Australia aims to strengthen security by introducing new legislation to combat homegrown terrorism, said PM Tony Abbott.
The new laws will criminalize travel to some conflict areas and grant authorities broader access to citizens’ communications.
“Regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a statement on Monday, as he previewed a bill to be introduced in Parliament later this week.
Abbot said that under the new legislation it would be a crime for an Australian citizen to travel to any conflict area overseas once the government has declared it off limits.
“My unambiguous message to all Australians who fight with terrorist groups is that you will be arrested, prosecuted and jailed for a very long time, and that our laws are being changed to make it easier to keep potential terrorists off our streets,” Abbott said.
“The only safe place for those who have been brutalized and militarized by fighting with terrorists is inside a maximum security prison.”
Attorney General George Brandis said that under the legislation there will be some exemptions for Australian citizens, who can provide a valid reason for visiting the conflict zones, such as journalism or visiting family members.
As an example of such conflict areas, Abbot offered the Syrian city of Raqqa, currently under the stranglehold of Islamic State militants. Earlier this year a radicalized Australian terrorist posted pictures of his seven-year-old son holding up a severed head, reportedly in Raqqa.
Abbot added that Australia is concerned that some its citizens are believed to have joined Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq.
“For more than two years, the civil war in Syria, followed by the conquest of much of northern Iraq, has been sucking in misguided and alienated Australians,” he said.
“There are at least 60 Australians that we know of currently fighting with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, and at least 100 Australians who are supporting them.”
Abbot also pointed to the fact that more than 20 of these foreign fighters have already returned to Australia and pose a threat to national security.
On Thursday, more than 800 police were involved in a security operation in Sydney and Brisbane to disrupt alleged plans, linked to Islamic State militants, to publicly behead a randomly selected Australian. Sixteen people were detained during the raids.
“An Australian ISIL operative instructed his followers to pluck people from the street to demonstrate that they could, in his words, ‘kill kaffirs’,” Abbot said.
Another law, that would require Australian telecommunication companies to save metadata and provide it to government agencies, would also be introduced soon, Abbott added.
Authorities were on high alert last week after security forces intercepted communications alleging that Islamic State supporters may be planning an attack on the Australian Parliament.
“Creating new offenses that are harder to beat on a technicality may be a small price to pay for saving lives and maintaining the social fabric of an open, free and multicultural nation,” Abbot said.
Earlier on Monday, Brandis ruled out torture use against terror suspects, following concerns over the most significant overhaul of Australia’s counter-terrorism laws.
“Torture is against Australian law,” Brandis said. “Nevertheless, I don’t want the discussion of this important issue to be diverted by an issue that is effectively a red herring.”
On September 12, Australia raised its terror alert to the second highest level in response to recent violent events in the Middle East connected with the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and British aid worker David Haines.
Australia joined the US-led coalition of countries planning to launch airstrikes in Iraq, as the government ordered Australian warplanes and 200 special-forces soldiers to join other forces in the fight against jihad in the region.
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