New ASIO powers threaten democratic rights

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* ASIO (Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation) to get powers of arrest and detention for up to 48 hours

* the removal of the right to silence when under questioning

* the creation of terrorist offences and related legislation violating the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.

In the understandable fear generated since the September 11 attacks and with the climate of war, fundamental civil liberties are under threat.

The Federal Government, backed by Labor, has announced substantial new powers for Australia's spy agency ASIO and is proposing anti-terrorism laws that could violate basic rights and freedoms.

While the precise proposals remain sketchy. The Prime Minister has said ASIO will be able to arrest and hold people for questioning for 48 hours after obtaining a warrant from a Federal Magistrate or the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Both these bodies have been appointed by the present Federal Government, AAT members do not have the same independence and are not a judicial authority, with fixed terms and reappointment determined by the government. ASIO would move
from spy agency to secret police.

Extremely concerning is the Attorney General's statement that people arrested could face up to five years in jail for refusing to answer questions, removing people's right to silence. People could be held incommunicado with no right to a lawyer.

Following the election, legislation will be introduced based on the UK Terrorism Act 2000. This act allows the government to ban organisations and makes it an offence to be a member, attend a meeting, provide any support, indeed even wear t-shirt with the organisation's symbol. As one critic has said, support for Nelson Mandela's ANC would have been banned if these laws had been in place during the time of the anti-apartheid movement. In Australia, support for the East Timorese's independence movement could have been banned. But the laws scope is not just restricted to solidarity with overseas independence groups. The definition of terrorism is so broad that many community organisations involved in organising public protest or dissent cold be included.

If Australia adopts the European model, the scope could be even wider. The European Parliament is currently discussing new laws which would define terrorism as any offences which "aim to seriously prejudice the political, economic or social structures of a country." Such a definition might include anyone arrested at protest about the environment, corporate globalisation, native title, or asylum seekers.

The existing criminal law is adequate to address any offences which fall within any common sense definition of terrorism. Murder, serious injury, aiding and abetting or conspiracy are all charges available to police, with serious penalties attached.

The danger of these proposals is that many of the protections and principals of the criminal law will be done away with broad powers placed in the hands of an unaccountable and secret police. The need for security should not come at the price of those democratic rights that have been won through centuries of struggle.

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