Last week, two Sydney men were arrested by the Australian Federal Police for the grievous crime of attempting to assist the oppressed. ASIO has also been busy cancelling passports of young Muslims to this same end.
The two arrested, Amin Mohammed and Hamdi al-Qudsi, were accused of "crimes" related to travelling to Syria to join the fight against the Assad regime. And yet the fact that all we have at this stage are allegations by police, untested in any court of law, has not stopped the media from its usual irresponsiblesensationalism. The media trial has seen the case linked to an unrelated suicide bombing in Syria, to an unrelated old case regarding the wife of one of the accused, and to anything and everything that paints the accused as violent "extremists."
On the other hand, mainstream media has diligently and uncritically reported the authorities' side of the story, acting, as it does in cases of this nature, as a mouthpiece of the state. But it is the actions of the state itself that are much more concerning.
These arrests and passport cancellations come in the context of a broader crackdown on Muslims wanting to travel to Syria to assist in the fight against the brutally repressive Assad regime. The crackdown has bi-partisan political support and began in 2011 with the confiscation of passports by the AFP and ASIO (a campaign shrouded in secrecy) and information campaigns seeking to discourage people from travelling to Syria.
The use of the law to this end has seen a hodge-podge of confused and arbitrary measures. In August 2012, the Australian Government issued advice to the Muslim community through the infamous AFP Community Liaison Teams, attempting to stop Muslims travelling to Syria. The advice claimed that fighting "on either side" of the Syrian conflict was illegal because ofautonomous sanctions placed on the Syrian regime in May 2011. Surprisingly, it took the Government over 15 months to get this advice to the community. More surprisingly, the sanctions say absolutely nothing about fighting with the rebels, yet were used to claim that fighting "on either side" is an offence.
In June 2013, some rebel groups in Syria were proscribed by the Attorney-General as terrorist organisations, partly in order to facilitate the use of anti-terror legislation for this purpose. The new line adopted was that if anyone went to Syria to fight they could potentially engage in criminal activity by becoming involved in groups proscribed by the Criminal Code.
This was not sufficient, however, as not all rebel groups were proscribed. Given that young Muslims continued to stream to Syria, authorities have now resorted to the use of the Foreign Incursions Act 1978 (I suspect some government lawyer must have had a "Why didn't we think of this before?" moment). This otherwise dormant piece of legislation - only 12 people have been convicted under it since 1978 - makes it an offence to engage in "hostile activities" in a foreign state or to prepare for the same. Last week's arrests were made under this legislation. The government line is that the arrests were simply a matter of implementing the legislation and has nothing to do with the government's position on the Syrian conflict.
Facts suggest otherwise.
Young Jews travel to Israel every year to train in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). In some cases they engage in battle and even die, such as in the case in 2006 of Assaf Namer. Alexander Downer had the following glowing obituary to offer on his death:
"I just want to say how sad I am that an Australian has been killed, and obviously we extend our condolences to the family and we'll provide whatever consular assistance is necessary in these circumstances. He was in the last month of his national service, so it's particularly sad circumstances surrounding his death."
(Incidentally, comparing media portrayal of Jews travelling to train with the IDF with that of Muslims travelling to serve in Syria can also be quite revealing.)
The reply of authorities to this double-standard - advanced by both the AFP and the Attorney-General - is that engagement with the IDF is acceptable because the Foreign Incursions Act makes an exception for those who travel to train or fight with the "legitimate military forces of sovereign states" (and thus the purpose of this bizarre legislation becomes clearer).
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