Features | Security | Oceania

The Fever That Swept The West

Now that the ‘age of change’ is here, Richard Neville questions Australia’s role in post-9/11 security excesses.

By Richard Neville for

Perhaps President Obama’s thumbs down to Guantánamo, torture and secret CIA jails will end the witching era, when, in Hamlet’s words, ‘churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to the world’. The spell lifted [although under executive orders issued by Obama in January, the CIA can still carry out renditions – Ed.], we can start to assess how Australian authorities responded to the shock of 9/11 and its bellicose aftermath. Did our soldiers, security agents, diplomats, consular officials and cabinet ministers play by the rules? As a nation, did we respect the law or defile it?

In 2004, when the horrors of Abu Ghraib hit the headlines, the then defence minister (and current UN ambassador), Robert Hill, repeatedly told parliament that no Australian had been privy to the abuse. This was untrue. An Australian legal officer attached to the Pentagon, Major George O’Kane, had visited the jail and reportedly advised guards that in some cases the Geneva Conventions did not apply. Despite this, the Howard Government insisted the major had ‘played a key role in ensuring prisoner abuses were halted and investigated’. This too was untrue.

US generals Anthony Jones and George Fay stated in a report that O’Kane tried to minimise the abuses observed by the International Red Cross in 2003 and which they raised with the Pentagon: prisoners paraded naked with women’s underwear on their heads, use of excessive force, prolonged handcuffing to upper bed bars.

The purpose of Major O’Kane’s visit to Abu Ghraib was to ‘craft a response’ to the Red Cross. According to the Fay-Jones report, he ‘glossed over concerns close to the point of denying’ the abuse. Other Australian officers were also aware of abuse allegations.


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In November 2004, coalition forces in Iraq attacked the city of Fallujah for the third time, killing up to 6000 people. During the weeks of bombardment, our media gave scant attention to this operation, despite it being directed by Australian Major-General Jim Molan. Some snapshots:

Fallujah’s main hospital was stormed by US Marines, doctors were beaten and strip-searched, while patients were dragged off, some to be executed.

Prior to the bombing, water and electricity were cut off. The Red Cross and other agencies were prevented from delivering water, food and emergency medical supplies to civilians, in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

A US soldier writing in a military blog, GI Special, described the night-long assault as seen from roof of his humvee: More artillery, more tanks, more machine gun fire, ominous death-dealing fighter planes terminating whole city blocks at a time… this wasn’t a war, it was a massacre!

General Molan maintains his assault was ‘neither disproportionate nor was it indiscriminate’ and was ‘conducted strictly in accordance with the laws of armed combat’. He also defends his use of white phosphorous (WP), which spews out balls of flaming chemicals that cling to skin and burn to the bone. Yet the Geneva Treaty of 1980 outlaws the use of WP in civilian areas (i.e. a city).

General Molan is probably a nice guy, a smart officer and a devoted family man, but still the question needs to be asked: can Australians really feel proud of the role we played in Fallujah?

Australian officials and rendition

In October 2001, Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib fled the tense atmospherics of pre-invasion Afghanistan and made his way to Quetta, Pakistan, where he caught a bus bound for Karachi. Accompanying Habib were two young Germans whom he had earlier befriended. At 3am ‘in the middle of nowhere’ the bus came to a halt and was boarded by Pakistani security heavies, who began to harass the Germans. Habib protested. All three were dragged off the bus, then hooded and shackled, locked up and roughed up.

Eventually, Habib was taken to the Australian High Commission in Islamabad, where he says he met with the consul, Alistair Adams, who allegedly told him he would be sent to an Egyptian jail. The Australian government denies this meeting took place, admitting only that Habib was twice seen by an ASIO officer using the name Paul Stokes and once by an Australian Federal Police officer, Mark Briskey.

In Pakistan, Habib – who remains an unattractive and combative character in the eyes of many Australians – claims he was twice strung up to a hook and zapped with electricity until he bled through every orifice, with the aim of making him confess to an act of terror. Later he was prepared for ‘rendition’ to Egypt. According to his book, My Story – The Tale of a Terrorist Who Wasn’t, a bunch of Americans in balaclavas beat him until he lost consciousness, cut off his clothes, rammed a suppository up his rectum and fitted him with a nappy and tracksuit.

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‘The Australian diplomat was there and saw everything that happened,’ writes Habib. ‘He wore a balaclava but I recognised his coloured shirt, the chequered jacket, the elbow patches.’

More than one Australian official was allegedly present. If so, this could be a breach of Australian law, as well as the UN Convention against Torture (CAT), which says a state cannot 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 an illegal CIA flight to Egypt, Article 3 of the CAT was breached.

Also, it appears Australian officials may not have complied with Article 4, which states that an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture must be treated as a criminal offence.

Perhaps these lapses can be explained by 9/11 fever, the panic-inducing plague that swept the West and drained its leaders of moral resolve and respect for the law. A Sydney Morning Herald trawl of FOI documents has 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’.

Habib claims he was interrogated in Cairo by Egypt’s intelligence director, General Omar Suleiman, who slapped his face so hard the blindfold was dislodged, revealing the assailant’s identity. Habib was then electro-tortured, virtually waterboarded and called before the general again. Suleiman ordered a shackled Turkistan prisoner to be murdered in front of Habib – and he was, with a vicious karate kick.

According to My Story, ASIO agents and other Australian officials (‘David’ and ‘Stuart’) allegedly visited Habib in jail. The information ASIO agents had gathered from raids on Habib’s Sydney home, including phone numbers and statements of his Centrelink payments, were allegedly made available to his Egyptian tormentors – which could be regarded as aiding and abetting illegal acts and may be a crime under the Geneva Convention and the Australian Criminal Code.

Government denials

During his time in government, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock repeatedly denied he was ever aware of Habib’s wherabouts, as did John Howard and Alexander Downer. However, in February 2005, the New York Times revealed that soon after Habib was kidnapped by the CIA, DFAT sent Habib’s wife, Maha, a fax: ‘We remain confident that your husband is detained in Egypt. the government has received credible advice that he is well and being treated well.’

In April 2002, after six months of relentless abuse, Habib was rendered to Bagram jail in Kandahar and later to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Despite being half dead, Habib was still handcuffed and chained to the floor when meeting Australian officials. A transcript of an interview names ASIO agents as present, as well as Australian Federal Police officers Ramzi Jabbour and Steven Lancaster, plus Glenda Gauci from DFAT.

Apart from the familiar litany of beatings, drugging and electric shocks, Guantánamo allegedly offered unique refinements: being urinated upon, having menstrual blood thrown in your face, being interrogated for 15-hour periods with short breaks.

Alexander Downer confronted such reports with blind aplomb: ‘No evidence has been found to prove that torture has been used at the camp.’ Yet in December 2002, Donald Rumsfeld authorised the use of harsh interrogation techniques at Guantánamo. 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 the Guantánamo Bay detention facility with a warning for Habib: unless he cooperated with the Americans and admitted to something incriminating, he would be sent back to Egypt. The abuse continued. In parliament, John Howard tried to soothe unease with an assurance from Derek Tucker that Habib and fellow Australian David Hicks ‘had not been treated unacceptably’.

Habib was held in Guantánamo Bay for almost three years without being charged. Then Joseph Marguiles, a human rights lawyer from the MacArthur Justice Centre of the University of Chicago, discovered that he was about to be sent back to Egypt. Marguiles slapped a restraining order on the US Government, notified the Washington Post and helped prod the US Attorney-General to admit it would not be legal to return an Australian citizen to Egypt. In January 2005, Habib finally boarded a plane to his homeland.