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Caution advised on terror laws

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Two law enforcement officers lie in hospital and an 18-year-old man is dead after warnings about a lone wolf terrorist attack became reality outside a Melbourne police station on Tuesday night.

Police claim that Numan Haider, an 18-year-old man of Afghan descent with alleged terrorist links, attacked two police with a knife, seriously injuring both before he was shot and killed. While the nation wrestles with Haider’s motivations, two police recuperate following surgery to repair knife wounds suffered in the deadly confrontation.

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Like it was scripted, the attack came at the very moment Australia was discussing the potential for a terrorist attack on home soil.

Last week, 800 police knocked down doors in dawn raids to arrest and question people suspected of plotting terror attacks on the streets of our capital cities.

As the violence in Melbourne unfolded, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was flying to New York to join UN security council talks on the military action Australia has joined against Islamic State, the terrorist organisation which Haider apparently sympathised.

And as the two police officers nursed their wounds, the federal Parliament introduced the second batch of new laws designed to counter a homegrown security threat. The biggest overhaul of Australia’s counter-terrorism laws in a decade is now in the hands of a Parliament on edge.

Police with evidence bags outside at the scene of the confrontation. Photo: AAP

Legal action

After the shocking events of Tuesday night, it would be easy to forgo thoughtful consideration of the laws. In fact, this is what the government wants, according to human rights group Liberty Victoria.

Melbourne-based barrister Michael Stanton, vice-president of Liberty Victoria, said the review of the laws, expected to last until early October, is “just too fast” because “the devil is in the detail”.

Leading constitutional lawyer Professor George Williams told The New Daily our nation all too often reacts to tragedies, such as September 11 and the London bombings, with “hyperlegislation” that has the tendency to overreach.

Australia’s counter-terror laws extend even further than those in the US and the UK, according to Prof. Williams, because we have no Bill of Rights. Measures that would be “unthinkable” overseas are “quite possible” here and “on occasion” do end up in our statute books, he said.

The real fear is that new laws “have the potential” to affect those unconnected to terrorism, according to the Professor. Here’s a quick guide to the new laws Canberra is enacting.

Life in prison

Under the new laws, those suspected of terrorism can face a life sentence for a range of new reasons. For example, these offences would carry penalties of life imprisonment:

• travelling to Iraq with the intention of fighting for terrorists, or gearing up to do so;
• using an aeroplane or ship to help a person travel overseas to fight for terrorists;
• stockpiling weapons to fight for terrorists; and
• training to fight overseas for terrorists.

Terrorism recruiters could face a 25 year jail term, while those who promote beheadings on social media, for example, could face five years in prison for recklessly advocating a terrorism offence.

Fifteen people were detained by police during raids in Sydney.
Fifteen people were detained by police during raids in Sydney.

No-go zones

The Minister for Foreign Affairs will be able to declare certain areas in foreign countries (such as Iraq and Syria) as terrorist zones.

If you visit the area, you could be jailed for 10 years unless you raise a valid excuse – such as providing humanitarian aid, visiting family, or working as a journalist.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus told ABC radio this is an “unprecedented measure” that curtails freedom of movement, the right to silence and the presumption of innocence.

Barrister Bret Walker SC, who recommended this measure, disagreed, saying it is “orthodox” and “the right thing” and simplifies the law in this area.

Preventative detention orders

These orders, in place since the Howard years, allow police to detain without charge anyone they suspect of terrorism.

They were, until the counter-terrorism raids in Sydney and Brisbane last week, never used, and were supposed to expire this year. The new laws extend them until 2025.

Mr Walker was one of many – including police and legislative review bodies – whose calls for the orders to be abolished were ignored. They are “an infringement of liberty” and “worse than useless”, he said.

Talking about secret operations

It will be an offence punishable by five years imprisonment to disclose information about a special intelligence operation.

Mr Walker said a person would only be guilty if they “recklessly” gave away details about an operation. He said this was enough protection, but noted it as an important point to “check and scrutinise and criticise”, and concedes it to be a debatable point.

He “strongly supports” protecting the safety of undercover agents while an operation is underway, but is very supportive of a review of operations once they are complete.

But the law makes no mention of a time limit. Can operations be discussed after the fact? No word yet.

Spy immunity

Mr Walker also recommended immunity from prosecution for ASIO agents, which the law has delivered.

Originally, the only limit was on causing death or serious injury, sexual offences and property damage, but a ban on torture was also added in response to political pressure – an addition that Mr Walker supports.

“The immunity needs to be no greater than the public interest requires,” he said.

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