A fresh federal government inquiry was announced on January 14 into the alleged torture of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib.
This follows the release of independent evidence supporting Habib’s claims and the recent undisclosed compensation settlement the Australian government made with him in December.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard had asked the inspector-general of intelligence and security Vivienne Thom to conduct the inquiry after new evidence was presented supporting Habib’s allegations that Australian officials were involved in his torture in Egypt in 2001.
The new evidence was in documents Habib had prepared for his compensation case against the government.
It includes a statement by a former Egyptian military intelligence officer, who said he was present when Habib was transferred to Cairo in November 2001.
The Egyptian officer said Australian officials were also present when Habib arrived naked and handcuffed, with his feet bound. This contradicts the Australian government’s claim it did not know Habib was in Egypt.
The January 15 Australian quoted from the officer’s statement: "During Habib's presence some of the Australian officials attended many times … The same official who attended the first time used to come with them ... Habib was tortured a lot and all the time, as the foreign intelligence wanted quick and fast information."
Any inquiry into Australian government involvement in Habib’s torture raises serious issues. The torture allegations are gruesome — Australian officials are said to be present while Habib was drugged, given electric shocks, threatened with attacks by dogs, and hung by his feet and beaten.
The flaws of the proposed secret inquiry are obvious. Thom, will hold the inquiry behind closed doors.
The Act governing the inspector general’s powers says any report from the inquiry will be given “to the responsible minister who determines what is to be released publicly”. This is not a public judicial inquiry.
Uncharitable commentators may suggest the secret inquiry is meant to deflect criticism over the government’s secret compensation payout to Habib.
The compensation deal includes a clause that stops Habib from revealing any details of the settlement.
The government has defended the secret payout as a “commercial” matter, but it clearly wants to stop the public from hearing the evidence about Habib’s torture.
Before the payout deal was struck, the Australian government had argued in court that suing it for its complicity in the torture of Habib would impinge on its good foreign relations with the US government.
The Federal Court rejected that argument, and the Australian government — clearly realising it was backing a loser — decided not to appeal the matter to the High Court and moved to settle with Habib.
The slant the Murdoch and Fairfax media have put on the settlement is also of interest. Both outlets have emphasised that Habib’s allegations are “untested” in a court of law, without mentioning that the Australian government’s counterclaims are equally “untested”.
Other articles about Habib’s compensation claim have spun the facts to make it sound as if Habib has given up on this claim, or that he has withdrawn his allegations.
On the contrary, Habib has said he will use the compensation money to pursue his torture claims against the US government.
[Dale Mills is a Sydney-based lawyer.]