A proposed change to France’s Constitution would put many people at even greater risk of human rights violations by giving security services carte blanche to close down organizations, conduct unwarranted house raids, shut down mosques and restrict people’s freedom of movement, said Amnesty International.
The amendment, which if approved as an official government proposal by the French Council of Ministers during discussions set for tomorrow, would allow authorities to continue using state of emergency measures for a further six months after the end of a state of emergency.
Under the current state of emergency, authorities have carried out 2,700 house searches without warrant and imposed assigned residency on hundreds of people, restricting their freedom of movement, since the November 13 Paris attacks.
“Declaring a state of emergency in situations where there is a ‘threat to the life of the nation’ such as the Paris attacks is one thing, but entrenching emergency measures to counter more vaguely defined threats is another,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.
“There is a very real risk that the rights of the wider population are getting ensnared in a net supposed to be designed to identify only those posing a genuine threat. Many people are being targeted solely on the basis of their religious practices or vague suspicions.”
Under the current three-month state of emergency, set to end on 26 February 2016, French authorities can carry out house searches without a warrant, impose assigned residency, shut down associations, and restrict other human rights including the right of peaceful assembly.
A wave of house searches
Many people have described to Amnesty International how house raids have left them traumatized. They have had no official explanation as to why the search was considered necessary or what the authorities were looking for.
“My father had heart problems, he had just been released from hospital. Police forced the entrance door, they did not ring the bell, they burst into the flat, started screaming and handcuffed both my father and my sister,” Nadia, whose father is 80 and lives with his disabled daughter, told Amnesty International researchers after a raid on 21 November.
“My father felt unwell and after a few minutes fainted. They had to call an ambulance…He was so scared, he cried a lot when we visited him at the hospital the first days.”
According to media reports, the 2,700 raids carried out in the past month have resulted in only two criminal investigations for terrorism-related offences; a further 488 investigations resulting from these raids were for unrelated criminal offences. These figures raise doubts as to whether these raids are a necessary and proportionate measure to protect public safety.
Restricted freedom of movement
Over the same period, 360 people have been under assigned residency – that is, they are obliged to live in a certain area and to report up to three times a day to the police in that locality. This measure severely restricts their freedom of movement and negatively impacts their private and professional lives.
One freelance consultant in the Paris region told Amnesty International that he had been under assigned residency since 15 November, when police showed up at his house based on his supposed connection to “radical” Muslims and people who had travelled to Syria.
He said he only vaguely knew one person out of a long list of his supposed associates which was provided by the authorities. Being under assigned residency and having to report to a police station several times a day has meant that this father of three has had to cancel all of his work-related commitments. He feared the negative impact an extended state of emergency would have on his family.
“I am so afraid it will be renewed. That would mean the measures against me will last longer, that perhaps I won’t be able to work for months.”
Casting a discriminatory net
There is significant risk that emergency measures, in the long term, would continue to be used against particular groups and associations, especially Muslim individuals and groups. Under the state of emergency so far, more than 20 mosques and many Muslim associations have been searched and around 10 mosques have been shut down.
“It seems to me that if you display your religion, if you are bearded or wear a religious symbol or dress or if you pray in a particular mosque you can be considered “radical” and thus targeted,” Amar, who had been subjected to a house search, told Amnesty International.
“If you try not to display your religion too much, then they think you are concealing something. We don’t know who they want us to be, how we have to behave.”
Despite advice against the proposed measures from the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court, if passed tomorrow, the new proposed Constitutional amendment would then go to Parliament for a vote in 2016.
“These emergency measures are already proving to be disproportionate. Extending them outside of a state of emergency is a dangerous step,” said Gauri van Gulik.
“Using the terrorist threat to change the constitution opens the floodgates for emergency-like measures to become the new norm.”