CANBERRA, Australia (AP) - Australia’s government on Tuesday announced plans to regulate travel to terrorist hotbeds such as Iraq and Syria as part of a raft of counterterrorism measures aimed at addressing the domestic threat posed by war-hardened homegrown Islamic extremists.
The government announced proposed laws and 630 million Australian dollars ($590 million) in additional resources for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them to cope with the scores of Australians who return home after committing terrorist acts overseas.
“We don’t want to subvert Australian justice,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reports. “The last thing any of us would choose to do is to defend our system by damaging our system.”
“But what we are determined to do is to ensure that where people have been involved in terrorist activities, it is much more readily possible to secure convictions than it currently is, given the difficulty of getting evidence of exactly what might be happening overseas,” he added.
Abbott said it was difficult to find witnesses to testify in Australian courts to atrocities in foreign war zones that are often posted on social media websites.
“We’ve all seen truly shocking imagery of Australians born and bred doing absolutely horrific things to surrendering Iraqi police and military personnel,” he said. “What we are now acutely conscious of is the danger posed back here in Australia by people returning to this country who have been radicalized and militarized by the experience of working with terrorist organizations overseas.”
Under legislation to be introduced to Parliament in the next few weeks, it would become a criminal offense to travel to designated countries “without a valid reason.”
Attorney General George Brandis said the onus would be on someone who travels to such a country to explain that the reason was humanitarian, family or for “other innocuous purposes.”
The offense would be far easier to prove than the current prohibition on traveling overseas to take part in terrorism.
A suspected terrorist would be detained without charge if he or she were “suspected on reasonable grounds,” a lower burden of proof than the current test of “considered on reasonable grounds.”
Under the proposed laws, the foreign minister, who can currently cancel a suspected terrorist’s passport, would gain additional powers to more quickly suspend a passport.
The legal definition of armed hostilities would be expanded to include a range of terrorist activities. Australian telecommunications and Internet companies would also be required to retain customers’ data for a period. Spy agencies argue that retaining such metadata is necessary to uncover terrorist plots.
The Australian government estimated in June that 150 Australians have fought with radical militants in Syria and Iraq.
Australian police announced last week that they had arrest warrants for two Australians who are fighting with the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria after one posted photographs of the other posing with severed heads of Syrian soldiers. They said former Sydney residents Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar would be arrested if they return to Australia.