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Australia to Revamp Anti-Terrorism Laws

Australia will amend its anti-terrorism laws to give more power to the police and to change the definition of terrorism to include psychological as well as physical harm. The Australian government says changes are necessary because the country faces a "significant threat" of attack by extremists.

Following the attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001, as well as the Bali bombings a year later, Australia gradually extended police powers to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects.

The government now intends to embark on a fundamental shake-up of its counter-terrorism laws.

Australia intends to toughen its laws by giving the police emergency powers to raid the homes of terrorism suspects without needing the approval a judge.

The changes also seek to make it more difficult for terrorism suspects to be released on bail.

In addition, the proposed amendments include a broader definition of a terrorist to include those planning acts of "psychological harm" as well as those intending to inflict physical injury.

Attorney-General Robert McClelland on Thursday explained the changes to the federal parliament.

"Expanding the definition of a terrorist act in the Criminal Code to include psychological as well as physical harm; providing police with new emergency powers to enter and search premises without a warrant where it is suspected on reasonable grounds that there is material relevant to a terrorist offense and there is a real and substantial threat to public health and safety," said McClelland.

Critics of the new measures say they will sweep away fundamental legal safeguards, notably the need for the judiciary to review a police request to search a suspect's home.

Australia's left-of-center government has pointed out that among its proposals are elements that will soften existing laws, including limiting the amount of time detainees can be held without charge to eight days. Civil liberty groups argue that three days should be sufficient to question a suspect.

A new offense for inciting racially motivated violence also will be added to the statutes.

The proposed changes were made public Thursday after raids in the southern city of Melbourne last week. Five men were arrested for allegedly planning a suicide attack on an army base in Sydney with automatic weapons.

The government has released a 450-page discussion paper, in which its arguments are explained.

Australia has never suffered a major terrorist attack on its soil and its alert status remains "moderate".

However, officials think that recent events such as the bombing of hotels in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, in which a handful of Australians died, are proof that extremism still poses a significant threat.