Counter-terrorism

From the Australian Financial Review, 8th November, 2005

Thank goodness for the counter terrorism guards on Sydney’s Harbour Bridge: they can stop pedestrians who use the bicycle path to cross the harbour. However, some people ignore instructions and continue their stroll. If we learn from the UK, these jaywalkers may soon know the full force of Australia’s new anti-terrorism laws which provide for detention and control orders for people who have broken no laws.

Sally Cameron suffered under UK anti-terrorism laws when she walked on a bicycle path in the harbour area of Dundee in northern UK. According to the London Times, Cameron was arrested, charged and held for four hours for using a path designated for cycles but, for security reason, not for pedestrians. Cameron, who saw no signs prohibiting walkers, was apprehended after two police cars were sent to the crime scene. She was lucky to escape prosecution.

This followed the detention of 82 year old Walter Wolfgang who was ejected from the UK Labor conference: he protested against a speech made by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. The BBC said Wolfgang’s security pass was taken from him and police detained him under the said anti-terrorism act when he tried to re-enter the Conference.

A third incident, reported in September by the UK Guardian, concerned the arrest, detention and charge, again under the UK anti-terrorism act, of David Mery, a 39 year old French citizen who wanted to catch a London train.

Because Mery did not look at police when he entered the tube station, might have been in the company of two other males, wore a suspicious vest and a bulky rucksack, looked around him and played with his mobile telephone, he was arrested, searched, handcuffed. Mery was released at 4.30 am after being detained for nine hours. During this time, Police searched his apartment under anti-terrorism laws and seized computer equipment.

A month later, police advised that they would take no further action. Mery should be grateful he is alive, unlike that other tube traveller, the Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes. Although an official report on Menezes’ death will not be completed until after the New Year, it is clear that initial reports about the killing were wrong. Menezes was shot eight times although he was at the time being restrained by police. He did not jump turnstiles or ignore stop orders, but he did wear a denim jacket and he had a rucksack. Like Mery, he had a funny accent.

Anyone with boys knows that Australian police, especially young constables, can be gung-ho and misuse their powers. But these UK incidents exemplify systemic problems: abuse has grown because nervous police have been given wide powers.

Our Prime Minister, John Howard, told us that the shoot to kill power he wanted in his new anti-terrorism bill would “not authorise the police to shoot somebody simply because that person is fleeing.” That clause has been dropped, but police can lawfully kill someone they want to detain, a person who has committed no crime, when they reasonably believe killing is necessary to protect life or prevent serious injury. The annual report of the London Metropolitan Police for 2004-05 discloses 11 unexplained “deaths following police contact” in that year. Let us hope this is not replicated here. To reduce the risk, don’t wear jackets, carry rucksacks or look or sound foreign.

At least we read about mistakes made by UK police. The bill introduced into the Commonwealth parliament makes it an offence for the media to publish that a person being detained believes or knows that the detention is unlawful or mistaken.

Last week we witnessed John Howard’s awesome negotiation powers. Like a good host, he feted the premiers in Canberra; he also alarmed them with forecasts of terrorist action; he ‘reluctantly’ conceded to a ten year sunset clause; he promised what he had to; and he secured premiers’ agreement before they had time properly to study the proposals, or find out if they were constitutional. The Premiers were suckered.

Then Howard put artificial time constraints for their formal consent and held them to their promise, “nothing more and nothing less”. Meanwhile Howard failed to fulfil his own agreement that his law would be consistent with human and political rights and he added afterthoughts important to him. If you need a formidable cajoler, hire Howard.

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One Response to Counter-terrorism

  1. Paul Norton says:

    As someone who has done a fair bit of reading on Russian and Soviet history, I’d add that the KGB’s forerunner, the Cheka, was intentionally titled the *Extraordinary* Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage as it was founded in the belief that its existence and functions would only be a temporary response to what was expected to be a short-lived emergency situation.

    Compare with Howard’s comment about the proposed “anti-terrorism” laws, to whit “this is unusual legislation for an unusual situation”, and Queensland Premier Beattie’s statement that “These are draconian measures. We would never have agreed to these in a fit normally, but when you are faced with a terrorist threat like this you have to have a response.”

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