Two years without trial for 22 Muslim men

November 10, 2007

For two years 13 Muslim men from Melbourne, have been held in Barwon prison near Geelong and nine men from Sydney in Goulburn's super-max prison without trial.

They were arrested on November 8, 2005, at the same time as the introduction of draconian new "anti-terrorist" legislation. At the time, there were sensational allegations by politicians and police commissioners that an imminent terrorist attack had been thwarted. However, the men have not been charged with planning any specific terrorist act and it is clear the allegations were false.

Instead, they have been charged with belonging to and financing a terrorist organisation — themselves. The men have been deemed to constitute a terrorist organisation. Their trial next year will test out the new "anti-terror" legislation: the courts will have to decide what exactly constitutes a terrorist organisation under the new laws.

The Sydney men face more serious allegations against them: collecting material for a terrorist act. There will be sensational allegations made at next year's trials and attempts will be made to link the Barwon 13 with the Sydney men.

However the evidence is circumstantial and it has taken two years for the prosecution to prepare its case. Much of the evidence against the Barwon 13 appears to consist of interpretations of the men's discussions even though talk is not (yet) a crime.

There remains great doubt that these men constituted a serious threat. However, the government and security agencies cannot afford not to obtain convictions after holding them for two years without trial. The political imperative to convict the men is overwhelming, especially after the debacle of the case against the Queensland doctor Mohamad Haneef.

An undercover agent infiltrated the Barwon 13 before their arrest and persuaded their spiritual leader to accompany him into the bush to witness the "test explosion" of the agent's home-made bomb. This kind of entrapment is reminiscent of the 1978 frame up of three Ananda Marga activists who were accused of planting a bomb in a rubbish bin outside a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and held on charges of conspiracy to murder. They were later all pardoned.

The Barwon 13 and the Sydney 9 are being held in draconian Guantanamo Bay-style conditions. Justice Osborn, in court proceedings against the Barwon 13 in 2006, criticised the conditions under which they are being held as "not those in which ordinary Australians would expect any member of the public to be held on remand for extended periods of time when charged with no more than the membership of an organisation".

In September, Justice Bongiorno, the judge presently hearing the Barwon 13 case, strongly criticised the conditions at Barwon, which he said were "very troubling from the court's perspective". He was quoted in the September 7 Australian as saying that: "The state runs Barwon prison ... It is extremely difficult not to see this as some sort of pre-emptive punishment being imposed."

We are witnessing the presumption of guilt and punishment before trial. We are also witnessing the use of "anti-terror" laws to achieve political ends. We see the flawed laws being used against non terrorists such as Jack Thomas and now, in Sydney, the young medical student, Izhar Ul Haque.

Prejudicial statements made during the sensationalised arrests of the 13 Melbourne men have helped remove their right to the presumption of innocence. While we should work to make the security agencies and politicians accountable in their use of "anti-terror" laws, we should also demand the complete repeal of these pernicious laws.

[Colin Mitchell is an activist in the Melbourne-based Civil Rights Defence.]

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