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ASIO mounts case to question 14-year-olds

Australia’s domestic spy agency has emphasised the terror threat posed by teenagers as it pursues greater questioning powers.

Federal parliament’s powerful intelligence and security committee is considering whether to let ASIO interrogate 14-year-olds.

Various government agencies and interest groups will appear before the committee in Canberra on Friday.

Pleading its case for the proposed powers, ASIO told the committee in a written submission that since May 2015, one terror attack and three disruptions involved people aged under 18.

“ASIO is particularly concerned that vulnerable and impressionable young people will continue to be at risk of being ensnared in the streams of hate being spread across the internet by extremists of every ideology,” it said.

The legislation would lower from 16 to 14 the minimum age for questioning teens suspected of politically motivated violence. A lawyer would need to be present.

Lawyers and children’s advocates have panned the proposed powers as unnecessary and inappropriate.

Save the Children chief executive Paul Ronalds said the “incredibly intrusive” laws would impinge on the rights of all 14 and 15-year-old children in Australia.

“There is very little evidence provided to justify the extreme measures contained in the bill,” Mr Ronalds told the committee.

“If successful it will undermine the democratic ideals and way of life that it purports to protect, putting at risk children’s rights in the justice system, including the right to a fair trial.”

The legislation would also allow ASIO agents to track suspects without a warrant.

ASIO argued switching to an internal review model for planting tracking devices would bring the agency into line with state and federal counter-terrorism partners.

Agents can already conduct compulsory interviews of terror suspects, but wants this extended to spies and foreign meddlers.

“The threats posed today by espionage and foreign interference operate at a scale, breadth and ambition that has not previously been seen in Australia,” ASIO said.

“Espionage and foreign interference are affecting parts of the Australian community previously untouched by such threats, even during the Cold War.”

ASIO also said Australia’s “probable” terror threat was unacceptably high.

The intelligence agency is concerned about people returning from Syria and Iraq conflict zones over the next five years, and the growing number of Islamic terrorists behind bars who could radicalise other prisoners.

There have been three counter-terror disruptions in Australia over the past year – two connected with Islamic extremists, and one with right-wing fanatics.

“The threat from the extreme right wing in Australia has increased in recent years (although the principal source of the terrorist threat remains Sunni Islamist extremism),” ASIO told the committee.

“We remain concerned about the possibility of individuals being radicalised to an extreme right-wing ideology and committing acts of terrorism.”

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