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This article is written by Ananya V. Mehra of Amity Law School, Noida, an intern under Legal Vidhiya


Addressing the treatment of terrorism suspects and safeguarding the right to a fair trial presents complex and contended challenges with far-reaching implications for states and the global community. This article scrutinizes the legal framework governing the treatment of terrorism suspects on both domestic and international fronts. It delves into the impact of counter-terrorism measures on the human rights of suspects, with a particular emphasis on their right to a fair trial. It discusses issues surrounding the use of coercive interrogation methods, the admissibility of evidence acquired through torture, the detention and rendition of suspects, as well as the role played by military tribunals and special courts.

The article critically evaluates the legal and ethical ramifications associated with these measures, emphasizing the role of international law in safeguarding the rights of terrorism suspects. Notably, it explores the media’s influence on fair trial rights, illuminating how public perception and the portrayal of terrorism suspects can significantly impact their access to justice and due process. Real-world case studies are incorporated to illustrate both the challenges and successes encountered in the treatment of terrorism suspects. The article lastly lays down recommendations for states to ensure the provision of a fair trial for terrorism suspects, aligning with the principles of the rule of law and human rights standards.


Terrorism, Human Rights, International Law, Counter-Terrorism, Right to Fair Trial, Terrorism Suspects, International Humanitarian Law, International Human Rights Law, International Criminal Law


Terrorism stands out as a significant global threat to peace and security in the 21st century. Defined as the “unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (FBI, 2020), terrorism not only jeopardizes innocent lives and livelihoods but also challenges the core values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

Effectively combating terrorism demands a unified response from states and the international community, encompassing prevention, protection, prosecution, and rehabilitation. However, this pursuit must be carried out with a commitment to respecting and safeguarding the human rights of all individuals, including those suspected or accused of involvement in terrorism. The treatment of terrorism suspects and the guarantee of a fair trial emerge as complex and controversial issues, posing significant challenges for both states and the international community.

The right to a fair trial, a cornerstone human right upheld by various international and regional instruments, ensures that individuals are entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. Enshrined in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, this right encompasses principles like the presumption of innocence, the right to be informed of charges, legal assistance, examination of witnesses, appeal, and compensation for wrongful conviction.

Terrorist incidents, such as the 9/11 attacks, 2008 Mumbai attacks, 7/7 bombings, 2015 Paris attacks, and 2019 Christchurch shootings, have prompted states to adopt various counter-terrorism measures. While aimed at preventing and responding to terrorism, some of these measures, including enhanced surveillance and expanded detention powers, have raised concerns about their compatibility with the human rights of terrorism suspects, particularly their right to a fair trial.

This article delves into the legal framework governing the treatment of terrorism suspects, examining both domestic and international perspectives. It scrutinizes the impact of counter-terrorism measures on the human rights of suspects, specifically focusing on the right to a fair trial. The discussion encompasses issues such as harsh interrogation methods, the admissibility of evidence obtained through torture, detention, rendition, and the involvement of military tribunals and special courts. The article explores the legal and ethical implications of these measures, highlighting the role of international law in safeguarding the rights of terrorism suspects, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture, and the Geneva Conventions. Case studies, including the experiences of individuals like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Omar Khadr, and David Hicks, illustrate both the challenges and successes in the treatment of terrorism suspects. The article concludes with recommendations for states to ensure the fair treatment of terrorism suspects in alignment with the rule of law and human rights standards.


The legal framework governing the treatment of terrorism suspects is multifaceted, involving international human rights law, international humanitarian law, international criminal law, and national legislation.

International Human Rights Law: This body of law, applicable in peacetime and conflict, obliges states to uphold individuals’ rights. Instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, prohibit arbitrary arrest, torture, and guarantee fair trial rights. Derogations are allowed in emergencies but must be strictly necessary, with some rights considered non-derogable.[1]

International Humanitarian Law: This branch governs armed conflict, it protects non-participants like civilians and prisoners of war. Instruments such as the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols of 1977, Hague Conventions, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court prohibit attacks on civilians, indiscriminate force, and inhumane treatment of detainees.[2] The law emphasizes the principles of distinction between combatants and civilians, and proportionality between military objectives and collateral damage.

International Criminal Law: This branch deals with and punishes severe global crimes like genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and aggression. Individuals, regardless of status or nationality, face criminal liability. Instruments such as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Statutes of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide outline jurisdiction, procedures, and competencies of international courts.

