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Terrorist or criminal? Why it matters

  • 17 July 2015

A young man walks into a place of worship. He kills a number of people from a different ethnic or religious group, and has photos of himself displayed online with a flag known for extremist political affiliations.

If this is done in the US by a young white man, the place is a church, the victims are African Americans and the flag is the old Confederate flag – he is labelled a mass murderer and criminal. If this is done in Kuwait by a Saudi and it is a Shia Mosque, and the flag is that commonly used by Daesh or ISIS, he is a terrorist.

What is the difference when the result is the same (i.e. innocent people killed whilst practising their religion)?

This separate labelling of criminals and terrorists has some basis in The Commonwealth Crimes Act which lists the following as terrorist offences:

A terrorist act is an act, or a threat to act, that meets both these criteria:

1. It intends to coerce or influence the public or any government by intimidation to advance a political, religious or ideological cause.

2. It causes one or more of the following:

- death, serious harm or danger to a person

- serious damage to property

- a serious risk to the health or safety of the public

- serious interference with, disruption to, or destruction of critical infrastructure such as a telecommunications or electricity network.

The Government has listed 21 organisations as ‘terrorist organisations’. Only one, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is not an Islamist military organisation. The PKK is a Marxist nationalist organisation. The PKK works with the Syrian Kurdish YPG and the Iraqi Kurds against Daesh. The fact that a terrorist organisation is working with groups the Australian and US Governments are supporting illustrates the complexities of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Although the mafia or camorra commit murder, and are a ‘serious risk to the health or safety of the public’ they are called ‘organised criminals’, not terrorists.

Why does it matter whether someone is labelled a criminal or terrorist? It matters because we can treat terrorists differently to criminals. How we name someone makes a big difference. Criminals are subject to the criminal justice system. They can access to legal aid if they meet the means and merits tests. The prosecution must prove its case and if the alleged criminal is found guilty by a court, or by a jury, they are sentenced.

Whereas a terrorist could