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Bill increases penalty for attacks on mass transit

(The following article by Joseph Straw was posted on the New Haven Register website on March 19.)

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4, introduced bipartisan legislation Thursday that would increase penalties for terrorist attacks on the country’s mass transit and railroad systems.

The bill would also broaden the definition of an "attack" to include any terrorist threats that disrupt the nation’s transit system.

The legislation would also broaden the scope of law enforcement’s surveillance ability covering rail and mass transit to any individual that "appears ... by their nature or context" to pose a threat.

Shays and U.S. Rep. C.A. Ruppersberger, D-Md., introduced the bill one week to the day after coordinated railway bombings in Madrid, Spain, killed more than 200 commuters.

The bill is companion legislation to the Anti-Terrorism Protection of Mass Transportation and Railroad Carriers Act of 2003, introduced in the Senate on Sept. 11, 2003, by U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

Shays called the Madrid attack "yet another wake-up call."

"America needs to continue sending the clear message to would-be terrorists: We will take every measure to protect ourselves, but if you succeed you will face the full force of the law," Shays said.

If passed and signed, the bill would require a minimum 20-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of sabotaging or destroying mass transit or rail infrastructure, or threatening to do so.

If the act is committed against a vehicle carrying passengers or hazardous material, the minimum sentence would be 30 years. If the cargo is nuclear material, or if anyone is killed in the attack, the defendant would face either to death or life imprisonment.

Under current law, defendants only face the death penalty if an attack affects a railroad system.

The Sessions bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Shays is a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, and heads the House Governmental Affairs subcommittee on terrorist threats.

Police arrested five more people in the Madrid bombings as the death toll rose Thursday to 202, making the blasts — along with the 2002 Bali nightclub attack — the worst terrorist strike since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

The arrests brought to 11 the total suspects in Spanish custody and came as the country marked a week since the bombings that shocked Europe, led to a stunning election defeat for the government and roiled Madrid’s relations with the United States.

In Morocco, police also rounded up associates of Jamal Zougam, a key suspect in the train bombings with alleged al-Qaida ties.

The latest arrests added to suspicions Moroccan extremists linked to Islamic terrorism were behind the Madrid bombings. At least three of the five suspects arrested Wednesday and Thursday are Moroccan nationals, according to a Moroccan official. Spanish authorities sought to extend the detention of five other suspects, including Zougam, who were arrested Saturday.

Zougam and the others — two Moroccans and two Indians — were being questioned Thursday at a Madrid court by Judge Juan del Olmo.

The 11th person detained in the investigation is an Algerian suspected of having had warning of the attack. But Zougam, a 30-year-old Moroccan phone salesman in Madrid, remains the key suspect.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Friday, March 19, 2004

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