ABC Radio National ‘Background Briefing’
12th June 2016
When Indigenous leader Roy ‘Dootch’ Kennedy was finally jailed for 17 years for his sex crimes, the women who stood up for his victim were pilloried and harassed. Bronwyn Adcock investigates.
ABC Radio National ‘Background Briefing’
12th June 2016
When Indigenous leader Roy ‘Dootch’ Kennedy was finally jailed for 17 years for his sex crimes, the women who stood up for his victim were pilloried and harassed. Bronwyn Adcock investigates.
The Griffith Review
Edition 32: Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas
IN mid-afternoon just days after Christmas, finding a park in the small National Heritage town of Central Tilba, on the far South Coast of New South Wales, was proving difficult. Rows of Audis, Prados, the occasional BMW and all kinds of shining new four-wheel drives lined the narrow streets. Throngs of day-trippers surged in and out of the century-old houses now converted to shops and cafés: pretty timber-clad buildings with red tin roofs, bordered by neat gardens of hydrangeas and roses.
Central Tilba is a snapshot of a prosperous early-twentieth-century rural Australian town, captured for voracious tourists. In the Old Cheese Factory I stood shoulder to shoulder with others as cheese, ice cream, fudge, books, tea towels and a mind-numbing array of knick-knacks were sold. Devonshire teas and meat pies were gobbled as people sauntered and shopped their way through the art gallery, the leather shop, and the new-age hemp clothing and crystal store.
I caught myself gaping, astounded by the display of affluence. Just a few minutes’ drive from Central Tilba is the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Village, a community of 180 people. Here the median weekly income plummets from Tilba’s $379 a week to just $200 a week. At the entrance to the village an Aboriginal flag flutters, and a sprawl of 1970s brick-veneer homes begins. A few are well kept, but most are in various states of disrepair: broken windows, sagging gutters, overgrown lawns littered with rubbish. There are as many decaying car bodies parked on lawns as there are cars on the road. Save for two kids fighting over a bike, the streets were deserted when I visited that same day after Christmas.
Adjacent to the village is the Umbarra Cultural Centre. If Central Tilba is a snapshot of Australian history, Umbarra is a panorama. Inside is a museum and cultural centre that tells the story of the Yuin, the people who, archaeological evidence suggests, have inhabited this region for 20,000 years. Yet on this day, with thousands of tourists nearby, the car park was deserted and the centre doors locked. Outside, a boat with ‘Wallaga Lake Cultural Tours’ emblazoned on the side sat in the dirt, covered in a film of dust.
Earlier I sat chatting with Uncle Stephen Foster on the doorstep of his house, behind us an old man coughing excruciatingly and a radio blaring. Uncle Stephen was spending the day, like most days, sitting around listening to music on the radio. At forty-four he already has the emaciated body of an old man, his face so tiny it seems all eyes and smile. Like many here, he has had a long battle with the grog. ‘I used to go seven days a week if I could. Me little girl and me diabetes slowed me down. I slowed down for me daughter – that was me main priority. I just drink once in the blue moon now.’
As we talked a voice in the near distance started yelling aggressively, the tone making me nervous, but Uncle Stephen waved away my anxious enquiries with a gentle flick of his hand. Violence, particularly drunken violence, is not unusual here; while no one likes it, most are acclimatised.
To find this pocket of disadvantage amid the rolling green farmland and tourist towns of the South Coast is incongruous, and disturbing. Like most people who live in the region, I’d never set foot in the community before. To find myself venturing in with the same sense of curiosity and trepidation I used to take into foreign countries was strange. I was motivated by a simple question, but one I suspected was unanswerable: what went so wrong here?
“Did Australia Know Habib was Being Tortured?”
New Matilda 9th September 2009.
Sometime in early November 2001, a terrified and confused Australian man named Mamdouh Habib was taken from a Pakistani prison cell trussed in chains. Someone within the US administration or intelligence system had decided he needed a tougher than usual interrogation and he was forced aboard a CIA-operated jet bound for Egypt.
Egypt lived up to its reputation as home to one of the most brutal prison systems in the world.
