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Swiss clamp down on terror network

Prepaid phone customers will no longer be able to remain anonymous RTS

Mobile-phone operators have been ordered to register prepaid customers in a bid to clamp down on terrorism.

This content was published on March 12, 2003 - 18:05

The decision by the Swiss parliament follows revelations that senior al-Qaeda members had used prepaid phones bought in Switzerland to coordinate their activities.

Previously, customers were not required to give any personal details when buying a card. Phone companies will have to keep this information for two years after the card is purchased.

Parliamentarians also agreed to ratify two new United Nations conventions to combat the financing of international terrorism.

Wednesday's two key votes in the House of Representatives are part of international efforts to crack down on terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Al-Qaeda link

The move comes days after Swiss authorities revealed they had evidence that senior members of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network used Swiss Subscriber Identity Module – or SIM – cards to communicate with each other.

“During the investigations we have discovered that [the cards] were used not only by the perpetrators of the [September 11] attacks but also by senior members of the [al-Qaeda] hierarchy,” deputy federal prosecutor Claude Nicati said over the weekend.

The Federal Prosecutor’s Office has refused to confirm speculation that Bern provided information to US intelligence that led to the arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected number three al-Qaeda leader and mastermind of the attacks.

The revelations are thought to have won over parliamentarians previously opposed to the proposal; the vote was passed by 124 to 27.

Switzerland will become only the fourth European country to introduce such regulations, along with Germany, Hungary and Italy.

Ineffective

However, opponents said the new regulations would not deter terrorists and other criminals, as they would still be able to buy prepaid phones in other countries, including the US, without fear of being traced.

Switzerland’s leading telephone operators, Swisscom and Sunrise, said the new regulations would be ineffective and difficult to implement.

“Whoever wants to have a prepaid mobile can get one,” Swisscom spokeswoman Pia Colombo told swissinfo.

“And we [know from] other countries that a black market would start up, with people selling on their prepaid phones.”

Some 2.5 million prepaid phones have been sold in Switzerland since they were introduced in 1996.

The justice ministry said they were used by almost all drug traffickers operating in the country.

Terrorism conventions

On Wednesday the Swiss parliament also approved the ratification of two new UN anti-terrorism conventions, in addition to the ten it has already signed.

The first convention obliges signatories to block financial transactions that fund terrorist activities.

The other requires the prosecution of those suspected of involvement in terrorist activities and the cooperation of countries in preventing terrorist attacks.

“The conventions constitute the core of international endeavours to cooperate in the legal sphere in combating terrorism,” Daniel Frank, an expert in international criminal law expert at the justice ministry, told swissinfo.

In a related development, the House of Representatives also agreed to set a maximum prison sentence of five years for anyone convicted of terrorist fundraising.

Symbolic act

Critics of the conventions said they added nothing new to existing Swiss laws on terrorism.

Mark Pieth, professor of law and criminology at Basel University, said they were part of a knee-jerk reaction to the September 11 attacks.

"It's an American habit, to immediately make new laws the moment something bad happens," he told swissinfo. "Swiss laws passed in 1994 adequately cover the prevention of terrorism."

"This is a purely symbolic act."

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock and Joanne Shields

In brief

The Swiss parliament has ordered mobile phone operators to register their prepaid customers in a bid to prevent criminals and drug traffickers from using them in anonymity.

Previously, customers were not required to give their personal details when buying a prepaid mobile.

Swiss authorities recently discovered that senior members of the al-Qaeda network used Swiss prepaid mobiles to contact each other.

Parliamentarians also agreed to ratify two new United Nations conventions to combat the financing of international terrorism.

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