Prime Minister Julia Gillard’ s fondness for Israel is about to be tested with news that Israeli security agencies have arrested aid Rashid Abu Arja, an Australian citizen, whom the Israelis say is a spy for Hamas.  Arja, who also holds Saudi Arabian and Jordanian passports, was arrested last week as he entered Israel.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz is citing a TV news report that alleges Arja “has a background in computers, and apparently he was asked to aid in acquiring various technological devices for the purposes of encryption, photography, and guiding missiles”. Arja is said to have been trained in Syria.

Australia has an obligation not only to provide the usual consular assistance to one of its citizens detained overseas, but it also needs to ensure that no Australian official is complicit in, or sanctions the use of torture against that citizen.  The cases of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib over the past decade have illustrated what happens when Australia does not stand up to those nations that have detained one of our own.

Despite a ruling by Israel’s highest court in 1999 outlawing torture practices such as sleep deprivation, physical violence and other torture techniques, it is still part of the apparatus of Israeli interrogators.  The Jerusalem-based NGO The Public Committee Against Torture filed a petition with the Israel Supreme Court last month seeking an investigation into torture practices in the Israeli security services.  It says that since the 1999 ruling there have been more than 650 complaints about torture on detainees in the past decade.

There is no transparency in dealing with these complaints — they rarely if ever result in criminal proceedings being brought against the alleged perpetrators of torture.

Arja it would seem, is at risk of being tortured by Israeli authorities. The charges being brought against him are serious, and he may be thought to possess invaluable knowledge about Hamas.

Gillard, in these circumstances, has a clear legal and moral obligation. She must make it unambiguously clear to her Israeli colleagues that Australia will not allow one of its citizens to be subjected to torture. The appallingly amoral treatment of Hicks and Habib by the Howard government must not happen again, particularly now that the Gillard-led Labor government has ramped up Australia’s opposition to torture and cruel and unusual punishment by signing Optional Protocol to the international treaty that governs the issue.

And Gillard, along with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, should spell out to Australia’s diplomatic and security officials in Israel and in Canberra or Washington that they must be very wary in assisting the Israelis in their pursuit of Arja.  To be doing anything to facilitate torture or cruelty by another state is potentially a criminal offence now in Australia, and certainly undermining of Australia’s positioning as a country that believes in the rule of law.

*Greg Barns is a barrister and a director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance