CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia is pushing ahead with tough new anti-terrorism laws on Wednesday despite Muslim and civil liberties leaders questioning their necessity a day after police arrested 17 men on charges of planning a terrorist attack.
Opponents of the new legislation said the arrests on Tuesday in the nation”s biggest counter-terrorism swoop, which police said had disrupted a plot for a "catastrophic" attack, proved the country”s existing laws were sufficient.
"My question is whether we need the legislation because these arrests have taken place under the existing laws and it appears that the current laws are working efficiently," Australian Federation of Islamic Councils President Ameer Ali told Australian radio.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty also said Australia”s current anti-terrorism laws were adequate.
"I think the issue about the proposed bill was an issue of transparency," Keelty told Australian television.
Those arrested included a radical Muslim cleric and a man police said wanted to become a suicide bomber. The loose-knit group from Sydney and Melbourne did not have a target but was trying to buy chemicals similar to those used in the July 7 London bombings, police said.
Attorney General Philip Ruddock said calls to Australia”s national security hotline had doubled to 240 in the 24 hours since the arrests.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard moved to allay the fears of the Muslim community that they would become the target for the new laws and reprisal attacks following the arrests.
"People who support terrorism are as much their enemies as they are my or your enemies. There is nothing in our laws, nor will there be anything in our laws, that targets an individual group, be it Islamic or otherwise," Howard told Australian radio.
Muslims make up 1.5 percent of Australia”s 20 million people.
Howard”s fight to strengthen anti-terrorism laws has mirrored that of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was last week forced to water down his terrorism laws to avoid a first key defeat during his eight years in power.
A government minister has even described the new laws as "draconian," but necessary to protect Australia from terrorism.
The new anti-terrorism measures, proposed after the London bombings, allow police to detain suspects for seven days without charge and use electronic tracking devices to keep tabs on them.
The laws would also make support for insurgents in countries such as Iraq an offence punishable by a seven-year jail sentence.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told parliament the proposed detention provisions were in line with many other countries, including France, the United States and Britain.
"There is no doubt that those countries realize they have to take decisive and strong action against terrorism, and we must do the same thing in this country," Downer said.
The New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties plans to launch a campaign on Friday warning Australians of the impact of the new laws, which it says are like powers "exercised in communist regimes."
Concerns have also been raised by government politicians, opposition parties and the media over the plans to broaden the definition of sedition and increase the maximum jail term for the offence to seven years from three years.
"The critical thing is to ensure that we balance the important objective of ensuring national security and we need to protect our liberties, freedom of speech," government backbench politician Malcolm Turnbull told reporters.
The Australian parliament is due to start debating the anti-terrorism laws later on Wednesday. The government wants them passed before Christmas so they are in place before the Commonwealth Games are held in Melbourne in March 2006.