ASIO steps up surveillance of activists

November 10, 2006

The October release of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation's (ASIO) annual report reveals that it is concentrating in great detail on protest actions, even small ones.

While monitoring "politically motivated violence" is one of ASIO's jobs, something it uses to justify its extraordinary eavesdropping and surveillance powers, what is surprising is its application of this definition to small-sized protests. Also making interesting reading is the release of details of which protests it has covered.

"Protests spanning three days in connection with the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Sydney saw protestors push down security fences, force the closure of several ANZ Bank branches and engage in several confrontations with police", the report notes. In August 2005, Forbes Magazine editor-in-chief Steve Forbes hosted 350 of the most powerful CEOs in the world. Protests were held at the Sydney Opera House.

The report added that, "ASIO also worked with overseas liaison partners in connection with transnational trends in violent protest activity". This presumably is a reference to Britain's MI5 and Special Branch, and the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).

It is difficult to see how the Forbes protest, which police estimated involved 500 people, became a legitimate target for ASIO's extensive powers and resources.

The report failed to mention that no serious charges were laid against any of the protestors, who were kept some distance away from the Opera House by barbed wire and concrete "security" fencing. Neither did it mention that the serious violence was generated by the police.

Many of the charges first brought against protesters were later withdrawn because the police failed to provide the evidence. Other charges were withdrawn following representations to the effect that it would not be in the public interest for the prosecution to proceed. In one of these cases, the arrest of the accused was unlawful.

One small section of the fence was broken; police later conceded that the primary reason it had been pushed over was its weak construction. Consequently, police agreed to replace a serious charge with a minor one of damaging property.

All those who allegedly engaged in "politically motivated violence" were only convicted of minor offences and received either a 12-month good behaviour bond, or had their charges withdrawn because of a lack of evidence.

The report also failed to mention the huge number of assigned police. ABC reporter, Hamish Fitzimmons, reporting live from the Opera House said at one point that, "there's at least one policeman for every protester here". He later reported that, "We've just seen a charge by about a dozen or up to 20 mounted police into one section of the crowd". One protestor suffered a dislocated shoulder as a result, and was carried away by ambulance.

Other protests cited by the ASIO report included those at "Australian Defence Force recruitment stalls at universities in Queensland and Victoria" this year.

Meanwhile, Scott Parkin, the US protester who was deported from Australia last year following ASIO's negative security assessment which led to his visa being revoked, welcomed the Federal Court ruling on November 3 against the federal government's attempts to withhold documents relating to ASIO's assessment. Speaking from San Francisco, Parkin told ABC radio in Melbourne that he was "very happy that the judge, Justice Sundberg, handed this [decision] down ... it's helping give me an opportunity to clear my name."

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