Since September 11 2001, Australia has seen the passage of an unprecedented volume of “Anti-Terror” laws. However, since 2013 and with developments in the Muslim world, the pace of this legal activity has escalated. We caught up with Melbourne-based lawyer Ataman Atlas to gauge his thoughts. Br Ataman has provided legal advice to Muslims affected by the government action resulting from some of these laws.
- As a legal professional, what do you make of what has happened in Australia in the last 12-18 months in terms of changes to “Anti-Terror” laws and the introduction of further measures?
My personal view is that Tony Abbott and his Government have created this spate of legislation in order to attack the Muslim Community in Australia purely for a political agenda. What we’ve seen over this period is in legal terms is a violation of the fundamentals of a liberal democracy’s legal process.
The very concept of the Rule of Law (that everybody is equal in the eyes of the law) has been under attack by the Abbott Government. They have done away with dog-whistle politics and now almost overtly marginalize and discriminate against a section of the Australian community through the legal apparatus. An example of this was Abbott’s speech where he stated that he wished more Muslim leaders would condemn “Islamic Terrorism and actually mean it”, or words to similar affect. This is an extraordinary interrogation of a very specific community in the context of legislative changes taking place. The correlation cannot be ignored.
Then Abbott’s attempt to revoke the citizenship of those people suspected or convicted of an “act of terrorism” is an example of an attack on the Separation of Powers doctrine. He initially wanted people suspected or convicted of terrorism offences to have their citizenships revoked, and the arbitrator of this very important decision was to be the Immigration Minister of the day, with no recourse to the Judiciary for appeals or review.
While this particular bill has been watered down following public outcry, it is nonetheless set to be passed with potentially retrospective effect, which is a huge issue in criminal law because it means people who were not aware of something being a criminal offence can be convicted of it after the fact. This is the height of injustice.
- What is the view in the legal community: do they generally feel these are “needed” or are there plenty who realise the problems with these laws?
Many Lawyers I have spoken with feel that these new laws are an overreach, and will eventually be struck down in the High Court for various reasons. Nobody has ever articulated a genuine case for why they were needed in their horrifyingly draconian form.
- Have you worked on cases in the “Anti-Terror” space and if so, what has your experience been generally?
Yes I have, both as an Investigator and as Defence Counsel.
I was formerly a Detective in the NSW Police Force. During my service I worked on many matters which would today be called “Acts of Terrorism”; for example an extortion attempt on Qantas many years ago, where the individual was subsequently arrested and charged under terrorism laws. Further, prior to the Sydney Olympics there was a threat against certain nations and their athletes. This person also wanted money and it was effectively an extortion offence. The matter was kept quiet so as not to panic the community or cause an “international incident”. They are just a couple off the top of my head which I was involved in the investigation of.
On the other side I’ve appeared as Defence Counsel for arrested persons who the media and police call “terror suspects”. Although the investigation of my client was carried out by the Joint Terrorism Task Force and he was deemed a “terror suspect”, the investigation and facts of the matter reveal a very different story. My experience in dealing with investigators from the JTTF reveals that their intent is indeed malicious and borders on the corrupt. Not only do they make the lives of ordinary people difficult, but destroy the credibility, impartiality and humanity of otherwise decent police personnel. While I cannot presently comment further, dare I say once my client’s matter is resolved he and his family will have a lot to reveal in due course, some of it in the civil jurisdiction of the Courts (as complaints).
- From what you’ve seen, how has this new legal regime impacted on the Muslim community?
It has had a huge impact on the Muslim community in two very specific ways:
Firstly, many within the Muslim community are very angry. They see these new laws as an attack on the Muslim community in general, a perception that increases with each incident. There is no issue about the police doing a job to protect everybody in the community, but when certain laws are enacted and enforced against a certain section of the community, all it does is anger that community. It creates a sense of paranoia and a siege mentality, furthering the view that law enforcement is a political extension of the Government. Then when those matters come before courts and members of the judiciary mention 9/11, it creates a sense that those accused will not receive justice purely based on their religious beliefs.
In a recent case in Sydney a judge was quoted as having done precisely this. Yet we know 9/11 had nothing to do with Australia or any Muslims here. All this does, then, is become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The government enacts laws citing the Muslim threat, and judges apply the law mentioning that context. This compounds fear within the wider society, with the Muslim community the victim of this vicious cycle.
Secondly: fear. I highlight also the fear within the Muslim Community that now exists following incidents like the death of Numan Haider and Haroon Monis. Both these men were killed by Police and both had certain allegations made about them. In both cases, Imams and Mosques refused to deal with their dead bodies and provide basic, compulsory Islamic burial rituals. “Why?” is the question one should ask. I think the answer is self evident. Putting all other matters aside, these are dead bodies of men who professed to be Muslim, who were known to be Muslim and yet they were denied their burial rites. Islamically, it is not for Imams and mosques to pick and choose which parts of Islam they adhere to and when, yet their actions in cases like these are metaphoric, I think, of the paranoia and fear that is now gripping the Muslim community. Dozens of examples could be cited but these incidents personify what I am talking about.
- Where do you think all this is going? How far will these laws go?
The High Court for starters. Unfortunately most just don’t have the money to fund a High Court battle; Legal Aid will not fund these matters either for the most part. So it is going to deter many but eventually I think some case will get there and, no doubt at great emotional and financial cost, we’ll eventually see some dramatic things at the High Court, from a legal perspective. I see these matters getting far worse before they get better, especially with the Liberal Party in power. Unless the community gets organised and establishes methods to fight these matters in courts, more of the same is to come.
- Are there many lawyers out there sympathetic with the Muslim community and keen to help it in a legal sense?
Yes, there are many lawyers both Muslim and non Muslim that are sympathetic in the fact of the attack on the Muslim community, and are willing to fight these matters in courts.
- What is your advice to the Muslim community at this time, from a legal angle?
The best advice: if you are involved in an incident where Law Enforcement is involved, always exercise your right to silence. Don’t try to explain your situation to the Police because they are not your friends; they do not care about you or your family and most often they are trying to secure conviction at any cost. Thereafter: call your chosen Lawyer and get assistance straight away. In Australia, theoretically at least, everyone is meant to have the same rights and responsibilities. People need to know their rights and the laws. Ignorance of the law is unfortunately no defence. That said, many laws are complex, making it hard for the average person to know all their rights, so the one right to remember is that to silence, when it comes to situations where you are involved with the authorities and are not compelled to provide any answers.
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