Woolly Days attended a public meeting this evening. The meeting theme was "ANTI TERROR LAWS - SILENCING DISSENT AND ATTACKING OUR RIGHTS" and was held at the CPEU headquarters at 41 Peel Street South Brisbane. The meeting was held to commemorate the first anniversary of the passing of Australia’s latest draconian anti-terrorist legislation, the Commonwealth Anti-Terrorism Act 2005(Revised). About 30 to 40 people attended and the following is my notes of what the speakers said. I apologise in advance if I have in any way misrepresented their opinions.
There were four speakers, Michael Cope (president of the Qld Council of Civil Liberties), Sasha Jesperson from Amnesty International Australia, Andrew Bartlett, Qld Democrat senator and Salim Al Beraby (spelling may not be accurate) a Muslim youth activist.
Cope spoke first. He mentioned that not many decisions have yet come to court as a result of the new legislation. But the legislation does not stand up on the basis on constitutional, common and international law. There are inadequate safeguards. Control orders can last for 12 months and then be rolled over. There is no evidence that the previous laws were deficient. The new laws create an unjust system of arbitrary detention and may have precisely the opposite affect as intended. It will increase paranoia and hostility in those who believe the laws are aimed at them and may lead to recruitment to terrorism.
The government has consistently failed to demonstrate the need for the legislation. In the US the odds of dying from terrorism are 1 in 88,000. The chances of a ladder falling on you are 1 in 10,000. Car crashes kill 15 times more Americans that terrorism. The laws are based on fear and the strength of the legislation is not appropriate to the risk. People may be deprived of their liberties on the basis of what they might know. The presumption of innocence does not apply. The laws undermine fairness, reduce the capacity of the right to a proper defence. Convictions can be based on what the accused might know and it is entirely probable that innocent people will be incarcerated.
As well as the detention orders, the act has provision for control orders. Jack Thomas is subject to a control order despite being was cleared of all charges by a court. His contest against the order comes up in the New Year. Victorian Court of Appeals threw out the case against him based on a forced confession. The control order was obtained by Federal Police and ASIO on the balance of probability that Thomas might do something. The orders allow government exclude lawyers seeing prosecution evidence on nebulously defined security grounds.
The Federal law is mirrored in legislation in each of the states. Peter Beattie made an undertaking to parliament and the Council for Civil Liberties that the law would be reviewed this calendar year but that has not happened yet. The Qld legislation is stronger than the Victorian and ACT equivalents in that it allows police to issue a detention order not just a judge. This allows police to act as judge and jury. The law is ambiguously worded and it is not certain whether defendants have the right to cross-examine witnesses. Qld defendants are not entitled to legal aid either. It also requires every conversation between defendant and lawyer to be recorded and monitored by a police officer. The standard of proof should be ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ not ‘balance of probabilities’ as it is now.
The sedition provisions were the subject of an enquiry by the law reform commission. However Attorney-General Philip Ruddock rejected the recommended changes. The law should not criminalise expressions of support for terrorist organisations. Ruddock has also obfuscated on the issue of obtaining evidence under torture and declared sleep deprivation not to be torture.
The English House of Lords declared torture to be illegal in common law as far back as 1628 when the Duke of Buckingham was assassinated by John Felton. Felton was threatened with the rack but King Charles I asked the opinion of the courts who found against torture. Torture spreads like an infectious disease hardening and brutalising its users. The writ of habeas corpus is a touchstone of English legal principles and Howard’s government claims to the inheritor of these principles. When confronted by the UN Declaration of Human Rights article 3 “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html Ruddock would only accede to the right to life and security but left out the liberty. The UNDHR was written by those fighting Hitler in World War II. These new laws elevate Osama to a status he does not deserve. Cope concluded his speech by saying the price of these laws is the violation of freedom.
