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Thousands Protest Australian Government's Eavesdropping - 2002-02-12

In the Australian capital, Canberra, thousands of angry protesters marred the opening of Parliament amid reports the government eavesdropped on citizens during an immigration crisis last year. Australia's government is coming under increasing pressure to end its policy of detaining illegal immigrants while their refugee requests are processed.

Watched over by dozens of police and security guards, about 2,000 people demonstrated on the lawns of the Parliament building, waving banners and chanting "free the refugees."

The noisy protest overshadowed official ceremonies to mark the return of Prime Minister John Howard's Conservative coalition government to power.

Mr. Howard overwhelmingly won a third-term in office during November elections. Voters especially approved of the tough stance he took three months earlier against 433 mostly Afghan boat people.

The immigrants were rescued from a sinking ferry by a passing Norwegian freighter. They were ultimately denied permission to land on Australian soil, despite weeks of pleas from the freighter's captain and human-rights groups.

But the government's hard line against illegal immigrants in Australia has divided politicians and Australians since the first detention camps were set up in 1994. The dispute erupted into a battle last month when hundreds of Afghans, detained for nearly a year in one of the immigrant camps, went on hunger strikes to protest their confinement.

But inside Parliament government officials largely ignored the issue in their opening remarks, saying only that Australians remain committed to the principles of fairness and decency. They also said the government is firmly committed to national security and the war against terrorism.

Meanwhile, Australia's government is facing an inquiry after a newspaper in Sydney reported it broke privacy laws by eavesdropping on calls to the Norwegian freighter during the immigration stand-off.

The Daily Telegraph says during the crisis aboard the ship in August, the government used the military's electronic monitoring arm to intercept calls from trade unionists, politicians, and journalists to the ship's captain. The newspaper says the information helped the government formulate subsequent actions.

Opposition party spokesman Chris Evans told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he finds the report highly disturbing.

"I would like to know who authorized these interceptions and how come they were used for these purposes," he said. "Why is it that ordinary Australians are having their phones tapped? I think we really need to get to the bottom of what they have done."

A government official has defended the action, saying it was necessary given threats against the ship's captain by the asylum seekers.