Mark Schliers, in The Australian, 6 August 2012
THE Australian Crime Commission has been using its “star chamber” powers in special operations to target people-smugglers by interrogating recent arrivals. ACC executive director Paul Jevtovic told The Australian that the secretive organised crime fighting agency was using all its powers to help the Australian Federal Police investigate people-smugglers. Among the ACC’s powers are the ability to summon people for questioning and charge those who do not answer questions or lie to officers, with a maximum punishment of five years’ jail.
It is also illegal for someone who has attended an ACC “examination” – including lawyers – to disclose to another person information about the summons, the hearing or anything said during questioning. The AFP, which has been the lead agency investigating people-smuggling, but lacks coercive powers of its own, has repeatedly referred individuals to the ACC for questioning.
The two agencies cited ongoing investigations for refusing to disclose whether asylum-seekers not suspected of being smugglers had been hauled into the ACC for an examination. In the past 18 months, 31 examinations linked to people-smuggling have taken place, and ACC chief executive John Lawler said further interrogations were planned in coming months.
Responding to a question on notice from Senate estimates in February, the ACC said that in an eight-week period, ending April 14 last year, it used its coercive powers on 17 occasions during a special intelligence operation. Since then, 14 examinations have been conducted under the new investigation, called the National Security Impacts from Serious and Organised Crime Special Operation.
As revealed in The Weekend Australian, the AFP suspects remittance services in suburban Melbourne may be sending money to people-smugglers. The ACC would not elaborate on the details of its investigations, but the Gillard government has previously said that intelligence supplied by the agency had been used during at least one probe into the financing system used by smuggling groups.
Mr Lawler said the current special operation, which began last June, was targeted at gathering evidence against syndicates and facilitators “at the highest level”. ACC examinations played a part in several of the 15 arrests related to people-smuggling carried out by the AFP in the past 15 months.
Mr Jevtovic, who joined the ACC after resigning as deputy director of Victoria’s Office of Police Integrity in November, said the hearings had helped investigators understand the workings of people-smuggling operations. “I would say the effective and appropriate use of coercive powers are a very important tool against all criminality, of which people-smuggling is one,” he said. “The reality is we have been able to use those powers appropriately and effectively to contribute to the intelligence picture that surrounds people-smuggling and we’re going to continue to do that.
“Through our coercive powers to our intelligence collection, we’ll do whatever we can and use whatever is within our capability to support the challenge of people-smuggling.”
Mr Jevtovic said it was very rare – “if ever” – that the ACC would conduct an examination without the AFP’s knowledge. The AFP would not answer questions about how, or at what stage of an investigation, it referred individuals to the ACC. “The AFP has a long-standing policy of safeguarding the integrity of its investigations . . . and intelligence. For these reasons it would not be appropriate to provide further comment,” a spokeswoman said.
A spokeswoman for Home Affairs and Justice Minister Jason Clare said the ACC’s role in people-smuggling investigations was crucial, citing arrests made in the past 15 months. “The AFP have made 15 arrests related to people-smuggling, and the ACC’s hearings played a part in a number of those arrests,” she said. Opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis would not comment.
Refugee advocates spoken to by The Australian were concerned that vulnerable asylum-seekers or young Indonesian boat crew may have been forced to give evidence. The Refugee Action Coalition’s Ian Rintoul said even suspected people-smugglers should not be subjected to such powers. “We are extremely concerned that the Crime Commission could use star chamber powers, that are reminiscent of the kind of powers under anti-terror laws, against refugees and other people on the basis of being associated with alleged people-smuggling,” Mr Rintoul said.
Marion Le, a Canberra-based migration lawyer and refugee advocate, was “gobsmacked” that such powers were being exercised and feared that genuine asylum-seekers were being subjected to high-pressure interrogations. “I’m always concerned about their powers, especially when they are dealing with people who are very vulnerable and don’t understand the system,” Ms Le said. “How many people do understand that star chamber system? I think any encroachment on people’s civil liberties and democratic rights is really worrying. There’s no checks and balances on those people conducting those interviews.”
Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said asylum-seekers and smugglers would be shocked when questioned by authorities with similar powers to the government’s of the repressive countries they had fled.
II: Backing for use of “Star Chamber” — Mark Schliers, in The Australian, 7 August 2012
LEGAL experts have backed the Australian Crime Commission using its “star chamber” powers to investigate people-smuggling, but only if the agency is transparent about its methods. The respected Rule of Law Institute, which has raised concerns about the use of coercive powers by federal authorities, said yesterday there were no issues with the ACC hauling people into secret examinations so long as the general policy of doing so was publicly available and the number of hearings reported to parliament.
Civil Liberties Australia president Terry O’Gorman, however, said that while using such powers in relation to suspected smugglers could be justified, he feared genuine asylum-seekers could be forced to identify those who brought them here. The Australian yesterday revealed that the secretive organised-crime fighting agency had conducted 31 smuggling-related examinations in the past 18 months and planned to hold more before the end of the year.
Among the ACC’s powers are the ability to summon people for questioning and charge those who do not answer questions or lie to officers, with a maximum punishment of five years’ jail. It is illegal for someone who has attended an ACC examination to disclose information about the summons, the hearing or anything said during questioning, to another person. The ACC would not say if asylum-seekers not suspected of smuggling had been examined, sparking concern among refugee advocates that vulnerable people may have been threatened with jail if they did not answer questions.
The Refugee Council of Australia echoed concerns that people fleeing repressive nations were being subjected to powers similar to those of totalitarian authorities. Rule of Law Institute chief Richard Gilbert said the ACC seemed to be using its powers appropriately. “Parliament should only confer such powers to agencies sparingly,” Mr Gilbert said. “There must be transparency about the use of the coercive powers and the frequency of their use.”
Mr O’Gorman said the use of “star chambers” to interrogate suspected smugglers could be allowed if all other means of investigation were exhausted. “I would be concerned about ordinary people who have been transported here in boats, not the organisers, being hauled in and made to answer questions,” he said. “It would be different if the crime commission were to use its powers to question suspected king pins. “In relation to their ordinary use of star chambers (for other crimes) over a period of time, they’ve moved from bringing in the organisers and the financiers to starting with the minions in order to get to the financiers and organisers.”
The Law Council of Australia would not comment, yesterday, but it has expressed concern over the use of coercive powers and their impact on the right against self-incrimination.
For the media witch-hunt,also see
* ‘Groceries are my trade, not boatpeople,’ says shopkeeper “– http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/immigration/groceries-are-my-trade-not-boatpeople-says-shopkeeper/story-fn9hm1gu-1226443404912
* “Sydney cluster in frame for people smuggling,” by Cameron Stewart and Paul Maley, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/immigration/sydney-cluster-in-frame-for-people-smuggling/story-fn9hm1gu-1226443406762