Monday, February 07, 2005

When Citizenship Is Diminished

Once Upon A Time ...

Some 20 years ago, an Egyptian permanent resident named Mamdouh Habib decided the time had come. Still in his 20’s, the young man decided to embrace his country of residence and become an Australian citizen.

Who knows how many advertisements he had seen and heard on the radio encouraging citizenship. Who knows how many cases Mr Habib had seen on the news of Australian citizens somehow finding themselves on the wrong side of the law in a foreign land. And citizens who, by virtue of their Australian passport, received all kinds of assistance from Australian officials overseas and in Canberra.

Probably getting into trouble was the last thing on Mr Habib’s mind when he made his fateful decision. It is certainly the last thing on the minds of thousands of people who embrace Australian citizenship each year.

20 years ago, there was no al-Qaeda. Usama bin Ladin existed, but more as Usama bin Reagan, the adopted son of Ronald Reagan. They were fighting a joint jihad against the Soviet Union, with Usama coordinating the training of thousands of poor Arab volunteers. Most of Usama's recruits were responding to advertisements placed in Arab newspapers by the Egyptian and other “moderate” governments.

Perhaps back then, like many Australians, Mr Habib had watched an episode of Channel 9’s 60 Minutes program in which Usama's mujahideen were presented as brave poor warriors fighting for freedom against the Evil Empire. Perhaps Mr Habib would have been moved by the program. But like most young Australians, Mr Habib was probably too busy getting himself educated, trying to get work or establish a business to worry about some foreign jihad.

After 2 decades, Mr Habib felt Australia was perhaps not the place to be. If disappointments in employment and business were not enough, Habib was being threatened by local goons from the local salafite/wahhabist cult, a tiny minority in the Muslim community. Habib also was being treated for depression, an affliction that affects 1 in 5 Australians at least once in their lifetime.

Habib and his family discussed the matter. Perhaps moving overseas was an option. Habib considered Pakistan, and decided he should travel there first to check the place out. Whilst on the plane, Mr Habib may have heard about the terrorist attacks in the US. On arriving in Pakistan, he set about looking for a private school, not a Deobandi madressa. He probably wanted a Hasan Abdal Academy or some other posh private school Pakistani generals and businessmen send their children to.

Mr Habib somehow ends up in Pakistani/US custody. US Court documents show that an Australian consular official was also present. Is the consular official there to ensure Mr Habib’s rights as an Australian citizen are protected? No. The official is there to witness Habib’s face and neck being kicked by a US interrogator, before overseeing Mr Habib’s transfer to a secret prison in Egypt where he is tortured for some 6 months, then transferred for more torture at Guantanamo Bay.

Citizen Habib & The Rule of Law

This is probably what Habib's version sounds something like. He was an innocent man with innocent intentions. He was no al-Qaeda freak.

The Australian government's version is quite different. Even after Habib has been released by the US authorities before being charged, the Attorney General Mr Ruddock's Office has been engaged in what can only be described as defamation by the Crown. The government appears to be intent on slandering Mr Habib, yet acknowledges that he cannot be charged with any crime.

So why is Mr Ruddock going to all this trouble? Simple. The government has egg on its face. Even within its own party, there has been some quite nasty criticism of the government's handling of the whole Guantanamo affair.

Habib could have been charged and brought before the Military Tribunal by the United States. Habib had been held for over 3 years and may have made some admissions. Mr Ruddock and the government claim to have lots of evidence. Yet the fact remains that Habib was never charged.

The UK government has subjected the military tribunals to plenty of criticism. The UK Government has expressed concerns about the fairness of tribunal procedures, the qualifications of tribunal members (one member was reported to have no idea what the word 'adjournment' meant) and a range of other issues.

Meanwhile, our own government has bent over backwards to support the tribunals, ignoring the criticisms made by the UK. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, consistent with his "The Things That Batter" style of diplomacy that so endeared him to Australians as Federal Opposition Leader, has made comments and remarks on the Guantanamo detainees that must give US authorities the impression that can hang, impale or even crucify Hicks and Habib without complaint from Canberra.

Our two Commonwealth Attorneys General, most recently Phillip Ruddock, appear to have forgotten years of legal training and practice. Hicks and Habib are being presumed guilty until they can prove themselves innocent. Evidence is being provided to the media, yet the government knows that they cannot try and successfully prosecute the two men in Australia.

So why are we seeing Ministers of the Crown throwing Natural Justice and the Rule of Law out the window? Why does the government continue to malign Mamdouh Habib even after he has been released?

Making a Mockery of Citizenship

I believe that the government realises that its response (or lack thereof) to the detention and treatment of Habib has sent a loud signal to the Australian people - don't expect the government to help you if you get into trouble overseas!

I disagree with some Muslim spokespeople who have claimed that the government is only targetting Muslims. I believe that the government's handling of Hicks and Habib has given educated citizens of all nations the view that the Australian government has no concern for the plight of its citizens.

The US prosecuted one of their own, John Walker Lindh, who was caught fighting with the Taliban. Yet he was prosecuted in a civilian court and has been imprisoned in a civilian gaol. The UK was so severe in its criticism of US military tribunals because UK citizens were being affected.

Indeed, when Habib was first detained in Afghanistan and taken into joint Pakistani/US custody, he was with 2 German citizens who had admitted to training in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. The 2 Germans were released after some mild pressure by the German government.

The Australian Government’s response to the detention of Messrs Hicks and Habib represents a diminishing of the value of Australian citizenship. When Australian citizens are caught up abroad (whether by natural disaster, war or some other reason) and/or find themselves on the wrong side of the law, they can expect to receive assistance from Australian officials abroad and in Canberra. The Australian government provides this service for Australians convicted of serious crimes. Australians who plead guilty in a foreign jurisdiction of smuggling heroin into Australia and face the death penalty are assisted as far as possible. And rightly so, notwithstanding that actions such as theirs destroy the lives of thousands of young Australians each year.

Whilst at Guantanamo Bay, Australian officials denied claims Mr Habib was being tortured. It seemed Messrs Howard & Ruddock were more worried about defending Bush & Rumsfeld than doing anything for Hicks & Habib. Meanwhile, the same sources of evidence were being used by the UK Government to lobby the US on behalf of British citizens.

The UK government did not allow its active participation in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to stop it from fulfilling its responsibilities to its citizens. Yet our government seems to thing that the ANZUS treaty involves giving up the rights of Australian citizens.


Mr Habib has now been re-united with his family. His wife, his lawyers and activists across the globe can take credit for his freedom. The government, on the other hand, can hang its head in shame for diminishing the value of Australian citizenship.