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Unjust ASIO laws target Muslims Print E-mail
Wednesday, 20 July 2005

 

Dr Waleed Kadous, co-convener of the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network (AMCRAN), spoke at a 150-strong forum organised by the Canterbury-Bankstown peace group in Sydney on July 9, two days after the London bombings. Below is an abridged version of his presentation.

 

I’d like to convey my deepest condolences to the victims of terrorist acts of any kind. What I am about to say is not a defence of terrorist acts — I unequivocally oppose terrorist acts in all their forms, regardless of who conducts them. The killing of innocent people is immoral in every religious code I know, including the one I am most familiar with, the Islamic code.

 

My comments are not about preventing those who commit terrorist acts from being caught and punished, but about ensuring that the rights of innocent individuals and communities are not taken away in the process, as has already happened to Mamdouh Habib (who was released in January 2005 after being imprisoned for three years and three months; David Hicks (imprisoned since December 2001); Ahmad Rafiq (imprisoned since February 2004); Talal Adree (imprisoned since February 2005); and in some ways the entire Muslim community.

Why is it that the Australian government goes in to bat for alleged drug runners (and Schappelle Corby is merely the latest), while leaving Hicks and Habib high and dry? This is a clear injustice. The attorney-general has said — point blank — that Hicks and Habib conducted no crimes that they could be charged with under Australian law. Yet, rather than this being a reason for the government to go to bat for them, it became a reason to do nothing.

The new ASIO laws, which haven’t been widely publicised, introduce a bunch of new offences and new powers. Two of the worst of these new powers will allow a person to be detained — without suspicion of a crime — for up to seven days. What’s more, the detainee can’t say anything about it — to his or her employer, partner, or to anybody.

Hidden in the new laws are various biases. For example, many of the laws apply to “terrorist organisations”. It just so happens that in Australia all the “official” terrorist organisations, which are not decided by a judge or an independent party, but by the attorney-general, are Muslim. This means that, at least at the moment, the only people who can commit some of the offences are Muslims.

Is there a perception in the Muslim community that these laws are targeted at them? Absolutely. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report surveying 1400 people found that this was a common belief among Muslims and Arabs. As one woman quoted in the report said: “There is a fear in the community that one day you will wake up and your husband will be taken away under the new ASIO laws.”

Even Dennis Richardson, the head of ASIO, when asked at a recent parliamentary inquiry, said: “For the [Islamic] council to say there is this perception would probably be an accurate statement. Indeed, that there should be such a perception is understandable.”

It is unjust that a community of 300,000, just because they are Muslim, feel so insecure in their own country. What’s more, it will unfortunately lead to an isolation mentality, and that breeds serious social problems.

But what about already existing discrimination?

What if I told you of a 21-year-old medical student who already felt discriminated against because of his looks, fails his second year exams, goes back to his homeland, decides to go to a training camp for an independence movement, decides it’s not for him, comes back to Australia, and then almost a year later is arrested and held for six weeks in isolation in the high security facility at Goulburn?

What if I told you that at his bail hearing, the crown prosecutor states that this person poses no threat to Australia whatsoever, that he was not involved in the planning or commission of a terrorist act, but that he could still go to jail for 15 years? Does that seem just?

What if I told you that the ASIO raids two weeks ago in Melbourne and Sydney — where seven homes were raided and computers taken away, where officers questioned neighbours as young as eight, and when the newspapers talk about “men in long beards” appearing — resulted in no charges being laid. What about when a senior federal police officer tells the Sydney Morning Herald that the raids weren’t about preventing terrorist acts, but about “rattling the cages”, letting people know that they were being watched?

Then there was the time a guy with a beard was stopped in an alley way behind the Sydney courts where he was getting friends to sign bail papers and a Channel 7 camera crew happened to be there. That night his house was raided and he was accused of staking out an AFP office close to the courts and videotaping it for some kind of attack. He was then charged with multiple offences and held until the hearing, at which time all the charges were dropped and the AFP was forced to pay his legal fees.

The following two accounts relate to how ASIO is using its new coercive powers: “A” is an expatriate Australian who has returned for a short visit. Upon arrival, ASIO representatives tell him they’d like to meet. As his time is limited, he says he’d prefer not to. They make it clear that they can ensure he answers their questions. “A” consults a lawyer, who explains that under a questioning warrant, his passport would be taken away and he could be left stranded in Australia.

“B” is contacted by ASIO representatives. They ask her some questions. The first few she answers, but as the questions become offensive, including whether she knows anyone from a terrorist organisation, she becomes angry and refuses to answer. They tell her ASIO can take steps to force her to answer. She, in anger, says, “Do your best”. She is later surprised to find when she goes to travel that her passport has been revoked.

Not only can these new ASIO laws be used coercively to deprive people of their rights, there is also a question of whether these kind of strong-arm tactics are effective.

The research evidence is that torture and coercion are ineffective as a means of gathering intelligence. The bad blood such acts generate in the Muslim community make cooperation with ASIO harder.

What can we do about these problems?

It’s important not to assume all Muslims support terrorism. It’s also important to do what we can to hold the government and its officers to account for what they have done, and to ensure they apply the law equally to all citizens.

There are already enough victims of terrorist acts. We do not need to increase the damage by believing that people who were not involved in those acts supported or were involved in them. All we want is for the laws to be applied justly. We do not need new laws that can be used to take away certain groups’ rights. It may start with the Muslim community, but it may not end there.

[Visit <http://www.amcran.org> for more information.]

Green Left Weekly, July 20, 2005.

 
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