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Financial Times

Crackdown on terror takes its toll on civil liberties. US accused of sending the wrong message on human rights, says Roula Khalaf. January 16 2002.

A cartoon displayed on mahjoob, a Jordanian website, shows Osama bin Laden speaking into a microphone in a "special appearance" on the pan-Arab al-Jazeera television channel.

"And we thank the Jordanian government for amending the press laws in a way that represses freedom of expression, and therefore fosters the appropriate environment for the development of the al-Qaeda network," the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the US is shown as saying.

The cartoon refers to changes made to Jordan's penal code after September 11. The amendments introduced new anti-terrorist regulations and tightened press restrictions, imposing jail terms for slandering the monarchy and for writings seen to "undermine national security".

Jordanian officials insist the laws are temporary and required during extraordinary times. Many Jordanians, however, see the measures as an illustration of how some Middle Eastern governments have used the US-led anti-terror campaign to justify additional restrictions on public freedom.

Diplomats and analysts in Jordan worry that new restrictions, which are part of a broader regression seen in the past year, will breed more radical behaviour in a moderate Muslim state with a tame Islamist opposition.

Jordan's case is not unique. Although the international community has identified the lack of democracy and respect for the rule of law as contributors to Islamist extremism, human rights monitors fear the US reaction to September 11 will worsen an already precarious human rights environment.

"The anti-terror campaign led by the United States is inspiring opportunistic attacks on civil liberties around the world," says Kenneth Roth, executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Human rights activists say the US's tough handling of al-Qaeda prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba and its decision to set up military tribunals, criticised for running counter to international human rights conventions, are likely to reinforce repressive behaviour in the Middle East.

"Who can now criticise Egypt for setting up military courts, who can criticise Syria's state of emergency and special courts, the US is doing it and the world says it's right," says Kamal Samari, a spokesman for Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group. "The US is giving a clear and bad message to every country in the world."

Soon after terrorists struck in New York and Washington, Israel rushed to portray the Palestinian Authority as a terror-supporting entity to justify a stepped-up military campaign. Ariel Sharon, prime minister, also tried to brand Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, as Israel's "bin Laden".

"It is a fact that we have killed 14 Palestinians in Jenin, Kabatyeh and Tammum, with the world remaining absolutely silent," declared Binyamin Ben Eliezer, the defence minister, three days after the terror attacks on the US.

Meanwhile, little notice has been given to the conduct of Palestinian security forces as they have clamped down on suspected militants. Rounding up activists is, after all, a key Israeli and US demand.

Egypt stiffened its crackdown on Islamists after the September attacks, ordering nearly 285 people to be tried in three separate cases before military courts. The west, said Atef Obeid, the prime minister, should think of Egypt's fight against terror as "the new model".

In Tunisia, local human rights activists said there had recently been an increase in the number of cases of civilians referred to military courts for trial on charges of ties with terrorists abroad.

While European officials in recent years had started to criticise Tunisia's human rights record, noting that the government has been targeting mainly liberal intellectuals, the government won praise from French President Jacques Chirac during a visit in December. Tunisia's struggle against terrorism, he said, could only be supported and respected.

The problem across the region is that many countries have for years sought to silence opponents, whatever their political affiliation, in the name of a fight against terrorism.

The 1999 "Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism" has been criticised by Amnesty International for including a broad definition of terrorism that lends itself to abuse.

It is unlikely that regimes in the region will address the human rights concerns in the short term or be pressed to do so by western governments. Even before September 11, the US and Europe had often turned a blind eye to abuses by Middle Eastern allies while highlighting the violations of rogue states such as Iraq.

Activists, however, hope that when the dust settles on the Afghanistan war and the public debate over the roots of terrorism expands - so far it has focused only on the political systems in Saudi Arabia and Egypt - US foreign policy in particular will begin to tackle issues of democracy and human rights.

"Maybe the lesson learnt is that by denying human rights you may bring some stability in the short term but in the long run you create instability," says Hanny Megally, director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. "By saying that we now have to do away with some freedoms, we're in danger of going down the road of other regimes. It is the road where frustrations build up and people think they cannot achieve change through peaceful means."