National Legislation: This body of law refers to internal laws of states dealing with terrorism prevention, investigation, and prosecution. It includes measures like intelligence gathering, surveillance, and counter-radicalization policies. Laws must align with international obligations, respecting human rights. Examples include India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Prevention of Terrorism Act, U.S. Patriot Act, U.K. Terrorism Act, and China’s Anti-Terrorism Law.

The legal framework for terrorism suspects is dynamic, involving ongoing debates on defining terrorism, ensuring legal protections, balancing security and human rights, and evaluating the effectiveness of existing mechanisms. Regular dialogue and review are crucial for alignment with the rule of law, human dignity, and justice.


Counter-terrorism measures encompass actions undertaken by states or international organizations with the aim of preventing, deterring, or responding to acts of terrorism. These strategies involve a range of approaches, including legal, political, military, intelligence, and law enforcement efforts, often requiring cooperation and coordination among various entities.[3]

However, it is crucial to acknowledge that counter-terrorism measures can significantly impact the human rights of individuals, as well as their families and communities. Several human rights may be affected by these measures:

The right to a fair trial, comprising elements such as the presumption of innocence, being informed of charges, legal counsel, public hearings, appeal, and protection from double jeopardy. [4]Counter-terrorism measures can infringe on this right through practices like indefinite detention without charge, the use of secret evidence or coerced confessions, denial of access to legal representation, or the application of military tribunals or special courts.

The right to freedom from arbitrary detention and arrest, emphasizing that no one should lose their liberty except according to established legal procedures.[5] Violations of this right can occur through preventive detention, administrative detention, or internment based on vague definitions of terrorism, profiling, or discrimination based on factors like race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality.

The right not to be subject to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prohibiting acts causing severe physical or mental suffering[6]. Counter-terrorism measures may breach this right by resorting to torture or ill-treatment for interrogation, intimidation, or punishment, or by transferring suspects to locations where they face such risks.

The right to privacy and family life, safeguarding individuals from unjust interference with their privacy, family, home, or correspondence[7]. Violations of this right may arise from mass surveillance, unauthorized interception of communications, or searches and seizures without proper oversight, as well as imposing restrictions or sanctions on the relatives or associates of suspects.

The right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, granting individuals the ability to express opinions, form and join groups, and engage in peaceful protests.[8] These rights can be compromised by counter-terrorism measures through the criminalization or censorship of dissenting views, the banning or dissolution of organizations, or the use of excessive force or arbitrary arrests to suppress or discourage demonstrations.


Addressing the treatment of terrorism suspects is a nuanced and contentious endeavour, demanding a delicate equilibrium between safeguarding state security interests and upholding the fundamental human rights of individuals.

A primary consideration in the treatment of terrorism suspects revolves around the pivotal question of whether they should be classified as criminals or designated as enemy combatants. This distinction carries profound implications for the legal framework governing their detention, interrogation, and subsequent trial. Criminals benefit from civil liberties protections, including the right to a fair trial, legal counsel, and freedom from torture. Conversely, enemy combatants fall under the purview of the laws of war, allowing for increased flexibility in their handling. The challenge lies in the ambiguous definition and determination of the status of individuals as enemy combatants, posing a potential risk of arbitrary and abusive treatment for those who fall into this category.

Coercive interrogation techniques emerge as another contentious facet in the treatment of terrorism suspects. Practices such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and stress positions are often rationalized by the necessity of extracting crucial information to prevent future terrorist attacks and save lives. However, these methods trigger profound ethical and legal concerns, as they may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment – acts explicitly prohibited by both international and domestic law. The effectiveness and reliability of these techniques also stir ongoing debates, with concerns about the potential for producing false or misleading information and the potential damage to the credibility of interrogators and the state.

The venue and mode of trial constitute a third pivotal issue in the treatment of terrorism suspects. Options such as civilian courts, military commissions, or special tribunals offer distinct advantages and drawbacks contingent on the unique nature and circumstances of each case. Civilian courts provide more extensive procedural safeguards and confer legitimacy to the trial process. However, they may grapple with practical and security challenges, including ensuring the availability and protection of evidence and witnesses, the delicate disclosure of classified information, and the potential risk of public backlash or retaliation. Conversely, military commissions or special tribunals might offer expeditious proceedings but potentially compromise the trial’s fairness and impartiality, encroaching upon the accused’s rights to due process and equal treatment.


