- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2003

SYDNEY, Australia — A new antiterrorism law, considered one of the toughest in the industrial world, has won broad backing from both ruling and opposition parties.

But much as in the United States, some of the law’s provisions have alarmed civil libertarians who warn that it is likely to send innocent people to jail for years because they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“These are extreme measures, but necessary in the extraordinary times we live in,” says Ross Babbage, a terrorism specialist at the Australian National University.

John Faulkner, the opposition party’s point man on home affairs, said, “In a situation where there is a potential terrorist threat on public buildings or mass murders of people in Australia, these new powers for ASIO might help to prevent their actual occurrence.”

ASIO is the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.

The Oct. 12 bombings in nearby Bali — which targeted a popular Australian tourist spot — stunned a nation whose geographic distance from the United States and Europe had previously afforded it a measure of protection from militant Islam.

The Bali blasts killed 202 persons. About half were Australians.

The head of ASIO, Dennis Richardson, recently told a parliamentary committee that the nation’s intelligence system had failed in the Bali bombing. He has publicly supported the legislation.

But critics say that such rigorous laws are unnecessary in a country where the last terrorist attack was in 1978 — an attempted assassination of a foreign visitor in which three bystanders died.

Civil libertarians cite what they say are a number of problems:

• A taxi driver could be jailed for up to five years for unknowingly driving a terrorist fugitive somewhere.

• Under the law, recently passed after 15 months of political wrangling, Australia’s domestic spy agency now has the power to detain people just because they may have information that might help in fighting terrorism.

Journalists, doctors, teachers, car-rental agents and hoteliers are all at risk.

• Initial questioning can last for up to seven days, but if new evidence is produced, another week of detention may follow.

• If the detainee refuses to answer questions or answers inaccurately, he may be detained for up to five years.

The head of the Council for Civil Liberties, Cameron Murphy, says the law is more draconian than any antiterrorism law in the United States. “In no other Western democracy can you arrest a nonsuspect,” Mr. Murphy said.

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