Proposed Anti-Terrorism Laws Causing Concern

There is growing speculation that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is considering new anti-terrorism measures to apply to those returning to Australia after spending time in Iraq or Syria.

This is due to the risk of Australians returning home after fighting in terrorist organisations overseas.

Currently there are believed to be around 150 Australians fighting overseas, which has led to concerns that home-grown terrorists who are radicalised and trained in terrorism will return home and carry out attacks on Australians.

The fear of home-grown terrorists returning to Australia has led to the federal government pledging $630 million to spy agencies and law enforcement agencies so they can deal with the threat.

This increased funding will come alongside a raft of new measures designed to combat terrorism in Australia through broadening the listing criteria of terrorist organisations and extending the powers of the AFP to arrest, search and detain potential terrorist suspects.

Over recent months there has been a large amount of publicity around two Australians in particular, Khaled Sharouf and Mohamed Elomar, who have been prominently fighting for a terrorist organisation in Syria and Iraq.

Photographs of them participating in terrorist activities and executions have been widely circulated on social media.

This has led to the issuing of warrants for their arrest upon their return to Australia, and has also provided fuel for the government to suggest new, more extreme anti-terrorist measures.

Why are home-grown terrorists considered such a threat?

With so many Australians allegedly overseas fighting with terrorist organisations, the government is concerned that after they have been trained and radicalised as jihadists they may return to continue their terrorist activities in Australia and pose a threat to the community here.

The concerns about home-grown terrorism have also been raised by the US.

The fear of western-based fighters returning to their home countries and continuing their terrorist activities is shared by a number of different western countries.

What measures are the government proposing?

One of the anti-terrorism measures that is reportedly under consideration places the responsibility on travellers returning from Iraq or Syria to prove that they weren’t travelling to those countries for the purposes of engaging in terrorist activities.

This reversal of the onus of proof (currently it is up to the Australian Government to prove that a person was involved in terrorism or jihadist activities) could potentially lead to discrimination and the targeting of innocent Australians.

According to Greens Senator Penny Wright, reversing the onus of proof could lead to aid workers and charity workers returning from those areas being unfairly targeted and being required to prove that they aren’t terrorists.

There are also concerns that changing the legislation could lead to people of Middle Eastern background who may have been visiting the Middle East to see family or friends being discriminated against and seen as potential terrorists.

As well as taking measures to try to prevent terrorists returning from overseas, there have been a number of proposed anti-terrorism measures which are intended to give local law enforcement agencies increased powers to track and arrest terrorist suspects in Australia.

The suggested measures include increased access to mobile phone and internet data and changes in the powers of AFP officers.

Currently AFP officers can only arrest someone on suspicion of terrorist activities if they have a ‘reasonable belief’ that they are involved in a registered terrorist organisation.

The proposed changes would allow officers to arrest people on the basis of a ‘reasonable suspicion’, thereby bringing the powers of the AFP in line with those of other police officers in the state and making it easier for them to arrest and detain someone without any tangible evidence.

Attorney General George Brandis has recently confirmed that the federal government has plans to make it a criminal offence to incite or promote terrorism.

Currently it is against the law to incite violence and there have been concerns that further amendments to make it illegal to promote terrorism could affect rights around freedom of speech.

There have been questions as to whether changing the law to make it an offence to incite or promote terrorism would make any real difference to the security and safety of the Australian community.

The opposition, along with human rights organisations, have highlighted the fact that although it is necessary to protect the Australian community from the threat of returning extremists, it’s important that it’s done without infringing on civil rights or unfairly demonising sections of the community.

The Australian Council for Civil Liberties (ACCL) has criticised the measures for being an unjustified attempt to grab extra powers under the guise of protecting the community.

At the end of the day, one wonders whether moves like spending vast amounts of tax-payer money, forcing ordinary Australians to explain why they visited certain countries and significantly increasing the power of law enforcement agencies are justified given that there is little evidence to suggest that they actually prevent acts of terrorism.

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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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