Argentina approved a tough package of new laws against terrorism and financial crimes Thursday, dismissing concerns that the government could use them to attack political opponents.
After three hours of post-midnight debate, the Senate agreed to double penalties for any crime committed with the goal of terrorizing the people or pressuring authorities to take some action. Human rights groups are concerned that the vaguely worded law will give future governments broad powers to crack down on social protests.
"Any crime under Argentine law committed with the goal of terrorism as described by international rules approved by our country will be punishable by twice the minimum and maximum sentence," the law says.
The laws also toughen penalties for tax evasion, money laundering, and acts that disrupt the country's economic order, for example by provoking a run on the banks. It also criminalizes insider trading and provides sentences of up to six years for passively benefiting from bribery.
The laws does apply some restraints to Argentina's money-laundering watchdog, saying the government's Financial Information Unit cannot freeze assets "that aren't related to acts of terrorism as defined by international conventions."
And after pressure from human rights activists, legislators adjusted the laws so that stiffer penalties cannot be applied to crimes that may occur in the context of "the exercise of human or social rights, or any other constitutional right."
Aides to President Cristina Fernandez sought to assure lawmakers that this government would never invoke the law to restrict the legitimate rights of Argentines.
But many Argentines remain worried that this or future governments will do exactly that.
Opposition Sen. Ernesto Sanz said it won't help solve financial crimes, and "opens the door to criminalizing social protest."
"Being ambiguous and using generalities starts us down the dangerous road of arbitrary use of authority," Sanz said.
Argentina is still grappling with the legacy of "state terror," when the 1976-1983 dictatorship sent out squads of undercover agents to kidnap, torture and summarily execute 13,000 political opponents, according to the official tally. But these laws don't address such crimes against humanity.
The country also experienced the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center that killed 85 people, two years after another bomb flattened the Israeli Embassy, killing 29. But terror laws have not been applied to either case. Prosecutors have invoked the existing criminal code instead.
Sen. Miguel Angel Pichetto, who leads the ruling party's bloc, acknowledged that the crackdown is being done under pressure from the United States, describing it as price of entry for Argentina to continue having a voice at international economic summits.
The laws are meant to conform with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force, which was established by the G-7 countries to combat terror financing and money laundering worldwide.
But according to an investigation by The Associated Press for this year's 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, similar laws have been widely used around the globe to curb political dissent. The AP gathered government records worldwide and found that 120,000 people were arrested and 35,000 convicted as terrorists in the past decade.
Many were put behind bars simply for waving a political sign or publishing anti-government commentary.
The AP found that there is no agreed-upon international standard for what makes a terrorist, giving each country's leadership wide leeway to decide when to invoke these draconian laws. Even within the U.S. government, law enforcement agencies don't agree on what terrorism is.
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