Foreign Fighters Bill will lead to innocent people being detained

25th Sep 2014

The Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill lowers the threshold for the arrest of individuals on alleged terrorism offences and will lead to innocent people being arrested and detained, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

The Bill was introduced into the federal parliament yesterday by Commonwealth Attorney-General George Brandis.

“Previously the Act said authorities had to ‘believe’ a terror crime was about to be committed, however the new Foreign Fighters legislation means they only have to ‘suspect’ a crime is to be committed to be able to charge someone,” ALA spokesperson and criminal barrister Greg Barns said.

“If you are arrested for a terrorist offence you will be in jail for a long time, as it is almost impossible to get bail. If you are going to arrest people under these circumstances then you want it to be done on more than a whim or a guess”.

“It is inevitable that if you lower the threshold for an arrest innocent people are detained.  This will lead to community resentment,” Mr Barns said.

Mr Barns was also concerned that sentences for offences covered in new ‘Foreign Fighters’ anti-terror legislation are onerous and totally disproportionate to the nature of the crimes they address.

The foreign fighters Bill would see people who are suspected of preparing for or participating in a foreign incursion receive punishments ranging from life imprisonment to loss of social security benefits.

Mr Barns said that the new legislation was oppressive and included sentencing provisions that did not match the gravity of the prospective offences.

“The Foreign Fighters legislation in its current form could be used to jail people for life even when they haven’t killed anyone, haven’t planned any terrorist acts or haven’t travelled overseas,” Mr Barns said.

“This is a totally disproportionate penalty. Our legal system is based on the concept of proportionality – that the punishment must fit the crime. In Australia, life imprisonment is quite rightly reserved for people who commit the most serious crime of all, murder.”

“However, under this new legislation, an individual could receive a life sentence just for being associated with another person or people planning to fight overseas. They could be handed a life sentence for attending a training session or even for offering a room to be used for a meeting,” Mr Barns said.

“If a young teenager innocently follows his friends or family members to a meeting, they would also be jailed for life, even if they had no knowledge of or intention of participating in proceedings.”

“The new laws also give authorities the power to cancel social security entitlements for people suspected of being associated with terrorist activity,” Mr Barns said.

“They don’t have to give a reason for doing so – once again, this penalty is totally disproportionate to the crime. If that social security payment is the main source of income for a family then innocent parents, partners or children could be left destitute.”

Mr Barns said that the Foreign Fighters legislation was especially dangerous because it combines harsher penalties with a much lower threshold of evidentiary proof.

“Passing laws in this type of political climate is never a good idea as you are dealing with the fundamental ideas of liberty and freedom,” Mr Barns said.

“This type of legislative review should be carried out in a calmer, more reasoned atmosphere, and not just be a knee-jerk reaction to what happened yesterday or last week.”

Tags: Access to justice police powers terrorism