French activists denounce abuse of authority after attacks

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French police have rounded up hundreds of suspects and searched more than 3,000 homes under a state of emergency since the November extremist attacks on Paris — but much of the action involves drug cases or similar crime, not terrorism.

Rights activists complain that this is an abuse of authority, and are among opponents of a new government effort to permanently expand police powers.

In a report released Thursday, Amnesty International criticized "disproportionate emergency measures."

The human rights group stressed that most of the 60 people it has interviewed said that harsh measures were applied with little or no explanation and sometimes excessive force, in some cases leading to the loss of jobs, anxiety and frightened children.

"The reality we have seen in France is that sweeping executive powers, with few checks on their use, have generated a range of human rights violations. It is difficult to see how the French authorities can possibly argue that they represent a proportionate response to the threats they face," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia.

French President Francois Hollande said last month that emergency police raids led to the discovery of 25 terrorist-related offenses.

In total, 3,289 police searches led to 571 judicial investigations, including more than 400 cases that concern drugs or possession of unauthorized weapons, according to the Justice Ministry. Some other cases involve the discovery of stolen goods and counterfeit items.

In addition, 303 persons are still under house arrest.

Defense lawyer Arie Alimi told the AP he has more than 20 cases of clients who have filed complaints with the administrative court after police raids or house-arrest orders.

"I've seen old people being abused. I have an old man who has had four teeth broken during the raid because he has been violently pushed to the ground by police forces. I've seen raids in the middle of the night with terrified children. I've seen post-traumatic stress on women, some pregnant, who cannot get to sleep anymore," Alimi said.

Some people have moved, fearful of the reaction of their neighbors, he said.

Younes, a 29 year-old French man who lives in a Paris' suburb, claims he has been unjustly placed under house arrest, saying accusations of links with Islamic extremists have no basis. He is now required to show up three times a day at the police station and cannot leave his home town without an authorization — even to go to the doctor for treatment of his poor health.

"Since the house arrest, I go through an ordeal," Younes told the AP. "At the moment I wear blinkers, so I move forward like a horse, I go where the state wants me to go, sign three times a day, accept my misfortune... and stay positive in order to keep clear mind against the accusations and be able to defend myself." He spoke on condition that his full name not be used, to protect his safety.

Emergency house-arrest orders don't have to be approved by a judge. They can only be challenged through an appeal to an administrative judge.

Luc Poignant, spokesman of the Unité SGP police union, said 62 persons have appealed against house-arrest orders; 49 were dismissed.

"So it means that, in some ways, we are doing our job whilst respecting the rules, albeit different rules, faster rules in the state of emergency," Poignant said.

France's top administrative court, the Council of State, last week upheld the state of emergency, rejecting a challenge by the Human Rights League. The Council of State confirmed the "imminent peril" that led to the state of emergency "has not disappeared."

"The state of emergency is efficient, indispensable," Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Friday in a speech at the lower house of parliament. "(Terrorist) networks are destabilized, numerous individuals are being watched."

Valls asserted that the state of emergency "doesn't affect the democratic debate. All the journalists of this country can freely practice their profession. Regional elections have been held three weeks after the attacks. The right to protest is not in any way limited."

The French government is now calling for a three-month extension of the state of emergency, which was scheduled to end on Feb. 26. The measure will need parliament's approval later this month.

A new government bill also presented this week aims at permanently expanding some police powers. Notably, it would make it easier for police to carry out raids at night, and searches of luggage and vehicles near "sensitive" sites and buildings.

Police would also be allowed to hold a person up to four hours during an identity check when there are "serious reasons to think" that the person has links with "terrorist activities."

Jacques Toubon, France's Defender of Rights, whose role is to oversee the protection of rights and freedoms, said he has received 49 complaints, most of them regarding the behavior of police forces during raids.

The new government bill "tends to make the exception the rule for a wide range of crimes. Restrictions of freedoms won't be limited to urgent situation but will last until the 'imminent peril' stops, meaning indefinitely," he told French newspaper Le Monde. "Do French people want to leave for their children a state of law inferior to the one the Republic has built for 200 years?"


AP video journalists Alex Turnbull and Nadine Achoui-Lesage contributed to the story