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Respond to threats of terrorism with due process

By Jolene Tan

I am troubled by the recent news of more arrests under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for alleged involvement in potential terrorist activities.

I recognise that the threat of political violence is serious and, where proven, necessitates a response from law enforcement agencies.  Movements rooted in fascist ideologies are active around the world and Singapore is not immune to them.
However, more questions need to be asked about the seemingly routine use of detention without trial.
The use of state force to detain a person is a very serious matter and should only be authorised with the strictest legal justification.
Through the media, the state has released a great deal of information about these latest detainees in order to suggest that they are involved in terrorist activities.  But should trial by media be the way that their detention is justified to the public?
Any evidence that an individual is involved in illegal and violence activities should be presented in a court of law, and examined by a judge in accordance with the rules of criminal procedure and evidence.
Arguments about legality should be presented by trained counsel who can represent the interests of both the public – represented by the state – as well as the detainee.
It is not necessary to wait for acts of violence to occur for this to happen.  Charges such as a conspiracy to commit murder, for instance, can be brought against those who are jointly planning but have not yet executed violence.
It is sometimes argued that detention without trial is a necessary evil for dealing with a difficult subset of cases where the evidence is inadequate for criminal conviction, but enough to warrant concern about public safety.  Even if this is so, there should still be an onus on the state to justify the necessity of detention through some kind of judicial process, to prevent arbitrary detention.
Worryingly, recent conversation about the ISA suggests that it is sometimes thought of as the default recourse in any case of possible terrorist activity, even if criminal charges would have been an adequate alternative.
This is not an appropriate approach in a society committed to the rule of law.
This letter was first published on the ST forum and republished with permission from the author