As the government considers escalating troop numbers in Iraq, it has pushed on with its anti-terror crusade at home. The second of three counter-terrorism bills—the Foreign Fighters Bill—was waved through the Senate on 29 October by both major parties. The new laws make it illegal to travel to “declared zones” considered to be areas of terrorist activity. They also make it illegal to “advocate terrorism”. A raft of other nasty amendments lower the thresholds for police to arrest, detain and apply control orders to civilians.
By declaring no-go zones, the government intends to prevent more Australians from travelling to Iraq and Syria to fight with Islamic State (IS). This offence carries a maximum penalty of ten years’ jail. Phillip Boulten of the Law Council of Australia explained, “All that needs to be proved…is that you actually are in the area. There is no need to show that you’ve gone there to do something illegal, let alone gone there with an intention to advance any terrorism act”.
It will be up to the accused to show evidence that their travel was justified, based on a limited list of reasons, thereby reversing the onus of proof. Valid reasons include professional journalism, humanitarian activity, family related activity and military deployment, but not visiting friends, commercial activity, or religious reasons.
Targeting people travelling to areas in Iraq and Syria will encourage a further escalation of Islamophobic and anti-Arab racism. Racial profiling and the detention of people at airports will increase. Anyone can now be held at the airport for four hours without the right to tell a family member (increased from 45 minutes). And the government no longer has to notify someone whose passport has been cancelled.
The new offence of advocating terrorism carries a maximum of five years’ prison. Inciting terrorism is already illegal. “Advocates” is broadly defined as anything that “counsels, promotes, encourages or urges” terrorism.
Abbott has made no secret of the fact he wants to ban the organisation Hizb-ut Tahrir, telling radio shock-jock Alan Jones that “We’ve looked at banning them, but we’re advised, under existing law, we can’t do it. …hopefully before the end of the year, it will be an offence to promote terrorism… Then I suppose we need to have another look at Hizb-ut Tahrir”.
Hizb-ut Tahrir is a political organisation with Islamic ideology, which aims to establish an Islamic caliphate. It has been banned from speaking at events on three separate universities in recent months. Abbott has made much of the fact that its spokespeople refuse to publicly condemn IS. But the group is nothing like IS, and does not condone its actions. Rather, it is a non-violent organisation that aims for an Islamic society by slowly winning public opinion over to an Islamic viewpoint.
But their strident condemnation of Western imperialism, the new invasion of Iraq, and the terror raids has made them a target. The potential targets of the law are much wider, including many other critics of Australian foreign policy. Philip Boulton argues it will also “catch people who are ahead of public opinion”, for example West Papuans in favour of overturning Indonesian rule, or supporters of the Kurdish liberation fighters of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).
The second bill is the biggest of the three, but only eight days were given for submissions to be made. But the haste with which the first bill was passed has caused a public backlash.
The bill made it an offence punishable by five years’ imprisonment to disclose information about ASIO Special Intelligence Operations, leading to fears journalists could be targeted. Attorney General George Brandis said not to worry, as he would personally have the power to veto prosecutions of journalists. Just trust George.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten, after tripping over himself to help pass the laws, has now weakly requested a review to make sure they do not undermine democratic rights. Nothing could be more pathetic. A review cannot fix laws which are designed to intimidate whistleblowers and restrict freedom of speech. The fact that Abbott has agreed to the review says it all.
The final tranche of anti-terror laws, which require telecommunications companies to retain their users’ metadata for two years, have been introduced to parliament but are not expected to pass until next year.
Australia already has the most extensive anti-terror laws of any Western democracy, and they have now been ratcheted up to unprecedented levels. These laws will protect a racist police force and an unaccountable ASIO, but not the rest of us.
By Erima Dall