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Among the big comfy leather chairs of State Parliament in Macquarie Street, Sydney, the Federal Senate accepted submissions on the Anti-Terrorism Bill 2004 (Cth) today, Friday 30 April 2004. Dale Mills went along to find out more.
If you ever find yourself visiting Sydney and at a loose end down the Circular Quay end of Macquarie Street, pop in to the State Parliament where, once you have cleared security, you can settle down with a nice cup of tea and a cake with the cheapest prices in the CBD. And the leather chairs are very comfy.
My reason for being there was more serious, of course. It was to sit in the public section of a small room where half a dozen Federal Government senators were listening to submissions on the Anti-Terrorism Bill currently before Parliament. After getting a small thrill of being aloud straight in without challenge (while the Federal Police Commission, Mick Keelty, had to explain who he was) the hearing concentrated on the fine details of the Bill.
The Anti-Terrorism Bill is the latest in a growing list of new powers for the government to deal with ‘terrorism.’ Already, ASIO can hold you for a week, even if they don’t think you have done anything. And this has been combined with a raft of state legislation. Just last week, a new Bill was introduced into the Queensland Parliament. Along with some other states (NSW, Victoria) the police are given more powers than ever before. The new laws too are not gathering dust: in the last month two young men, Faheem Khalid Lodhi was charged with preparing a terrorist act and Izhar Ul Haque was trained with doing some basic training with Lashkar-e-Toiba.
The Anti-Terrorism Bill 2004 is a general ‘toughening up’ Bill with significant new amendments to Australian law.
Significantly, the Bill proposes that receiving train
ing from a terrorist organization should become an offence which will incur a maximum penalty of 25 years imprisonment (cl. 102.5). The wording of the Bill is extremely wide. It is unclear what exactly amounts to ‘training’ and although the obvious implication is that it refers to ‘military training’, this is not spelt out in the Bill.
Will receiving first aid training, computer training, or learning another language from a ‘terrorist organization’ result in an offence which could land you in prison for 25 years ? A plain reading of the Bill makes that a likely event. This might seem a bit far-fetched, another example of left-wing bias, but history shows that at times of national hysteria, such absurdities do occur. Also, it is no defense to a bad law to say that it won’t be used in a silly way.
What is a terrorist organization ? It is certainly one of the organizations that the government has on its special list of terrorist organizations, but the Bill also allows for new ‘terrorist organization’ to be added on a case by case basis. That is, any organization can be said by the prosecution to be a ‘terrorist’ organization, and it can bring to court evidence to show that this is the case. This seems to allow massive discretion to the courts as well as to the prosecution and the government (by revealing ‘intelligence information’) as to what is and what is not ‘terrorist’. It makes it impossible to know beforehand with certainty what organizations are ‘terrorist.’
Similarly, membership of such an organization becomes an offence even if you didn’t think it was terrorist. In the language of the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill, the new laws would remove ‘the requirement that an organization must be specified in regulations in order for the membership offence to apply....as a result, a person may be guilty of the offence of being a member of an organization that is found by a court to be a terrorist organization (and where that organization is not listed in regulations as being a terrorist organization) on the basis of facts presented in the court at the trial.”
This is a particular problem with national liberation struggles and those people who support them. History has many examples of where the ‘terrorist organizations’ of yesterday becoming the governments of tomorrow. What was the government of East Timor before 1999 ? And what would have been the status of groups in Australia which supported those people ? Solidarity groups in Australia would have to step very carefully.
Further provisions include amendments to the Crimes Act 1914 to extend the fixed investigation period applying to federal terrorism offences to 20 hours, but in addition to that there would be additions of ‘dead time’, such as consultations with lawyers and with foreign intelligence agencies around the world. This last point alone can add 23 hours to the detention period.
Other changes include the Crimes (Foreign Incursions and Recruitment) Act 1978 to make foreign incursion offences more stringent; the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to increase restrictions on commercial exploitation (such as authoring books) by persons who have committed indictable offences in other countries. Note, not even terrorist, but indictable offences.
After two hours of listening to submissions, somehow the cakes and tea weren’t so inviting after all. Still, I can look forward to the next few weeks where the Anti-Terrorism Bill will raise its head again when it is discussed in the Senate.