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Antiterror bill meets opposition at hearing

03/25/03

HARRY ESTEVE

SALEM -- A bill that would define violent protesters as terrorists and subject them to possible life imprisonment came under attack Monday at a packed and sometimes tense legislative hearing.

Antiwar activists and civil libertarians showed up in force to criticize Senate Bill 742, which they said contains overly broad language and gives police expanded powers to investigate people based on ethnicity.

"We are living in the McCarthy era all over again," said Patty Caldwell, an antiwar activist from Welches. "Then, you were called a communist. Now, you're called a terrorist sympathizer."

The statements came during the bill's first hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Committee Chairman Sen. John Minnis, R-Wood Village, author of the bill, threatened to clear the hearing room after repeated bursts of applause for speakers and interruptions shouted from the audience.

Minnis said he introduced the measure to put all crimes that could be construed as terrorism into a single law with tough punishment guidelines, and to require Oregon police agencies to cooperate with federal investigations into terrorists.

But the wording of the bill left many concerned that it could be applied to relatively minor acts of vandalism or misbehavior during a demonstration. The bill applies to acts of violence committed while someone is disrupting commerce, transportation, schools or universities.

Anyone convicted of terrorism would get an automatic life sentence with a 25-year minimum before being considered for parole.

"Many of the protesters arrested last week in Portland for misdemeanor conduct may have qualified for prosecution" under SB 742, said Susan Russell of the Oregon Criminal Lawyers Association. Crimes, such as throwing a rock through a window, or lighting flags on fire while demonstrating, do not warrant potential life sentences, she said.

After the hearing, the judiciary committee's three Democratic members spoke against the bill, all but killing its chances of surviving intact. All Senate committees are divided equally between Democrats and Republicans, and a bill must get a majority of committee votes to move forward.

"This bill chips away at the very freedom we profess to enjoy in the face of terrorism," said Sen. Charlie Ringo, D-Beaverton. "I would not want our servicemen in the Middle East and elsewhere to return and find that the freedoms they are risking their lives for overseas have been damaged while entrusted to the care of the Oregon Senate."

Sen. Ted Ferrioli of John Day, one of three Republicans on the committee, said Oregon law needs to be changed to more clearly define acts of civil disobedience and acts of terrorism. But two other Democrats on the committee, Vicki Walker of Eugene and Ginny Burdick of Portland, said they won't support the bill.

Minnis said he will rewrite portions of the bill in an attempt to address concerns about the broad language and role Oregon police agencies would have in federal terror investigations. No additional hearings have been scheduled on the bill.

"Unfortunately, there's a lot of hysteria associated with some of the original language" of the bill, he said. "I will bring something back and see if it works." Harry Esteve: 503-221-8234; harryesteve@news.oregonian.com


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