An Open Letter In Support Of Austin Mackell

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Dear Prime Minister and Foreign Minister,

Austin Mackell is a young freelance journalist, who moved to Egypt in February last year. His writings have been featured in respected media outlets across the world, including New Matilda, The Guardian, Al-Akhbar and Crikey.

On 11 February, Mackell, his translator, Aliya Alwi, US masters student Derek Ludovici, and taxi driver Zakaria Ahmad drove to Mahalla al- Kubra. They sought to interview Kamal el-Fayoumi, a well known trade unionist and labour activist. Upon arriving, they were attacked and threatened by a small mob. They were instructed by a police officer to come to a police station for their own protection.

Over the next 56 hours, they were held in custody. They were all repeatedly interrogated.

During this time, they were allowed minimal communication with the outside world. Some courageous Egyptian activists, like Shahira Abouelleil, Kareem el-Behairy, and Omar Kamel, followed the detainees, tweeted about their location to the outside world, and brought along lawyers and journalists to help them. They also provided the detainees with food.

Mackell, Alwi and Ludovivi have been told they have been charged with "inciting people to vandalise public property and governmental buildings". Specifically it is alleged they promised children money if they threw rocks at the Qism El-Tani police station in Mahalla. If convicted, they are advised they face imprisonment for five to seven years. (Ahmad was later released without charge, as was el-Fayoumi who was arrested when he visited the police station to assist Mackell.)

Austin has had his passport confiscated and a travel ban is in place.

Since their release, they have faced ongoing threats and harassment. The police released their reports to the state media. Consequently, their faces and addresses were featured in the media across Egypt, accusing them of being spies. It has become unsafe for Mackell to live in, or even visit, his old apartment.

Mackell’s camera, laptop, and external hard drive have been confiscated, along with 800 Egyptian pounds kept at his apartment. His flatmate’s camera was also confiscated, along with Alwi’s mobile phone, and money from both Alwi and Ludovici. Mackell is also concerned that personal information on his computer will be copied, compromising his work as a journalist and possibly placing his sources at risk.

The charges against the group are hard to credit. It is worth considering why they may have been brought.

Mackell has reported critically on the at times brutal suppression of protesters by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), currently ruling Egypt. For example, in a New Matilda article on 17 June 2011, Mackell wrote critically of military tribunals, saying that some are "simply appallingly unfair trials in which harsh sentences are delivered quickly and easily. Some, however, are also clearly part of an ongoing campaign of intimidation that the army has been waging against critical voices here in Egypt."

In an article on 13 October 2011, Mackell wrote that SCAF opposed Egypt’s "democratic blossoming", as they are "at the core of the corrupt economic elite that is threatened by the leftward shift likely to accompany the election of a populist government." In one of his most recent articles, before his arrest, Mackell chronicled the clashes between SCAF and Egypt’s protest movement. His article concluded with a condemnation of the Egyptian military’s "brutality, stupidity and incompetence in dealing with protests in Tahrir".

Fayoumi is a long-time labour activist from Mahalla, who first went on strike against factory working conditions in 1988. Mahalla’s labour activism, in particular from December 2006 to the general strike called for 6 April 2008, inspired much of the country. This includes the April 6 movement, who played the major role in organising the massive 25 January protests that wound up overthrowing Mubarak.

It appears that the persecution of Mackell in particular is to intimidate independent journalists who would be interested in reporting on Egypt’s labour movement, particularly in Mahalla.

So far, no Australian minister has said a word about all of this. The recently resigned Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, said not a word in defence of the rights of Mackell, even though he is an Australian citizen. Unlike the Egyptian activists who struggled to support Mackell, Ludovici, Alwi and Ahmad, Rudd was silent.

When the Egyptians were struggling to overthrow the Mubarak dictatorship, Rudd also failed to say a word in support of their struggle. However, in March 2011, when speaking about the Middle East, he said "Australia, of course shares values with those who seek to widen the tent of democracy across the world. These are the values of freedom of speech and assembly, and a commitment to open and transparent government."

