The revelations of a once secret 2006 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross on the use of torture and “cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment” on prisoners at Guantánamo and secret CIA jails came as a shock to many. This is odd, because anyone with a keyboard, modem and half a brain, quickly discovered that in the panicky aftermath of 9/11, the West had forged a pact with the Devil. It was not only Dick Cheney who felt the call of the dark side – it was virtually the entire governing class of America, Britain and Australia. Yes, even Australia, a former penal colony that started life as Britain’s Guantanamo.
You might think this grim past would sharpen the desire of our institutions to root out injustice and comfort the afflicted. Well, we go through the motions. Australia signed the Convention against Torture (CAT) and, unlike the US, ratified it. But now we have trashed it. How come? Let’s take a swift trip into the heart of darkness.
At 3am on October 2001, a bus bound for Karachi was boarded by Pakistani security heavies on the look-out for “suspicious foreigners”. Two young Germans were dragged from their seats. When Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib interceded on their behalf, he too was taken into custody. According to Habib, he was hooded, shackled, dumped in a cell and roughed up. Eventually, he was taken to the Australian High Commission in Islamabad. In his memoir, My Story, Habib insists that he met with a senior consular official, Alistair Adams. The Australian Government denies such a meeting took place. However, in 2007, The Australian newspaper tracked down Ibrahim Diab, one of the Germans removed from the bus. Diab briefly shared a cell with the Australian, and heard a policeman tell Habib he was being taken to the High Commission, and watched them depart. On his return, Habib showed Diab a business card provided by the consul.
Habib states he met Mr Adams several times while he was held in Pakistan, and that the diplomat was present when he was interrogated by US agents. Adams allegedly told him he would be sent to an Egyptian jail. The Government admits Habib was twice seen by an officer of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) who used the name Paul Stokes and once by an Australian Federal Police officer, Mark Briskey.
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Meanwhile, under pressure from the Americans, the Pakistanis were keen for Habib to confess to an act of terror, so he was strung on a hook and zapped with electricity until he bled through every orifice. This happened, he says, more than once. Next on the agenda was an act of rendition, which began with a bunch of Americans in balaclavas, wearing black T-shirts, grey pants & yellow boots, beating him black and blue. They cut off his clothes, rammed a suppository up his rectum and fitted him with nappy and tracksuit. “The Australian diplomat was there and saw everything that happened”, writes Habib. “He wore a balaclava, but I recognized his coloured shirt, the checked jacket, the elbow patches…” More than one Australian official was allegedly present.
Now here’s the rub: Under Article 3 of the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT), a State must not transport a person to another State where he/she risks being tortured. So when Habib was “wrapped up like a spring roll”, barely able to breathe or walk, and dragged aboard the CIA flight to Egypt, this provision was breached. Article 4 of CAT states that an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture must be treated as a criminal offence. Thus anyone involved in renditions is liable to prosecution.
In Egypt, where torture seems to be a Government sport , Habib was interrogated by the country’s Intelligence Director, General Omar Suleiman, who is is ranked second in power to President Hosni Mubarak. Back in 2001, Suleiman took a personal interest in anyone suspected of links with Al Qaeda. As Habib had visited Afghanistan shortly before 9/11, he was under suspicion. Suleiman slapped Habib’s face so hard, the blindfold was dislodged, revealing the torturer’s identity. According to his memoir, Habib was repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks.
He was again interrogated by Omar Suleiman. To loosen Habib’s tongue, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a gruesomely shackled Turkistan prisoner in front of Habib – and he did, with a vicious karate kick. Suleiman is expected to be the next President of Egypt.
According to My Story, ASIO agents and other Australian officials visited Habib in Egypt (“David” and “Stewart” are two of the names provided). ASIO had previously raided Habib’s Sydney home, and delivered the results to his Egyptian torturers: phone numbers, bank statements, SIM cards, a laptop, tapes of private conversations, his address book, etc. On the face of it, this is a blatant breach of article 4 of CAT. In Federal Court hearings, Habib’s lawyers stated that Australian officials were not only complicit in Habib’s torture, but were active participants.
