The 'war on terror' at home

March 30, 2007

While all eyes have been focused on the terrible plight of David Hicks, Willie Brigitte has been convicted and sentenced in France, nine Muslim men are undergoing a committal hearing in Sydney, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has allegedly confessed to a multitude of terror attacks and calls to ban the Muslim group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, in Australia have become more strident. This is all cause for concern, not because of a sinister threat by "terrorists", but from the government-driven "war on terror".

Hicks is not the only political pawn in the Bush-led "war on terror", a war which needs prosecutions. Jack Thomas is another one. Having been cleared of having any terrorist intentions, this non-terrorist is nevertheless being pursued under Australia's "anti-terror" laws.

The allegations against Brigitte, which do not appear to be backed up by any substantial evidence, involve him planning to attack the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in NSW, the electricity grid, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, as well as military sites, including Pine Gap. These allegations were made after a five-month visit to Sydney in 2003, after which he was deported back to France.

Brigitte was arrested and held for three and a half years in France before his trial this year. He has now been convicted, but not for plotting any terrorist attacks in Australia. Instead, he has been charged under France's catch-all offence of "criminal association in relation to a terrorist enterprise", which means he met with radical Muslims alleged to be terrorists.

France's "anti-terror" laws are draconian, and the all-powerful "anti-terror" judge, Jean-Louis "the cowboy" Bruguiere, who held and interrogated Brigitte, has been widely criticised by civil libertarians and lawyers for his less than humane methods. Even the former head of France's external security agency, Alain Chouet, has said that he believes the case against Brigitte is weak, and that the Australian authorities are using the case to whip up fear. One example of the "evidence" against Brigitte is that he mentioned Pine Gap in conversation with his wife who had worked near there. This has been turned into evidence of his intent to attack the base.

Brigitte was never charged in Australia. Why not? He has finally been convicted in France, not of involvement in any terrorist plots, but of associating with terrorists.

Whipping up fear

Chouet's allegations that Australian authorities are using Brigitte to generate a fear of terrorists has a disturbing parallel with the Thomas case. After Thomas had been held for five months in a Pakistani prison, a 2003 memo from an Australian official recorded that the Pakistani intelligence organisation was happy to release Thomas to be charged in Australia "so that we [the Australian government and security agencies] can maximise the drama of a home-grown terrorist".

The Australian security agencies set about intensively investigating all of Brigitte's associates here. The web of association ensnared Faheem Lodhi who, after two and a half years in solitary confinement without trial, was finally convicted of preparing for a terrorist act and sentenced to 20 years in June 2006. The evidence against Lodhi is extremely weak, falling far short of that which would normally be considered evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.

No actual plans for any terrorist attack or any bomb-making materials were discovered. Lodhi's conviction is based on suppositions about what he was intending to do in the future. In my opinion it is likely that Lodhi is completely innocent. Yet the corporate media and authorities continue to describe Lodhi, variously, as the head of, or agent of, a terrorist cell here, as though this is an established fact. It is very far from established fact.

Even though Lodhi was cleared by the jury of having any terrorist intentions by downloading photos of military sites, the allegations about him planning attacks on military bases are still endlessly repeated. For instance, according to the March 16 Australian Brigitte and Lodhi "had not advanced their plans to the stage of identifying their target but police believe a military or nuclear site, or perhaps Sydney's electricity grid, could have been targeted".

Since Lodhi was sentenced to 20 years for preparing to attack the electricity grid (on the strength of his having two generalised maps of Australia's grid), it is interesting that the police are said to be uncertain about this. The allegations about a possible attack on a nuclear site seem to arise from the men's possession of an easily obtainable poster of Australian nuclear sites produced by anti-nuclear activists.

The "Sydney nine", currently undergoing committal proceedings, were also arrested and accused of possible involvement in the same plots. Again, they are not alleged to have had specific plans to attack any particular target. Alert viewers of the evening news may have noticed a caveat attached to the lists of quantities of chemicals linked to the Sydney nine. The quantities listed were of chemicals the group "had either obtained, ordered or inquired about ordering". Presumably these are the total amounts of chemicals that the police surmise the group would have collected if all the group's inquiries about the chemicals had actually been fulfilled.

Overseas prisoners were used to give evidence against members of the Sydney nine via video-link. One of these, Yong Ki Kwon, has received a reduced sentence, of 38 months from 11 and a half years, after agreeing to help US authorities with investigations. Such testimony can hardly be regarded as reliable.

Tenuous evidence

Alleged intentions and tenuous evidence characterise these cases. An intercepted email and phone call about marriage from one of the "Lackawanna six" in the US was interpreted as code for a suicide attack, but later found to actually be about marriage. In the committal hearings of the "Barwon 13" in Victoria a love letter from a wife to her husband was interpreted to have a similar sinister meaning.

Now, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has allegedly confessed to a swag of terrorist plots at a military hearing in Guantanamo Bay. But the confessions come after years of incarceration in a secret overseas CIA prison. Given what is known about these prisons' use of torture to extract confessions and the program known as "extraordinary rendition", we are entitled to be sceptical. Mohammed may well be involved in terrorism, but given that the methods used to extract confessions and obtain evidence in the so-called "war on terror" are unreliable, his confessions cannot be trusted.

Meanwhile, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has released a paper on the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Although it argues that banning the group is not yet justified, the Australian reported that the institute had condemned the group's radical ideology as a "threat to the nation". We should resist calls to ban groups on the basis of what they say as such a move will inevitably suppress freedom of political expression.

While we must continue to demand justice for Hicks, we must also realise that the "war on terror" is being used by the Howard government to threaten our freedom of speech and democratic right to dissent. The recent arrest of the G20 protestors by "anti-terrorist" police is an example. There is a great danger that the lowering of standards of proof and justice in so-called "anti-terrorism" cases will be extended to suppress political dissent and protest. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that a Kevin Rudd-led Labor government will reverse this trend.

Around the country on April 21, we will be demanding justice for David Hicks. But we must also alert people to the abuses occurring here, and the threat to all of our civil liberties under the so-called "war on terror" regime.

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

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