Australia’s highest court has overturned a government decision to strip citizenship from Abdul Benbrika, a man convicted of terrorism. The ruling by the High Court is a blow to a law introduced almost a decade ago that allowed the government to strip dual nationals of their Australian citizenship on extremism-related grounds. The court’s decision also prevents the government from deporting Benbrika, an Algerian-born cleric, upon his release from prison, which is expected within weeks.
In a 6-1 ruling, the High Court judges deemed the law that granted the home affairs minister the power to strip citizenship unconstitutional. The majority found that the minister was effectively exercising a judicial function of punishing criminal guilt. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stated that his government would examine the ruling in relation to the law passed by the previous government.
Constitutional lawyer George Williams expressed no surprise at the court’s decision, stating that it was a fundamental breach of the separation of powers in Australia. Williams emphasized that the determination of guilt and punishment should be carried out by courts, not by individuals in Parliament.
Benbrika is the only person known to have lost citizenship under a specific clause of the law related to terrorism-related convictions carrying a prison sentence of more than three years. Therefore, the precedent set by the ruling does not affect any other individuals who have lost their citizenship rights.
This is the second time the High Court has struck down a clause of the law. Last year, a separate clause allowing a dual national imprisoned in Syria to lose citizenship on suspicion of being an Islamic State group fighter was also deemed unconstitutional.
Benbrika, convicted in 2008 of three terrorism charges related to a plot to cause mass casualties in Melbourne, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His release was initially scheduled for 2020 but was extended by three years under a recent law that allows the continued detention of prisoners convicted of terrorism offenses deemed to pose an unacceptable risk to the community if released.
Upon his release before the end of the year, Benbrika will be subjected to a court-imposed supervision order, which will allow close scrutiny of his communications, associates, and movements.