The Australians the government 'forgot'

Issue 

BY DALE MILLS

The Australian government has shown that it cares as little about the civil rights of Australians abroad as it does for the civil rights of Australians at home.

Australian citizen Jack Thomas has been held in detention in Pakistan since January 4, after arriving there with his wife and child to study. It was only after sustained pressure that the Australian government conceded, on June 3, to his repatriation.

According to Pakistan's January 15 Dawn newspaper, "senior sources" advised an AFP newswire service that Thomas was arrested because of his "close links" with "Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network."

The allegation was given official support by Pakistan interior minister Faisal Salah Hayat who said that "Pakistani security agencies are investigating his linkages in Pakistan with terrorists."

However, after being questioned by Pakistan, American and Australian intelligence officials no evidence has been found that Thomas is an al Qaeda — or any other sort of — terrorist.

The Australian attorney-general's office has accepted that there is no evidence against Thomas, saying that he is unlikely to be detained or charged with any offence when he arrives back in Australia.

Despite this, it is not clear that any consular assistance has been given to Thomas. The government has wanted nothing to do with him. Even after being cleared of terrorist involvement, it seemed as if the Australian government was happy for Thomas to remain in a Pakistan prison.

So annoyed did the Pakistan government become with Australian reluctance to allow Thomas back into Australia, that it has opened a public diplomatic rift between the two countries.

According to the ABC's May 27 AM program, the Pakistan government has said that the Australian government failed to take up its offer to fly Thomas back to Australia. Tasneem Noorani, of Pakistan's Interior Ministry, said that "as far as the government of Pakistan is concerned, he is not required here anymore."

The apparent reluctance of the Australian government to take back Thomas received significant coverage in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper. This appears to have forced the Australian government's hand.

Left to rot

Although Thomas may soon be back in Australia, the future is less certain for David Hicks, who has been held in Washington's "Camp X-Ray" in Guantanamo Bay since November 2001. Equally worrying, but less publicised, is the continued detention with Hicks of Egyptian-born Sydneysider Mamdough Habib, 47, arrested more than 18 months ago.

Born in the "rustbelt" suburb of Salisbury Park in Adelaide's north, Hicks is alleged to have fought with an Islamic group in Indian Kashmir, with al Qaeda and with the Taliban. When captured, however, he was fighting with the Taliban. He has denied involvement in al Qaeda. After being detained in Afghanistan during the war, he has been in detention for the last 16 months without access to family or lawyers.

Hicks' lawyer Steven Keeny has blasted the US government for its continued detention of his client. "Pakistan applied the rule of law to Jack Thomas in a way the USA refuses to do for David Hicks", he told the Australian Financial Review on May 30. However, his main anger is directed towards the Australian government.

The government, he says, has "supported the US government's abuse of my client's human rights. I believe it is the Australian government, not the US, that is unwilling to have my client [David Hicks] return home."

At the time of his arrest, it was not against the law to be on the wrong side of an international conflict. The government's move to "ban" organisations has been partly designed to criminalise activities such as Hicks'.

According to the May 4 New York Times, the US government has unsuccessfully asked the Australian government to take Hicks back. Once Hicks is returned, the NYT said, he would have to be released as he has broken no Australian laws.

Kenny said he was told by the NYT that the story had come from "government officials at the highest level". However, it has been denied by federal attorney-general Daryl Williams.

'Embarrassing'

Hicks' father Terry believes the NYT's story. He said that "the Australian government doesn't want to bring [David Hicks] back here because it's embarrassing, because they would have to let him go ... The Americans won't let him go unless the Australian government charges him with something. So Australia prefers to leave him there and hope everyone forgets about him."

Former federal Liberal Party president John Valder has said that PM John Howard has not the "least inclination to lift a finger" to assist those Australians held in detention. While at Bush's Texas ranch last month, Howard didn't even raise the issue.

Habib has been detained at Guantanamo Bay since October 5, 2001. His case has received less media attention than Hicks', presumably because he has an Arab background.

Habib was arrested on his way to the airport in Pakistan. He intended to get a plane back to Australia. Two Germans he was travelling with were also arrested but released at the request of the German government. Australia has made no such request.

No charges have been laid against Habib. No lawyer has been allowed to visit him. No family is allowed to see him. His wife, Maha, remains in Sydney looking after their four children.

The media coverage of Australians detained by the US has been appalling. Typical of some of the reporting is an article that appeared in the December 13, 2001, Herald Sun entitled "Traitor". In it, Mark Dunn wrote that Hicks has been revealed as one of bin Laden's "terrorist fighters".

Later the Herald-Sun conducted a macabre opinion survey asking whether Hicks should be killed. Despite not having been charged with any offence, Hick was tried in the court of public opinion. The results, published on December 14, announced that 19,721 respondents (89.7% of the voters) voted yes.

On February 6, 2001, Herald Sun reporter Damon Johnson continued the demonisation of Hicks by referring to him in animal-like terms: "Three weeks in a tiny cage surrounded by razor wire and armed guards has tamed Australian terrorist David Hicks."

Most newspapers continue to publish blurry pictures of Hicks holding a gun, despite his family supplying them with clearer, less biased, pictures.

US concentration camp

Amnesty International, in its 2002 annual report, explained that it has repeatedly said the US is breaching international law by its detention, without charge, of foreigners at Guantanamo.

Little is known about conditions at the base. Reporters are only allowed entry on strictly limited terms. There are numerous reports of mental illness and self-harm inside. The US military revealed on May 28 that there had been two suicide attempts during the previous 10 days alone.

Amnesty is not the only one concerned about the human rights in Guantanamo. Others who have expressed concern include the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the European Parliament. The English High Court has referred to the situation in Guantanamo as "objectionable" and in "apparent contravention of fundamental principles recognized by international law".

The US government has attempted to circumvent international human rights law by referring to the detainees as "hostile non-combatants", instead of prisoners of war.

If the US agreed they were prisoners of war, it should release the prisoners now that hostilities have ceased. If the US government argues that they have broken laws, they should be charged and tried in accordance with the US constitution.

The US government is reportedly trying to set up a "death row" at Guantanamo, raising the horrifying prospect of inmates being "tried" by secret military tribunals, then executed, all without access to family or a lawyer of their choosing.

The position of US court decisions so far that American civil liberties law does not cover Guantanamo, because it is in Cuban territory occupied by the US, is a disgrace. It is not known if the Supreme Court will be more independent of executive government when appeals finally reach there.

The fact that Australian citizens have been detained without being able to be visited by friends, relatives or lawyers has shown that the Australian government is prepared to abandon Australians in detention overseas when it is politically expedient. Perhaps that is the "foreign travel" warning that the Australian government should be giving its citizens.

For more information, visit <http://www.amnesty.org> or <http://www.fairgofordavid.org>.

From Green Left Weekly, June 11, 2003.
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