Australia’s government is bolstering counter-terrorism measures after Prime Minister Tony Abbott warned on Tuesday that dozens of citizens were fighting alongside the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and posed a serious threat upon their return.
Abbott said about 100 Australians were also supporting the hardline group.
Legislative proposals were put to parliament earlier this month in response to what Abbott and law enforcement agencies termed a “real and growing” threat from Australian nationals fighting in foreign conflicts.
“There are extremists fighting in Syria and in Iraq and that includes Australians,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said at a press conference.
“We are deeply concerned that this domestic security challenge will mean that Australian citizens fighting in these conflicts overseas will return to this country as hardened, home-grown terrorists who may use their experience, the skills that they have gained, to carry out an attack in this country.”
Pledging more than $557m in additional funding to intelligence and border-control agencies over the next four years, the government proposed extending police search powers, lowering thresholds for arrest without warrants, and enabling the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) to suspend passports where appropriate.
While opposition parties have reserved judgment until they see the entire bill, some of the measures outlined by the prime minister’s office were drafted into the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No 1) 2014 to be presented to parliament this week.
The Muslim community was specifically named in the prime minister’s original press release and, so far, it is the only community invited by Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis to closed-door consultation on the proposals.
ASIO chief David Irvine made a rare appearance last week on community radio station The Voice of Islam to assure Australian Muslims that the planned anti-terror laws do not target their community.
“The Australian government … is not introducing laws that specifically discriminate against members of the Australian Muslim community,” Irvine said. “It is introducing laws that will enable the police – and to a certain extent ASIO – to protect the community better against a very small number of people who would do the community harm.”
Mohamad Tabbaa, a criminology lecturer at the University of Melbourne, said the campaign conveys a message that these laws are a response to a perceived “Muslim problem”.
“In a strictly legal sense, the laws apply to all of us equally as citizens,” he said.
“The concrete experience, which is backed by research, is that discrimination occurs and laws are applied unevenly. When they are applied unevenly, regardless of what form of equality we have, substantive inequality ensues, which will mean that certain groups – in this case Muslims – will be targeted much more heavily than other groups.”
Despite the heavy focus by politicians and media, the proposals – which lack clarity and detail – could adversely affect several facets of Australian society, according to academics, activists and attorneys.
One proposed legislative measure is set to make travelling to “terror hotspots” an offence, unless the legitimacy of the trip can be proven, which could burden the logistics of humanitarian aid organisations.
A Sky News report cited a senior intelligence official’s advice that it would be prudent of Red Cross workers to consider the kind of evidence they could present to explain what they were doing in those regions.
According to International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesperson Ewan Watson, this contrasts the organisation’s ordinary operation.
“To be able to carry out its humanitarian mandate independently, confidentially and efficiently, both the ICRC and its staff enjoy functional immunity from jurisdiction, and also in Australia,” he said.
But under the proposed measures, immunity may not be so complete. David Kinley, a professor in human rights law at the University of Sydney, said that protection would end if an ICRC worker is perceived to act outside of their remit.
“The ICRC may be undertaking its humanitarian role of providing [a detainee suspected of terror associations] with food, or information concerning the possibility of them being able to communicate a message to a relative, friend or lawyer. Who’s to say that the information that’s passed between the ICRC worker and the detainee couldn’t be in some way caught up the activities of a terrorist organisation, even if unforeseen and unintended?”
Smaller NGOs are not afforded similar protections. Tamer Kahil, president of the Australians for Syria Association, an NGO that’s pushing for democracy in Syria, told Al Jazeera these measures may deter aid relief workers.
“What if they feel that the proof we have is not enough?” he asked. “It will definitely hinder every effort to go there because no one wants a finger pointed at them with questions of whether you’re a criminal or a terrorist, and having to prove otherwise.”
Under these proposed laws, the burden of proof is reversed. Instead of requiring the prosecution to establish guilt, the accused must prove their innocence and is usually denied bail, said criminal defence lawyer Robert Stary.
“You have a great risk of people who travel to any of those locations then being charged with an offence, and then having to establish their innocence, quite probably whilst they are in custody. If they’re exonerated, they get no recompense, and that will result in enormous injustice,” he said.
Journalists also have cause for concern. Promotion and encouragement of terrorism constitutes an offence under the proposals, but Diaa Hadid, an Australian reporter working in the Middle East, pointed out the need for clearer definitions.
“Is it tweeting and corresponding with suspected terrorists and members of ISIS?” she asked. “Is it conveying their points of views in stories? These are both important parts of my work.”
In the Australian state of Victoria, there was an attempt to strengthen a more strict interpretation of the country’s counter-terrorism laws. Trying to create a new precedent in common law, prosecutors presented an argument to the Supreme Court of Victoria that painted mere possession of terrorism-related publications as a punishable offence.
“The Commonwealth, to put it simply, said that it doesn’t matter when and where that act takes place; the fact of the possession means that you’re subscribing to a ‘jihadist’ ideology and therefore you’re guilty of an offence,” said Stary, who has a high profile in defending Australians charged with terrorism offences since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
His client, Adnan Karabegovic, was brought before the Supreme Court for possessing an al-Qaeda magazine called Inspire.
The court disagreed with the prosecutors and chose to apply the law as it stands, where a close link must be established between possession of an item and a contemplated terrorist act.
One of the proposals could affect every Australian who uses a computer. Currently, ASIO is required to apply for a new warrant per computer it wishes to examine, but the drafted bill would allow one warrant to access multiple computers and computer networks that a user is connected to. One section of the bill even allows ASIO to add, delete or alter data on the third-party’s computer in order to reach the target machine.
“The new laws allow spy agencies to interfere with the computer of an innocent party, or even whole networks,” said director of Civil Liberties Australia Tim Vines.
“There is no obligation in the law for spy agencies to have to try less invasive methods before applying for a warrant to disrupt an innocent third-party’s computer,” he added.
While some Australians argue that innocent parties have no cause for concern, Tabbaa said a decade of “war on terror” rhetoric has blurred the lines between international, national and domestic spheres of crime and control.
“An Australian example is the asylum seeker debate, which is not even entirely an immigration issue any more. It has become a national security issue and is closely linked to the terror threat,” he told Al Jazeera.
Some states have already picked up mechanisms meant for counter-terrorism and used those to target organised crime.
“Control orders were introduced into Australian law in 2005 to deal with terrorists. State parliaments looking at how to deal with bikies [gangs] essentially adapted and copied that anti-terror measure,” said University of New South Wales’ professor George Williams, a constitutional lawyer. “One premier, for example, said that bikies were terrorists in their communities.”
Vines expressed concern about more than just the bill’s provisions.
“Our rights and freedoms are sliced away, slowly but surely,” he said.
“We think it is time to bring our laws back to some sort of sensible position, with the community to have its say on how we can deal with terrorism while maintaining the rule of law, presumption of innocence, and right to privacy that we hold dear.”
Source: Al Jazeera