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Terrorism arrests - moving from the political to the judicial

By Waleed Aly - posted Monday, 14 November 2005

Last Tuesday began with an awful sense of dêja vu for many Australian Muslims. Ever since ASIO raided several homes in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth in October 2002, news of overnight raids has assumed a sadly familiar ring.

It always begins with feelings of panic and fear. Australian Muslims vividly remember how children were needlessly held at gunpoint in the 2002 ASIO raids. And there has been growing mistrust of law enforcement and intelligence agencies among many Muslims.

A series of raids since has yielded very few charges. For all the spectacular activity, only one man was convicted on terrorism offences in Australia. It was not so much the raids themselves as the deafening silence following them that was frightening. The sheer dearth of tangible results led many to wonder whether or not these agencies were abusing their powers.


And it's not as if the agencies are immune to stuff-ups: just ask Bilal Daye and Fatme Iali, who were recently awarded an out-of-court settlement after ASIO raided their home by mistake. The suspicion was that law enforcement and intelligence activities were achieving little more than violating the rights of innocent people. The initial knee-jerk response on Tuesday was, naturally, to fear the worst.

But as events unfolded, it was clear that this week's raids represent a profoundly different case. This is not to say there were no causes for concern. Reports of a media tip-off sit uncomfortably, and police exclamations of thwarting a terror operation before anyone has even been tried smack of contempt.

But the arrests, which critics such as myself had so often called for on previous occasions, were made at long last. Charges were laid. Bail applications were heard. Prosecutions will ensue. The criminal justice system will finally be set in motion.

We should not underestimate just how big a difference this makes. It is all well and good for politicians to speak of endless briefings of terrorist threats, or for security officials to tell us how many potential terrorists there are in Australia.

But the unaccountable secrecy of national security is a tyrant's best friend. The problem has always been that such claims were conveniently beyond the ambit of public and independent scrutiny.

But now, in this particular case, that is no longer true. Federal and state police have put up. All the claims of hundreds of hours of damning intercepted chatter, the stockpiling of bomb-making chemicals, the links to proscribed terror organisations are about to be put to the test. This is no longer about asking the Australian public just to believe. The prosecution will have to convince an independent court that no reasonable doubt remains of the accuseds' guilt.


And for those in the habit of asserting the innocence of the raided, that, too, will be put to the test. Defence lawyers will do everything in their power to ravage the prosecution case, and magistrates will assess the evidence. The raided men will now have their day in court.

Provided the trial is fair, there is little cause for any complaint. The initial public-feeding frenzy jeopardised this, but the delay before trial should help, and in Australia's fiercely independent courts, a fair trial is still probable. Important is the fact that federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty is suppressing details of the charges against the accused precisely because, as he puts it, "it's important that we give these people a fair opportunity to prepare their defence before the court, rather than run the trial in the media".

No one likes to see raids taking place. Innocent family members always suffer and images of hundreds of police officers across the nation storming into homes in the dead of night feel as though they belong on the movie screen. There is something surreal and unsettling about an operation of this magnitude taking place in familiar Australian suburbs. This is our new celluloid reality.

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First published in The Australian on November 10, 2005.

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About the Author

Waleed Aly, a Melbourne lawyer, is a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria executive. He is a lecturer in the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash Univeristy. His book, People Like Us (Picador), will be published in September.

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