Heavy hand not sole option in IS cases – Denmark breaks lock-’em-up ranks

The arrest of the Bangalore tweeter and the charge of “waging war” against an Asiatic ally come at a time the western world has been wrestling with the dilemma of how to treat youngsters swayed by extremist ideologies and whether to give them a second chance.

The response in Bangalore has been to stick to the basics of law-enforcement and dig out a little-known law to keep the young man in custody. This is also how most of Europe – with a notable exception in Denmark that drew on the experience of soccer hooliganism – has reacted to domestic challenges linked to the Islamic State.

The Bangalore arrest also marks a sharp contrast with the manner in which Hyderabad police handled a group of youths who were allegedly on their way to join the IS in Syria and Iraq.

Hyderabad police intercepted the youths, counselled them, reunited them with their families and decided against pressing charges. The youths are being kept under surveillance to ensure that security concerns are not compromised.

In Bangalore, little evidence has emerged so far to suggest the tweeter hailing from Bengal, Mehdi Masroor Biswas, was an active operative of the IS. The police have also said he was not a recruiter but a sympathiser – which is not illegal as the IS is yet to be banned in India.

In order to get around this problem, the police dug out Section 125 of the IPC, which deals with “waging war against any Asiatic power in alliance with the Government of India”. The offence carries a maximum jail term of seven years.

In a way, the police’s hand was forced by a media expose of the tweeter who, based on available information till now, appears to have fooled both IS operatives and international commentators who were depending on the information he curated for providing “deep insight” to their readers and listeners.

The high-decibel media coverage with suggestions that the foreign media outlet caught the Indian security establishment napping seems to have compelled the police not to take any chances.

India is also keeping in mind the concerns in Europe, from where the IS has been drawing several youths. An element of irony in the invocation of the “Asiatic ally” law is also inescapable: India is citing the interests of ally Syria to address the concerns of Europe which had been trying hard to topple the government in Damascus till the IS hijacked the issue.

Some rights activists feel that the police should have waited for more evidence before charging Mehdi with “waging war” against an ally.

Lawrence Liang, an advocate from the Alternative Law Forum, said it was unfair to treat anyone like a terrorist from the word go. “There has to be a nexus between word and action for something to be concluded as terror. This is a typical sensational case where media does most of the work before it reaches trial. The bias is already established before it reaches the court,” Liang said.

“The threshold set by the court is far higher than a mere commonsensical understanding of a proscribed speech,” he added.

But Infosys co-founder Mohandas Pai, who is no longer with the company but is a commentator now, said: ” Mens rea (mental attitude or intent) is very clear that this man (Mehdi) wanted to join IS to wage a war. There can be no forgiveness for people who espouse beheadings and violence of the worst kind. Let’s not have misplaced sympathy.”

India’s foreign office, which acted as a conduit for messages between British and Indian intelligence agencies over Biswas’s arrest, has long viewed pro-terror speech as a serious crime.

“This is a position framed through hard experience,” said a veteran diplomat. “Sometimes, public statements declaring intent or motivating others to engage in terror acts are the most robust evidence you have against people you know are guilty of much worse.”

With the IS casting a spell on some youths in the UK, London mayor Boris Johnson summed up in an article what has become Europe’s most common response: “We need to make it crystal clear that you will be arrested if you go out to Syria or Iraq without a good reason.”

But not every nation is responding in a similar fashion.

Denmark, with the second-highest ratio of foreign fighters to population after Belgium, has gone in the other direction, shunning punishment in favour of rehabilitation.

In Aarhus, Denmark’s second biggest city, a young man of Turkish descent who spent 13 months in Syria fighting in the name of Islam passes his days playing soccer, working out at the gym and waiting anxiously to see if he has secured a place to study engineering at a well-regarded local university.

“I feel at home. I have no problems here,” the former fighter, who spoke on the condition that he be identified only as Osman, told The New York Times.

Since his return to the tranquil port city from the battlefields of Syria, he has been part of a pioneering programme that treats onetime fighters not as criminals or potential terrorists but as wayward youths who deserve a second chance.

The programme involves counselling, help with readmission to school, meetings with parents and other outreach efforts. It was first developed in 2007 to deal with far-right extremists linked to an Aarhus soccer club.

Jacob Bundsgard, the Social Democrat mayor of Aarhus, said: “We cannot afford not to include them back in our society.”

According to Aarhus police, 31 youths had travelled since late 2012 to Syria but only one of them went this year.

“What we are doing seems to be working,” said Jorgen Ilum, the chief of police for the region. The chief acknowledged that full “rehabilitation” of returnees is extremely difficult, and that “none of them are completely normal”.

Preben Bertselsen, a psychology professor at Aarhus University, said returnees had “lost their moral compass” but “only become ticking bombs if we don’t integrate them” back into society.

Aarhus’s approach, he said, is aimed at preventing criminal acts by former fighters, not to purge their beliefs. “I am not the political or religious police,” he said.

Bundsgard, the mayor, asked: “In an open society, how do you challenge without compromising your fundamental principles the fact that some disagree with these fundamental principles?”

Published in The Telegraph on Dec 14, 2014