Scrap the 'anti-terror' laws!

November 5, 2008

The October 23 acquittal of Jack Thomas from a terrorism charge highlights what is wrong with Australia's anti-terror laws and the way they are being applied.

It became apparent that Thomas was not a terrorist years ago. Yet he was cruelly and obsessively pursued under the terror laws by an Australian Federal Police determined to convict him regardless. An October 27 ABC Four Corners program revealed how the AFP has applied the terror laws.

At one point the AFP officers were directed to prosecute as many people as possible under the new terrorism laws in order to test out the new legislation. Four Corners revealed a culture of getting convictions at all cost in order to justify the laws.

The AFP's pursuit of Dr Mohamed Haneef under the terror laws suggested a political imperative was also driving the AFP in its application of the terror laws. Part of the AFP's motivation has been to justify their own role, as well as the vastly increased resources they have been granted to fight the so-called "war on terror".

The spotlight now thrown on the Haneef case, along with the acquittal of Thomas, has generated renewed calls for a "review" of anti-terror laws.

Liberal MP Petro Georgiou has called for the appointment of a terrorism laws reviewer. Georgiou will introduce a bill to parliament later this year.

A parliamentary inquiry into the Georgiou bill has recently been completed. It recommended a panel of three independent people be appointed to conduct a new review into the terror laws.

Attorney-General Robert McClelland tried to counter Georgiou's proposal by arguing that Ian Carnell, the inspector-general of intelligence and security (the government's ASIO watchdog), could undertake the review. But Carnell responded on September 24 that he doesn't want the job and that an independent reviewer should be appointed.

So far, Australia's terror laws have not been used against any actual terrorists. There has not been any imminent or even planned terrorist attacks prevented by these laws.

Sydney architect Faheem Lodhi was convicted in 2006 under the terror laws following a trial in which the flimsy evidence revealed no plans, materials or preparation for any terrorist act. He was convicted regardless, on the basis that he was supposedly thinking of preparing such an act.

Seven Muslim men were convicted in September of constituting a terrorist organisation. But, like Lodhi, they were convicted on the grounds that they would have carried out a terrorist act sometime in the future. There was no evidence of any attack actually in preparation.

Disgracefully, the media conveyed to the Australian public the impression that actual planned attacks on high profile targets in Melbourne had been prevented.

The unsupported allegations against the seven men came from a schizophrenic and mentally handicapped man who was castigated in the trial as an extremely unreliable witness.

The magistrate presiding over the trial, Justice Bernard Bongiorno, advised the jury that these allegations lacked credibility. But the same accusations were repeated by the media after the trial and will no doubt be repeated again when they are sentenced in November.

There is something seriously amiss with Australia's anti-terrorism laws and the way they are being used. They have been used for political purposes and to justify the role of the security agencies themselves. The laws have not been used to protect Australia from real threats.

The laws themselves violate basic standards of civil liberties. Any real planned terrorist attacks could be prevented easily using existing criminal law.

The anti-terror laws should be repealed. There must also be effective and independent oversight of security agencies such as ASIO and the AFP to prevent the abuses that have come to public attention in recent weeks in the cases of Haneef and Thomas.

[Colin Mitchell is an activist with Civil Rights Defence.]

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