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      Ahead of French Debate on State of Emergency Extension, Rights Groups Warn of Abuses

      Ahead of French Debate on State of Emergency Extension, Rights Groups Warn of Abuses Ahead of French Debate on State of Emergency Extension, Rights Groups Warn of Abuses Ahead of French Debate on State of Emergency Extension, Rights Groups Warn of Abuses
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      Europe

      Ahead of French Debate on State of Emergency Extension, Rights Groups Warn of Abuses

      By Pierre Longeray

      As France's National Assembly prepares to debate new constitutional reforms, including proposals to enshrine the state of emergency in the constitution, critics continue to raise concern over possible violations linked to the exceptional measures.

      Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have each released a report on abuses committed under the state of emergency, which was introduced by the government following the November 13 attacks. According to the watchdogs, the state of emergency has led to more than 3,200 searches, the closure of 12 religious sites, and between 350 and 400 house arrests. Meanwhile, authorities have launched only five terror-related investigations.

      Jacques Toubon, the country's Defender of Rights, also recently gave an interview to the French daily Le Monde in which he expressed his worry about the possible enshrining of the state of emergency into the constitution.

      The release of the two reports and the interview with Toubon — who describes his role as defending civil liberties "with a view to maintaining social cohesion and a balance between security and freedom" — coincide the government's announcement that it would seek to extend the state of emergency by three months.

      The state of emergency is due to expire on February 26. The proposed extension will be debated by the Senate next Tuesday, and by the National Assembly's deputies a week later.

      Echoing several politicians who have been vocal about their opposition to the reforms, including former Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, Amnesty and HRW are hoping their reports will get France to rethink its plans to extend the state of emergency.

      "France has a responsibility to ensure public safety and try to prevent further attacks, but the police have used their new emergency powers in abusive, discriminatory, and unjustified ways," said Izza Leghtas, Western Europe researcher at HRW, in the report.

      According to HRW, "the vast majority of those placed under house arrest or whose homes were searched are Muslims and persons of North African descent." The group said this discriminatory trend made those who were targeted feel like "second-class citizens."

      Yasser Louati, a spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), echoed this sentiment, telling HRW that "the government has lost the trust of the Muslim community, and it is doing nothing to repair the damage."

      The report described several house arrests, including that of Halim A., a 25-year-old Frenchman who runs a motorcyle repair service on the outskirts of Paris. On November 15, Halim, who was suspected of belonging to an unidentified radical Islamist movement, was put under house arrest and forced to report three times a day to a police station.

      On Januray 23, an administrative judge suspended his house arrest due to a lack of charges against him, and ordered the government to pay him 1,500 euros ($1,680) in damages.

      While Halim A. may be a free man, the months spent under house arrest have turned his life upside down. He has lost most of his business and no longer has any form of social life.

      "My credibility, I lost it. My lifestyle, I lost it," he told HRW researchers. "Since that day I have only God, my family and my lawyer."

      The report also highlighted the case of Olivier Corel, a Frenchman born in Syria and nicknamed the "White Emir." Several of Corel's neighbors were placed under house arrest simply for living near Corel, who is suspected of having links with terrorist cells.

      "They [the police] said we were loyal to our neighbor Oliver Corel, but we haven't even exchanged a hello with him in the last 12 years," Corel's neighbor Fatima told HRW. "We were in shock. We felt that there was no longer any rule of law or any limits."

      Authorities suspended Fatima's and her husband's house arrests on January 25.

      Amnesty based its findings on the testimonies of 60 people who were affected by the measures introduced with the state of emergency. Following the interviews, the organization concluded that "harsh measures were applied with little or no explanation and sometimes excessive force."

      John Dalhuisen, the director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia program, said that the French authorities' response was in many cases disproportionate.

      "While governments can use exceptional measures in exceptional circumstances, they must do so with caution," he said. "It is difficult to see how the French authorities can possibly argue that they represent a proportionate response to the threats they face."

      Amnesty highlighted the case of Nadia, whose 80-year-old father's home was raided on November 21.

      "My father has heart problems.... Police forced the entrance door open, they did not ring the bell, they burst into the flat, started screaming and handcuffed both my father and my sister," Nadia told Amnesty researchers. "My father felt unwell and after a few minutes fainted. They had to call an ambulance."

      Toubon, who served as France's justice minister before being appointed Defender of Rights, is just the latest public official to voice concern over the state of emergency. While he said that the decision to extend the measures was a political matter that he could not comment on, he did, however, criticize plans to enshrine the measures into the constitution.

      "The restrictions of freedoms will not be limited to the period of emergency, but until the end of an 'imminent danger,' which means indefinitely," he told Le Monde.

      He noted that his office had received 79,592 complaints in 2015 — 8.3 percent more than in 2014.

      Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray

      This article originally appeared in VICE News' French edition.

      Topics: europe, france, state of emergency, constitution, amnesty international, human rights watch, terror, emergency measures, abuses, violations, vice news france, politics, defense & security, civil liberties

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