"Treason", they cry
Tim Anderson who wrote the article below, is a lecturer in political economy at Sydney University. He is painfully familiar with laws relating to terror. Tim was one of three people unjustly accused of the bombing of Sydney's Hilton Hotel at the time of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) in 1978. A bomb, which exploded inside a garbage truck that had just collected garbage from outside the hotel, killed three City Council workers. Later, suspicions were aroused that the bomb, planted in a garbage bin, had actually been an ASIO stunt intended to impress CHOGM delegates, but that no allowance had been made for the arrival of the garbage truck, which compacted the bomb and massively enhanced its explosive power. The event, however, was used by the then Liberal Government of Malcolm Fraser, to legislate more powers to ASIO. Despite clear evidence that they were innocent, Tim and two other members of the religious group Ananda Marga were convicted in 1982 and sentenced for the attempted assassination of the leader of a neo-fascist group. The prosecution deliberately associated this act with the Hilton bombing, and the assassination trial became, in effect, a trial for the Hilton outrage. In 1988 the imprisoned group was pardoned for the alleged assassination attempt and released after a judicial hearing. Tim Anderson was subsequently arrested for the Hilton bombing on the testimony of a person who claimed to have been involved in its preparation. In 1989, after a long campaign by his supporters and mounting public pressure, Anderson was again pardoned and released, having spent several terrible years in jail. The story of Tim Anderson and the other accused is testimony to their wonderful spirit, but also to the appalling results of "terror laws" used by Government authorities to frame a suspect. Understandably, Tim is now deeply concerned about the implications of the Howard Government's new terror laws.
* * *Tim writes: The Federal Government's "anti terror" laws seem to have been through an amendment process. Yet even the amended version of these new powers would represent the greatest encroachment on Australian civil rights in living memory. The new crime of a "terrorist act" would still lock up demonstrators, banning powers would still criminalise ethnic and solidarity groups, while the proposed ASIO powers now parallel the British Prevention of Terrorism Act (1975), which inflicted many miscarriages of justice on Irish people. Labor seems set to collude with the conservative Government, in this unprecedented push for repressive powers. Only the Greens and the Democrats firmly oppose these new powers. Yet what will the new powers achieve? Very little in terms of preventing terrorism, but a great deal in changing the nature of our society. Notes of caution Allow someone who was wrongly jailed as a "terrorist" in this country, over 20 years ago, to sound a few notes of caution about this apparently bi- partisan process of "terrorisation". Wars breed doublespeak, and the "war on terrorism" is no exception. Every dictator and political opportunist around the world has jumped on this bandwagon, while state agencies everywhere have scrambled to extend their powers under the guise of "national security". Criticism of these powerful agendas is then suppressed, because of the popular but mistaken belief that almost anything in the name of a "war on terrorism" might stop mad bombers, or ruthless people flying planes into buildings. Australians have been drawn into this "war" in much the same way as earlier wars. We have come to expect conservative Federal Governments to fall over themselves, in an effort to please the US Government, as they did during the Vietnam War. So the Howard Government throws troops into a dangerous Afghan operation with no clear goals, echoes George Bush"s partisan comments about Palestinians, threatens to involve Australians in aggressive US designs on Iraq, and draws up a list of unprecedented harsh powers to deny Australian citizens their basic rights. Four pillars of terrorist laws The four pillars of Howard"s domestic "terror laws" are a new crime of "treason", the new crime of a "terrorist act", the power to ban organisations and new ASIO powers. Each of these pillars has been slightly amended, after pressure from the conservative backbench. The Labor Party has said little. The "treason" offence still includes massive penalties for assisting an unspecified "enemy" in an undeclared war. Rather than being aimed at those who betray their fellow citizens, this law seems created to assure the US that Australian Governments can receive and deal with Australian citizens (such as David Hicks) who end up on the wrong side of US global operations. The new crime of a "terrorist act" still makes almost any form of political, religious or ideological bluster, threats, or property damage punishable by life imprisonment. Government members have made it clear, for example, that the demonstrators who pushed over a fence at Woomera were engaged in a "terrorist act". Any real "terrorist act" is already illegal. The real targets of these laws in Australia are not bomb throwers or assassins. The new powers in Australia will be used selectively against activist targets, marginalised groups and individuals, and racial minorities. And how have the powers to ban organisations been amended? Well, Parliament will now join with the Government in having a role to determine which political and religious groups and individuals can now legally exist. That is just about the definition of a dictatorship. Yet no real armed group gives a damn about being made illegal. The law will have no impact on them. The extensive new powers for ASIO have also been amended. Now instead of indefinite detention without charge, there is to be detention without charge for seven days. Detainees will be able to access a Law Council approved lawyer, but only after that selected lawyer has been vetted by ASIO. So much for independent legal advice. Detention without charge for up to seven days was introduced in Britain in the 1970s, and led to several famous miscarriages of justice. Ten years ago Johnny Walker came to Australia to remind us of the dangers of such laws. He was one the "Birmingham Six", wrongly jailed for 16 years on the basis of false confessions extracted under "anti-terrorist" powers. What has the Labor Party had to say about this new "war", and the attack on civil rights? John Faulkner and Daryl Melham say "there is a need for strong measures to counter the threat of terrorism", but claim they will secure some unspecified amendments. Labor has largely hidden behind the amendments of conservative backbenchers. It has resorted to its old strategy of staying quiet and letting the conservatives take the flak, then cutting a private deal to present as the "civilised" face of reform. The trouble is, several weeks and a raft of proposed amendments later, we are still facing the most repressive laws in living memory. What is worse, despite this massive threat to civil rights, the new "terror laws" will do next to nothing to prevent political violence.