Habib, a Bankstown-based father of four, says for the next five months he endured a myriad of horrors: suspended from the ceiling and beaten, shocked with electric prods (including on his genitals), forcibly injected with drugs, held in a flooded room with water up to his neck, deprived of sleep, and shackled in a cell so small he couldn’t stand. The “intelligence” produced from these efforts has long since been discarded as worthless and Habib has never been charged.
Nearly eight years on and still no one has been held accountable for this barbaric episode. In fact, authorities in both the United States and Australia are doing their best to make sure the details stay a secret.
“Gunning for Iran”
Dateline, SBS Television. 11th April 2006
This story looks at the shadowy Iranian opposition group the Mujahedin-e-Khalk, (MeK), and their role in publicizing so called intelligence “revelations” about Iran’s nuclear program. The MeK is considered a terrorist organization and a cult by many, yet powerful figures in Washington DC are seemingly prepared to work with them.
11th April 2006.
You must’ve heard the howls of protest from the International Atomic Energy Agency after the release of a US House of Representatives report on Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA branded the American report “outrageous and dishonest” for asserting that Tehran’s nuclear plans were geared towards weapons. This, of course, was just the latest flare-up in the running debate over Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions. So where is Washington getting its information?
Try an Iranian opposition group known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq – MeK for short. Given the debacle over Saddam’s non-existent WMDs in Iraq, you’d reckon there’d have to be a touch of caution where Iranian exiles peddling nuclear secrets are concerned. But as Bronwyn Adcock tells it, when the MeK speaks, Washington hardliners listen.
Three weeks ago in New York, journalists were summoned to this hotel for a press conference. It has been organised by this man – Alireza Jafarzadeh, an Iranian exile who regularly reveals what he claims is inside information on Iran’s nuclear program.
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH, MUJAHEDIN-E-KHALQ LOBBYIST: I would like to share with you today the information I’ve gotten from the very same sources that have proven accurate in the past.
Today, Jafarzadeh announces he’s discovered an apparently sinister new development.
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: A very important aspect of the Iran regime’s nuclear weapons program is actually laser enrichment, and the information I’ve gotten from my sources today suggests that Iran is heavily involved in laser enrichment program.
As always, the information is incredibly detailed, with maps, names and addresses. Since 2002, Jafarzadeh and the Iranian opposition group he’s connected to, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MeK, have made nearly 20 intelligence revelations, in press conferences from Paris to New York, Washington and London.
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: And they are scheduled to be able to get the bomb by 2005.
The MeK revelations have had an extraordinary impact, sparking inspections in Iran by the nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to the MeK, Iran is building a nuclear bomb, and the world should be very afraid.
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: I think the world has to take the Iranian regime’s threat very, very seriously. These ayatollahs believe in what they say, believe that they can eliminate Israel off the map, they can eliminate the superpowers.
According to this Iranian opposition group, there is only one solution.
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: You need to slay the dragon. This is the solution. You need to slay the dragon, which means regime change.
The MeK is playing a key role in what’s shaping up as one of the critical contests of our time – the stand-off between the US and Iran, played out here at the United Nations General Assembly two weeks ago.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH AT UN: Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.
AHMADINEJAD, IRAN PRESIDENT AT UN, (Translation): All our nuclear activities are transparent and peaceful and fully overseen by the IAEA
CROWD: Down with terrorist! Ahmadinejad terrorist! Down with terrorist!
Outside the United Nations that day Alireza Jafarzadeh and the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, are again trying to get their opinion heard.
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: Obtaining the bomb, the nuclear bomb would unquestionably give Tehran the upper hand in the region.
And some powerful forces in the West are listening. The MeK’s main backer in Washington is a newly formed think tank called the Iran Policy Committee, headed by a former Reagan White House official, Professor Raymond Tanter.
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER, IRAN POLICY COMMITTEE: The regime change clock has to start. Right now, the regime change clock is not even ticking.
In the Iran Policy Committee, Professor Tanter has created a powerful grouping of former CIA, Pentagon and White House officials. At forums like this briefing on Capitol Hill, the group is trying to convince the American Government that the MeK can help them achieve the goal of regime change.
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: We didn’t choose the Mujahedin-e-Khalq. The data hit us between the eyes. The analysis passes what I call ‘the interocular test’ – it hits you right between the eyes. I invented that phrase.
