Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Terror laws needed

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Opposition parties are accusing the Conservative government of political opportunism for reviving debate on a controversial anti-terrorism bill that expired in 2007. In fact, the Tories have been trying to reinstate the legislation since then, and an updated bill has been wending its way through the Senate and Parliament for at least two years.

The question of political opportunism and whether the debate was timed to take advantage of recent events, moreover, is quite irrelevant. The important issue is whether the legislation is necessary and prudent, or an unreasonable infringement on civil liberties.

The original anti-terror law was introduced by the Liberal government following the events of 9/11 because the sudden, devastating attack made political leaders, here and in other countries, aware law enforcement lacked the tools needed to respond to the perceived risks to homelands.

It had a sunset clause of five years and the new Conservative bill would also expire five years after it comes into force, which is a reasonable precaution

Among other things, the (Liberal) law passed in 2001 allowed police to detain people without charging them and the courts to hold secret judicial hearings.

The Conservative bill would reinstate those measures with minor modifications, while also making it an offence to leave the country for the purpose of committing a terrorist offence. There would also be stiffer penalties for harbouring people who have committed acts of terrorism.

Both new measures are sensible, and would be subject to the normal rules of evidence, arrest and detention.

The more controversial sections of the bill relate to provisions that were introduced by the Liberals, even though they were never used.

They would allow police to detain a person believed to have information about a terrorist offence for up to three days before they would either be set free or compelled to testify before a judge, who could imprison people for up to 12 months if they did not co-operate or refused to abide by the terms of bail.

The risk, of course, is that innocent people could get snared in the anti-terrorism dragnet, but it has never happened, which doesn't mean that mistakes could never happen.

The safety valve is that a judge can release a person in as little as 24 hours, and no less than three days, before a decision must be made on whether there is enough evidence for a full hearing to determine what a person knows about a potential terrorist event.

Even then, detainees can be released on their own recognizance, and any information they provide during this special process cannot be used against them in a criminal trial.

The government's attempt to reactivate the legislation is not an overreaction to current events -- including the arrests of two Toronto men Monday accused of wanting to attack a Via Rail passenger train -- but merely a recognition that new risks and threats have emerged in recent years.

There have been several other foiled terrorist plots in Canada since 2001 and more than 50 in the United States. Canada's spy agency has also warned that Canadians are involved in many terrorist organizations and that Canada is a target.

The stakes in terrorism probes, moreover, can be far greater than in an ordinary criminal investigation, as evidenced by the enormous devastation in Boston. Police need special powers to investigate groups and individuals intent on mass destruction.

At the same time, investigators need to exercise caution and sound judgment before exercising their new powers, which are subject to judicial oversight. The law would also require annual reports on how, or if, the legislation was used, which is another layer of scrutiny.

There is always a risk when police are given broader powers of arrest and detention, but the balance of risks in cases of suspected terrorism, which by definition involves deadly attacks against large numbers of innocent people, should always fall on the side of public safety.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2013 A8

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