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In a democratic country, core principles such as free speech are protected against arbitrary retaliation by the government in power (at least in theory).

On the other hand, security forces evaluate individuals and organizations in order to protect the country against potential terrorist threats. Secrecy is obviously required in order not to divulge the details of what the security forces know and how they know it. In some cases the government can decide on the basis of their assessment to act in various ways, for example by officially designating an organization as terrorist. While the legal consequences are similar to a guilty verdict, the evidence is not necessarily disclosed and such an organization usually is not entitled to a fair trial.

So a government can in theory officially consider an individual or organization as terrorist without having to justify itself. This is in fact widely used in non-democratic countries in order to silence criticism against the government.

How do democratic countries prevent any abuse of this power by a government?

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  • This is a vast subject - even if you restrict it to one country. Re the UK there are a couple of useful websites. There is a Wiki article on the Prevention of Terrorism Acts And there is a published document setting out organisations which have been proscribed under those Acts. I realise this says nothing about MI5 and MI6, since by the nature of things, nothing is available.
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 19:47
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    designating an organization as terrorist. While the legal consequences are similar to a guilty verdict, the evidence is not necessarily disclosed and such an organization usually is not entitled to a fair trial Would an organization be put on trial? Or members of the organization? Are you asking about an organization being designated as terrorist (Israel recently did such a thing with some controversy)? Which would not necessarily result in a trial. Or are you asking about pursuing terrorism charges against individuals? Which ought to result in a trial (Guantanamo aside). Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 22:50
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    It's unlikely to go very deep without a specific case study to reference to. If you can pinpoint a specific country, that might be more helpful. Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 7:49
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica I'm more interested in cases where there's no trial, so I guess it's more about organizations then.
    – Erwan
    Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 18:58
  • @QuantumWalnut Actually I would prefer to avoid specific examples, I'm more interested in whether there are some common measures (broadly speaking) taken by democracies to avoid this potential issue.
    – Erwan
    Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 19:01

3 Answers 3

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Speaking generally, since the question does not call for specific cases, democratic systems are no more or less inherently safe against abuses of power than are dictatorships. At the end of the day, if the government does not act to curb its own behavior, then its behavior will not be effectively curbed. Democracies all over the world, current and historical, have overseen barbarity in dizzying variety.

With that disclaimer out of the way, there are several conventional attempts to prevent these abuses that have common themes.

1 - Bills of Rights: Establishing a priori rights and codifying such in law is the most common. In the United States (where my expertise is), the key rights are in the 4th, 5th, and 14th Amendments - which collectively make it a violation of the Constitution for the government to create conditions which are functionally equivalent to those resulting from a guilty verdict unless it first provides due process of law; i.e. a trial by a jury of one's peers in a court of law wherein you have competent legal representation. Those same amendments limit those rights to citizens, however, so foreign nationals do not enjoy these protections (though they may frequently receive them anyway).

In the EU, Title I of the Charter of Fundamental Rights accomplishes much the same.

2 - Protection of Provocative Behaviors: In the U.S. these are provided by the 1st, 2nd, and 9th Amendments which protect free assembly, free speech (even that speech which would otherwise scare the pants off a government), the keeping of weapons, and the benefit of ambiguity and doubt, respectively. This is not as as strong as #1, because there have always been acknowledged limits to these rights: The right to free speech does NOT mean you have a Constitutional right to yell "FIRE!" in a crowded theatre unless there is an actual fire that threatens those within; nor are you allowed to say things like "Let's kill the Vice President" regardless of reason. The ambiguity as to where exactly that line is leaves the government room to declare certain acts, certain kinds of weapons, or certain presumed rights to be out of bounds. But the presence of these kinds of declarations and prior protections for this type of behavior means the government will at least have to fight for their interests in the matter.

