The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has frozen the bank accounts of a suspected foreign agent and is set to crack down on other suspected foreign operations in the first half of 2020, according to a report.
The report by The Australian notes that the AFP froze several bank accounts and seized cash from the suspected agent this month. The freeze came after police raided properties linked to the agent, who is under investigation for alleged money-laundering and foreign interference related offenses.
The newspaper says the amount seized is unclear but believes it was substantial. The case is understood to be the first of its kind and is part of AFP’s efforts to combat foreign interference in the country.
Citing AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw, the report says a new specialist team of investigators is preparing to take actions against more suspected foreign agents in the first half of 2020 via several means including arrest, deportation, and seizing the alleged agents’ assets.
The report notes that the AFP has been under pressure to use the country’s anti-foreign interference laws passed in 2018. Then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull referred to “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” as justification for the bill and said the new laws were needed to combat the “rapidly escalating” threat of foreign interference.
Shortly before the laws came into effect on March 1, two former Australian cabinet ministers and a former premier resigned their posts with organizations that have strong links to the Chinese Communist Party. The new laws require those acting on behalf of foreign powers to register their names and provide details of their activities publicly.
Australia’s spy chief, former Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) director-general Duncan Lewis, said in April 2019 that the threats posed by foreign interference in Australia remain at an “unprecedented level.” His comments at the time came ahead of an episode of ABC’s Four Corners highlighting the extent of Chinese-backed political activity in Australia.
“We have a challenge here with foreign interference in Australia,” Lewis told senators at the time. “It comes, as I have said on a number of occasions, from a wide range of sources. I have not been country-specific, and I will not be country-specific.”
Kershaw told The Australian that the new unit to enforce the foreign interference laws will comprise at least 40 members, who will tackle foreign interference cases ranging from covert influence operations to traditional espionage.
“We’re seeing an increase in the number of matters being discovered and that are being referred to us,’’ Kershaw told the paper. “You are going to see that we’ll uncover some very interesting matters.’’
Omid Goreishi contributed to this report.