What's behind Howard's terror law frame-ups?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Shortly after midnight on July 29, Indian Muslim doctor Mohamed Haneef boarded a flight in Brisbane to be reunited with his wife in Bangalore and meet his newly born daughter for the first time, as he was trying to do at the time of his arrest at Brisbane Airport on July 2. The previous evening, he had been released from jail, after federal Director of Public Prosecutions Damien Bugg announced he was dropping all charges, conceding that the "anti-terrorism" case against the Gold Coast Hospital registrar had collapsed. "On my view of this matter a mistake has been made", Bugg told a media conference.

Following Bugg's announcement, immigration minister Kevin Andrew announced that Haneef would be released from immigration detention into "residential detention" at his apartment on the Gold Coast or another place of his choosing. However, Andrews refused to reinstate Haneef's visa — revoked by Andrews on July 16 — despite Haneef being granted bail by a Queensland magistrate. The legality of the visa cancellation will be decided by the Federal Court on August 8.

Despite the charges being dropped, Andrews has continued to slur Haneef, telling Channel 7 on July 29 that Haneef's return to Bangalore "heightens rather than lessens my suspicion".

However, without his visa Haneef is unable to resume work at the Gold Coast Hospital, and thus would have no source of income in Australia. Haneef's solicitor, Peter Russo, pointed out that it was absurd to suggest Haneef could return to his apartment — his lease had expired and the flat was uninhabitable because of the mess left by the investigating police.

Despite Bugg's decision, Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty announced that the AFP would continue its investigation of Haneef under the "anti-terror" laws. Keelty refused to rule out bringing new charges against Haneef.

Bugg's decision reflects growing public suspicion that the AFP's case against Haneef is a frame-up. This suspicion has been fuelled by a number of factors.

Firstly, there was his detention by the AFP without charge for 12 days. During this time, his interrogation, and an exhaustive investigation by 230 AFP officers going through his possessions, computer files and phone records, failed to turn up any evidence related to terrorism beyond what he had told the AFP at the time of his arrest — that he gave his cousin, Sabeel Ahmed, a SIM card with unused credit before leaving England over a year ago.

On this basis, Haneef was charged with giving material support to a terrorist organisation. However, while Ahmed has been held by British police since June 30 in relation to the bungled terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London, he has not been charged with being a member of a terrorist organisation, but with withholding information.

Secondly, there was the government's use of immigration law to keep Haneef in custody after he had been granted bail. This involved Andrews revoking Haneef's working visa while, simultaneously, the AFP issued a criminal justice certificate preventing him from leaving the country until after he was tried in court on the terrorism charge.

The basis of the visa revocation was Haneef's alleged "bad character", evidenced by his supposed "associating with terrorists". However, the government has since claimed that the immigration decision and the criminal case are unrelated.

Andrews has insinuated that he was privy to information from the AFP about Haneef that was not presented to the magistrate when Haneef was charged. However, deputy PM Mark Vaile admitted in a July 23 interview with the Southern Cross radio network that Andrews' revoked Haneef's visa to keep him in custody until his trial. Haneef has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest.

Thirdly, there has been the exposure of a number of inaccuracies in the evidence presented by the AFP to the July 16 committal hearing. Several of these were exposed by Haneef's barrister, Stephen Keim, who released to the media the 142-page transcript of Haneef's first AFP interrogation in response to smears against Haneef leaked by the AFP and the government to the corporate media.

Much of the case against Haneef evaporated with the release of this document.

Moreover, the most damaging allegation made to the court — that the SIM card that Haneef gave Ahmed had been recovered from the burning Jeep driven into the Glasgow Airport terminal on June 30 — was later also exposed as false. In fact, the SIM card was in a phone in Ahmed's possession when he was arrested in Liverpool.

The Howard government was evidently hoping that Haneef's tenuous links with the attempted terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow would provide an electoral opportunity to play the national security card. But this has backfired.

The government's persecution of Haneef has been met with widespread condemnation from the legal profession, including the Law Council of Australia (LCA). There have been protest actions in Brisbane and Sydney and a July 22 forum on the case at Griffith University drew 500 people. The forum was addressed by Russo and Imran Siddiqui.

Siddiqui is a cousin of Haneef's wife, Firdous Arshiya, whose outspoken defence of her husband has done much to galvanise public opinion in India in support of her husband. She was denied a visa to visit Australia.

The public sympathy for Haneef has been reflected in a change in media coverage. While the Murdoch press were as recently as July 22 repeating AFP misinformation about Haneef planning to blow up a Gold Coast skyscraper, the focus has shifted to AFP "bungling".

Earlier coverage of the case included a July 3 Sydney Morning Herald article headlined "How jihad network led to Australian raids", while Murdoch's July 7 Sydney Daily Telegraph coverage went under the headline "Mad doctor cell Sydney link".

Speaking at the launch of the LCA's report into the Guantanamo Bay trial of David Hicks in March — which saw Hicks plead guilty to dubious charges in exchange for being transferred to Yatala jail in Adelaide pending his release in January — were LCA president Tim Bugg and Melbourne barrister Lex Lasry, who had observed Hicks' trial, which he described as a "farce".

"There's an Alice in Wonderland quality to both these cases, first the sentence, then the verdict. Hicks and Haneef both know what that feels like", Bugg said.

According to Lasry, "the Hicks case has been the catalyst for the public interest in Haneef".

The public scepticism around the Haneef case is also a reflection of the campaigns against Howard's attacks on civil liberties since the first "anti-terror" laws were introduced in 2002.

However, there are other victims of the laws incarcerated in Australian jails besides Haneef. For example, there are the 13 men who have been incarcerated in Guantanamo-like conditions in Victoria's Barwon jail since November 2005. Like Haneef, they have been charged with supporting a terrorist organisation that is not, in fact, an organisation but a network of casual associations between individuals.

Meanwhile, Faheem Khalid Lodhi is appealing his 20-year sentence on a conviction that, like Haneef's visa cancellation, was based on secret evidence presented by the government and that the court, under the "anti-terror" laws, had to accept on trust.

Other terror law prisoners include nine men held on remand in Goulburn jail, in conditions, and on charges, similar to the Barwon 13.

The Haneef case also puts the spotlight on the government's immigration detention system. Refugee rights activists campaigning against the new high security detention camp being built on Christmas Island have raised the possibility of it becoming "Australia's Guantanamo". The government's use of immigration detention to circumvent legal due process for Haneef's bail shows this threat to be real.

The continual media reporting of fanciful allegations against Haneef, Lodhi, the Barwon 13 and others creates an impression that a terrorist attack on Australian soil is imminent, despite there being no evidence for this.

While Howard will try to use any resulting insecurity to boost his re-election chances, the persecution of individuals under the "anti-terror" and immigration laws is about more than Howard's desperation to stay in power.

Anti-terror frame-ups, such as Haneef has been victim to, are an attempt to undermine basic civil liberties such as the presumption of innocence and to normalise the use of repression for political ends. This is further indicated in the charging of three Tamil community activists for supporting self-determination of their national homeland in Sri Lanka and the use of anti-terror rhetoric to criminalise the upcoming protests against the September visit of US President George Bush to Sydney.

Issue