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Rough justice Print E-mail
Saturday, 17 September 2005

 

He was summoned by ASIO, thrown in jail and kicked out of the country. Scott Parkin felt the force of Australia's security crackdown, and harsher measures are on the way. Marian Wilkinson and David Marr report.

 

"Angela" called out of the blue, soon after Scott Parkin arrived in Melbourne. Her message to the Texas peace activist was brief. She was phoning from ASIO and wanted him to come in for an interview. Would it affect his visa, Parkin wanted to know. Angela wouldn't say. Was this a voluntary request? Voluntary, she replied. Then, said Parkin, "I don't think I'll come and see you".

 

Parkin was shaken. The 36-year-old community college instructor, who says he espouses the path of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, had been travelling around Australia for months, giving workshops on non-violent political activism. In Sydney late last month he joined hundreds of anti-globalisation demonstrators outside the Opera House, denouncing 300 of the world's top executives at the Forbes Global CEO Conference. Among the protesters were the Greens senator Kerry Nettle and one of her staffers, Max Phillips. There were clashes, arrests and a trampled fence.

 

The demonstrations made few front-page headlines, although Parkin did appear on TV news. He also helped out with a bit of street theatre, "The Coalition of the Billing", outside the Sydney headquarters of Halliburton, a giant US contractor in Iraq.

 

Early this month Parkin left for Melbourne, where he was to run another workshop at the Irene Warehouse in Brunswick. Then came the phone call from ASIO. Parkin immediately contacted Iain Murray, a local activist and fellow organiser for the workshop.

 

Murray was taken aback. Unlike some in the peace movement, he was not prone to paranoia. There was no arrest warrant for Parkin and Murray played down the call as "a minor bit of intimidation". But Parkin asked him would he find himself in a prison cell if they went ahead with the workshop?

 

"I doubt it," Murray recalls telling him. "It seemed like a ludicrous concept." But, just in case, he gave Parkin the name of a legal aid lawyer.

 

Then, last Saturday, Parkin was sitting in the Kaleidoscope Cafe in Brunswick when 10 men walked in and confronted him. Shortly after, Murray got a very different call from his US friend. "Iain, I am calling to tell you I have been detained by the Australian Federal Police and Immigration agents and I am at the Carlton West station."

 

A second message followed: "I've been told that a competent Australian authority has assessed that I am a national security risk and that I may be placed in mandatory detention."

 

Parkin's arrest, detention and removal from Australia made headlines around the world.

 

No one in Government, including the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, has suggested Parkin was threatening a terrorist attack, mixing chemicals for a bomb or calling for jihad. But, apparently on the strength of an ASIO report, the Government said Parkin was engaged in "politically motivated violence". In ASIO's and Ruddock's view, Parkin's activism had crossed the line between political dissent and undermining national security.

 

But what troubles civil liberties lawyers, political activists, the Greens and the Democrats is that the Government refused to tell either Parkin or his lawyers how he crossed that line, or the basis for their evidence. Ruddock strongly implied that to do so would threaten intelligence sources and set a dangerous precedent.

 

When the Greens leader, Bob Brown, tried to move a Senate motion this week, asking the Government to provide the information, Ruddock castigated him: "Will his next suggestion be that ASIO make public its threat assessments, effectively issuing instructions to terrorists about how to exploit our vulnerabilities?"

 

Ruddock's message seemed to be: trust ASIO and don't challenge the Government's judgement in this dangerous age. "There is no indication ASIO is making a habit of recommending that alleged peace activists be deported on a whim," he said.

 

What Parkin's lawyers, and other human rights lawyers, fear is that no one will be allowed to test ASIO's assessments or the minister's assurance. This week, it became clear that the raft of counter-terrorism laws enacted since September 11, 2001, will make it extremely difficult for Parkin to see the evidence against him, even if his lawyers pursue the case through the Australian courts. That is why political activists around Australia, from Greenpeace to the Muslim Civil Rights Network, are watching the Parkin case with some trepidation.

