Canberra, November 1, 2023
Australia’s highest court delivered a landmark ruling on Wednesday, overturning a government decision to strip citizenship from a man convicted of terrorism, dealing a significant blow to a decade-old law. The decision by the High Court challenges the government’s authority to revoke citizenship from dual nationals based on extremism-related grounds.
The ruling, which emerged as a 6-1 majority decision, declared the law that empowered the home affairs minister to strip citizenship in such cases as unconstitutional. The judges argued that this provision allowed the minister to exercise a judicial function of punishing criminal guilt, a power they deemed incompatible with the separation of powers fundamental to Australia’s legal system.
The case centered around Algerian-born cleric Abdul Benbrika, who was convicted in 2008 on three terrorism charges related to a plot to cause mass casualties at a public event in Melbourne. Despite no attack taking place, Benbrika was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The recent ruling prevents the government from deporting him upon his expected release from prison within weeks.
Constitutional lawyer George Williams emphasized the significance of the decision, stating, “It’s a fundamental breach of the separation of powers in Australia which says that judging guilt and determining punishment should be by courts and not by people in Parliament.”
This ruling also has implications for a law introduced last year that allowed the government to strip citizenship from dual nationals suspected of being Islamic State group fighters. The High Court had already struck down a similar clause in that law, preventing a dual national imprisoned in Syria from losing his citizenship based on suspicion alone.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese expressed his government’s intention to carefully examine the ruling and its implications for the law passed by the previous administration. While Benbrika stands as the only individual known to have lost citizenship under this specific clause, the decision sets a significant precedent, challenging the government’s ability to revoke citizenship on terrorism-related grounds.
Benbrika’s case marks a historic milestone in Australian legal history, highlighting the judiciary’s commitment to upholding the core principles of the nation’s legal system. As the legal landscape evolves, the implications of this ruling will likely continue to shape the country’s approach to matters of national security and citizenship.