Australia's govt introduces Bill to strip extremists' children of citizenship

SYDNEY (Reuters/AFP) - The Australian government will be able to strip the children of extremists fighting overseas of Australian citizenship under controversial legislation introduced into Parliament on Wednesday.

Details of the so-called Allegiance to Australia Bill were unveiled as the mother-in-law of one man believed killed in Iraq while fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pleaded for his wife and children to be allowed to return home.

Ms Karen Nettleton, the mother of Khaled Sharrouf's wife Tara, said her daughter had made the "mistake of a lifetime". "Today she is a parent alone in a foreign and vicious land looking after a widowed 14-year-old and four other young children," Ms Nettleton said in a statement released by her lawyer.

Sharrouf and his best friend Mohamed Elomar shot to infamy last year after they and Sharrouf's seven-year-old son were pictured holding the severed heads of Syrian soldiers.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the government had a "high degree of confidence" Elomar had been killed, but was less sure about the fate of Sharrouf, following reports they both perished in a missile strike last week.

Under the proposed legislation, dual nationals like Sharrouf and Elomar would automatically lose their Australian citizenship on the grounds of fighting for a terrorist organisation overseas. A terrorist organisation is determined as such by the government as one that is "opposed to Australia, or Australia's values, democratic beliefs, rights and liberties".

Dual nationals who help terrorists could also automatically lose their Australian citizenship even if they have never stepped foot out of the country under the new laws introduced to Parliament on Wednesday.

Ms Nettleton said her daughter and grandchildren, one of whom she says was forced into an arranged marriage with Elomar, were desperate to come home.

Mr Abbott said the children would be "dealt with in the same way that the family of criminals are normally dealt with".

He did not rule out laying charges against minors.

Civil libertarians have objected to the automatic stripping of nationality based on government definitions of what constitutes terrorism and terrorist activity. The government said decisions would be open to a review by the courts, although this avenue of appeal is not stated explicitly in the Bill.

The law can also be used retrospectively on people already in jail on terrorism offences. Children of outcast dual nationals can also be banished, although they may claim their Australian nationality via another "responsible" parent.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton introduced the legislation to amend the Citizenship Act as fears grow about the number of Australians fighting with militant groups and concern about the threat at home from radicalised individuals.

It specifies three mechanisms and a series of grounds which could lead to an Australian, even if born in the country, being stripped of their citizenship.

They include a person convicted of a terrorist act by an Australian court and anyone found to be engaged in terrorist activity.

It also extends an existing provision covering fighting for the armed forces of a country at war with Australia to also cover fighting for a terrorist organisation.

There are currently 20 such groups on Canberra's list of terrorist organisations.

"This Bill emphasises the central importance of allegiances to Australia into the concept of citizenship," Dutton said in introducing the legislation.

"Citizenship is to be treasured. It's a common bond that unites us all, whether we were born here or chose to make Australia our home.

"The world has changed so our laws should change accordingly," he added.

Mr Dutton said citizenship could be lost for not only engaging in terrorist acts but providing or receiving training linked to terrorism, as well as recruiting or financing for jihadist groups.

But he stressed that noone would lose citizenship unless they were also a national of another country as this would render them stateless and be in violation of the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

"Automatic loss of citizenship will be triggered whether the conduct takes place inside or outside Australia," he added. "The loss of citizenship will be immediate, upon the person engaging in the relevant conduct."

It was initially planned that Mr Dutton himself would have the power to take away citizenship, without trial or conviction, but this has been dumped after advice that it would be unconstitutional.

He will now only inform people of their fate after advice from security agencies, with anyone targeted having an automatic right of review to the Federal and High courts.

The laws will be examined by a parliamentary committee on intelligence and security with the Labor opposition generally supportive of the changes.

The committee will also look into whether the legislation, if passed, could be retrospectively applied to take into account dual nationals currently in jail on terrorism convictions.

The rights of people holding Australian citizenship only are still under consultation.

Australia is on high alert for attacks by radicalised Muslims or by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East, having raised its threat level to "high" and unleashed a series of high-profile raids in major cities.

About half of the 120 Australians that the government believes are fighting with militant groups in the Middle East are dual nationals, Canberra has said.