On 16 May 2008, the United Nations Committee against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment issued its Concluding Observations on Australia. They included 27 recommendations concerning Australia’s compliance with its obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Before I go into any specifics, it is worth considering for a moment what torture aims to achieve. Generally, states and individuals resort to torture for two reasons. The first is to extort information from the unwilling. The second is not just pain and humiliation, but the public destruction of personality; it seeks not just to destroy the body, but to destroy the soul.
As torture has been proven time and time again to produce unreliable results in terms of extracting information from the unwilling, it stands to reason that the only real purpose for torture then is pain and humiliation it causes to its victims, the public destruction of the their personality, body and soul.
It is the Committee’s observations concerning Australia’s compliance with Articles 12, 13 and 14 of the United Nations Committee against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment that is most interesting from the perspective of torture:
27. The Committee is concerned about allegations against law enforcement personnel in respect of acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and notes a lack of investigations and prosecutions.
The State party should ensure that all allegations of acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment committed by law enforcement officials, and in particular any deaths in detention, are investigated promptly, independently and impartially and, if necessary, prosecuted and sanctioned. Furthermore, the State party should also ensure the right of victims of police misconduct to obtain redress and fair and adequate compensation, as provided for in article 14 of the Convention.
28. The Committee is concerned about information indicating that Australian defence officials who were advising the Coalition Provisional Authority had knowledge of abuses committed in Abu Ghraib in 2003, yet did not call for prompt and impartial investigations.
The State party should call for prompt and impartial investigations, including if appropriate, a public inquiry, should it receive information indicating that there are reasonable grounds to believe that acts of torture have been committed in a jurisdiction where it advises or has advised on the exercise of interim authority.
29. The Committee, while noting the significant efforts undertaken by the State party to provide rehabilitation services to refugees who have suffered torture, regrets that certain victims, such as those on bridging visas, are not guaranteed equal access to these services.
The State party should extend the right to rehabilitation services to all victims of torture, including those on bridging visas, and ensure that there is effective access to such services in all States and Territories.
Specifically, I want to have a brief look at the role the Australian Federal Police had to play in the transfer of Mr. Mamdouh Habib to Egypt and his subsequent torture while there in Australian and United States custody. Habib has always maintained that Australian officials were complicit in both his transfer to Egypt and his subsequent torture there. Despite best efforts, the official Australian position — that we had nothing to do with it — is unraveling.
The June 11, 2007 edition of ABC TV’s Four Corners confirmed what Australian former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib has claimed since his January 2005 release without charge: that the Australian authorities were complicit in his abduction and torture.
What happened to Habib while he was in Egypt being tortured for six months? Firstly, he was put on a plane by masked members of the CIA’s rendition team in a bizarre and brutal manner. He told Four Corners that after having his clothes cut off with scissors, an object forced into his rectum and being dressed in a nappy, “They give me a grey tracksuit and the same shoes I have … and they start to make me like a spring roll, from the bottom to the top, all surrounded with chains … after the handcuff and shackles. And they put some stuff in my mouth and they put on sticky tape, or a band-aid, and they put me in black stuff, like a … black bag and they put goggles on the top. And they just roll me to the flight.”
It sounds odd, even far fetached, but according to US lawyer Professor Joe Margulies, the legal representative for many Guantanamo detainees, it was standard practice in CIA renditions.
Despite repeated declarations by Australian politicians and police denying any knowledge of Habib’s rendition to Egypt, Four Corners produced documentary evidence obtained under Freedom of Information laws proving the opposite. Included was a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cable and a communication to the AFP in Canberra from their liaison officer in Pakistan. Both stated that Habib had been transferred to Egypt, both were dated November 19, just two days after it took place.
Denials and more denials, yet two ASIO agents visited Egypt, in February of 2002 with the purpose of discussing Habib with Egyptian intelligence. The Australian DFAT subsequently wrote to Habib’s wife Maha after this visit, saying it had ‘”credible advice” that he was “being treated well”‘.(1)
Treated well meant that Habib was subjected to physical and psychological torture, “… including beatings, electrocution, being burned with cigarettes, having his finger and toe-nails pulled out, assault by dogs, being locked in a box, kept in a cell where he couldn’t lie straight, sexual humiliation, being kept in a flooded cell where he had to stand on the tip of his toes to avoid drowning, and watching another prisoner being kicked to death, among other horrors.”(1)
Australian denials are compounded by the fact that Habib’s Egyptian interrogators knew and questioned him about details of names on a SIM card from his Australian mobile telephone, taken from his home in Sydney.
An intriguing exchange between former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty and the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs (Budget Estimates) can be found in Hansard. Hansard records that the Habib case was mentioned on three separate occasions. On 21 October 2001, when ASIO head Dennis Richardson was told by a US government official of a rendition plan; on 22 October 2001, when the Australian Federal Police and ASIO were involved in a meeting in Pakistan where it was canvassed; and the next day in Canberra, where it was discussed with senior officials from the Australian Federal Police, ASIO, Foreign Affairs, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Attorney-General’s Department. So much for a lack of knowledge on the part of Australia and what this has to say about the integrity of the Australian Federal Police. Well, I leave that to the individual to decide after reading Hansard.
Habib’s lawyer, Bankstown-based Peter Erman, does not argue that either the Australian Federal Police or ASIO were involved in the physical torture on Habib, but rather that officials from these agencies aided and abetted his interrogators, making them complicit in his maltreatment and torture while in detention in Pakistan, Egypt, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. If this is found to be so, Australia through its agents the Australian Federal Police and ASIO would be in breach of the Geneva Conventions.
Australian participation in illegal US operations involving torture and extrajudicial killing has historical precedents. For example, in 1968 Australian personnel took part in the CIA’s Operation Phoenix during the Vietnam War, in which tens of thousands of civilians were assassinated and an even greater number tortured.
One final note. Leading American defence Attorney Joe Margulies from the MacArthur Justice Centre, has for years been fighting for the release of rendition victims and for accountability. While he acknowledges that the progress is slow, he says it’s worth fighting for. “Democracy dies in the dark and the only way there can be an intelligent discussion about the wisdom of these programs is a full disclosure of what exactly was done.”(2) It most certainly does. In Australia’s case, the most potent enemy of our democracy seems to be the Australian Federal Police.
(1) Iltis T., Habib torture: what Canberra knew. Green Left, 22 June 2007.
(2)Adcock B., Did Australia know Habib was being tortured? newmatilda.com, 9 September 2009.