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Frank Walker
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Counter-terrorism laws

28/10/2009

Anything to do with terrorism gets our attention. It’s hard not to be affected by the numerous reports of terrorist attacks and threats of attacks across the globe. Even scarier are the threats to our own country.

The debate about counter-terrorism laws in Australia is ongoing. The laws, as they stand today, are viewed by many as being against our “fair-go” culture.

Last week 5 men were found guilty for conspiring to act in preparation for a terrorist attack. This trial was the outcome of Operation Pendennis, a huge counter-terrorism operation which began in mid 2004. Eighteen men were arrested in Sydney and Melbourne in November 2005, charged with conspiring to commit a terrorist act. The exact target(s) for the attack remains unknown.

The interesting thing about these arrests was that they were only possible because of a swift amendment to the anti-terrorism laws. Prior to this, police could only charge terror suspects if they knew the location or timing of the planned attack.

So the amendment effectively meant police could make terrorist-related arrests without as much evidence as they needed before.

Not surprisingly, many Australians were up in arms. Some called it an abuse of police powers not unlike the Haneef situation, where an Indian doctor was wrongfully detained as a terror suspect for 12 days, despite little evidence to his guilt. Similarly, was there enough evidence to detain these men?

Norm Hazzard, the then Head of the NSW Police Counter Terrorism Command, said they reached the point where the need to keep the community safe was more important than finding evidence.

As it turns out, the evidence gathered after the arrests was enough to convict these men. It would seem that the last-minute amendment may indeed have prevented a serious terrorist attack in Australia.

Finding the balance between protecting our country and ensuring that the human rights of terror suspects are not violated, will never be easy. Sadly, there does seem to be a greater need for predicting and pre-empting, which essentially means giving authorities power to take action against suspects before a terrorist act can be undertaken.

The Rudd government’s proposed changes to counter-terrorism laws have received their fair share of criticism. Among others, the changes include giving police the power to search premises without a warrant, adding an offence of conducting terrorism hoaxes, and an offence of provoking violence based on race, religion, nationality or political opinion. They also limit the detention period for terror suspects without charges to 8 days.

It will be interesting to see if the outcome of the Pendennis trial changes the minds of many Australians about counter-terrorism laws in this country.

 

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