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New laws in Australia have given police sweeping new powers to arrest protesters in the country, it has been revealed.

The law was passed the upper house of the Victorian parliament.

Essentially it means that if the police think someone may be about to cause trouble or turn violent, they will have the power to arrest demonstrators.

Previously, police had to have proof and reasonable evidence that someone was committing trouble. Now, the onus is on the demonstrator to prove to a court that they were not about to commit a crime.

Essentially, it paves the way for arbitrary arrests and charges to be brought forward against someone.

The amended Summary Offences Act will now give police broad powers to move against protesters who are blocking access to buildings, obstructing people or traffic, or who are expected to turn violent.

The order allows courts to issue an exclusion order preventing those repeatedly told to move on from entering a particular public space for up to 12 months.

A protester can potentially be locked up for two years for violating such orders.

Lawyers and human rights groups have spoken out against the law.

Anthony Eyers, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association said: “The cornerstone of criminal justice is that an accused person bears no onus to prove their innocence.

“The fact of the proposed prevention of lawful activity amendment to the criminal code is the reversal of this fundamental principle, to the extent that to disprove their presumed guilt, a person accused may be forced to give evidence, to explain their presumed intention.”

He added that the remit of the law was so broad and ambiguous, it could be unconstitutional.

Many campaigners see the law as an attempt by the Victorian government to shut down protest on long-running issues such as the anti-Tecoma McDonald’s group, anti-East West Link picketers, as well as industrial disputes.

Australian human rights commissioner, Tim Wilson said the law was excessive, while Sue Pennicuik, said: “This bill is an absolute assault on the democratic right of Victorians to protest – whether it be on the streets or on public land – about issues of concern to them.”

Kate Davis from the Community Legal Centres Association of Western Australia told ABC.net that the wording of the legislation was extremely vague.

She explained: “The legislation is drafted so broadly that it creates a new offence of possessing a ‘thing’ for the purpose of physically preventing lawful activity or trespass. But possessing a thing could be possessing shoes with the intent to wear them to a picket line.”

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