The utilization of severe interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and physical abuse, on terrorism suspects has sparked controversy in the post-9/11 era. Advocates argue for the necessity and effectiveness of these methods in extracting crucial information from uncooperative detainees, while opponents assert that such practices violate the human rights and dignity of suspects and run counter to the legal and ethical principles of democratic societies.

One primary legal consequence of employing harsh interrogation methods is the potential erosion of the suspects’ right to a fair trial. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by numerous countries, including the United States, explicitly states that everyone is entitled to humane treatment, respect for inherent dignity, and protection from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.[9] This right to a fair trial, including protection against self-incrimination, is further outlined in the ICCPR and other international and regional human rights instruments. Nevertheless, the use of harsh interrogation methods may infringe upon these rights by causing physical and psychological harm, coercing false or unreliable confessions, and depriving suspects of due process and legal representation. Notably, the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, allegedly the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who underwent waterboarding 183 times, raises concerns about the credibility of statements in court.

Beyond legal ramifications, the ethical implications of employing harsh interrogation methods extend to potential conflicts with the moral values of democratic societies. Critics argue that these methods contradict fundamental principles such as respect for human dignity, justice, and the rule of law. Ethicists contend that utilizing such methods treats suspects as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves, representing a violation of human dignity, a foundational concept in ethics and human rights. Additionally, critics assert that harsh interrogation methods undermine justice by subjecting individuals to arbitrary or disproportionate harm, creating a discriminatory and oppressive double standard.

However, some ethicists justify the use of harsh interrogation methods through utilitarianism, emphasizing that the moral value of an action depends on its overall consequences. They argue that if these methods can prevent harm caused by terrorism and save innocent lives, they are morally permissible or even obligatory. Advocates also appeal to the principle of self-defense, suggesting that such methods are justified as a last resort when there is an imminent and serious threat of a terrorist attack and no alternative means to obtain crucial information.


While terrorism poses a severe threat to human rights by causing harm and undermining fundamental values, counter-terrorism measures must align with human rights and the rule of law to maintain long-term effectiveness and legitimacy. This article will explore key international legal instruments designed to protect the rights of terrorism suspects, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and the Geneva Conventions with their Additional Protocols.

The ICCPR, a universal human rights treaty, guarantees various civil and political rights for all individuals within a state party’s territory or jurisdiction.[10] While affording terrorism suspects the same rights as any other person, the ICCPR allows States to derogate from certain provisions during public emergencies, subject to strict conditions. The Human Rights Committee, overseeing ICCPR implementation, has issued guidelines to assist States in upholding their obligations while countering terrorism.

The CAT, another universal human rights treaty, unequivocally prohibits torture and ill-treatment. It mandates States to prevent, investigate, and punish such acts and to offer redress to victims.[11] Unlike the ICCPR, the CAT does not allow exceptions or derogations, even during war or public emergencies. The Committee against Torture, responsible for monitoring CAT implementation, has issued guidelines to aid States in meeting their obligations while countering terrorism.

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, crucial international humanitarian law treaties, regulate armed conflicts, aiming to protect non-participants.[12] Applicable to all parties in armed conflicts, their protection for terrorism suspects depends on specific case contexts. The International Committee of the Red Cross has provided guidelines for interpreting and applying these treaties concerning terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Safeguarding the rights of terrorism suspects within the framework of international law entails navigating through several central challenges and dilemmas, each with its unique set of complexities. The absence of a universally agreed-upon definition for terrorism and terrorism suspects in international law leads to varying approaches and criteria adopted by different States and regions.[13] This lack of consensus creates uncertainty and inconsistency in identifying, prosecuting, and determining the rights and obligations of terrorism suspects within the framework of international law.

States bear the responsibility to protect their citizens and territory from terrorist threats while collaborating with other nations and international organizations. Striking the right balance between security and human rights proves challenging. Counter-terrorism measures must not infringe upon human rights or the rule of law to maintain credibility and effectiveness. Achieving this balance requires careful assessment, proportionality in implementing measures, and the establishment of robust oversight and accountability mechanisms.

Effectively countering terrorism demands a comprehensive and coordinated response across national, regional, and international levels, involving various sectors like law enforcement, intelligence, judiciary, military, diplomacy, development, and human rights. However, cooperation and coordination encounter obstacles such as conflicting interests, legal obligations, lack of trust, transparency issues, and resource constraints. Additionally, human rights concerns arise, including sharing information obtained through torture, inadequate safeguards in the transfer or extradition of terrorism suspects, and insufficient access and protection for humanitarian workers and human rights defenders.