During his time in Government, Attorney General Phillip Ruddock repeatedly denied he was ever aware of Habib’s whereabouts, as did PM John Howard and Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer. These denials lack credibility. In Feb 2005, the New York Times revealed that soon after the CIA kidnapped Habib, the Department of Foreign Affairs sent a bizarre fax to his wife: “We remain confident that your husband is detained in Egypt… the government has received credible advice that he is well and being treated well.” (Until recently, Downer continued to claim there was no proof torture occurred at Guantanamo). The ABC’s Four Corners program disclosed a paper trail of documents that revealed the Government was aware, within days of his rendition, that Mr Habib was in Egyptian hands.
Article 2 of CAT states that no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. A Sydney Morning Herald trawl of FOI documents revealed that “senior Australian officials were fully aware that Habib was a victim of the CIA’s rendition program and desperately tried to cover it up.”
In April 2002, after five months of abominable torment, Habib was illegally rendered to Bagram jail in Kandahar – an infamous hellhole – and later to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by which time he was half dead. Even so, when Habib was carted off to meet Australian officials at Guantanamo, he was handcuffed and chained to the floor, apparently in distress. An official interview transcript names an ASIO agent as present, as well as Australian federal police officers Ramzi Jabbour and Steven Lancaster, plus Glenda Gauci from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Apart from the familiar litany of beatings, drugging and electric shocks, Guantanamo offered unique refinements: being urinated upon, having menstrual blood thrown in your face, being interrogated for 15 hour periods with short breaks. Former British detainee Tarek Degoul said that Habib was beaten, dragged by chains and photographed naked. Doctors who later examined Habib’s medical reports found plenty of signs of abuse.
In May 2004, Australia’s consul general in Washington, Derek Tucker finally arrived at Guantanamo with a warning for Habib: unless he cooperated with the Americans and admitted to something incriminating, he would be sent back to Egypt. The torture continued. US interrogators did everything possible “to make me crazy,” says Habib. He says he was sexually humiliated by a prostitute, told that his family were dead and shown images of his wife’s head superimposed on photographs of naked women next to Osama bin Laden.
In Parliament, John Howard swept aside allegations of torture and quoted the view of Derek Tucker, that Habib “had not been treated unacceptably”. Tucker visited Habib several times and his mantra never varied: unless Habib “co-operated with the Americans”, he would be sent back to Egypt. Only the swift intervention of US human rights lawyer Joe Margulies stopped this illegal act from occurring. After being held in Guantánamo Bay for almost three years, Mamdouh Habib was released without charge.
On his return to Australia, Habib was placed under surveillance and his passport confiscated. Article 14 of CAT commits Australia to ensure the victim of an act of torture obtains redress and has an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation. This Article was flouted, compensation was rejected. Habib has been pursuing the matter since 2005, with the case continually obstructed by the Howard government and its successor, the Rudd government. A flicker of progress was achieved a few weeks ago, according to a single report in a socialist blog , though I cannot find a mention elsewhere. The slumbering proceedings evoke the aura of a secret trial.
What is the Government hiding? The awful truth, perhaps. That some authorities have aided and abetted multiple acts of torture and kidnap of an Australian citizen. In January 2006, the Sydney Morning Herald obtained documents confirming that the Howard government and its intelligence agencies were “deeply implicated in the illegal rendition and imprisonment” of Habib. Following the recent US torture scandals, President Obama wants the investigation to focus on the lawyers, which is also a pretty good place to start in Australia.
Former Prime Minister John Howard is a lawyer, as is the former Attorney General Philip Ruddock. The former head of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, will need to face scrutiny, as well as legal officers, public servants and others. It has emerged that the US Government told ASIO heads it planned to send Habib to Egypt for “questioning” several weeks before his illegal rendition. Other agencies are tainted. Last December, Natalie O’Brien of The Australian reported that the Defence Department holds over 85,000 pages of documents relating to the rendition of Habib to Egypt, “despite having assured federal parliament it had no involvement in the matter”. it is Australia’s rock solid obligation under Article 5 of CAT to make torture offences “punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature”. While the official hand of the Australia Government signed and ratified CAT, its covert hand fed human flesh to the torturers. Prime Minster Rudd has no other choice but to set up a Royal Commission with sweeping powers.
Post Script: The endemic infliction of torture and abuse on prisoners by coalition forces has long been documented by bloggers and independent journalists. In 2005, this account of the CIA’s World Torture Tour was widely circulated on the web. It took another four years for the New York Times to wake up.
Richard Neville lives in Australia, the land that formed him. In the Sixties he raised hell in London and published Oz. He can be reached through his websites, homepagedaily.com and richardneville.com.au