Push to end secret ASIO detentions Print E-mail
Tuesday, 07 June 2005


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 amended.


"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 silence.


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.


The 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.


If 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 them.


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.


Last 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 emerged."


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.




- 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.


Marian Wilkinson

Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 2005

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