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Judges say Australian terror laws may be illegal

Written by: Staff
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CANBERRA, Mar 17 (Reuters) Australian anti-terror laws that allow people to be held without charge could breach international law, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said today.

The concerns were raised by a panel of international judges who are examining security laws enacted around the world after the September. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and come ahead similar hearings in Britain and the United States.

Panel member Hina Jilani from Pakistan said ICJ members acknowledged that the Australian government needed to protect its citizens from terror attacks.

''However, on the basis of the information received, they invite reflection whether those counter-terrorism laws, policies and practices comply with international law,'' she told reporters.

Australia has gradually strengthened its anti-terror laws since the September. 11 attacks, modelling its changes on those in Britain and the United States. Canberra further strengthened its laws following the London bus and subway bombings in July 2005.

A spokeswoman for Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said the government was confident its laws met Australia's international obligations.

The ICJ panel held public hearings in Sydney, and was briefed by government officials as part of its inquiry.

Australia has never suffered a major peacetime attack on home soil, but Australians have been caught up in attacks overseas, including the 2002 bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.

Last November, police in Sydney and Melbourne arrested 18 people who are now facing trial, charged with being members of terror organisations and/or plotting an attack.

Under Australia's anti-terror laws, people can be detained and questioned for up to 14 days without charge under preventative detention measures if authorities believe they have information about an attack.

The new laws also allow authorities to issue strict control orders on people who have not been charged, allowing the use of electronic devices to keep track of suspects or order house arrest for up to 12 months.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation said earlier this month that the new powers would be used as a last resort. ASIO said 13 people had been questioned under the laws between 2003 and June 2005.

The ICJ panel said the use of control orders was ''disquieting'', but said the preventative detention powers were the biggest concern.

''The possibility of preventative detention raises serious concern that such detention may be tantamount to derogation of the country's human rights obligations under international law,'' Jilani said.

REUTERS KD RK0955

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