Sasha Jesperson from AI spoke next. She stated that AI condemned the new laws and saw them as part of a global pattern of secret detentions, extraordinary renditions and house arrests in many jurisdictions of the world. ASIO has over 40 new powers as a result of recent law changes. There are no safeguards and the control orders amount effectively to house arrest. The laws could be interpreted as including political and industrial action in their gamut. If involved in the training for a terrorist activity it is a 25 year sentence. If the person does not realise the training is for terrorist purposes but acts ‘recklessly’ to continue, it is also a serious offence. The Attorney-General has the power to ban political organisations which disallows people from membership, raising funds and freedom of association. It may be unconstitutional as the High Courts showed when they struck down the ban on the Australian Communist Party. ASIO can hold any person over 16 years without charge for up to seven days. The person cannot reveal ASIO’s involvement for 2 weeks or if an operational matter for 2 years. The person is not entitled to a lawyer of his or her choice, and is subject to change. Jack Thomas, the control order victim is only allowed to use a mobile phone given to him by police and is not allowed to use the internet for 12 months. Human rights laws are not an optional extra during times of international terror.
AI commission Roy Morgan Research who found that 95% of people think that human rights are important but only 31% thought the anti-terror laws affected them. It is not true. The anti-terror hotline gets 300 calls a day that are passed through to ASIO. Jessica Moore, the Wollongong Uni student activist was contacted by police to say she was being investigated as a Hamas supporter after she attended a political meeting about homophobia. Jesperson concluded her speech by saying Moore thought the whole issue was absurd but lawyers are advising her (Moore) to take the matter very seriously.
Andrew Bartlett spoke next. He wanted to put the issue in a political, legal and social context. It is important to note how government behaves to avoid scrutiny of their new powers. There is only one parliamentary committee charged with holding ASIO to account. That is the Joint Standing Committee on intelligence and security. There are no minor party reps on this committee and most of its work is done in camera. However in the two public reports it has produced recently, Labor heavyweight Robert Ray has complained that the committee is not getting the information it needs from either ASIO or the government. There is no justification provided as to why Hezbollah and the PKK (Kurdish party in Turkey) are proscribed organisations. ASIO are not following their own guidelines, a trend which is deeply worrying.
The wider problem is that the precedents in the anti-terrorism act spreads to other legislation. The recent environment law allowed for powers of strip searching and seven day detention without charge. It is aimed at illegal fishing but it done so that the fisheries management act is in line with the migration act. The migration act also has mandatory sentencing provisions. The government are constantly arguing why these types of changes are justified. These are political arguments which are why issues such as due process for David Hicks and Nauru solutions are so important. The visa of US peace activist Scott Parkin was cancelled and he was imprisoned pending deportation. Government officials refused to explain to Parkin or his lawyers the basis for re-assessing his status.
Meanwhile a refugee was detained for five years due to a security assessment that was based on false identity. The refugee was unable to challenge because he was never able to see the evidence against him. The government also practice vilification against Jack Thomas while Ruddock continues to slander David Hicks. They build public support through the media and use labels to great effect including calling indigenous leaders “terrorists” when they respond to issues of black injustice.
Pine Gap protesters have been arrested and charged with obscure 1952 legislation brought in during the Cold War. If found guilty they face seven years’ prison. Then there are the recent changes to the Electoral Act to close the rolls on the day the election is called. This deliberately disenfranchises transient people. There is a link to the new proposed citizenship test which has the rationale of ‘weeding out the undesirables’. Another example of the government squashing dissent was the recent refusal to issue a visa for a member of the Tipton Three when he wanted to come here to promote the film "The Road to Guantanamo". The government is self-serving, dodgy and has shown contempt for due process. They treat the committees with contempt because they can get away with it and there is hardly anything anyone can do about it. Bartlett concluded by saying the only thing people can do is to either vote them out of power or at least restore balance to the Senate.
Salim Al Beraby spoke last. She gave her experiences as Lebanese born Muslim migrant to Australia. She pointed out Health Minister Tony Abbott’s speech about culture shock that Muslim must feel in Australia as well as the uneasiness felt by Australian seen Muslims wearing burqas. Al Beraby said she didn’t encounter culture shock as being Australian meant the freedom to wear what she wanted and if that Abbott was shocked he needs to get out and meet some Muslims to understand why they wear the veil. But since the new laws were enacted she worries about how people view her. She met the Attorney-General and asked him ‘what does terrorism mean to you?’ He got angry when she compared Western soldiers killing Iraqis to the way the law treats people here. She finished by saying it would appear to be ok to kill in Iraq but not in Australia.