3 - Oversight: Easier said than done, oversight means that no one part of the government is permitted to act entirely on its own. Even if it's only post facto review, the fact that a government actor will have to answer for the choices they made is a powerful deterrent to bad faith actions. The trick is to get the oversight into the hands of a party who has no stake in the actions of the government or, failing that, has conflicting interests. In the United States this is a reason for so-called 'Miranda Rights', particularly your right to an attorney: the defense attorney's job is to act as a form of oversight and make sure that juries don't have to listen to a prosecutor with no regard for the truth. This is also why Congress and its various committees are set in adversarial relationships with the Executive and the Judiciary. Nothing inspires zealous oversight quite like hostility.

In democracies, the overseer of last resort is the electorate. But if that electorate becomes culturally comfortable with abuses of power, then they offer no more resistance than the compatriots of a dictator. This is why I open with the note that democracies don't offer any kind of structural protection in and of themselves.

Still, the role that citizens play as overseers can be strengthened, and in the U.S. a commonly used example of this is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), where common citizens may legally demand disclosure of otherwise non-public documents that show how the government has acted.

And even in cases like accusations of terrorism, wherein secret information and assets are at risk of exposure, the U.S. has at least attempted to create an advocate for citizen rights in the form of the FISA Court. FISA's success at curbing abuses is highly controversial, of course.

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Depends on the country, of course.

One option is to have a legal "firewall" between domestic intelligence agencies and police agencies. Police collect evidence of crimes and if they find sufficient evidence they have the prosecution bring criminal charges. A court then decides. The police has powers of arrest.

Intelligence collects information by means which they do not want to present in court, but they do not get powers of arrest. Simply being on an intelligence watchlist would have no direct influence on police actions. When police acts on intelligence information, they must be prepared to present it in court like any other evidence.

That means the legal consequences of a guilty verdict and a terrorist designation are not the same.

And then there are countries, even ones usually counted as democracies, which have a less transparent process.

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  • It does not answer the question.
    – markvs
    Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 18:40
  • Citing the countries using both options would make this a stronger answer. Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 22:52
  • The first option is only a wish by o.m. The second option implementation (and some details of it) would indeed be usefull.
    – markvs
    Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 22:56
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, compare the legal consequences of a "Gefährder" designation for German nationals in Germany with the various "no fly lists" in the US.
    – o.m.
    Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 5:02
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The answer to the first part of the sentence - "So a government can in theory officially consider an individual or organization as terrorist" is a sounding "Yes". With evidence deemed sufficient, all democratically elected governments can bring in charge and indict the individual or organization in the court for conducting terrorist actions.

However, the answer to the latter part of the sentence - "without having to justify itself." is "No". In a democratic country, after indictment, the "burden" of proof is on the shoulder of the government in an "open legal process" carried out by the justice department.

The most recent famous political cases are the implication/accusation of Trump-Russian ties, and Inciting January 6th Capital Riot. Charges had been filed in the legislatures and led to two failed impeachments. The former case has been reopened for further investigation, the legislature's investigation on the latter case is ongoing.

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    The most recent case in the US is the events of January 6, 2021.
    – markvs
    Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 22:53
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    Have the Jan 6th rioters been charged with terrorism? Have the Russian-Trump ties resulted in indictments of terrorism? This question, far as I understand, isn't about political speech, where a number of - Democrat - US politicians have made over-the-top claims of terrorism with regards to Jan 6th riots. Claims which cheapen the usage of the word terrorist, even if the Jan 6th rioters/insurrectionists fully deserve to be prosecuted for their offenses, just under different statutes. This question is about actual prosecution and/or official designation as terrorist. -1. Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 22:05
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica The focus is not really about "terrorism", it is in the broader sense of how a democratic country handles the allegations/accusations/suspicious about the political figure. Donald Trump is the best example, the first impeachment was on the allegation of he conducted "treason", though not the direct language used in the charge, and the second time was linking him to domestic terrorism, again, not the direct language used in the charge, but an implication that has dragged on which is not likely to end until the end of the ongoing houses' investigation.
    – r13
    Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 22:33
  • Terrorism/t appears 4x in the OP's question so I am not how sure how you get to your conclusion that this is not what the OP is asking about. And it is very clear that the OP is asking about the government/security forces's accountability not that of political opponents. Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 22:48

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