How apna Haneef got ambushed in War on Terror

The arrest and release of Mudigere-born, Bangalore-educated doctor Mohammed Haneef in Australia in July 2007 has been consigned to the recycle bins of our collective memory by a guilt-proof media and a world quick to condemn and quicker to stereotype.

Picked up in Brisbane because a SIM card used by him had been “recklessly” lent to a cousin held in a terror attack in London, picked up because he was leaving on a one-way ticket, Haneef’s story is a signal chapter in the “War on Terror” in which trumped-up charges and pumped-up patriotism—and innuendo, insinuation, implication, intimidation—have become articles of faith in curbing individual freedom.

But few in the Indian media have had the inclination or stamina to go back to the story once Dr Haneef was released. One of the few exceptions is Salil Tripathi. The London-based journalist has perused recently released official documents on Haneef’s detention and release which tell a shocking story of overzealous politicians willing to bend every rule and pay any price to win an election.

Sounds familiar?

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By SALIL TRIPATHI in London

The global war on terror has produced some outrageous examples of innocent individuals being persecuted — and prosecuted — by overzealous officials keen to show how tough they are on terrorism.

In 2002, American authorities detained a telecom engineer called Maher Arar at New York’s JFK International Airport, accused him of being part of Al Qaeda, and sent him to Syria instead of Canada, where he lived (he held both nationalities). The Syrians allegedly tortured him, and Arar won a multi-million dollar settlement from Canadian authorities. He is now pursuing a claim against the US Government, which continues to place him on a watch-list.

To the list of grave errors out of prosecutorial misconduct out of political enthusiasm, add the case of the Indian doctor, Mohammed Haneef, who was detained in Australia nearly a year ago, soon after some of his relatives were implicated in the failed bomb blasts in Britain.

The central arguments against Dr Haneef were that his SIM card was found with one of the suspects in Britain, and that he had booked himself a one-way ticket to India. He had entirely plausible explanations for each, but politicians in the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s administration were keen to show they carried the big stick while dealing with global jihad, and ended up penalising the innocent doctor.

Following Howard’s defeat, authorities have released voluminous data about the Haneef case to freedom of information requests. The documents paint a shocking and miserable picture of overzealous politicians desperate to build support at home for an increasingly unpopular policy of sending Australian troops abroad.

Government officials pushed prosecutors and bureaucrats to bend the system, in the hope that if they could implicate Dr Haneef on charges of abetting terror, Howard’s toughness may get rewarded at elections.

Dr Haneef was arrested at Brisbane airport on the evening of 2 July 2007 and under their laws, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) had little choice but to release him within 72 hours, unless they could show they had good reasons to keep him in jail. Unable to find evidence that would satisfy judges, the AFP explored the possibility of using a preventive detention order (PDO). Anti-terror laws passed by the Howard administration had made such detention possible, but the law is highly controversial and opposed by civil libertarians and human rights groups. Under a PDO, a person’s movements can be curtailed even if he has not been charged with any offence.

The memos now released — and accessible on the Internet — show that the AFP knew as early as July 3 that “there is no reasonable suspicion that there is need to preserve evidence and that the detention (of Dr Haneef) is reasonably necessary for this purpose… (and that there) is outstanding evidence which is required to be preserved.”

And yet, a full week later, Dr Haneef remained behind bars. On July 11, a federal police officer claimed that Dr Haneef needed to remain under detention because it was necessary to preserve and obtain evidence, and complete the investigation. On the 14th, another officer claimed that if Dr Haneef were to be freed, he’d destroy incriminating evidence not yet found.

Within days, Kevin Andrews, who was at that time Australia’s immigration minister, cancelled Dr Haneef’s visa after having “carefully examine[d]” what the police had provided him with. Newly released documents show that the police did not advise that the visa should be cancelled.

With evidence against Dr Haneef getting thinner by the day, the judiciary released him, causing much embarrassment to the government. (Dr Haneef’s SIM card was not found in Glasgow, the site of the blast, but in Liverpool; he was flying to India on a one-way ticket to see his newborn child). The logic of Occam’s Razor suggests that the simplest explanation is often the best one, but not for those determined to look for a conspiracy.

At its height, the AFP had deployed over 600 officers working on Dr Haneef’s case, which cost the government over A$7.5 million. They obtained over 300 witness statements and collected 349 samples. The operation involved 249 federal officials, 22 search warrants were issued, telephone calls were intercepted, electronic surveillance devices placed, and hundreds of gigabytes of computer data was collected. Australia’s secret service and other elite offices were also involved.

And yet, the authorities could find no evidence to pin on Dr Haneef. There is a sinister interpretation behind cancelling his visa: it would have allowed the state to toss him into immigration detention. (In 2002, Justice P.N. Bhagwati, on an assignment from the Office of the High Commisioner for Human Rights at the United Nations, had investigated the detention centres, and called them “degrading and inhuman”.)

What prompted the Howard administration to act in this manner?

For one, it was facing a tough election (which it lost resoundingly) and if jailing an Indian doctor with a Muslim name for an extended period could secure another term, why not? Howard’s great fortune had been that he was in Washington on Sept 11, 2001, and managed to be seen at George Bush’s side at a news conference, at once catapulting him into the role of a leading ally in the war on terror. During his prime ministership, not only did Howard steadfastly support the Bush administration in its military forays abroad, he also sided with the Bush administration on environmental issues like climate change and the Kyoto Protocol.

And he was no fan of international law. Even before the attacks in New York and Washington, Howard had tried bending it. In 2001, a Norwegian ship called Tampa found an Indonesian ferry, with over 400 Afghans, listing in waters near Australia. Under international law, Australia was responsible for the refugees. But to show he could be tough on asylum-seekers, Howard denied them entry, in spite of pressure from Norwegian authorities.

Australia takes in some 10,000 refugees a year, but they aren’t popular with some politicians. Pauline Hanson, leader of One Nation Party, had said Australia had been “a soft touch for a long time” on immigration issues. A former fish-and-chip shop owner, Hanson had gained notoriety in the 1990s by running a strong campaign critical of immigrants from Asia. While she was unsuccessful, shrewd southeast Asian politicians used her remarks to paint Australia as a racist country.

When Kevin Rudd took over as prime minister, he had promised change. But the Federal Police continues to assert that despite the Haneef fiasco, it does not believe it needs to make any fundamental changes in the way it might approach similar cases in future. Early signs are not promising: in the runup to the elections, Rudd’s Labor Party had said it would seek a judicial inquiry into the Haneef affair. Now, the attorney-general has ruled out compensating Dr Haneef

Money cannot compensate the tension, humiliation and stress Dr Haneef faced. And the intent behind going after him was clear: frame an individual, build a case, hope that the evidence stacks up, use innuendo to implicate the individual, and create a climate in which it becomes possible to increase the state’s powers of surveillance, detention, interrogation, and intimidation.

But India need not feel too smug. It isn’t above such monkey business.

Think of Dr Binayak Sen.

Photograph: Eddie Safarik/ Sydney Morning Herald

Full coverage: L’affaire Haneef

Also read: Eight lessons from the case of Mohammed Haneef