It's fast becoming the flip-flop season Down Under. The focal point of doubt is the Dr Mohammed Haneef case, with all sorts of revisions and retractions coming forth about the quality of evidence implicating him in the aborted UK terror attacks. Australian deputy PM Mark Vaile set the ball rolling through a surprising admission—that Dr Haneef's immigration visa was revoked, and he was consequently detained, because the government didn't want him to leave the country (a Brisbane court had granted him bail). Vaile's remark contradicted immigration minister Kevin Andrews who had earlier said the Bangalore doctor's visa was cancelled because he did not satisfy the character requirements of the Immigration Act. It was assumed Vaile was speaking the truth because he sits on the cabinet security committee. The ensuing public outcry prompted him to say he had made a "mistake".
Leaks to the media have had the people gasping over the bumbling, even tendentious, method of investigation the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have employed to establish links between Haneef and the Glasgow/London terror plot. The AFP first claimed that Haneef's sim card was recovered from the blazing jeep his cousin Kafeel had rammed into the Glasgow airport. The card was the evidence the AFP had cited to detain and charge Haneef for "reckless assistance" to a terror group. The truth was the British police had confiscated the card from the Liverpool residence of Kafeel's brother, Sabeel. The AFP also told the Brisbane court that it had found among Haneef's handwritten notes the contact details of Kafeel. When Haneef denied outright the handwriting to be his, the police officer handling the case left the room, returned a little later and said, "Thought that might have been the case. In fact, it's not. This is what's been written by police. So it is not your handwriting at all." So, was the police tricking a harried Haneef into incriminating himself? The question was left hanging while federal police commissioner Mick Keelty quickly denied the police had forged Haneef's handwriting.
The AFP's presentation of shoddy evidence is perhaps the reason why the Commonwealth director of public prosecutions, Damian Bugg QC, has announced a review of the case. "Clearly, not every matter which is prosecuted by my office is reviewed by me," Bugg said. "But there are matters which have developed as this case has progressed which I am examining, and a broader review of the available material and the proceedings to date is the best way to examine these matters appropriately." Which, in essence, means you still can't be sure Haneef will be left off the hook anytime soon.
The case has however deeply embarrassed Prime Minister John Howard, and also brought under the scanner the draconian anti-terror laws adopted in 2004-05. Paul Whittaker, editor of national daily The Australian, feels Haneef may well have become a symbol of protest against the anti-terror laws just because of the mishandling of the case. "He could be seen as somewhat of a martyr." He says most Australians favoured the anti-terror laws because these were aimed at protecting the country from terror attacks. "The Haneef case was the first test of the anti-terror laws and the government has failed miserably," Whittaker says.
And it has failed because, as Tim Bugg, who heads the Law Council of Australia, says, it "misread the situation", believing it could exploit the fears of people about terror attacks to bolster its flagging chances of winning the general elections this year. Bugg told Outlook, "The fact that there is so much controversy now can be laid straight at the government's feet. Had the government not intervened and let the bail application go through, the outcome would have been quite different. " At least the government wouldn't have been accused of exploiting the situation politically.
Tim Bugg is also sharply critical of the opposition Labor Party's "in principle" support for the decisions of Howard. "The Opposition does not appear to have considered the rule of law issue. Whether it's about holding people without charging them or revoking visas, it has not done enough," he says. This is partly because Opposition leader Kevin Rudd has chosen to focus on social and economic problems in an election year, evading the security issue because the ruling Liberal party is popularly perceived to have made Australia safer.
Still, voices of protests have of late been emanating from Labor too. A vocal one is Queensland premier Peter Beattie (the state in which the Indian doctor was working) who derisively dismissed the AFP as 'Keystone Kops', a reference to the silent film series on bumbling cops. Rudd's criticism of Beattie prompted him to remark: "I will let Kevin and the prime minister play politics but I don't intend to back off this issue even a little bit."
In an e-mail reply, Beattie explained his stand, "I am prepared to be tough on terrorists, but I also believe in protecting people's fundamental legal rights." Further he said, "I am aware of the cynicism about the federal government's involvement in the Haneef case, particularly in terms of his visa cancellation. I can understand how this action could be viewed as heavy-handed unless a rational, sensible explanation is forthcoming. We have a very strong view in Australia that we need to do everything to fight terrorism and the anti-terror laws are designed to protect our country. But if we ignore the fundamental rights and freedoms that we believe in, then frankly the terrorists win."
Sarah Smiles, the Canberra-based national security correspondent for the Melbourne Age newspaper, feels the AFP blundered because it doesn't have much experience handling terrorism cases. "The police here are being dragged through the press. I have spoken to people in the UK who say they are appalled at the kind of pressure the government is putting on the AFP. But this is all because it's a new world for Australia—terrorism is a new, unknown road." The pressures seem to have already taken a heavy toll. AFP commissioner Mick Keelty said an investigating officer in the case had "dropped dead" at work and that "the team has been through a very emotional and stressful time".
Even the media here is yet to get a firm grip on the anti-terror laws. As Whittaker explains, "We first thought Haneef had been been charged under the 2005 amendment to the anti-terror law whereby lawyers and the press are banned from speaking about the case. We thought we may all go to jail for five years, but we realised that he was charged under the less draconian 2004 anti-terror law." This realisation prompted the media to go hammer and tongs, much to the government's discomfiture—and to Haneef's immense relief.
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