CROWD (Translation): Ahmadinejad terrorist! Ahmadinejad terrorist! Down with the terrorist!
But for some, the sight of exile groups bearing gifts of intelligence for the West just brings back bad memories.
PROFESSOR GARY SICK, COLOMBIA UNIVERSITY: In the past, on Iraq, we were fed a lot of false information to try to get our attention and to get us to do what we did. We bought it, and I have a very hard time understanding how anybody can maintain a straight face and say, “Again,” we should do the same thing all over again.
Professor Gary Sick has served on the National Security Council under three presidents. He was the principle White House aide for Iran during the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, and has followed the country closely ever since. He’s extremely sceptical about the MeK.
PROFESSOR GARY SICK: When people get enthusiastic about this, I just have to look at the history of the organisation, the way it’s behaved, the way it’s done all of the things that it’s done, and I simply can’t see it, I really can’t see it. I find it very difficult to explain why people would get so enthusiastic about this group.
The MeK does have an extraordinary history. A militant left-wing movement, it participated in the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah. But afterwards, when the ayatollahs took power, the MeK began fighting the new regime.
It carried out bombings that killed senior Islamic leaders, and many of its members were executed.
In the 1980s it moved its military base to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. From here at Camp Ashraf it launched attacks across the border, and successfully carried out assassinations and bombings within Iran. The MeK’s military heyday has long since passed. Less than 3,000 fighters remain in a camp now guarded by Americans. What’s more, the group’s often violent past has left it officially listed as a terrorist organisation in the United States, the European Union and Australia.
The real action for the MeK now is in the West, where a bevy of lobbyists is operating, including Ali Safavi here in London. Safavi has devoted most of his adult life to the MeK struggle. Now he’s working to get the group taken off the terrorist list. His office located around the corner from parliament.
ALI SAFAVI, NATIONAL COUNCIL OF RESISTANCE OF IRAN: And obviously the office is very close so that it would be more convenient, both for us and for them.
Being listed as a terrorist organisation stands between the MeK and real political credibility. Safavi claims the group was only put on the list by governments trying to win favour with Iran.
ALI SAFAVI: It has nothing to do with the nature, with the conduct, or the activities of the Mujahedin. It is basically a bargaining chip.
Ali Safavi is trying to convince the West of the apparently impressive democratic credentials of the MeK and its political wing, the NCRI.
ALI SAFAVI: The NCRI basically advocates a secular, democratic form of government, a government that is based on the separation of church and the state or mosque and state, if you will.
Leading the concerted charm offensive is the group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, who’s based in Paris. She’s offering up an enticing proposition to the West.
MARYAM RAJAVI, (Translation): Today I’ve come to tell you that the international community doesn’t have to choose between mullahs with an atomic bomb and war. A third way exists. A democratic change by the Iranian people and organised resistance.
Maryam Rajavi says if the MeK is just taken off the terrorist list, it will be a sign for the people of Iran to rise up and overthrow their government. It’s this proposition that’s winning support with the Iran Policy Committee in Washington and in parliaments around the West.
Here at the European Parliament, British Conservative MP Brian Binley tells a group of MeK supporters that the majority of the House of Commons and 130 members in the House of Lords are behind the group.
BRIAN BINLEY, BRITISH CONSERVATIVE MP: Because they are the antithesis of the dictatorial fundamentalists that rule in modern-day Iran today, and, indeed, the very antithesis of a regime that I believe poses the greatest threat to global security that we face as a global people.
Binlay was converted to the cause after being approached by an MeK supporter in the halls of Parliament.
BRIAN BINLEY: I met with a gentleman called Nasser, who is a supporter of the National Council, and we talked. And he works in and around the House, as a lobbyist, I suppose you would say. And we talked, and I liked what he had to say, and, more importantly, what he had to say seemed credible in the way that I’ve just explained.
PROFESSOR GARY SICK: These are people who really believe that Iran…the regime should be changed, that this regime of mullahs should be done away with. And you look around, and you don’t see any other place where you can put a lever. And I must say for the Mujahedin, to give them full credit, they are very good at their propaganda.
According to Gary Sick, the MeK’s origins at the time of the revolution were anything but democratic.
