with terrorism.

At London's Heathrow Airport this week, police have been relying on 
stop-and-search powers contained in a recent terrorism law to control a huge 
demonstration against global warming. A government document made public last 
Saturday warned that police would employ their counterterrorism powers to deal 
"robustly" with any illegal protests.

The demonstrators in El Salvador threw rocks at police and blocked roads, and 
some minority of participants in the ongoing Heathrow protest may also break the
law. But the police already have plenty of legal authority to arrest 
demonstrators who disrupt flight schedules or damage property; their use of 
counterterrorism legislation is sheer opportunism.

Political protesters are not terrorists, as police and prosecutors well know. 
Yet it seems that the broad authorities granted under recent counterterrorism 
laws are too tempting to resist. Why would state officials respect normal 
criminal law rules when they can instead employ laws that offer sweeping powers,
few procedural safeguards, and harsh penalties?

Conduct "Genuinely of a Terrorist Nature"

Both the British and Salvadoran counterterrorism laws are written in broad 
language that invites police and prosecutorial misuse. In this respect, 
unfortunately, they are not all that different from many other countries' 
counterterrorism legislation. More than 50 governments have passed 
counterterrorism laws in the past six years -- many of them poorly written, 
filled with open-ended language, and vulnerable to misuse.

The UN counterterrorism expert recently discussed the question of defining 
conduct that is "genuinely of a terrorist nature." He explained that the concept
of terrorism should be understood to include only those acts committed "with the
intention of causing death or serious bodily injury, or the taking of hostages,"
and "for the purpose of provoking a state of terror, intimidating a population, 
or compelling a government or international organization to do or abstain from 
doing any act."

"That an act is criminal," he emphasized, "does not, by itself, make it a 
terrorist act."

Column continues below ‹

Few counterterrorism laws are as narrowly drawn as he and other experts 
recommend. Indeed, some of these laws are so broad that they easily cover 
political protests. They tend to cover a set of acts -- not necessarily violent 
acts -- requiring only that the acts be carried out for an enumerated, 
"terrorist" purpose.

Reading the terms of these laws, there is good reason to fear that acts of 
political dissent could wrongly be deemed terrorist in a number of countries. In
Azerbaijan, for example, acts that inflict "significant damage to property," or 
(an interesting catch-all category) cause "other socially dangerous 
consequences," can be prosecuted as terrorist, as long as they are carried out 
with the goal of requiring state authorities to comply with the perpetrator's 
demands. Other countries' definitions are similarly broad.

Since social protest is almost always meant as a form of political pressure -- 
that is, a means of compelling state authorities to change their policies -- the
purpose requirement of such counterterrorism laws will almost always be met. And
so the possibility of arbitrary enforcement of such laws is very real.

Placards Not Bombs

With fears of terrorism high, many governments now have tough counterterrorism 
laws at their disposal. But while the extraordinary powers granted to police and
other state authorities under these laws are publicly defended by reference to 
the threat of terrorism, some of the actual conduct they apply to has little 
connection to the problem.

Governments apparently need to be reminded: political protesters are not 
terrorists. Rock-throwers are not suicide attackers. People carrying placards 
are not people carrying bombs.

Joanne Mariner is a human rights lawyer based in New York. Her previous columns 
on terrorism and human rights are contained in FindLaw's archive. Readers who 
would like more information about El Salvador's prosecution of political 
protesters should visit Human Rights Watch's website, at If convicted, the 
defendants will face 10 to 15 years in prison.

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