Parliament passes amendment increasing police and secret service powers


Following the recent terrorist attacks in the USA, the Czech Lower House of Parliament approved an amendment to country's law on the police and the secret services on Friday. The amendment grants additional powers to investigators, such as increased phone tapping and access to phone records. President Havel joined the fray on Monday by stating that the powers of the Czech intelligence services should be further increased, adding that this would not infringe upon civil liberties, but would instead help to protect the people. This has opened up a debate on the delicate balance between secret service operations and human rights. Nick Carey reports...

Following the terrorist attacks on the USA on September 11th and the escalation of tensions between the USA and the Taleban movement in Afghanistan, the amendment to the law on the secret services and the police has passed through the Czech Lower House with remarkable speed. The amendment, if approved by the Senate and signed by President Vaclav Havel, will allow, amongst other things, the Czech secret services and the police to gain easy access to phone records and to tap phone calls. The amendment has generally been welcomed, albeit cautiously. Commentator Jiri Pehe feels that action was needed, but that Parliament should not go any further:

"This amendment was needed, because the police have not been able to effectively track down people who work in organised crime. On the other hand, I think that at this point the Czech Republic, as concerns this kind of law, has a pretty good balance between civil liberties and security, and I don't think the Czech government or the Czech Parliament should move any further in restricting people's civil liberties."

Senator Edvard Outrata believes that as this amendment has been approved by the Lower House in the heat of the moment, the Czech Senate will have to examine it carefully, even though it may indeed be the best step to take in light of the attacks on New York and Washington:

"We're certainly going to have a good look, because one shouldn't, in the excitement of the moment, jeopardise any significant liberty that has been achieved. But I think the nation is very sensitive towards this issue, I am pretty sure that we will be able to make sure that it doesn't go that far. Actually, the problem was probably just the opposite, we may have overdone the opening of society. I think if we are not going to try to push things back to the optimal state of affairs, I think that is a good thing."

But analysts have warned that although heightened secret service vigilance and powers may indeed be welcome as investigators around the world try to track down those responsible for the attacks, these measures should not be allowed to go too far. President Havel stated on Monday that the powers of the secret services should be increased even further to protect the Czech people. Jiri Pehe says that he understands the president's sentiments, but warns against excess infringement upon civil liberties:

"If we interpret the statement from President Havel in a more general sense, his words are probably an expression the heightened need for security. But as some people have pointed out after what happened in the United States on September 11th, we have to be very careful about not going too far in limiting civil liberties in favour of security, because this is probably what the terrorists wanted to achieve."

And Senator Outrata is convinced that while these measures are necessary in the short-term, they must not be allowed to remain in the long-term, where they may be open to abuse:

"We must make sure that either they are only emergency regulations that will change the moment the emergency ends, or alternatively something that is generally required but has to be under very strict control. It's a very acute situation at this point in time and I think it's very important that the Czech Republic is capable of supporting the international effort to fight terrorism. We shouldn't do something that will then remain and allow for abuse in the long run."