Thursday, July 26, 2007

Abuse of terrorism legislation.

Bear with me, this is long and complicated but important.

There's been much comment and criticism of various countries' terrorism legislation, in particular I'm aware of the US, the UK and Australia. I have been and continue to be a critic.

The criticism centres around the erosion of rights, the removal of checks and balances that have been hard won over centuries of struggles to advance human rights, to have a (reasonably) fair system of justice. Lady Justice's double-edged sword, scales and blindfold.

Those in favour of the laws typically deride critics as left-wing bleeding heart liberals, as traitors, as terrorist sympathisers.

The concern of critics is that the very foundation of our justice systems is being eroded. The very real fear is that government and government agencies will misuse or abuse the powers.

There's a case going on in Australia at the moment that proves we are right to be concerned.

Mohammed Haneef is an Indian doctor working in Australia, one of a group of doctors detained by police in connection with the recent failed bomb attacks in London and Glasgow. He was arrested at the airport in Brisbane, capital of the state of Queensland.

Dr Haneef was arrested on July 2 as he 'was trying to leave Australia'. Sounds sinister doesn't it, those words used in the reports. "Trying to leave Australia" with its suggestions of fleeing. His wife in Bangalore had just given birth to their baby who was very ill - the report could have equally well have said "as he was on his way to visit his wife and new-born daughter".

I've talked about the power of words before. The deliberate choice between using benign or sinister phrases depending entirely on how the subject is going to be depicted. In this case, early in the saga, the media decided that Dr Haneef should be presented in a bad light. Not for the first time, that changed as what was really going on became more apparent.

Dr Haneef was held without charge for eleven days, the police applied to extend his detention, then decided to withdraw the application. Australian anti-terrorism laws allow 24 hours of questioning of a suspect. After eleven days in detention Dr Haneef had only been questioned for twelve hours.

That's a major concern with the laws on both counts. One, the length of time someone can be held without charge. Two, that the time allowed for questioning can be spread so thinly over so many days.

Now we get to July 14. After twelve days in custody without charge Dr Haneef is charged with 'reckless support to a terrorist organisation'.

When Dr Haneef left Britain in 2006 - repeat, in 2006 - to work in Australia he left his SIM card with his second cousin Sabeel Ahmad.

It was alleged by prosecutors that the SIM card had been found in the Jeep rammed into Glasgow airport. They said that Ahmad had passed it to his brother who was alleged to be the driver of the Jeep. In fact it never had been, it was still with Ahmed hundreds of kilometres away in Liverpool where they arrested him - he has not been charged with terrorism but with 'withholding information'.

As the ABC commented: "It seems the facts were not as they were presented in court."

Stuff-up or something more sinister?

(When we visited Cairo recently, Mrs Seabee asked her company's agent there to buy me a SIM card so that we would have communication when we were out & about at different places. He'd never met me, but he handed over the card unquestioningly).

Now onto July 16, charged and finally in a court of law. The magistrate ordered Dr Haneef be released on A$10,000 (Dh32,000) bail, saying he had no known links to a terrorist organisation and that police were not alleging his SIM card had been used in the British terror plot.

Now we get the government doing just what all we bleeding heart liberal lefty terrorist sypathisers had been warning would happen. The government decided the law wasn't doing what it wanted it to do, so it over-rode the magistrate's decision.

Within hours of the court's ruling Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said he had cancelled Dr Haneef's visa and ordered him placed in Sydney's infamous Villawood immigration detention centre.

Just look at this: "I reasonably suspect he has or has had an association with persons engaged in criminal activity, criminal conduct, namely terrorism in the UK," Andrews said at a news conference. He said Dr Haneef had failed a "character test" and had used his powers under migration law to cancel his visa."

So much for fair justice for all. A magistrate in a court of law grants bail, based on all the facts before him. The government decides that isn't acceptable and throws the man straight into another jail.

Then the obviously deliberate attempt to blacken Dr Haneef's image further. Rumours were spread, picked up by tabloids, that he had been plotting to blow up a high rise tower on the Gold Coast south of Brisbane. The evidence? They'd found at his home what hundreds, maybe thousands of people have - a photo of the world's tallest occupied residential building, on the Gold Coast. A spokeswoman for the Federal Police said "We will not confirm or deny the allegations."

To the ill-informed, to the far right, to the bigots, that's as good as saying he's guilty. Just as his detention in Villawood had done.

(I have plenty of photos of the world's newest tallest building, Burj Dubai, at home).

It was then alleged that police had written the names of overseas terror suspects in Dr Haneef's personal diary. Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty was forced to deny those reports and also deny that Dr Haneef was being investigated for plotting to bomb the Gold Coast skyscraper.

By July 23 the press was reporting that the charges were about to be dropped. But that the government would deport Dr Haneef.

Innocent, but sentenced as guilty.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie's description of the false evidence, blunders, rumours as making the Federal Police"look like the Keystone Cops" seemed pretty accurate to me, although it's far more serious than the link to slapstick comedy suggests.

And so to the last couple of days. Now that the true facts are being published, in many parts of the world, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions has announced a review of all material relating to the case. Reports from legal sources in the UK and Australia say that Dr Haneef has not been a significant focus of the British investigation into the terrorist plots and they say that his name has barely been mentioned to his second cousin during questioning.

It's all looking like panic actions, the misuse of the laws, the government overriding the law, as well as lies, false evidence, spiteful rumour spreading. Tragically that all sounds so familiar from our governments and their agencies these days.

Since 9/11 really.

And it's happened over so many issues. The invasion and destruction of Iraq, the illegal spying on Americans by their government, Guantanamo, the CIA's 'extraordinary rendition' programme, unnecessarily draconian laws which are open to abuse and misuse in the US, the UK, Australia.

I've had many debates and arguments over these laws and the probable abuse of them. Typical arguments against me have included:

'Our government wouldn't do that', a particularly naive comment.

'They (government) know things that we don't know' - I had that shouted at me when I argued against the invasion of Iraq before it happened. Yeah. What they knew that we didn't was that they'd falsified documents and deliberately lied to us.

'No smoke without fire' - those arrested are obviously guilty or they wouldn't have been detained.

And worst of all the naive belief that only the bad guys are affected by the terrorism laws. That innocent people will not be caught up in the paranoia. The reality is of course that any of us could be caught up in it. Just like the competely innocent Jean Charles de Menezes who was murdered by an out-of-control bunch of gunmen killed by eight gunshots by a team of highly trained anti-terrorist police at Stockwell Tube station in London. A completely innocent man on his way to work.

I'm not suggesting Dr Haneef is either guilty or innocent. But I am saying that he, and everyone, should be dealt with in a way that is consistent with our established values of justice, of fairness. That overly draconian new terrorism laws are open to abuse and that they will be abused.

If we allow our governments to erode and gradually destroy our established values, we're going backwards.

1 comment:

Alexander said...

Impressed with the weight of an argument I have to confess I am in sympathy with across the board, from the misuse of language by an all-too ready to simplify things media right across to the abuse of the very systems of fairness, checks and balances we hold up to differentiate ourselves from the 'bad guys'...