Fri, Sep 09, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Australia's move to beef up terror laws draws fire


Australia's government plans to beef up counterterror laws, including allowing police to electronically track terror suspects for up to a year, Prime Minister John Howard said yesterday.

"We are unfortunately living in an era and a time when unusual but necessary measures are needed to cope with an unusual and threatening situation," Howard said in a televised news conference in Canberra.

Civil libertarians said the government had failed to demonstrate the need to further toughen counterterrorism laws that already have been strengthened since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US.

They were especially concerned about a proposal that Howard said would allow federal police to attach tracking devices to terror suspects for up to a year, even without any criminal charges filed, and restrict the people they mix with.

"This is incredible in the case of someone ... who has not broken the law in any sense but can be treated as a criminal," Australian Council for Civil Liberties spokesman David Bernie said.

Police also would get new powers to hold people for up to 14 days without charge if they are suspected of being involved in planning or carrying out a terror act.

"We are very conscious in all of these things that a balance has to be struck between the liberty of the subject and the right of the community to be protected," Howard said.

Howard said the legislation also would empower authorities to withhold Australian citizenship from immigrants who are considered a security risk, and lengthen the time new migrants have to wait for citizenship from two years to three.

The legislation also would make it a crime to leave luggage unattended at airports and toughen penalties against people who incite violence.

Howard's government controls both houses of the federal Parliament and was expected to easily pass most of the proposals, but some of them require legislation by state governments, all of which are controlled by the Labor Party, which is in opposition in the federal Parliament.

"I expect a lot of cooperation from the states on this," Howard said.

Howard said he would explain the proposals to state government leaders at a meeting Sept. 27. It was unclear when legislation would be submitted to Parliament.

The opposition Labor Party said it supports measures that genuinely protect Australians against the threat of terrorist attack and will examine Howard's proposals once details are available.

There has never been a major terror attack on Australian soil, but Howard's close links to US President George W. Bush and strong support for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan raise fears that Australia would become a terror target.

Bernie, of the civil liberties council, said Australian authorities already have sufficient powers to deal with terrorism.

"Can they point to the fact that any of these extra powers would have helped prevent 9/11 or the London bombing?" Bernie asked.

He also questioned whether proposed new laws against inciting support for Australia's enemies would stifle freedom of speech.

Asked if the legislation would bar people from speaking out in support of insurgents in Iraq, Howard replied: "It won't stop legitimate political comment."

"There is a difference between saying `I think the troops should come home' ... and actually encouraging people to attack them," Howard said.

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