CANBERRA, Australia – Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Tuesday warned Australian extremists who fight with the Islamic State group in the Middle East that they will be “jailed for a very long time” if they return to Australia.
Abbott’s government will introduce to Parliament on Wednesday draft legislation that would create a new criminal offence for simply visiting terrorism hot spots around the world.
The legislation is designed to make it easier to prosecute Australian jihadists when they return home from Mideast battlefields.
“If you fight with a terrorist group, if you seek to return to this country, as far as this government is concerned, you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted and you will be jailed for a very long time indeed,” Abbott told Parliament.
At least 60 Australians were fighting in Iraq and Syria with Islamic State and another al-Qaida offshoot, Jabhat al-Nursa, also known as the Nusra Front, the prime minister said.
He revealed that more than 60 Australian would-be fighters had had their passports cancelled on secret service advice to prevent them from flying to the Mideast.
Dozens of suspected fighters have already returned to Australia from the battlefields. Security agencies fear that they now pose a domestic terrorist threat.
Under current legislation, fighting with terrorists overseas carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence. But few have been charged due to the difficulties in gathering evidence from distant war zones.
Under proposed legislation, an Australian would be committing a crime by visiting an area that the foreign minister has designated off-limits.
Attorney General George Brandis said entire countries would not be banned, but locations such as the Syrian city of Raqqa, which has become an Islamic State stronghold, might be.
The onus would be on an Australian who travelled to such a no-go zone to prove that the visit was for an innocuous purpose such as humanitarian work or journalism.
The government rejects criticisms that the law would effectively shift the onus of proof from the prosecution under the Australian legal system by requiring defendants to prove they are not terrorists.
Details of new penalties under the proposed laws have not yet been released.
Abbott leaves late Tuesday for New York, where he will attend a United Nations Security Council meeting on the multi-nation problem of 15,000 foreign fighters who are in Iraq and Syria.