Dr Haneef and the Keystone Cops


According to statements in the Law Council of Australia’s latest report,  the ‘Kafkaesque’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ case against Dr Mohamed Haneef rivals the ‘farce’ of David Hicks’s trial under the US military commissions.  

But the Hicks and Haneef cases aren’t the first instances of what appears to be selective leaking, spin doctoring, police bungling and abuse of Executive power in Australian terror trials.

In 2005, on the morning Australia’s radical WorkChoices legislation was introduced into Federal Parliament, nine Muslim men were arrested in Melbourne, coinciding with arrests of seven Muslim men in Sydney.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Although Magistrate Reg Marron later said there was little evidence to connect the Melbourne and Sydney groups, police and politicians in both cities announced an ‘imminent terrorist attack’ had been thwarted thanks to new terror law amendments. These had been hastily sewn up a few days earlier, when it was announced by the Prime Minister on 2 November 2005 that:

The Government has received specific intelligence and police information this week which gives cause for serious concern about a potential terrorist threat… the immediate passage of this bill would strengthen the capacity of law enforcement agencies to effectively respond to this threat.

Upon the arrests, saturation news of ‘the biggest counter-terrorism operation in Australia’s history’ eclipsed that of the new workplace laws.

But then it emerged that no weapons or plans were found among the nine Melbourne men. And despite the hyperbole, the suspects weren’t charged with planning a terrorist attack. Instead, the men were imprisoned in the maximum-security Acacia Unit at Barwon Prison, an hour from Melbourne, charged with membership of a terrorist organisation.

Which terrorist organisation? It then emerged that the alleged organisation wasn’t a listed, named or specific one, but consisted of the accused men themselves. Among other prejudicial and speculative claims, the prosecution claimed outright that one suspect had two years beforehand, when 19 years old, held a conversation that included the words ‘suicide bomber.’

The conversation, with notorious Muslim spiritual advisor Abdul Nacer Benbrika, was recorded by the Australian Federal Police ( AFP). It was soon revealed in court, however, that the conversation hadn’t contained these words.

In another confusing situation reminiscent of Haneef’s diary entry bungles, the Melbourne Magistrates Court was also told that an undercover police agent ‘of Middle-Eastern heritage’ ‘befriended’ the group ‘by pretending he shared similar beliefs.’ The agent then allegedly showed the men how to use explosives. The Court was told ‘that the only explosion connected to the group was detonated by authorities.’

So where is the evidence of the ‘imminent terror attack’ the media screamed about? It would be interesting to examine it, as we can Haneef’s police statement, but two years later, the Melbourne men are still awaiting trial, kept largely shackled in isolation at Barwon Prison, and denied bail, because unlike the Haneef and Tamil cases ‘exceptional circumstances’ can’t be found.

In the Jack Thomas case, a Channel 7 camera crew parked at dawn outside the Williamstown home in which Thomas and his family, including his elderly mother-in-law, were sleeping. The crew was there to film police storming into the house with guns and dogs. Through a ‘leak’ by the AFP or another Government source, Channel 7 was informed of the arrests before Thomas or his lawyers. Thomas’s lawyer, Robert Stary, says he has evidence of this.

(In Thomas’s account, the police handcuffed him inside, before removing the handcuffs and re-fastening them in front of the cameras. It is difficult to verify his account, because cameras weren’t rolling inside.)

These are just two examples of what could be viewed as an emerging pattern of selective leaking and pre-trial smearing on the part of the Commonwealth. Little wonder Haneef’s lawyer did his own leaking in an attempt to redress the balance before things got out of hand.

Other parallels with the Haneef case are emerging, too: in the same way it decided to slap a control order on Jack Thomas after an appeals court overturned convictions against him, the Howard Government revoked Dr Haneef’s visa after bail was granted. In both cases, some charges are based on speculative and tangential evidence: during Thomas’s trial, AFP agent Rinzi Jabbour admitted to the court there was ‘no direct evidence’ that Thomas was planning terror activities, but that he ‘believed’ Thomas ‘intended’ to become a terror ‘resource.’

Although it’s generally acknowledged that the risk of terrorism in Australia has been heightened since our participation in the Iraq War, it’s also recognised that it remains very unlikely. But if these kinds of politicised antics persist even if real evidence of terrorist activity surfaces in these or other cases then the public’s confidence in the justice process will have been undermined by a Government that’s seen to consistently cry wolf, promote trial by media and ignore the rule of law in Australian terror trials.

Now, as Foreign Minister Alexander Downer so adeptly  put it: ‘Every time there is somebody arrested and facing charges, there’s some sort of controversy about "oh the poor thing, he must be innocent, this is all being cooked up for some particular reason."’

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.