Mon Dec 5, 1:34 AM ET
The Australian parliament is poised to adopt new counter-terrorism laws, despite a last-minute warning from the country’s leading jurists group that the legislation is “as terrifying as terrorism itself”.
The bill, which allows for the secret preventive detention of terrorist suspects for up to two weeks and permits authorities to impose controls on suspects, including electronic shackles, for up to 12 months, went before the Senate Monday.
It was expected to pass quickly as the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard controls the chamber.
The lower House of Representatives adopted the legislation last week after government deputies gagged debate and prevented opposition attempts to amend the bill.
In addition to provisions for preventive detention, the bill broadens the little-used offence of sedition so it attracts a seven-year jail term for threatening the “peace, order and good government of the commonwealth”.
The government defends the legislation as needed to combat the threat from Muslim militants who have singled out Australia, a close ally of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a key target for attack.
Australian police last month arrested 18 Muslim men in Melbourne and Sydney for allegedly plotting a major bombing and the country’s top intelligence agency has said it believes other Islamic extremists are still active here.
But the Law Council of Australia, which groups lawyers’ societies and bar associations from Australia’s eight states and territories, warned Monday that the new legislation goes too far.
In full-page advertisements published in major newspapers, the council said the government was “using the threat of terrorism to introduce laws that put our most basic civil liberties under threat”.
“The ramifications have the potential to be as terrifying as terrorism itself,” read the ad, which included an open letter appealing to Howard to withdraw the legislation.
The president of the Law Council, John North, said Australia’s legal profession felt the law’s sedition provisions and mandatory detention and control powers were flawed.
“The problem with the control orders and the mandatory detention orders are that they allow Australians to be taken off the street and held without charge,” North said on national radio.
“There’s no amount of tinkering with those laws that can save the badness of that particular law.”
Control orders, which allow the government to track and control the movements of terrorist suspects without charges being laid against them, could be misused by a government, he said.
“It could apply to anybody that the government thinks at a particular time might be an inconvenience to them, but they still have not got the evidence with which to charge them,” he said.
North was particularly scathing about the sedition provision, which a Senate committee dominated by government members tried but failed to amend.
“This law, if you look at it very closely, not only has the ability to curb free speech on behalf of the media, but to actually stop legitimate protests and other things because of the breadth they’ve drawn the law,” he said.
Copyright © 2005 Agence France Presse
Robert S. Rodvik