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FED: The Anti-Terrorism Act got plenty of use in 2008

By Peter Veness
24 Dec 2008 11:00 AM

CANBERRA, Dec 16 AAP - The 44 anti-terrorism laws introduced since September 11 got a solid workout in 2008.

Abdul Nacer Benbrika became the first to be convicted of leading a terrorist cell.

Attorney-General Robert McClelland called it a win for the controversial laws.

It was a win among plenty of losses.

After a legal ordeal lasting six years, the man once described as Osama bin Laden's "white boy", Jack Thomas, walked free from a Melbourne court after being found guilty only of owning a false passport.

And the man once described as one of the "worst of the worst" by the Pentagon, David Hicks, is also free after a questionable plea deal.

"These represent the worst elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. We asked for the bad guys first," US Marine Brigadier General Michael Lehnert said in the hours before Hicks and 19 others arrived at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay.

In the US, seven of those "worst of the worst" have been released and here it has taken seven years to deliver serious convictions under the controversial laws.

The federal government and its allies need wins.

The Benbrika trial delivered five other convictions. Aimen Joud, Fadl Sayadi, Abdullah Merhi, Ezzit Raad and Ahmed Raad were all found guilty of being members of a terrorist group.

Some of the laws have not even been used in the seven years they have been on the books. Many of the laws are poorly understood, even by the lawyers and courts working with them.

Criminal lawyer Rob Starry represented Benbrika and is a leading opponent of the laws. He believes, despite the successful conviction of Benbrika, that the laws need a major overhaul, but he isn't holding out hope.

"The Labor Party supported this legislation, they haven't exactly covered themselves in glory."

Starry believes politicians get co-opted by the intelligence community, forgetting the consequences of their actions and instead falling for the trap of thinking they're in a James Bond movie.

"All these politicians are seduced," he says.

"They get brought into the intrigue of a counter-intelligence unit."

Starry is one of many lawyers, rights campaigners and politicians calling for an independent person to be appointed to oversee the laws.

It's an idea that has been floating around for several years and was first suggested by then government backbencher Petro Georgiou. His advocacy got nowhere fast under John Howard.

The concept got a second life when two coalition senators teamed up earlier this year to push again for a reviewer. A draft law has passed the Senate and awaits debate in the House of Representatives.

It is unlikely this exact plan will get approval from the government.

More likely is a government sponsored bill, offering essentially the same plan, being introduced by Attorney-General Robert McClelland some time next year.

While the government has been quiet on its support for a reviewer, it is a hard proposition to say no to, given the success the United Kingdom has had with its reviewer.

Nicola McGarrity, an expert on terrorism and law from the University of NSW, has closely followed the Benbrika and Bilal Khazal trials. She believes the prospect of a reviewer is the most important debate of 2008.

McGarrity has other concerns as well.

"One of the biggest problems is people don't know where to find the laws and how they interact," she says.

"It's a problem that extends to the judiciary."

When experts are saying judges don't understand the law it should be a concern for everyone, not just accused terrorists. Without proper understanding it is difficult for judges to develop precedents, from which more understanding flows.

"Juries will be incredibly reluctant to convict" without proper explanation of the laws, McGarrity says.

"There has to be some level of simplification of the laws."

One of the laws that has the potential to impact the bystanders of terrorism - journalists, lawyers, politicians and bureaucrats - is sedition.

When it was introduced in late 2005 the law was highly controversial. But it has faded from view because it has never been used.

McGarrity believes any review of the laws would have to seriously consider removing sedition. The law prevents certain words from being spoken. It is the closest Australia has got to directly blocking freedom of speech.

It is perhaps the never used sedition law that might be the catalyst for change in 2009.