New Zealand has passed a law that criminalises plotting a “terrorist” attack, tightening a legal loophole that was exposed by a violent knife attack in the country’s biggest city earlier this month.
The new law, approved on Thursday, had been months in the planning but was hurried through parliament after a man inspired by the ISIL (ISIS) group grabbed a knife at an Auckland supermarket on September 3 and began stabbing shoppers.
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He wounded five people while two others were injured in the chaos. All are recovering.
It is now an offence to plot and prepare a “terror” attack, which Minister of Justice Kris Faafoi said brought New Zealand’s security laws in line with most other countries.
“The nature of terrorism has changed. Across the world there are more lone actors, rather than larger organised groups,” Faafoi told the Reuters news agency in an emailed statement.
The legislation comes less than a month after police shot dead the Auckland attacker, Ahamed Aathil Samsudeen, a 32-year-old Sri Lankan national, moments after he began his stabbing spree.
Samsudeen had been convicted and imprisoned for about three years before being released in July.
New Zealand had sought unsuccessfully in 2020 to charge Samsudeen with “terrorism” offences after he bought a hunting knife and was found with videos made by ISIL (ISIS).
Prosecutors argued there was evidence he purchased the knife with the intention of killing people and furthering an ideological cause. But a judge ruled that the act of buying a knife was not enough to proceed with the case.
The judge found New Zealand’s anti-terror laws did not specifically cover plots. That “could be an Achilles’ heel,” the judge acknowledged at the time, adding that it was not up to a court to create new laws.
Samsudeen was released and placed under 24-hour police surveillance.
Following the stabbing attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised to pass the new legislation by the end of September. But Ardern also said that even had the new law been in place, it may not necessarily have stopped Samsudeen.
“This bill strengthens our counterterrorism laws to better prevent and respond,” said legislator Ginny Andersen, from Ardern’s Labour Party. “And these changes will also enable police to intervene earlier. If it saves lives and makes New Zealanders safer, I believe that is a good thing.”
The conservative National Party joined Labour in voting in favour of the bill, which passed by 98 votes to 22. But some of Ardern’s traditional liberal allies in parliament voted against it.
The Green Party said their members were worried the new law had been rushed through without enough consultation, and that the definition of “terrorism” had been expanded to the extent it risked capturing “direct action, activism, and protest”.
The Greens said they were also worried that some experts had characterised the new offence as a “thought crime,” and that accompanying powers allowing authorities to carry out searches without a warrant increased the risk of human rights abuses.
The new crime of planning a “terrorist” attack comes with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. The bill also criminalises travel to or from New Zealand to carry out an attack, and weapons or combat training for a “terrorist” attack.
Ardern has also been examining whether changes are needed to New Zealand’s deportation laws and policies after authorities cancelled Samsudeen’s refugee status on the basis of fraud in 2019 and ordered him deported back to Sri Lanka.
An appeal by Samsudeen was still pending at the time of the attack.