Cunliffe queries PM's Syria news

Last updated 09:41 11/02/2014

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Labour leader David Cunliffe has questioned the Prime Minster's motivations for revealing the Government cancelled the passports of some New Zealanders suspected of engaging in terrorist activity in Syria.

Yesterday, Prime Minister John Key confirmed a handful of New Zealanders had had their passports cancelled over the past nine years. These included some suspected of becoming radicalised or intending to fight for terrorist organisations in Syria.

The comment follows confirmation from Security Intelligence Service boss Warren Tucker in December, that the domestic spy agency was keeping tabs on New Zealand "freedom fighters" who posed a risk to New Zealand's security on their return from war-torn countries, including Syria.

Cunliffe today questioned Key's motivations for releasing the information.

"The more interesting aspect of that story is that it appears from media reports, that the prime minister may have used classified security information to get the story up, " he told Breakfast.

"And it's again puzzling to New Zealanders, why he would do that - perhaps to create a diversion from something else, we don't know."

Cunliffe said it wasn't an issue that the practice was happening, but that the prime minister was talking about it.

"But for someone who usually is very, very reluctant to divulge operational details, [it's] very odd to hear him talk about tracking New Zealanders and the sort of activities our secret services get up to," he said.

Labour's associate foreign affairs spokesman Phil Goff said New Zealanders should not be stopped from going to fight against Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad's regime.

"We can do things if we think people constitute a risk to safety of New Zealand, but stopping people's rights, to go abroad and fight for people's rights . . . I think is wrong," Goff said this morning.

The revelation comes after weekend reports that Australians were "flocking" to the front line in Syria. The Australian government fears the fighters will return as hardline radicalised Islamists, ready to launch domestic terror attacks.

Key said yesterday: "Yes, there is likely to ... have been a small number of New Zealanders who have fought with the rebels in Syria."

In some instances, the Department of Internal Affairs had cancelled their passports - some of the people held dual nationality, including Australians, he said.

A small number also had their documents confiscated before they were allowed to leave for the civil war-torn Middle Eastern state, the prime minister said.

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Rebel factions have been battling to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.

Key refused to say how many Kiwis had been fighting, or give any details.

He knew of no prosecutions, saying "it was handled in a different way".

This morning, Key said the secret services had "pretty good" intelligence about who those people were.

"Obviously we do our best to try, if we have that information, to stop them doing something silly," he said on Firstline.

"Our concern obviously is are they doing something very silly to themselves or to others, but also getting further radicalised.

"You have to take the view that somebody that is potentially going off to fight maybe with a terrorist organisation like Al Qaeda against the Assad regime - assuming they survive that process - becoming more radicalised.

"If they fight for a known terrorism organisation, under the Terrorism Suppression Act, charges could be laid. But in reality, you'd have to prove that, and we know that can be quite a challenging thing to prove."

Cunliffe said there was a balance to be struck, when handling or monitoring suspected mercenaries.

"I've said we have an open mind about that issue," he said.

"I'd like to look more at the pros and cons of strengthening the laws about Kiwis involved in nefarious activities offshore.

"On the other hand, you don't want to trammel people's freedoms to travel for legitimate reasons."

- Stuff

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