Republic of Moreland

January 5, 2007

Locking up our neighbours

Filed under: crime,events,politics — Kath @ 12:02 am

Next week, on the 11th at lunchtime, is the vigil for David Hicks. While we campaign for his return, it’s worthwhile also thinking about some Moreland victims of the Howard government’s war on terror campaign.

On the morning Australia’s radical WorkChoice legislation was introduced in Parliament, nine Muslim men were arrested in Melbourne’s poorer northern and western suburbs (mainly in Moreland), coinciding with arrests of seven Muslim men in Sydney.

Although Magistrate Reg Marron later said there was little evidence to connect the Melbourne and Sydney groups, police and politicians in both states announced an “imminent terrorist attack” had been thwarted, thanks to new terror law amendments sewn up a few days earlier. Saturation news of “the biggest counter-terrorism operation in Australia’s history” eclipsed that of the new workplace laws.

But no weapons or plans were found among the nine, and they weren’t charged with planning any terrorist attack. Instead, the men were imprisoned in the maximum-security Acacia Unit at Barwon Prison, an hour’s drive from Moreland, charged with membership of an unspecified, unnamed and unlisted terrorist organisation. (These organisations are determined not by judicial process, but with a signature from Philip Ruddock. A politician.)

As questions were raised, it emerged that the alleged organisation, hastily defined as such by the federal Attorney-General, was the accused men themselves. Then, more young men were accused of belonging to their organisation, with another four subsequently arrested and imprisoned at Barwon. Now known as the Barwon 13, some of the men were then charged with supporting a terrorist organisation and providing funds to a terrorist organisation.

Outside the men’s first committal hearing, Michael Pearce from the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties told reporters: “Australia is experiencing the most sustained assault on civil liberties in 50 years and [the Barwon 13] are victims of that assault. Their treatment is an affront to the most basic principles of the rule of law. They have been charged under absurdly vague and general laws, are held in inhumane conditions and are effectively denied legal representation.”

They have now been held in isolation for more than a year, shackled, with very few privileges, in what Civil Rights Defence calls ‘Guantanamo-style conditions’.

If you’re an underworld figure or drug dealer with prior criminal convictions, you enjoy rights not available to the Barwon 13, most of whom have no criminal record (two with schizophrenia, and one other, have). Unlike the terror suspects, you will almost invariably get out on bail, as you rarely have to prove ‘exceptional circumstances’. You won’t, in most cases, be kept shackled in isolation. You enjoy the presumption of innocence.

Not so for the Barwon 13, says Vicki Sentas, from the Federation of Community Legal Centres. “To pre-emptively charge and imprison people for extended periods throws out the window ‘innocent before being proven guilty’,” she told reporters. Barwon’s Acacia Unit, according to Supreme Court Judge Justice Eames, “is much more restrictive than would apply elsewhere in the prison system… designed not for remand prisoners but for prisoners serving sentences.”

People like Eman Abdou, the wife of Merhi’s co-accused 23-year-old Shane Kent, have to find legal assistance for their menfolk on a shoestring, having lost their family income with their husbands’ imprisonment.

Abdou, speaking at a Civil Rights Defence gathering, said the women’s sons, brothers and husbands are kept in isolation up to 18 hours a day, shackled. The men allegedly see no natural light, and are given their three daily meals “within a six-hour period”, and “go to bed very hungry”.

Her account is supported by a report submitted to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Prepared by Australia’s Human Rights Law Resource Centre, the report claims the Barwon 13 are suffering “serious ongoing human rights violations” contravening several international laws. Barwon’s “particularly cruel, inhuman and degrading” conditions include detainees in isolation “for between 18 and 23 hours a day”; few legal or communication rights (with no phone calls allowed from lawyers); “lack of access to adequate health care”; and “little or no contact with other people”. The men are kept “in leg irons and in manacles attached to a leather band around the waist when they are moved… despite the fact that many of the detainees have no previous criminal history.”

The men’s mental health, says the UN submission, “has been severely and deleteriously affected as a result of the conditions of their detention.”

Corrections Victoria denies allegations of human rights abuses at Barwon. Minister for Corrections Tim Holding said in a letter: “It is denied that remand prisoners are receiving cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment… Having regard to the serious nature of the charges against the remand prisoners, and the need to maintain their safety and security at all times, their current classification and placement is considered appropriate.” The minister says conditions, including legal access, have improved, with the Barwon 13 now allowed “up to six hours” contact with another prisoner. Legal consultations are now permitted to occur by videoconference, and “are not audio-taped,” says the Minister. (This isn’t the same story as that coming from the men’s solicitor.)

