In the days after former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib's interview with Channel Nine's 60 Minutes program aired on February 15, the Howard government and the heads of ASIO and the federal police were feeding every conceivable accusation to the corporate media in a desperate attempt to undermine Habib's credibility.
Australian Federal Police (AFP) commissioner Mick Keelty and ASIO director-general Dennis Richardson used the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee to make a series of outrageous allegations on February 15 about Habib's activities in Pakistan in 2001, without providing any evidence. They also attacked the credibility of his claims that while he was in US military custody he was tortured. They did so with the benefit of parliamentary privilege, which gives them immunity from a defamation suit.
They threw in a little nugget that every establishment newspaper ran with the next morning — Habib, Keelty said, was prepared to offer his services to al Qaeda "as a mercenary". Rupert Murdoch's Australian declared: "Habib 'offered up his services to al-Qaida'". "Habib was a 'mercenary for Osama'", screamed the Fairfax-owned Melbourne Age.
The corporate press also aired Keelty's and Richardson's claims that Habib had lied about being tortured, that he wouldn't disclose how he funded his trip to Pakistan, and that he refused to explain why he was in Pakistan.
The February 16 Sydney Daily Telegraph quoted a "high-level source" who claimed that Habib met fellow Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks in an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. The Murdoch tabloid also ran an opinion piece with a photo of Habib and the caption: "This man has lying eyes".
Habib's lawyer Stephen Hopper has repeatedly explained that Habib is not talking about his activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan because he doesn't want to jeopardise a legal case they are preparing. "These particulars are part of his case and they will be ventilated in court where they're supported by evidence", Hopper told Australian Associated Press on February 14. "I've heard his story and I have no doubt about what he says is truthful and what he did was completely lawful. We're not confirming or denying any particulars of his movements from the time he left Australia until the time [he was detained]."
Habib, of course, has a right to publicly clear his name. His appearance on 60 Minutes gave him access to an unprecedented audience (estimated at 1.8 million viewers), many of whom had no idea that Australian citizens have been imprisoned by the US military without charges or trial for years and subjected to torture.
Labor's double standard
On February 16, Habib offered to appear before the Senate to refute the allegations made by Keelty and Richardson. However, ALP defence spokesperson Robert McClelland said the next day that he didn't think that this was a good idea.
"The Senate shouldn't be used as a court of law, I would feel uncomfortable with that", McClelland said. "There's not a situation where there's legal representation either for or against a person who is accused, and I just think that's an unsafe procedure to follow."
Allowing ASIO and the AFP to use parliamentary privilege to publicly air wild allegations for which they aren't required to provide any evidence, while denying Habib the same legal protections to answer those allegations — McClelland is apparently completely comfortable with such an outrageous double standard.
If the allegations made by ASIO and the AFP were anything more than conjecture — if there is any evidence that Habib was a "mercenary for al Qaeda — why didn't the US authorities bring him to trial? A rather obvious question, but one the Murdoch and Fairfax slander sheets aren't asking.
Burying Habib's claims
The explosive issue getting quickly lost behind the media "debate" about Habib's character and activities is the fact that he was tortured over a period of three years, and he alleges that in Pakistan and Egypt there were Australian officials present during that torture. Those damning claims are being buried — precisely as the government intends.
What's more, for three years, the Howard government denied that Habib had been taken to Egypt, or that Australian authorities knew anything about it. That was a lie. We know that it was because of admissions by Richardson, who told the Senate committee on February 15: "We formed a view in mid-to late November  that he was most likely in Egypt ... and that was the basis of the representations of [the Department of] Foreign Affairs to Egypt. We established to our satisfaction that he was definitely there in February 2002."
The question remains, did Australian officials know in advance that Habib was going to be transferred by the US military to Egypt to be tortured, and did they give their approval? If the government lied about not knowing that Habib was in Egypt, it may well be lying about its complicity in his horrific torture.
It was bad timing for the government that former Iraq Survey Group weapons inspector and Defence Intelligence Organisation officer Rod Barton revealed on the ABC TV's Four Corners, just a day after Habib's 60 Minutes interview, that Australians — himself among them — were involved in the interrogation of Iraqi prisoners, and that he had expressed concerns to the Australian authorities before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke that Iraqi prisoners were being tortured.
