'Any outspoken person could be jailed'

Friday, June 22, 2007

Since the Australian government's decision to declare a "war on terror" in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the US cities of New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, federal parliament has enacted no less than 26 pieces of legislation that form so-called anti-terror laws. The justifications for the laws ignore that acts such as murder, hijacking and blowing things up have never been legal. The laws' real purpose is to criminalise political dissent and to create the impression of a "terrorist threat" to justify military aggression overseas.

By reducing standards of evidence, reversing the onus of proof (that is, removing the presumption of innocence) and allowing for evidence to be kept from defendants and their lawyers, the laws enable the authorities, with the willing assistance of the corporate media, to trumpet arrests as thwarting "imminent terrorist threats". This was the case when Abdullah Merhi was arrested in November 2005. However, he and his 12 co-defendants are not accused of plotting any specific attack, and the "terrorist group" they are charged with belonging to is not any actual organisation but simply the defendents themselves.

Mehri's brother, Electrical Trades Union shop steward Omar Merhi told Green Left Weekly the arrest was "like a real American Hollywood-style movie. Police cars blockaded the street. There were officers in bullet-proof vests pointing guns at the house and helicopters hovering above. It was timed for the media. At 9am at Melbourne Magistrates Court there was the biggest media frenzy the country has ever seen."

Inside the house there were no gunmen, only Abdullah and his eight-months' pregnant wife. Since their arrest, the men have been dubbed the "Barwon 13" after the prison where they are detained. The anti-terror laws stipulate that bail should not be granted unless there are exceptional circumstances.

"They've been put with underworld killers in the high security unit - the Acacia Unit - in Barwon jail", Omar Mehri explained. "It is a jail within the jail - Australia's strictest, most intimidating jail. Their phone calls and letters are monitored. They get four hours of daylight and spend the rest of the day in isolation, stuck in little cells, in solitary confinement. They are strip-searched before and after visits and court appearances.

"They have spent 600 days incarcerated. Our hopes were for a trial in early July, as a worst case scenario, but new evidence brought forward by the prosecution means the trial is now set for early September. We're expecting the trial to last between 10 and 12 months, so [even if they are acquitted] they will have done 1000 days."

The prejudicial media around the case has meant that Abdullah's relatives have been subjected to serious threats. Merhi told GLW that this is particularly the case for family members who spoke out. "I made a point to stand up, because as a unionist you stand up for your beliefs and fight for what you believe is right. We've had death-threats, bullets in the mail, people banging on our doors in the middle of the night shouting 'fucking terrorists' and I've had SMS messages threatening to kidnap my son."

Barrister Julian Burnside described the laws as "out of proportion to the actual threat" of terrorism. "They seriously erode democracy ... To stamp out democratic dissent in the name of protecting democracy is self-evidently stupid", he told GLW.

Omar concurred. "The reality is that so many more people can be jailed under this new legislation. Any outspoken person, anyone they see as a threat are the sort of people they're going to try and target", he said. "Since July 2002, $5 billion has been spent on the so-called war on terror. That has to be justified. I think there'll be more arrests before the next election, that's my honest opinion."

Despite his family's ordeal, Omar said that he felt "really inspired" by the solidarity they had received. "The support out there from particular groups gives me so much heart and soul."

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