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Joint parliamentary committee reviewing ASIO's special powers hears that detention powers should be removed or substantially watered down.

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Tuesday 7 June 2005

Joint parliamentary committee reviewing ASIO's special powers hears that detention powers should be removed or substantially watered down


MARK COLVIN: The Federal Government has again been asked to scrap ASIO's special powers on terrorism. 


A big coalition of legal and human rights groups today told a joint Federal parliamentary committee that the spy agency's questioning and detention powers in particular should be axed or substantially watered down. 


ASIO has said that Australia is still a target for terrorist groups and that the new powers introduced in 2003 should remain. 


But those arguing against the laws say that there's no need for such draconian powers and that the legislation's sunset clause should be invoked next year. 


Rachel Carbonell with this report. 


RACHEL CARBONELL: The Joint Federal Parliamentary Committee Review of ASIO's special powers has received more than 90 submissions and is currently travelling around the country conducting hearings. 


The legislation increasing the intelligence agency's powers was drafted after the September 11 terrorist attacks and passed two years ago. 


The joint committee is currently in Melbourne, where it has heard submissions from community, legal and human rights groups which say ASIO's powers to question people for 24 hours and detain them for a week without charge are excessive.  


They say the legislation's 2006 sunset clause should be adhered to.  


Amnesty International is among those groups which oppose the legislation.  


Spokeswoman Nicole Bieske says ASIO's far-reaching authority is a real threat to human rights in Australia. 


NICOLE BIESKE: We're concerned that it goes too far, it effectively reverses the burden of proof, creates a system of detention without charge for people who are not themselves suspected of committing any offence, which we find of great concern. 


We're particularly concerned in relation to the role of lawyers and the limited access that lawyers have and we've been concerned about this legislation since it was initiated in 2002. 


Another significant area of concern for Amnesty International is the application of this legislation to children. And the fact that it applies to children from 16 and above, who can be strip-searched and questioned. 


And Amnesty International believes that that is in significant breach of our international obligations. 


RACHEL CARBONELL: Waleed Aly, from the Islamic Council of Victoria, says the legislation is vaguely worded, and there's no proper oversight. 


WALEED ALY: We want this whole division excised, however, if that's not possible, then obviously we'll … we have suggestions in the alternative, but we stress they are in the alternative. And in particular I think at a bare minimum, and I'm sure that everyone on this panel would agree, at a bare minimum we really need to have far more judicial oversight of this. This is a secretive organisation with incredibly draconian powers. 


RACHEL CARBONELL: ASIO has only used its new questioning powers eight times and it hasn't yet used its power to detain someone for a week. 


But Rob Stary, from the Law Institute of Victoria, says it's impossible to tell whether ASIO has abused its authority. 


ROB STARY: The problem is there's no scrutiny of the process. We don't know, we're not entitled to know what the operational details are. No person's permitted to speak about their interrogation and so there's completely insufficient scrutiny, public scrutiny. 


RACHEL CARBONELL: The Director General of ASIO, Dennis Richardson, told a parliamentary hearing last month that the agency's special powers should become a permanent feature of Australia's counter-terrorism laws.  


He says Australia remains a target of terrorist groups, and it's a long-term generational threat. 


The joint parliamentary committee is expected to report back to the Federal Government by the end of the year.  


The Government is unlikely to decide whether to extend ASIO's powers until then, but the Federal Attorney General, Philip Ruddock, has indicated he's supportive of the legislation as it is. 


PHILIP RUDDOCK: There is no evidence that's been adduced that I've seen that the security threat to Australia has in fact changed. One might well form a view if Australia was no longer exposed, that a security agency didn't need a questioning power, but in the environment in which we're operating, it seems to me that a power that has been found to be useful, used as a last resort, used effectively, and which there are no suggestions of any excessive use of power, ought to be able to continue. 


MARK COLVIN: The Attorney General Philip Ruddock, ending Rachel Carbonell's report.