June 27, 2003

Discussion on new Terrorism Bill

South Africa needed legislation to counter terrorism but the terms of the Anti-Terrorism Bill under debate in Parliament were too vague, National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka said yesterday, June 26. Ngcuka was involved in drafting the original version of the bill, which was submitted to the SA Law Commission, but noted that it had been fundamentally redrawn since then.

The bill has elicited wide condemnation from various quarters for being too draconian in defining acts of terrorism too broadly. Ngcuka said he too thought the bill's definition of "terrorist act" was "extremely wide, vague and overlaps with the provisions of the Intimidation Act". Acts of intimidation should be excluded as these were adequately dealt with in the existing law. "The National Prosecuting Authority holds the view that the definition of terrorist act' or the meaning of terrorist' is the focal point of any successful counterterrorism legislation." Ngcuka also believed it was necessary that the bill incorporated a reference to various international instruments and stated that the proposed structure of the bill could lead to "vagueness, uncertainty and inaccuracy".

Other proposals made by Ngcuka were that the special director of the authority be empowered to authorise the institution of terrorist prosecutions and that the penalty be prescribed as "liable on conviction to imprisonment for life" rather than being worded as "which may include imprisonment for life". The latter wording did not have the same impact, Ngcuka said. He was emphatic, however, about the need for such legislation. "The phenomenon of terrorism is not limited to specific countries or regions. "It is prevalent throughout the world and poses serious dangers to the stability and security of each country, specific regions and the world. "In SA, acts of terrorism include, among other things, bomb attacks in Western Cape and recently, certain Boeremag activities. "The (authority) therefore supports the world's and our government's determination to eliminate terrorism in all its forms and manifestations."

Idasa, which promotes democracy in SA, was also supportive of the need for anti-terrorism legislation but was concerned that some of the bill's provisions could be unconstitutional in violating human rights. The definition of terrorism was so wide that any unlawful act could be construed as a terrorist act. "The legislation should maintain a balance between combating the threat of national and international terrorism while maintaining the hard-won rights enshrined in the constitution."

The South African trade union COSATU stated that the Bill, if enacted in its current form, “is likely to make serious inroads into Constitutional rights and freedoms. The broad definition of what constitutes a "terrorist act" poses a serious threat to our hard won democracy, allowing for legitimate mass action by workers or other social movements at some time in the future to be demonised and categorised as ‘terrorist’. For example the bill defines any activity that might result in the "disruption of essential public services" as a ‘terrorist’ act. For unions in the public sector, this is a worryingly vague clause. Would the threatened wildcat strike in Johannesburg’s emergency services be classed as "terrorism"?” (Business Day, Johannesburg / COSATU, Johannesburg)

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