Addressing the treatment of terrorism suspects and ensuring the right to a fair trial is a involving international law, human rights, national security, and political considerations. Noteworthy instances include the cases of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Omar Khadr, and David Hicks, all apprehended by the United States and held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, under diverse legal frameworks and circumstances.

  • Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, a Pakistani terrorist and alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, faced capture in 2003, enduring torture and CIA interrogation. Despite pleading guilty to war crimes in 2010 before a military commission, his conviction was overturned in 2015, prompting a pending retrial while he remains in Guantanamo Bay.
  • Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen detained at the age of 15 in Afghanistan in 2002, was accused of killing a US soldier with a grenade. Spending a decade in Guantanamo Bay and facing interrogation by both US and Canadian authorities, he pleaded guilty to war crimes in 2010. Transferred to Canada in 2012, he later contested his confession, sued the Canadian government, and received a $10.5 million settlement with an apology in 2017.
  • David Hicks, an Australian who attended al-Qaeda’s training camp, was captured in 2002, held in Guantanamo Bay for five years, and pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism in 2007. Transferred to Australia in 2007, he completed his sentence in 2008, with his conviction overturned in 2015.

These cases highlight the complexities and achievements in handling terrorism suspects and ensuring fair trials, revealing challenges such as the use of torture, secret evidence, and specialized courts that may infringe upon due process and human dignity. They also highlight the role of international and regional human rights mechanisms in scrutinizing the legality and fairness of detention and trial procedures. Furthermore, the influence of public opinion, media coverage, and political pressure on the treatment and trial outcomes, as well as the cooperation and conflicts among different states and jurisdictions in the transfer, repatriation, and compensation of suspects, is evident.

Some cases that show the legal and factual issues arising in the prosecution of terrorism suspects are:


The right to a fair trial is a crucial element of the rule of law and an essential human right that must be upheld for everyone, including those suspected of terrorism. In the fight against terrorism, countries have a responsibility to hold terrorists accountable for their actions while ensuring due process and respecting the dignity of the accused. However, as discussed in this article, there are numerous challenges in seeking justice for terrorism-related offenses. These measures can jeopardize the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, the presumption of innocence, the right to a public hearing, the right to legal counsel, and the right to an effective remedy.

To counter challenges, it is suggested that countries adopt an approach to counter-terrorism that is rooted in human rights principles. This entails ensuring that any measures taken are lawful, necessary, proportionate, and subject to judicial oversight and public scrutiny. Additionally, countries should adhere to international and regional standards and guidelines for the treatment of terrorism suspects, such as the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, the UN Guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors, the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, and the UN Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power. Furthermore, cooperation with international and regional human rights mechanisms, such as the UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, the UN Human Rights Committee, the European Court of Human Rights, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, is crucial for ensuring accountability and transparency in the administration of justice for terrorism suspects.

By upholding the human rights of terrorism suspects, countries can not only reinforce the rule of law and democratic values but also mitigate the risk of further radicalization and violence fuelled by perceptions of injustice and discrimination. As emphasized by the UN Secretary-General, “human rights are an intrinsic part of the solution” to the global threat of terrorism.


