Australians debate need for tougher antiterror laws

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As the Australian government readies new antiterror laws that further expand the ability to detain suspects, questions are arising about the need for new legislation when earlier laws, passed in 2003, have not been tested - at least not to public knowledge.

Under the proposed laws, those suspected of planning terrorist attacks can be held in preventive detention for up to 14 days without charge, albeit allowing for a review within 48 hours of the orders. The government is justifying the move by pointing to Britain, which is expanding this period to 90 days, while in France terror suspects can be held for up to three years.

But critics argue that Australia has not seen a terrorist attack on its own soil, and therefore question the government's need to further expand police powers. The controversy follows similar contours as the debate raging in many Western nations between civil liberties and antiterrorism measures, including the United States, where the Patriot Act is coming up for renewal.

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"The logic being used is that home-grown threats have increased ever since the London bombings and that we have had one terrorist attack a year - but the fact is that none of these attacks in Bali, Jakarta, etc., have occurred in Australia, so the premise being used is false," says Aldo Borgu, the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

The urgency to push the new laws through by Christmas this year is being questioned as well. The government has expressed concern about the increased terror threat of the holiday season and the upcoming Commonwealth games.

In a sudden twist, Prime Minister John Howard revealed Wednesday that he had received information about plans for a terrorist attack just this week - though Australia's medium security alert remained unchanged.

"I do not intend, and can not go into any of the operational details. We have seen material, it is a cause for concern," Mr. Howard said. He added that it was imperative to pass one amendment to existing legislation relating to the definition of a terrorist act immediately, which will allow authorities to deal with the threat.

This event could buoy the government's hopes for a quick passage of the new antiterror bill. But, according to experts, it wasn't the prime minister who initiated this new bill. After London's July attacks, it was the state premiers who clamored for more antiterror laws and it was Howard who finally gave in, says Hugh White, a professor at the Australian National University.

Now, unable to retract, the premiers appear to generally support the new laws, with a few exceptions.

Mr. White says that the government seems to imply that under current legislation, it is powerless to apprehend those who are planning terrorist attacks. "But that's just not true - under current law anyone found to be a member of a terrorist organization or found planning an attack can be arrested on criminal grounds," he explains.

Canberra is likely to dump a controversial shoot-to-kill provision.

"The fact is that it is silly for the PM to raise the shoot-to-kill in the first place as under existing criminal law, the police have the right to use lethal force to save lives. So why introduce another such law?" asks a perplexed Mr. Borgu.

Other details have also proven controversial. Under the new legislation, a detainee is restricted to informing only one person about their predicament. However, after discussion in parliament, an exception has been made for detainees 16 and under where it is now permissible that one parent is allowed to tell the other about the situation.

Individuals can also be jailed for up to seven years for broadcasting comments judged to incite violence against troops overseas or against individuals in this country.

"There is a strong fear among the Muslims here that it will forever gag the Islamic population and severely affect their visibility in the community," says Keysar Trad of the Islamic Friendship Association.

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