Chinese lawmakers have this week begun discussing a landmark draft law on anti-terrorism, which has been welcomed by security officials as boosting counterterrorism efforts but has also evoked concern among legal experts about civil rights.

The draft bill, expected to be passed this week during the bimonthly session of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's legislature, will “pave the way for further crackdowns on terrorism”, said the state-run Xinhua news agency on Tuesday.

The law would address the “lack of clear definitions” under the current criminal law to prosecute terrorism-related cases, which had “direct, adverse effects” on China's counterterrorism battle, said Yang Huanning, the Vice-Minister of Public Security. “China is faced with the real threat of terrorist activities, and the struggle with terrorism is long-term, complicated and acute,” he told the NPC.

China's criminal law, which mandates three to 10 years of imprisonment for those found to have organised or participated in terrorist organisations, has been used to convict more than 7,000 people since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. after China intensified its efforts against the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.

The law, however, gave “no concrete definitions of terrorist acts, terrorist organisations or terrorists”, Mr. Yang's report to the NPC acknowledged, Xinhua reported. He said the absence of a clear law had also hindered China's ability to cooperate on international counter-terrorism efforts. While officials say the absence of a clear law has posed barriers to terror crackdowns, rights activists argue that the absence of clear definitions has also led to convictions on less-than-concrete charges.

The new draft bill defines terrorist acts “as those acts which are intended to induce public fear or to coerce state organs or international organisations by means of violence, sabotage, threats or other tactics”.

The bill says the list of terrorist organisations and terrorists will be made public. It also includes a provision to freeze the funds and assets of terrorist organisations and terrorists when their names are made public.

The bill was welcomed by Chinese security experts. Pan Zhiping, a counterterrorism expert at Xinjiang University, told The Hindu that the law was a positive development because China “did not have a law to guarantee its actions in anti-terrorism before”.

He said it would also provide more solid ground for China to cooperate on international counterterrorism efforts. “China and India both have long been plagued by terrorism and the two countries have mutual interest in this area,” he said.

“The absence of a definition of terrorist activities in the current criminal law cannot meet the practical needs of anti-terrorism work,” added Li Wei, director of counter-terrorism research centre of the state-run China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), in an interview with the official China Daily. “The draft is a good beginning, but it is far from enough.”

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch focusing on China, told The Hindu the prospect of a terrorism law raised a series of concerns, particularly because of a lack of independence in China's judicial system.

“Strengthening law enforcement powers without appropriate judicial checks and balances is dangerous,” he said.

A key issue, he added, was “how organisations or individuals are designated as terrorists, by whom and on what basis, and whether such classification would be challengeable”.

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