The Guardian July 31, 2002


Still time to defeat ASIO Bill

by Peter Mac

On August 19 the Australian Senate will again debate the introduction of 
new legislation aimed at increasing the powers of the Australian Security 
Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). This Bill has been widely criticised as 
an attack on the civil rights of ordinary Australian citizens.

Under the Bill as currently proposed, those deemed to be terrorist 
suspects, and even those who are not suspected but whom ASIO simply wishes 
to question, could be held incommunicado for up to seven days, with no 
right to legal representation or to contact with family or friends.

Those so detained could be charged with an offence punishable by five years 
imprisonment if they resist interrogation.

Greens senator Bob Brown last month declared "The legislation is anathema 
to democracy ... Lawyers, journalists, politicians, friends and families 
who have done nothing wrong, whom the authorities do not even suspect of 
any wrong doing, can be detained just because ASIO believes they might help 
them with their investigations. The Bill turns centuries of legal principle 
on its head."

And of course there's that other legislation, which has been described as 
the "Terror" Bill, and is ostensibly intended to deal with terrorist 
offences (the Security Legislation Amendment [Terrorism] Bill). With the 
help of the ALP, this Bill has now passed into law.

Under this law, organisations may be banned by the government if the United 
Nations includes them on a list of proscribed organisations, or if an 
Australian court determines that an Australian citizen is directing an 
organisation which the court also determines is involved in terrorist 
activities..

The Government had made some amendments to it with a view to more clearly 
defining terrorism and to exempting humanitarian organisations from charges 
of treason. The ALP also managed to gain agreement that the banning of 
organisations under this law would be subject to the approval of both 
Houses of Federal Parliament.

However, as the Federation of Community Legal Centres has pointed out, the 
legislation may still be interpreted as removing the right to take 
industrial action (for example picket lines) and to organise political 
protests, by defining them as terrorist acts.

People may still be defined as terrorists simply because they are deemed to 
be a threat to the health and safety of the public, regardless of whether 
they have actually organised or carried out any terrorist act.

Not that the issue of proscription by the UN will remove the possibility of 
civil rights abuse. Despite the history of savage repression of the Kurdish 
people by the Turkish Government, one of the organisations proscribed by 
the UN is the Kurdish Workers Party.

Although the Party has now changed its name and renounced armed struggle as 
a means of resistance, the Turkish Government has banned the organisation 
and is still persecuting its members and the Kurdish people.

In another harrowing case, a group of Swedish businessmen was accused of 
involvement in terrorist activities and their organisation was proscribed 
by the UN, despite a clear lack of evidence to support the charge. The 
organisation has now managed to clear its name, but not without incurring 
heavy financial damage and enormous stress for those concerned and their 
families.

The "terror" legislation does not mention a time frame for review of the 
legislation, nor is the legislation necessarily meant to apply solely 
within Australian territory. There is no allowance for leniency if 
individuals charged under the new legislation can be demonstrated to have 
simply acted recklessly with regard to terrorist acts.

(The ALP even proposed that the legislation should include a new "thought 
crime" of "demonstrating willingness to assist a terrorist organisation". 
The Government, however, replied loftily that they were sure that the 
wording of their legislation as existing would have the same effect, and 
ALP Senate leader Jim Faulkner meekly withdrew the amendment.)

ALP parliamentarians joined with the Government in blocking amendments to 
the "Terror" Bill proposed by Greens Senators. These amendments would have 
had the effect of

* causing the legislation to expire after five years;

* protecting Australians involved in civil conflicts overseas from being 
charged with treason offences if the Australian military intervenes; and

* protecting the family and friends of such citizens from treason charges 
if they fail to inform the authorities of the involvement of the individual 
concerned.

And finally, "backdoor proscription" legislation which was passed last year 
(the "Suppression of Financing of Terrorism" law) already allows for the 
effective banning of organisations by means of the government freezing 
their assets, regardless of whether they are proscribed by the UN or not.

The assets of individuals may also be frozen under this law, which is not 
subject to due process, natural justice, parliamentary oversight or appeal 
process.

The Greens also intend to move amendments to the "backdoor proscription" 
legislation, but the success or otherwise of this passing the Senate 
depends largely on the attitude of the ALP Senators. Judging by their 
performance to date, the outlook for these amendments is not good.

There has been widespread opposition to introduction of the new "Terror" 
Bills. Many have cited the Menzies government's legislation to ban the 
Communist Party of Australia, which was rejected by the High court in 1950, 
and defeated at a referendum in 1951.

It may be that an attempt to ban an organisation would also be appellable 
as violating the Australian constitution. However, it is by no means 
certain that the outcome would be the same as in the 1950s, and in any case 
court action to determine this would impose a crippling financial burden on 
any organisation so accused.

The "Terror" Bill is now in place and will have to be defeated on the 
ground.

However, the hopes of all the left, democratic and progressive forces 
opposing the new ASIO legislation have been somewhat buoyed by their 
victory last month with the defeat of legislation which would have made it 
legal for the authorities to spy on e-mail, SMS and voice-mail messages.

That Bill was opposed by all the non-government parties, and rather than 
face defeat in the Senate the Government eventually did a humiliating 
about-face and voted against its own legislation.

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