Foreign Minister, will you speak out and defend the rights of freedom of speech and assembly in Egypt? Will you defend the right of an Australian journalist to report freely in another country? Will you defend Mackell and his associates against these plainly politicised charges? Will you campaign for their rights? As a leading figure in Australia’s Labor Party, will you defend the right of a labour activist to associate with sympathetic journalists?

Austin Mackell is an Australian citizen who urgently needs your help. Are you going to commit to the values of freedom of speech and assembly?

If you would like to add your name to this petition, click on this link.

For further details on action you can take to support Mackell and his colleagues, visit his blog.

Signatories
Michael Brull
Elizabeth Humphrys, Editor (Oceania & South-East Asia) Interface Journal
John Pilger, Journalist and Documentary Filmmaker
Guy Rundle, Author and Journalist
Stuart Rees AM, Director of Sydney Peace Foundation, Professor Emeritus, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney
Associate Professor Jake Lynch, Director, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney
Lizzie O’Shea, Lawyer
Lee Rhiannon, Senator, Australian Greens
Jamie Parker, NSW MP, Australian Greens
Dr John Kaye, NSW MLC, Australian Greens
Sydney PEN
Dr Debra Adelaide, Vice-President, Sydney PEN
Joel Gibson, Board Member, Sydney PEN
Antony Loewenstein, Author and Independent Journalist.
Dr Jeff Sparrow, Editor Overland
Jacinda Woodhead, Assistant Editor, Overland
Irene Doutney, Councillor, Sydney City Council
Jim Casey, State Secretary, NSW, Fire Brigade Employees’ Union
Warren Smith, Assistant National Secretary, Maritime Union of Australia
Paul McAleer, Secretary, Sydney Branch, Maritime Union of Australia
Ray Jackson, Indigenous Social Justice Association
Dr Tad Tietze, Consultant Psychiatrist and Blogger
Hicham Safieddine, Managing Editor, Al-Akhbar English (News Outlet)
Yazan Al-Saadi, Al-Akhbar (News Outlet)
Dima Charif, Al-Akhbar (News Outlet)
Professor David Dixon, Dean of Law, University of NSW
Professor Larissa Behrendt, Director of Research, Jumbunna IHL, University of Technology, Sydney
Professor Michael Burawoy, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley
Dr John Docker, Honorary Professor, History Department, University of Sydney
Michael Thomson, President, University of Sydney Branch, National Tertiary Education Union
Dr Damien Cahill, Academic VP, University of Sydney Branch, National Tertiary Education Union
Paddy Gibson, Senior Researcher, Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology, Sydney
Craig Longman, Senior Researcher, Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology, Sydney
Associate Professor Peter Slezak, Philosophy, University of NSW
Dr David Glanz, NTEU branch committee member, RMIT University
Dr James Arvanitakis, Academic University of Western Sydney
Dr Jessica Whyte, Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis, University of Western Sydney
Dr Rick Kuhn, Reader in Politics, Australian National University
Anthea Vogl, Associate Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Technology, Sydney
Dr Nick Riemer, Senior Lecturer, English and Linguistics Department, University of Sydney
Dr Stewart Jackson, Government and International Relations, University of Sydney
Dr Jamie Allinson, Research Fellow at The British Institute in Amman
Dr Alf Gunvald Nilsen, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Sociology, University of Bergen, Norway
Dr Mark Pendleton, Lecturer in Japanese Studies, University of Sheffield
Dr Cristina Flesher Forinaya, University of Aberdeen
Colin Barker, honorary lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK
Dr Gareth Dale, Senior Lecturer in politics and international relations, Brunel University
Violet Roumeliotis, CEO Settlement Services International
John Passant, Editor, En Passant
Cassie Findlay, Archivist and co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable
Kane Ord, Project Officer, One Planet Project
Nat Wasley, Beyond Nuclear Initiative
Jean Parker, PhD candidate, University of Technology, Sydney
Phil Chilton, PhD Candidate, University of Western Australia
John Morris, President Canterbury Bankstown Teachers Association
David Suttle
Alice Williams
Lauren Mellor
Anne Picot
Erima Dall

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