France’s three-month emergency laws could see widespread abuse of civil liberties, rights groups warn.
French police have raided hundreds of homes, restaurants and mosques in the two months since the deadly November 13 attacks in the French capital carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
At least 130 people were killed in the series of asaults targeting restaurants, a concert hall and a stadium across Paris.
Under the new emergency powers passed in the aftermath of the tragedy, authorities were granted extra powers to conduct raids and detain people on suspicion.
Although the state of emergency is set to expire on February 26, the government of President Francois Hollande has already stated it might be extended.
The emergency laws date back to a 1955 convention that gives French agencies sweeping powers, allowing them to operate almost free of judicial oversight.
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Local representatives are given the ability to place people under house arrest, citing only a suspicion on the part of the intelligence services that those arrested pose a national threat to French security.
Authorities can also order police raids without a warrant and target commercial and residential properties where they think information about terrorism may be found.
Charlie Hebdo attacks and Islamophobia
The majority of the raids have been conducted on Muslim homes, businesses and places of worship. Yasser Louati, spokesman for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, has warned that: “The Muslim minority in France feels like it’s being treated as the public enemy.”
Until now, according to the French government, authorities have conducted more than 2,700 raids and enforced 360 house arrests.
Some 1,000 people have been arrested to date and 51 people jailed, mostly related to illegal weapons or drugs.
Those under house arrest must remain in their homes after sunset and stay within a specified area during the day. They must also report to police three times a day and may have to wear electronic bracelets.
Emergency and civil liberties
Muslim groups and individuals are now taking the government to court for committing what they describe as illegal acts in the name of “terror prevention”.
About 20 complaints have been filed since the state of emergency was declared. In December, about 100 organisations – including France’s Human Rights League – demanded that the government lift the state of emergency.
The new emergency laws have, however, proved popular among a population increasingly worried about terrorism. Government ministers have defended the laws as an important tool to safeguard public order and society.
Civil liberties groups in France have started documenting testimonies of people who have been subjected to what they describe as unfair raids by the police.
In early December, police conducted a search at the Baytouna shelter for suspected “jihadist” activity. The shelter, located in Argenteuil, northwest Paris, houses women with no social or family ties. No charges were filed.
In the same month, armed police raided a halal restaurant called Pepper Grill.
In the Haute-Garonne region, a man was placed under house arrest because he allegedly “was acquainted to Salafist groups”.
On closer examination, it was revealed he was not a Muslim, but a practising Catholic.
Other raids have also alarmed civil liberties groups. In the Dordogne region, during the week of the UN climate summit COP21 in Paris, local farmers had their farms searched for allegedly carrying out “terrorism-related activities”.
One case in particular has come to embody the lack of judicial oversight in the enactment of the emergency measures. Three days after the attacks in Paris, police in the Bouffémont area of the city conducted a midnight raid at the house of an Air France baggage handling supervisor. The man was apparently singled out because of his position at Charles de Gaulle airport.
One informant claimed the suspect had praised the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that came under attack in January last year. The baggage handling supervisor denies all allegations. Yet two days later, he was placed under house arrest.
The Interior Ministry retracted his house arrest only after his lawyer, Yassine Yakouti, filed a complaint.
“I feel relieved to have my freedom back,” said the 36-year-old man, who wishes to remain anonymous. “But I am still shocked. It was the worst moment of my life.”
Civil liberties groups have warned the French state has embarked on a dangerous path after the Paris attacks. Last month, the government revealed two modifications to the constitution that it intends to put before parliament.
The first measure would write the state of emergency into the constitution. The second change would allow the government to strip French citizenship from any dual nationality holder convicted of “crimes against the fundamental interest of the nation”.
As Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has said, ‘”It’s just a start, these operations are going to continue, the response of the republic will be huge, will be total. The one who targets the republic, the republic will catch him”.
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