Sydney Central Local Court, July 28. Photo: Peter Boyle.
A bail hearing in Sydney Central Local Court today opened an extraordinary and an important political trial. Kurdish journalist Renas Lelikan, 38, who spent the last five years reporting from the war-ravaged Iraqi Kurdistan, silently watched the proceeding via video link from the high security section of Silverwater jail while the prosecution opposed bail. He was arrested on July 20 and charged with being a member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is on the Australian government's list of proscribed “terrorist organisations”.
Lelikan, who was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and manacled braved a few smiles and discrete waves to family, friends and supporters from Sydney's Kurdish community who packed out the public gallery. Scores of Kurdish supporters, who could not fit into the courtroom, had to wait outside while the legal teams from both sides presented their arguments.
The prosecution claimed that it had “substantial” – if only circumstantial – evidence that Lelikan was a member of the PKK. This, it was asserted, included photographs from social media websites showing him in refugee camps allegedly controlled by the PKK, in clothing claimed to be the uniform of PKK militia and holding a weapon. It also included testimony from a Danish reporter who said that Lelikan appeared to have authority and respect among young PKK militia members.
In addition, the prosecution said it had photographs of Lelikan participating in demonstrations in Australia supporting the PKK before it was put on the official terrorist list.
The prosecution also said that Lelikan had been convicted in absentia by French courts of being a member of the PKK. This conviction took place after Lelikan left France in 2011, while on bail for charges of belonging to the PKK and helping finance its operations. Following this conviction, the court imposed a suspended sentence and a five-year ban on re-entering France.
Lelikan returned to Australia from Kurdistan in October 2015 after negotiating with the foreign affairs department and the Australian Federal Police to obtain temporary travel documents. He was only arrested nine months after his return.
Philip Boulten SC, representing Lelikan, said it was extraordinary that his client, who posed no threat to the community and was an outspoken opponent of the terrorist Islamic State, faced the prospect of being kept in near-solitary confinement for more than a year before actually facing trial.
Under the draconian “anti-terrorist” laws under which this anti-terrorist journalist has been charged, he will automatically be denied bail unless he can show there are “exceptional circumstances” and he had even been prevented from meeting his own legal team before this bail hearing.
In Silverwater jail's high security unit, Lelikan was surrounded by a number of hostile inmates who supported IS. He faced constant taunts and threats and had been kept in isolation from other prisoners for his protection, Boulten told the court.
Boulten listed this danger that Lelikan faced in prison as one of eight elements that formed “exceptional circumstances” that justified bail.
The presiding magistrate will make a decision on Lelikan's bail application tomorrow.
Members of the Kurdish community are hoping that justice will prevail. Kurdish Association co-chair Brusk Aeiveri told media outside the court that members of the Kurdish community were “very upset” by the arrest and are “not feeling very safe in Australia” today.
“This case is affecting every Kurdish family.”