  1. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, (2012), Fair trial and due process in the counter-terrorism Context, (Accessed: January 26, 2024), https://www.ohchr.org/en/stories/2012/07/fair-trial-and-due-process-counter-terrorism-context
  2. Encyclopedia.com, Treatment Of Suspected Terrorists, (Accessed: January 27, 2024), https://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/treatment-suspected-terrorists
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  5. Justice Anthony Whealy, British Institute of International and Comparative Law, (2010), Terrorism and the Right to a Fair Trial Can the Law Stop Terrorism? A Comparative, (Accessed: January 27, 2024), Analysis https://www.biicl.org/files/5038_terrorism_and_the_right_to_a_fair_trial__2_.pdf
  6. Justice, N. Kotiswar Singh, National Judicial Academy, India, Laws Relating to Terrorism Cases, (Accessed: January 27, 2024), https://nja.gov.in/Concluded_Programmes/2019-20/P-1170_PPTs/5.%20Laws%20relating%20to%20terrorism%20trials.pdf
  7. Matt Apuzzo, The New York Times, (2015), Guantánamo Conviction of Australian Is Overturned, (Accessed: January 27, 2024), https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/us/guantanamo-conviction-of-australian-is-overturned.html?mabReward=R5&src=rec&recp=2
  8. Jane Lee, The Age, (2015), US admission marks ‘beginning of the end’ for David Hicks, (Accessed: January 27, 2024), https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/us-admission-marks-beginning-of-the-end-for-david-hicks-20150123-12wkzy.html
  9. CBC, (2013), Omar Khadr explains war-crimes guilty pleas in court filing, (Accessed: January 27, 2024), https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/omar-khadr-explains-war-crimes-guilty-pleas-in-court-filing-1.2463558
  10. Michelle Shephard, Toronto Star, (2013), Omar Khadr: No memory of firefight in Afghanistan, (Accessed: January 27, 2024), https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/omar-khadr-no-memory-of-firefight-in-afghanistan/article_9401adee-7b01-563c-a4c2-fde70594ee35.html
  11. John Paul, CBC News, (2017), Government formally apologizes to Omar Khadr, as Andrew Scheer condemns ‘disgusting’ payout, (Accessed: January 27, 2024), https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/cabinet-explain-omar-khadr-settlement-1.4194467
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  15. Carol Rosenberg, The New York Times, (2019), Trial for Men Accused of Plotting 9/11 Attacks Is Set for 2021, (Accessed: January 27, 2024), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/30/us/politics/sept-11-trial-guantanamo-bay.html
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  17. Ogechi Joy Anwukah, GGU Law Digital Commons, (2016), The Effectiveness of International Law: Torture and Counterterrorism, (Accessed: January 28, 2024), https://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1193&context=annlsurvey
  18. Tim Stephens, UNSW Law Journal, (2017), International Criminal Law and the Response to International Terrorism, (Accessed: January 28, 2024), https://www.unswlawjournal.unsw.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/27-2-4.pdf

[1] Derogation in times of public emergency, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, (July 2018), https://www.unodc.org/e4j/en/terrorism/module-7/key-issues/derogation-during-public-emergency.html

[2] International Humanitarian Law: Answers to Your Questions, International Committee of the Red Cross, (last visited: January 27, 2024), https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/icrc-002-0703.pdf

[3] Davor Derencinovic, Anna-Maria Getos, Cooperation of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in prevention and suppression of terrorism, CAIRN, (2007), https://www.cairn.info/revue-internationale-de-droit-penal-2007-1-page-79.htm

[4] General Principles of a Fair Trial Applicable in all Stages, Chhattisgarh State Judicial Academy, (last visited: January 28, 2024), https://csja.gov.in/images/p1198/session_4.pdf

[5] Human Rights Best Practices Relating to Criminal Justice in a Nutshell, National Human Rights Commission, (last visited: January 28, 2024), https://nhrc.nic.in/sites/default/files/CriminalJustice.pdf

[6] Article 3: Freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, Equality and Human Rights Commission, (last visited: January 28, 2024), https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/human-rights/human-rights-act/article-3-freedom-torture-and-inhuman-or-degrading-treatment

[7] The Right to Privacy and Family Life, Iceland Human Rights Centre, (last visited: January 28, 2024), https://www.humanrights.is/en/human-rights-education-project/human-rights-concepts-ideas-and-fora/substantive-human-rights/the-right-to-privacy-and-family-life#:~:text=Article%2012%20UDHR%20and%20Article,against%20such%20interference%20or%20attacks.

[8] Freedom of assembly and of association, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, (last visited: January 28, 2024), https://www.ohchr.org/en/topic/freedom-assembly-and-association#:~:text=The%20right%20to%20freedom%20of%20peaceful%20assembly%20and%20association%20is,Universal%20Declaration%20of%20Human%20Rights.

[9] Letta Tayler and Elisa Epstein, Legacy of the “Dark Side”, Human Rights Watch, (January 9, 2022), https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/01/09/legacy-dark-side

[10] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, (last visited: January 28, 2024), https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/international-covenant-civil-and-political-rights

[11] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, (last visited: January 28, 2024), https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/convention-against-torture-and-other-cruel-inhuman-or-degrading

[12] The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols, International Committee of the Red Cross, (October 29, 2010), https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/war-and-law/treaties-customary-law/geneva-conventions/overview-geneva-conventions.htm

[13] Module 4: Criminal Justice Responses to Terrorism, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, (July 2018), https://www.unodc.org/e4j/en/terrorism/module-4/key-issues/defining-terrorism.html

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