But during the bail hearing for one of the suspects, Justice Osborne said: “These conditions, which I have personally observed, are not those in which ordinary Australians would expect any member of the public to be held on remand for extended periods of time when charged with no more than membership of an organisation.”

The evidence presented to date against the Barwon 13 is not, in fact, explosive devices. The bulk of it is around 30,000 hours of recorded conversation, some of it egged on by an agent provocateur planted by police to show the men how to use explosives (there has been no evidence presented to suggest any of them had experience with explosives before the police plant). Civil Rights Defence says the charges against the men amount to thought crime.

Whether or not they do; whether or not the accused really are guilty of thinking or discussing what they’re accused of thinking and discussing; and putting aside the validity of laws described by Liberty Victoria as “redolent of Stalinist Russia”, keeping these men, charged with no violent offence, in solitary confinement, shackled, in these punitive conditions, for more than a year so far before their cases go to trial, seems reminiscent of the human rights abuses David Hicks has been subjected to. These men are our neighbours, and, as Moreland citizens, there are things we can do to raise awareness of their predicament. We can organise events. We can keep abreast of Civil Rights Defence events and Liberty Victoria campaigns. We can raise concerns with our local MPs. And — for what it’s worth — councillors, and neighbours.



  1. This is impressive, but you don’t acknowledge the risk these men pose.

    Comment by Bob Bygone — January 6, 2007 @ 2:39 pm | Reply

  2. And were they rev-head malakas? This is the real issue of our times.

    Comment by Bane of Malakas — January 6, 2007 @ 3:45 pm | Reply

  3. Bob, a number of things.

    (1) This is not a media article, but an over-long blogpost. There are many intricacies of this case, which are impossible to squeeze into a post.

    (2) If the men in fact posed a risk (and I don’t argue either way), shouldn’t this be determined by judicial process rather than at Philip Ruddock’s whim? Are we forgetting the rule of law here? Separation of powers? How absolute power can corrupt absolutely? Presumption of innocence? Are we forgetting how politicised these arrests were?

    (3) And if they did pose a risk, and they received bail, then a control order could be placed on them. After all, they had their phone lines and houses bugged for a very long time before their sudden arrest to conincide with the Sydney one.

    (4) They may or may not be found guilty by a jury, and I have faith in that aspect of the system, if not the terror laws themselves. But during their committal hearings, there was no hard evidence that they posed an imminent risk. After all, it was the police agent who had explosives: not the men. Remember, they’re not charged with planning an attack, but with being part of an organisation (some are also charged with possessing a “thing”, not defined under the Act).

    (5) They have a right to humane treatment. Certainly, if you were treated like that by our governments, what sort of a citizen would you be when you got out? What I’m saying is, if they weren’t radicalised before they were imprisoned, they may be once they’re out.

    Bane: This is just the sort of reactionary, insensitive comment I’m coming to expect from you. We’re talking about deprivation of human rights, and degrading treatment of vulnerable people whose relatives or neigbours may well visit this site. Time and place, mate, and innocent until proven guilty. There are plenty of other posts on which to air your prejudices.

    Comment by Girl on The Avenue — January 6, 2007 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

  4. The only reactionaries here are these jihadists. Think about that. I’m all for due process, however. I simply believe being a malaka should be an indictable offence, too. We’d have to build many new prisons, however.

    Go Ethiopia!

    Comment by Bane of Malakas — January 7, 2007 @ 1:15 pm | Reply

  5. Is it possible that the Bane is just committing intellectual revheadism?

    Brrm brrm.

    Comment by Larson — January 9, 2007 @ 1:31 pm | Reply

  6. I suspect, Larson, that he’s winding us up, and I’m not gonna bite anymore. 🙂

    Comment by Girl on The Avenue — January 9, 2007 @ 10:04 pm | Reply

  7. Garn, bite, GoTA. I luvva bitta toof.

    Comment by Bane of Malakas — January 11, 2007 @ 1:22 am | Reply

  8. […] since the war on terror began, even here in Coburg, and despite being Christian. Meanwhile, as I wrote in an earlier post, his Muslim neighbours are also experiencing the pointy end of Howard’s $20 billion war on […]

    Pingback by My neighbour’s facial discrimination « Republic of Moreland — March 6, 2007 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

  9. […] concern to Morelanders, because many of the young men kept shackledn in isolation at Barwon prison are our neighbours. There have been applications to the UN about their treatment at Barwon prison. Their lawyer, Rob […]

    Pingback by Justice for young Moreland men « Republic of Moreland — March 28, 2007 @ 3:03 pm | Reply

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