ASIO's powers to question and detain terrorism suspects in secret
was criticised yesterday as the Islamic community, lawyers and media
organisations expressed concerns that the laws breached human rights
and curbed press freedom.
A parliamentary committee
reviewing the powers under the ASIO Act heard complaints that suspects
detained for questioning for 48 hours faced five years' jail if they
told their wives, employers or the media the reason for their detention.
Such ASIO warrants can remain secret for up to two years. Anyone,
including a journalist or editor, disclosing "operational information"
about the warrants also faces the five-year jail term.
The powers are due to lapse in July next year. The Government wants
them retained, but human rights groups want them to be discontinued or
"The ASIO legislation represents a significant
inroad into the long, hard-fought [struggle] for human rights," the
president of the Law Council, John North, told the committee hearing.
"It allows people to be detained for questioning over extended periods well in excess of those permitted by criminal law."
People suspected of involvement in terrorism or of having knowledge
about terrorist acts can be detained. Detainees have no right to
Coalition and Labor MPs on the committee
challenged yesterday's witnesses to cite examples where ASIO had abused
the powers. Senator Robert Ray said the power to detain suspects for up
to seven days had not been used at all and the power to question
suspects for 48 hours had been invoked only eight times since 2003.
chairman of the Islamic Council of NSW, Ali Roude, said ASIO had used
the powers to intimidate Muslims into co-operating with "voluntary"
questioning for fear they would be subject to mandatory detention.
someone was told to "have a cup of coffee" with ASIO and they preferred
not to, Mr Roude said, they were told there were powers that could
compel them to answer or they could lose their passport.
Waleed Kadous, of the Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network, urged the
parliamentarians to amend the laws if they were not prepared to drop
Suspects taken into questioning should be allowed
to tell their wives or husbands the reason for the detention without
facing jail and to seek help from community organisations, he said.
The outgoing head of ASIO, Dennis Richardson, had urged the committee to make the powers permanent.
month he told the committee: "Effective laws must be in place before
terrorists strike, as it is virtually impossible to play legislative
catch-up after an actual attack or after an identified threat has
Bruce Wolpe, of John Fairfax, publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald,
joined the Press Council of Australia and the journalists' union, the
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, in criticising the secrecy
provisions in the laws.
BRAVE NEW WORLD - Under powers granted in July 2003 ASIO can detain suspects for up to seven days.
- A suspect cannot tell a wife or husband about their detention.
- The powers are due to lapse next year, but ASIO wants them continued.
Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 2005