Monday, September 26, 2005

COMMENT: Vandalising Muslim Civil Liberties

Australians were shocked to read of 4 mosques across New Zealand being vandalised in the wake of the London bombings. But the way the debate on anti-terror laws is heading in Australia, it seems civil rights are the target of state-sponsored terrorism.

Leader of the Labor Opposition Kim Beazley announced a plan to enable police to cordon off entire suburbs before exercising extensive and expanded powers. These include existing powers to search and confiscate. They also include powers to round up and detain people on the basis of which suburb they reside or find themselves in.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister John Howard has introduced a raft of security laws designed to make Australians feel safer and avert a terrorist attack. His proposals will be detailed at a terrorism summit this week when he addresses State Premiers.

The new laws contain sensible measures including beefing up security at airports. They also include providing Federal Police power to fine and even imprison suspects refusing to hand over documents.

Effectively the new measures enable police to deem certain people terror suspects. Once so deemed, persons are required to hand over just about any document which may provide clues to a terrorist attack.

So are these laws targeting persons of a particular ethno-religious background? The answer can be found in the list or organisations which the government has proscribed as terrorist organisations. Without exception, the organisations are somehow related to Muslims or Islam.

Compare this to a similar list of proscribed organisations under United States law. In his excellent terrorism primer entitled Terrorism Explained – The Facts About Terrorism and Terrorist Groups, Australian National University academic Clive Williams has provided a full list of 36 groups proscribed under US law.

The list is current as at 30 January 2003, and includes the Israeli Kahane Chai (Kach) movement, Basque group ETA and secular groups such as the Abu Nidal organisation, the Tamil Tigers and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The Government insists that Federal Police and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) officers will exercise their powers with restraint and sensitivity. But Muslim Australian groups and civil libertarians are concerned about the implications of the laws for deemed terror suspects.

On August 28 2005, I had occasion to appear on the Channel Nine Sunday program’s Hypothetical moderated by Geoffrey Robertson QC. The scenario painted by Mr Robertson involved a possible terrorist attack coinciding with the Pope’s Visit for World Youth Day in 2007. A terror suspect is arrested and tortured.

The suspect provides interrogators with a tip-off that a terrorist will be attacking the pope using a machine gun and will appear from a certain government building. Police marksmen focus on the building and see someone who looks like a terrorist emerging from the building carrying what appears to be a gun. The suspect is shot dead.

On what basis was the person deemed a terrorist? In what way did he fit the terrorist profile? What makes the police think that the man looks like a terrorist?

Apart from Mr Robertson and myself, none of the panel saw any problem with the notion of a person having a certain appearance before being deemed a terrorist and treated accordingly. The panel included a judge, 3 senior politicians, police and intelligence officials, senior editors of mainstream media and a former State Governor.

As it turned out, the terror suspect was a contract cleaner from a local Australian family of Turkish background. His alleged weapon was in fact a vacuum cleaner. Yet the fact that a Turkish Australian whose family had probably been living in Australia since the 1960’s could be deemed a terrorist makes the new laws all the more frightening for local Muslims.

In an environment where no non-Muslim terrorist group has been proscribed, where Federal Government backbenchers are calling for headscarves to be banned and where police, politicians and the media make presumptions on a terrorist’s appearance, it seems Muslims and civil libertarians have every reason to be worried.

But it isn’t just observant or practising Muslims who may be targeted. Two examples will illustrate this. In both cases, names and details have been changed to protect anonymity.

Jane never met her Indonesian Muslim father. Despite growing up in Brisbane with her Dutch mother, she retained her distinctly Indonesian Muslim surname, an abbreviation of a common Arabic surname. Jane has brown skin and black hair.

Sita has dark brown skin and European features. Her mother is Indian Hindu and her father is Anglo-Australian. Sita has often been confused for being Pakistani, Lebanese or Iranian.

If either Jane or Sita had been the person walking out of the building carrying a vacuum cleaner, they would have equal chance of being profiled by police marksmen and shot dead.

Arab and Muslim names and culture have permeated almost every aspect of Australian life. The Governor of New South Wales Professor Marie Bashir shares a surname with an Indonesian imam believed to be responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings. Yet popularly held ignorance about ethno-religious differences and similarities and the lack of safeguards for civil liberties in proposed laws does give Muslim Australians reason to be alert and alarmed.

The author is a Sydney lawyer whose practises in employment and human rights law.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf