When ASIO comes calling Print E-mail
Tuesday, 14 December 2004


THE secret agent at Mansour Leghaei's front door introduces himself only  as Brian. The Islamic cleric hesitates as Brian, he says, offers no business card or other form of identification. But the suited agent does offer a glossy coffee table book of Australia in pictures a gift tothe unsuspecting sheik, recently arrived from fundamentalist Iran.

Leghaei is counselling a married couple considering divorce. But he agrees to meet Brian anyway, ushering him into the lounge room of his modest suburban western Sydney home while he quickly deals with the now perplexed husband and wife.

During the 90-minute interview with Brian, and two subsequent ones with other agents, Leghaei says he is never really told why ASIO, the nation's spy organisation, has him in its sights. "I joked with them that I had to make sure they were not with Mossad, the CIA or the KGB,"he says.

Leghaei assumes Brian's questions will relate to his application with immigration authorities for himself, his wife and three children to remain in Australia. Instead, he is grilled about an Iraqi group jailed during the Gulf War and now resettled in southwestern Sydney. Does he have connections to a terrorist group called Ahlul-Bait? And what is his opinion of a religious fatwa issued against author Salman Rushdie who is soon to visit Australia?

Leghaei answers the questions as best he can although, he says, he knows little about the Iraqis and the terrorist group and nothing about the famous writer's visit.

Whether ASIO suspects Leghaei is a spy for the Iranian Government or a sponsor of terrorists here or overseas is unclear. But after that 1995 interrogation, ASIO declared him a risk to national security. And the cleric has been fighting his deportation ever since, without, he says, really knowing why ASIO demands he leave.

He claims he has been denied procedural fairness. And legal groups argue there could soon be many more like him. Such rights are being eroded at an alarming rate in the wake of the September 11 attacks and then the
Bali bombings, they say.

In the past three years in Australia there has been an unprecedented overhaul of security laws. At least 20 new laws including four last week have passed through federal parliament handing ASIO and to a lesser extent the Australian Federal Police tough powers to secretly investigate, detain and interview people.

AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty says these powers are not only essential to the fight against terrorism, but do not go far enough. When interviewed by AFP agents, people should face penalties for refusing to answer questions about terrorism, Keelty told an audience at the University of Melbourne last Monday.

"I am not suggesting that we do away with the principle of the right to silence altogether . . ." says Keelty, but refusal to answer questions that could prevent a terrorist attack should perhaps be illegal such a law already exists in Britain.

A group of Australian Muslims is convinced some of our new security laws are already more draconian than other Western democracies. But Waleed Kadous, co-convenor of the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network, says few people understand or are even aware of them. Complex and detailed, they have passed through parliament sporadically after debate, amendments and political wrangling. Many barely rated a mention in the media.

Consequently, the network has produced a 40-page booklet advising people what to do if ASIO pays a visit. A "practical guide to your rights and responsibilities", the booklet says, first, stay calm. Second, contact a
lawyer and do not provide any information other than confirming your name and address until the lawyer arrives.

Then, it continues, determine what agency these officers are from because ASIO agents are only allowed to search, question or detain you if they have a warrant. AFP or state police do not need a warrant if there is a reasonable suspicion that you are planning some kind of attack. If there is a warrant, note exactly what the officers are authorised to do or get a copy.

One of the most controversial laws introduced so far gives ASIO the power to secretly arrest and detain suspects.

After obtaining a warrant, agents can detain someone for seven days if they are suspected of having information about terrorism. And they can be jailed for refusing to answer a question.

It is now also illegal for anyone detained, interviewed and then released to discuss ASIO's questions if that might disclose "operational information" for two years. "So if a husband has been detained and then released and his wife says 'where have you been for the last week?', he can't give her any details," Kadous, a computer scientist in Sydney, says. And a journalist cannot publish any of those details even if someone did disclose them, under threat of five years' jail.

Given the ongoing horrors of terrorism in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, many Australians are unconcerned about these heightened powers if they mean a similar attack never occurs on our shores. "In the current
climate of terrorism it would be a very brave politician who would rescind these laws," Kadous says.

But constitutional lawyer George Williams says with so many powers now handed to police and so much secrecy involved in using them, there is potential for abuse. And people should be concerned because they will
remain on the statute books for many years.

"I broadly support laws that give enhanced powers to ASIO and the police to better do their job. I have always supported that. But it's about balance," Williams, from the University of NSW, says. "You don't say we've got a crime wave so let's give police the power to lock up whoever they want.

"Long experience in Australia and elsewhere suggests that all governmental power ought to be transparent and accountable and subject to appropriate limits, otherwise you have problems with abuse.

"I think it's a matter of saying yes we need strong laws, yes they need to be well targeted but no we don't want laws that undermine the sort of democratic freedoms we are seeking to protect.

"One of the most insidious things about terrorism is that it is an attack on our basic civil liberties and values and if, in the end, we do more damage to those through laws that harm the community, through giving governments inappropriate powers, then that is not a sensible outcome."

Keelty agrees a balance needs to be struck. But he stresses foiling terrorist attacks is so different from conventional policing that stronger powers are justified.

Intercepting emails and voice-mails without first obtaining a warrant is an essential power if AFP agents are expected to thwart attacks in the early planning stages. "They should not be dismissed as a grab for more
powers," Keelty says of enhanced telecommunications and surveillance powers introduced this year. "They are simply about enabling us to keep pace with criminal advances."

"The reality is that we will only be as successful as the tools available for investigation, information gathering and admitting evidence into Australian courts," he says in his speech.

"Once, the difficult issues confronting law enforcement authorities centred around activity such as community violence, fraud and drug trafficking. Today the threats are not that simple orcontained.

"Who would have ever thought that commercial airliners could be turned into weapons against thousands of innocent and unsuspecting people? Or that the sale of common garden fertilisers would need to be regulated to
protect our community from incredibly violent and horrendous acts?

"Australia is not immune from threat, so as a community we need to ensure that we are well positioned to respond."

Leghaei, who has lived in Australia for 10 years, says he done more than most in his community to promote peace.

And he will continue his fight in the Federal Court next year, against the immigration department and ASIO, to remain here.

ASIO denies it has treated Leghaei unfairly. Its agents need to withhold information for fear of compromising their ongoing operations. The agency closed the court to the public last month to give the judge, presiding over the case, secret details of what they have discovered about the sheik.

However, Leghaei's lawyers have told the court withholding such information from him means he cannot properly explain himself nor answer all of their questions a denial of procedural fairness.

But Justice Madgwick questioned whether such fairness applied in cases of national security.

"During the Cold War, Russian diplomats came here on visas. If ASIO found somebody, one of them, spying, a decision would be taken to kick him out and away he would go," he told the court.


Trudy Harris

The Australian, 14 December 2004

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