Between June 22 and June 26, Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers, acting on warrants issued by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), raided 10 homes in Sydney and Melbourne, allegedly to disrupt the activities of an Islamic group whose members were secretly bugged discussing the possibility of carrying out terrorist attacks in Australia.
AFP commissioner Mick Keelty's claim that terrorist activity had been thwarted by the raids, however, was contradicted by federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, who insisted that the raids weren't about making arrests, but about gaining information.
The June 28 Sydney Morning Herald reported that "police say the raids were designed to deter suspects 'from taking the next step'. 'It's rattling the cages at this stage', a senior federal source said."
There has been angry criticism of the raids from many quarters. "Claims that the raids are about deterring people, rather than collecting evidence highlight the danger of these powers", commented Greens Senator Kerry Nettle in a June 28 media release. "The police and ASIO should not be able to enter people's homes and force them to answer questions without some evidence of wrongdoing."
Former Coalition PM Malcolm Fraser accused the federal Coalition government of fostering a fear of terrorist attacks, and turning ASIO into a "secret police".
The most scathing criticism came from Robert Stary, a criminal lawyer representing three people who were subjected to the search and seizure raids in Melbourne. He pointed to the "cowardly" leaking of information: Media reports of the June 22 raids published specific details, citing police and intelligence sources. Stary told ABC Radio's PM program on June 28 that a photographer was able to identify a house belonging to one of those said to be a "terrorist" suspect with the assistance of an AFP officer. "It appears that a number of journalists have been backgrounded, and they appear to be News Limited journalists", said Stary.
"The person was identified as being a terrorist suspect... His neighbours were interviewed by members of the press, his premises were identified, and he was not permitted, and is not permitted, to say anything that arises out of any warrant that may or may not have been issued."
Liberty Victoria president Brian Walters told the June 28 Melbourne Age: "I think demonising people who can't defend themselves is the cowardly tactic of the totalitarian state, and quite contrary to all our traditions of democracy. If there is any integrity and genuineness to this investigation it would be kept confidential or someone would be charged. In the absence of that, this is just a McCarthyist witch-hunt."
Walters said that information leading to several media reports on the raids had come "gift-wrapped" from Ruddock's staff.
When they were passed by parliament in June 2003, ASIO's new powers to question and detain people suspected of involvement in terrorist activities were given a three-year sunset clause.
A parliamentary joint committee on ASIO is reviewing the operation of the legislation and the future of the sunset clause. It is due to report in January.
Could it be that this series of raids, along with the information leaks that were given wide publicity by the Murdoch press, were designed to convince a sceptical public that there is still a real and imminent threat of terrorist attack in Australia — thus enabling PM John Howard's government to ensure that the parliamentary committee recommends extending ASIO's new powers well beyond June 2006?
Outgoing ASIO director-general Dennis Richardson has put the case that the questioning and detention powers should become "a permanent part of the suite of counter-terrorism laws" on the grounds that the new powers have not been abused.
Under the provisions of the anti-terrorism laws, only eight questioning warrants and no detention warrants have been issued. Supporters of the laws argue that this proves they are being used responsibly and only as a measure of last resort. Yet the fact that they have not been found necessary is also an argument to abolish the powers.
The Melbourne Age's June 10 editorial pointed out that the presence of the sunset clause "may well have deterred ASIO from abusing its new powers".
While the powers of questioning have rarely been used, there is anecdotal evidence that the threat to use them has invoked by ASIO to coerce people to cooperate with the secret-police agency.
In a June 6 submission to the joint parliamentary committee reviewing ASIO's powers, Waleed Khadous from the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Activist Network explained: "With the fear and paranoia that has been generated in the community about the scope and extent of the anti-terrorism laws, members of the community are often alarmed when contacted by ASIO. In such circumstances, they are often reluctant to talk to ASIO officers.
"Anecdotally, the officers explain that they can force cooperation by obtaining a questioning or detention warrant, which, combined with the operation of s 34JBA, which allows a person's passport to be seized during the period of the warrant, is a potent method of coercing persons to cooperate."
Khadous gave one example of a woman who had been contacted by ASIO: "They ask her some questions. The first few she answers but, as the questions go on, they become offensive to her. They ask her if she knows anyone who is a member of a terrorist organisation. They ask her if members of her family belong to terrorist organisations. Resenting the accusations, she becomes angry and refuses to answer. ASIO tell her that they can take steps to force her to answer. She, in anger, says, 'Do your best'. She is surprised to find that when she goes to travel, her passport has been revoked."
Walters argues that the anti-terror laws introduced after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US are an assault on civil liberties. He told the June 28 Age: "I'm concerned that under these laws, people who are not suspected of any offence can be dragged into questioning for up to 168 hours, gagged from telling others what they've undergone, their lawyers are similarly gagged and yet ASIO and the AFP feel absolutely at liberty to publicly attack them when they can't respond." People who break the gag can be jailed for five years.
Walters said that the laws had not improved security "one iota" and should be immediately repealed.
From Green Left Weekly, July 6, 2005.
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