French State of Emergency Facing Court Challenges by Muslims

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Eric Gaillard / Reuters

PARIS (Reuters) – After hundreds of police raids on homes, mosques, restaurants and hotels in the less than five weeks since the Nov. 13 assaults in Paris, some Muslims in France are taking the government to court for committing what they call illegal acts in the name of preventing another jihadist attack.

At least 20 complaints have been filed since a state of emergency was declared after the Islamic State attacks that killed 130 people, according to the six independent lawyers involved.

The emergency measures give authorities extra powers to assign house arrests and conduct raids without a judicial warrant. Though they are set to expire on Feb. 26, the government has said they may be extended.

Polls indicate that the measures have overwhelming support from a public still shocked by the scale of the Paris violence, and government ministers have defended them as key to protecting public order and society in general.

But as governments around the world try to balance civil rights and privacy with the need for heightened security, the emergency law, which dates back to 1955, is coming under scrutiny.

On Dec. 11, France’s highest administrative court asked the Constitutional Court to examine the constitutionality of the law, notably for its restrictions on freedom of movement, after a challenge by an activist who was placed under house arrest ahead of the recent global climate conference in Paris.

And on Thursday, 100 organizations, including France’s Human Rights League and a magistrates’ trade union, demanded that the government lift the state of emergency on the grounds it is leading to excesses without responding to the threat.

The legal challenges that have been launched so far were themselves made possible by French lawmakers who revised the law when they voted to extend the state of emergency on Nov. 20.

The revision allows for judicial oversight, but only after the raids have been carried out, said Olivier Renaudie, a University of Lorraine professor and specialist in domestic security laws.

Still, “it’s progress. The law extends the power of police but also judicial guarantees,” he said.

Most of the complaints allege that the government acted illegally in placing people under house arrest for unjustified reasons or based on misinformation, and seek a suspension or reversal of the arrest orders.

More complaints are being prepared related to property damage during raids and for emotional distress, the lawyers working on them said.

In the six cases that have been heard so far, judges have rejected the claims, the lawyers said.

As of Wednesday, authorities have conducted more than 2,700 raids and enforced 360 house arrests, according to the French government. Already 51 people have been incarcerated, primarily related to illegal weapons or drugs.

In addition, two terrorism-related investigations have been opened as a result of the raids, a judicial source told Reuters.

The house arrests have led to the bulk of the civil complaints. Under the law, which allows the Interior Ministry to target anyone it believes poses a threat to public security, people under house arrest must remain in their homes at night and otherwise stay within a specified area, reporting to police three times a day. Some may have to wear electronic bracelets.

Paris lawyer Xavier Nogueras is representing 12 Muslims under house arrest. He and the other lawyers say their clients were unfairly targeted based on secret intelligence and unproven suspicions.

On Nov. 27, an administrative court in Paris said the government had not committed any “obvious legal breach” in the house arrests of two of his clients.

The government has reversed itself in a handful of cases, according to French media.