 

For the first time since those terrorist attacks in the US, a harsh spotlight has been cast on Australia's counter-terrorism laws. And it is becoming clearer that the laws have given ASIO and the police far greater powers to decide who is a security threat. At the same time, they have curbed the power of the courts to act as a safeguard for those the security agencies label as a threat.

 

Under the new legislation, a vast range of activities is considered to be against the "national security interests" of Australia. Those interests are described as "Australia's defence, security, law enforcement interests" and its "international relations". These, in turn, are defined as Australia's political, military and economic relations not only with foreign governments but with "foreign organisations", which could mean anything from the World Trade Organisation to the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation.

 

This sweeping definition of national security is particularly worrying to lawyers in light of the Parkin case. It is spelt out in a little-known law called the National Security Information Act, which was extended in June to cover not only criminal cases but all civil cases.

 

Under that act, the Attorney-General can demand that information be withheld from a court - and the accused and their lawyers - in the interests of national security. The act compels the judge to give greater weight to national security than to the individual.

 

If Parkin's lawyers want to challenge his detention and removal from Australia, they will most likely have to go to the Federal Court. At that point, says Parkin's lawyer, Julian Burnside, the Government could stymie the case.

He says Ruddock has the power under the act to "grant a certificate which will have the practical effect of preventing anyone from knowing what was in the ASIO assessment and thus prevent him from being able to challenge its factual bases or the conclusions drawn from the facts".

 

Earlier this year, civil rights lawyers and law professors from around the country warned senators that if they extended the act to civil cases, individual rights could be severely affected.

 

Among those expressing concern at the time was Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. This week, its president, John von Doussa, QC, said he found aspects of the law, "astounding".

 

"[They] may very well have the effect of protecting incorrectly made decisions. Perhaps more significantly, they have the potential to deny people the right to an effective remedy for violations of fundamental human rights."

 

Democrats and Greens were worried that the Parkin case was a breach of basic human rights. As Natasha Stott Despoja put it: "I do not want to live in a society where the lawyer defending the man cannot even find out what his client is accused of, and the man himself is not aware of why has has been detained, put in solitary confinement, charged for it and is about to be deported."

 

But an unflinching Government won critical support from the Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, after he received a confidential ASIO briefing on the Parkin case. Brown was refused the briefing and questions Beazley's ability to critically assess the ASIO claims that Parkin's activism amounted to politically motivated violence.

 

"He's not very experienced in community action and what's going on out there, and I think he's just been foxed by ASIO," he says. "In the absence of the Government making public its reasons for arresting this man as a threat to the country, it has to be taken as a political decision." Ruddock rejects that claim, saying the Government does not oppose legitimate dissent. The ASIO Act is supposed to protect such dissent. But, for Australia's human rights lawyers, the Parkin case is an amber light.

 

The Government has proposed another round of counter-terrorism laws in the wake of the London bombings. Ruddock and the Prime Minister, John Howard, say they are vital to the fight against terrorism. Howard will discuss the proposals with the premiers this month, but he wants to push through the new laws by Christmas.

 

Among the proposals, which civil liberties groups describe as draconian, are 12-month control orders, where terrorist suspects can be fitted with tracking devices, and a demand that the Labor states introduce 14-day detention without charge.

 

Robin Banks, from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Sydney, says, given the Parkin case, the premiers and the public should examine the proposals carefully.

 

"Australians should ask themselves whether this Government and the intelligence agencies it relies on so heavily should be invested with further powers under the broad and ill-defined justification of terrorist threats to Australia."

 

But Howard says Australia's counter-terrorism laws and the new proposals strike the right balance: "I believe these measures do provide a lot of extra protection, but they do not, given the circumstances in which we live, unfairly restrict the rights of the citizen."

 

Marian Wilkinson and David Marr 

Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 2005 

 
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