Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-AUSTRALIA: Police Spying ‘Infringing on Civil Liberties’

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Oct 30 2008 (IPS) - The revelation that police in the state of Victoria have infiltrated a number of community and protest groups has been met with indignation by the targeted organisations.

“It’s absolutely over the top. I think it’s an extreme breach of civil liberties and an extreme breach of privacy,” says Danielle Archer from Animal Liberation Victoria, one of the groups which was infiltrated by a member of Victoria Police’s Security Intelligence Group (SIG).

In an emailed response by the secretive group to questions from IPS, the SIG says its role is to “monitor issue-motivated groups and gather, assess and disseminate intelligence with the purpose of preventing acts or threats of terrorism, violence or unlawful behaviour.”

The group’s infiltration of the animal rights organisation and others – including pro-peace groups Stop the War Coalition and Unity for Peace, as well as left-wing student party Socialist Alternative – came to light in mid-October following an investigation by ‘The Age’ newspaper.

The paper reported that the SIG officer – whose identity ‘The Age’ did not disclose – was involved in a number of undertakings with activists, such as travelling to Sydney to attend protests at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum last September and taking part in a raid on a battery hen farm.

Archer told IPS that infiltrating protest groups “is a huge waste of police time and police resources.”

According to the animal rights activist, the targeted organisations “are not the sort of groups that are involved in any kind of destruction or damage or extreme criminal activities.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Mark Zirnsak, director of the Uniting Church’s Justice and International Mission Unit in the states of Victoria and Tasmania.

Zirnsak – part of the organising committee for this year’s Palm Sunday peace and nuclear disarmament rally in Melbourne, held each year since 2003 with concurrent rallies taking place around Australia – says that he was shocked to learn that the committee had been targeted by police, with an undercover SIG officer being convincing enough to be appointed the group’s minute-taker.

“I feel it was an unjustifiable interference from the police,” says Zirnsak, who is also on a range of human rights committees – including those focusing on education, anti-gambling and international security issues – as well as being the national coordinator of the Australian Network to Ban Landmines.

He told IPS that police spying on the peace rally’s organising committee was illegitimate, comparing it to an Orwellian case of covert monitoring.

“To have police infiltrate that and spy on that just felt like Big Brother interfering and I can’t see any legitimate reason for why they’ve done that,” says Zirnsak.

But while the SIG says that police “only collect information about groups if it has information to suggest they may be involved in or planning criminal activity or pose a threat to public safety” – implying that groups may be infiltrated in order for police to receive that “suggestive” information – Zirnsak argues that the Palm Sunday march has always been peaceful and respectful of the law.

“The Palm Sunday rally has been an annual event for which there’s been no violence, no unlawful activity. It’s got a strong history of simply being a peaceful event [based] around peace-building,” he says.

A leading civil libertarian believes that police have gone too far in infiltrating the protest groups.

“The infiltration of the animal liberation group in order to prevent them from releasing half a dozen chickens from a battery hen farm seem to me to be quite disproportionate,” says the president of Liberty Victoria, Julian Burnside QC.

The prominent lawyer told IPS that police infiltration can be justified when there is a genuine threat, but that infringements on civil liberties are dependent upon context.

“If it was the same sort of infiltration for a group that was planning a terrorist attack, it would be different. It would be different if the nature of the activists’ conduct was very serious criminal conduct, but it’s not,” argues Burnside.

The intelligence unit is known to have infiltrated at least one terror group – seven men were found guilty in September of being members of a terrorist organisation believed to have been planning attacks within Australia – with an undercover SIG officer testing explosives in the Victorian countryside in 2004 with the group’s convicted leader, Abdul Nacer Benbrika.

But while Burnside commends police for working to prevent crime, “you have to weigh-up the intrusion on basic rights, on the one hand, against the benefits for law enforcement on the other.”

“People have a right to privacy, a right to free association with others and a right to hold certain views,” he says.

The SIG argues that it is “conscious of civil liberties. However, it believes infiltration of activist groups is necessary to ensure public safety,” it said in the emailed statement to IPS.

The group also claims that internal frameworks ensure that any information garnered is not misused.

“All of the intelligence work undertaken by Victoria Police is closely monitored and subject to strict internal guidelines which guard against inappropriate invasions of privacy or improper file collection,” says the SIG.

But this is not the first time that concerns have been raised regarding potentially improper infiltration of protest groups by Victoria Police.

‘The Age’ newspaper also reported in 1997 that groups had been infiltrated by the police force’s Operations Intelligence Unit, with files being kept on gay activists, trade unionists and environmentalists – including the then-lead singer of pro-green rock band Midnight Oil and current federal minister for the environment, heritage and the arts, Peter Garrett – a revelation which led to an inquiry by the state’s ombudsmen following a public outcry.

Julian Burnside says that with Victoria now protected by a human rights charter – it became the first Australian state to implement such protection on Jan.1 – police should be operating accordingly.

“They are supposed to act in a way that gives effect to the rights recognised by the charter,” he argues.

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