What's more, Habib's claims of torture are beginning to be corroborated. Professor Christopher Tennant, one of the country's leading trauma and stress psychiatrists and head of psychological medicine at Sydney University, made a decision to breach patient confidentiality on February 16 when he revealed to the ABC's 7.30 Report that he had examined Habib soon after his return to Australia and found that Habib displayed classic symptoms of someone who had been tortured.
"It's not new that the US has been involved in torturing prisoners. All the torturers in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil were trained by the CIA in a school in Panama" Canterbury-Bankstown Peace Group activist Raul Bassi, who grew up in Argentina, told Green Left Weekly. "In Argentina in the 1960s and '70s, the whole army was organised as a torture and killing machine for any dissidents in the country. The experience of many activists in those years was when you were arrested for anything — whether it was a protest or an industrial strike — the first thing you had to endure was a series of punches, baton hits. If they thought you were more important, you got a series of electric shocks. Sexual assault was normal, and they didn't spare women.
"The intention of torture in these countries was not only to extract information, but to destroy the people's will for opposition. By attacking, torturing and breaking the leaders, they expected people to stop their actions, to morally break the will of the freedom fighters."
Torture and 'War on Terror'
The "terrorism" label has become a potent weapon for convincing the population that any punishment is justifiable, that civil liberties must be suspended to pursue all those suspected of being terrorists.
"Terrorist" is used to describe the enemies of the powerful. US author Edward Herman wrote in an October 2001 article on the ZNet website: "The rule is that terrorism is what the US government says it is — if it or its allies or clients do precisely the same thing as the named terrorists, that is not terrorism, by rule of affiliation. Thus, if we bombed Serbian civilian facilities to intimidate that population, killing many hundreds, that cannot be terrorism because we did it. US support of the Colombian army (and indirectly, its paramilitaries) is not sponsoring terrorism, despite the thousands killed and scores of thousands displaced each year, because we cannot sponsor terrorism by definition."
In the hypocritical world of the US imperialist rulers, Osama bin Laden was a "freedom fighter" when he fought to replace the Soviet-backed leftist government in Afghanistan with a repressive theocracy. He became a "terrorist" only when he mobilised his religious zealots against what he saw as the US occupation of his native Saudi Arabia.
As Eduardo Galeano so eloquently describes it in his book Upside Down, the terrorism of imperialist countries is directed "against the poor of all countries, with a cold-blooded professionalism that would make the best of the bomb throwers blush".
John Pilger wrote in November 2002 article: "State terrorism is a taboo term. Politicians never utter it. Newspapers rarely describe it. Academic 'experts' suppress it. Yet, in many cases, it helps us understand the root causes of non-state atrocities like Bali and 9/11. It is by far the most menacing form of terrorism, for it has the capacity to kill not 200, but hundreds of thousands. In each shower of cluster bombs that will fall on Iraq there will be countless Sari Clubs. The dropping of the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima was the equivalent of the horror of the Twin Towers 100 times over."
Since its establishment after 9/11, the US prison camp for foreigners at Guantanamo Bay has become the testing ground for the US government to attempt to legitimise the torture of foreign prisoners as part of its "war against terrorism".
In January 2002, while he was White House legal counsel, Alberto Gonzales, US President George Bush's new attorney general, wrote a memo in which he called the Geneva Conventions against he torture of prisoners of war both "quaint" and "obsolete". In August 2002, Gonzales went even further, initiating and overseeing a process that produced a memo claiming US anti-torture laws "do not apply to the president's detention and interrogation of enemy combatants".
The political explosiveness of Habib's revelations is that it exposes the complicity of the Australian authorities — Washington's "most loyal ally", according to John Howard — in this attempt not only to use the "war on terror" to dehumanise those branded as "terror suspects" but to free the US government and its allies from any obligation to observe human rights laws. That's why the establishment — including its media mouthpieces — are so desperate to discredit and defame Mamdouh Habib.
From Green Left Weekly, February 23, 2005.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.