November 9, 2005

New Australia terror laws questioned

By Michelle Nichols

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia is pushing ahead with tough
new anti-terrorism laws on Wednesday despite Muslim and civil
liberties leaders questioning their necessity a day after
police arrested 17 men on charges of planning a terrorist

Opponents of the new legislation said the arrests on
Tuesday in the nation's biggest counter-terrorism swoop, which
police said had disrupted a plot for a "catastrophic" attack,
proved the country's existing laws were sufficient.

"My question is whether we need the legislation because
these arrests have taken place under the existing laws and it
appears that the current laws are working efficiently,"
Australian Federation of Islamic Councils President Ameer Ali
told Australian radio.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty also
said Australia's current anti-terrorism laws were adequate.

"I think the issue about the proposed bill was an issue of
transparency," Keelty told Australian television.

Those arrested included a radical Muslim cleric and a man
police said wanted to become a suicide bomber. The loose-knit
group from Sydney and Melbourne did not have a target but was
trying to buy chemicals similar to those used in the July 7
London bombings, police said.

Attorney General Philip Ruddock said calls to Australia's
national security hotline had doubled to 240 in the 24 hours
since the arrests.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard moved to allay the
fears of the Muslim community that they would become the target
for the new laws and reprisal attacks following the arrests.

"People who support terrorism are as much their enemies as
they are my or your enemies. There is nothing in our laws, nor
will there be anything in our laws, that targets an individual
group, be it Islamic or otherwise," Howard told Australian

Muslims make up 1.5 percent of Australia's 20 million


Howard's fight to strengthen anti-terrorism laws has
mirrored that of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was
last week forced to water down his terrorism laws to avoid a
first key defeat during his eight years in power.

A government minister has even described the new laws as
"draconian," but necessary to protect Australia from terrorism.

The new anti-terrorism measures, proposed after the London
bombings, allow police to detain suspects for seven days
without charge and use electronic tracking devices to keep tabs
on them.

The laws would also make support for insurgents in
countries such as Iraq an offence punishable by a seven-year
jail sentence.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told parliament the
proposed detention provisions were in line with many other
countries, including France, the United States and Britain.

"There is no doubt that those countries realize they have
to take decisive and strong action against terrorism, and we
must do the same thing in this country," Downer said.

The New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties plans to
launch a campaign on Friday warning Australians of the impact
of the new laws, which it says are like powers "exercised in
communist regimes."

Concerns have also been raised by government politicians,
opposition parties and the media over the plans to broaden the
definition of sedition and increase the maximum jail term for
the offence to seven years from three years.

"The critical thing is to ensure that we balance the
important objective of ensuring national security and we need
to protect our liberties, freedom of speech," government
backbench politician Malcolm Turnbull told reporters.

The Australian parliament is due to start debating the
anti-terrorism laws later on Wednesday. The government wants
them passed before Christmas so they are in place before the
Commonwealth Games are held in Melbourne in March 2006.