PROFESSOR GARY SICK: There, too, they weren’t talking about democracy, they were talking about power, and who took over. And there was certainly no sign from where I sat in the White House that these people were in any way trying to bring democracy to Iran. They were trying to get rid of the group that had taken over and install themselves in power. And I think that pretty well describes what they’ve been doing ever since.
Massoud Khodabeanedeh says that the MeK is not only undemocratic but that internally, it operates like a cult. Now living in the United Kingdom, Khodabeanedeh was a high-level member for more than 15 years.
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH, FORMER MEK MEMBER: They have a charismatic leader, they use psychological methods to convince people and keep people. Their wealth is always serving the leader, not the people. They try to get the money out of the people and keep it. They cut people from their past, their family. They are very restrictive in that way. There is Maryam and Massoud and me, as his bodyguard.
Khodabeanedeh worked as security for the MeK’s leadership in Iraq but left after becoming disenchanted. He is now one of the most outspoken critics of the organisation.
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: Later on it came to these sessions of self-confession, which again, is a cult… every cult has got it – which you have to come, and every day come to the meeting, explain what you have been thinking about, or what even you have been dreaming about, and even if you don’t have, they will hint that you have to lie, you have to make up something. So the collective pressure would be on you and they purify you.
REPORTER: So all women wore headscarves?
ANNE: Yeah. It was a part of the uniform. It was actually the uniform.
Massoud Khodabanedeh’s wife, Anne, was also a member for seven years, inspired to join by an Iranian boyfriend and an interest in Islam.
ANNE: I became full-time in 1990. After going on hunger strike for two weeks, I was on a real high and I devoted myself to them. And that devotion was encouraged, and I was told at some point fairly early on that all you have to do is choose your leader and follow that leader. And you don’t have to make any decisions. And that leader, of course, was Maryam Rajavi.
Both Anne and Massoud say that in order to encourage devotion to the leadership family relationships were discouraged.
ANNE: When it actually comes to being a liberating movement for women, I would say just the opposite pertains, that they forced women to separate from their children, forced women to divorce their spouse, they forced them to give up any thought of having a normal family life and family relationship. Even relationships with their siblings in the same organisation are, well, banned really. You might meet them but you can’t be a sibling, you can’t show more closeness to them you would show to Maryam Rajavi.
The MeK leadership totally rejects these allegations and accuses Massoud Khodabanedeh of being on the payroll of Iranian intelligence. A charge he in turn denies. An even more serious allegation, though, concerns the group’s relationship with Saddam Hussein during its 15 years in Iraq. This recently revealed footage shows Massoud Rajavi, the husband of Maryam and co-leader of the MeK, with the former Iraqi dictator.
ALI SAFAVI: The Mujahedin were forced to relocate in Iraq, and in the years they were in Iraq, from 1986 onwards, they were completely independent of their host, both in political terms, in ideological terms, in organisational terms and in military terms.
REPORTER: So there was no collaboration between the Mujahedin and Saddam?
ALI SAFAVI: Absolutely not.
However, many sources, including the US State Department dispute this, saying Iraq supplied the MeK with weapons and received military assistance from the Iranian exiles. Former member Massoud Khodabanedeh says that after the first Gulf War in 1991 Saddam’s security chief, Taha Yassin Ramadan, asked the MeK to help suppress the Kurds.
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: The way that it was done, I remember that in the meetings with Taha Yassin Ramadan, who was in favour of Mujahedin, and who very much praised the Mujahedin for their loyalty. He divided the forces because he didn’t have much forces after the war in ’91, so he had only enough to suppress the uprising in the south, so he left the north in hands of Rajavi.
Massoud says he saw first-hand a Kurdish village that had been destroyed by the Mujahedin.
REPORTER: What happened to the village?
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: It was just flattened down, the whole village. Villages in Iraq are small villages, and with say 20 tanks, you can see what damage can be done. But it was deliberately flattened.
REPORTER: And this was done by the Mujahedin?
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: By the Mujahedin. They were there when I was passing the tanks and victoriously celebrating.
Massoud also says that during his time with the MeK its members were fed a diet of anti-imperialist and anti-American propaganda. He believes now they’re trying to reinvent themselves for a new, Western benefactor.
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: Especially when they went to Iraq, they didn’t see that one day Saddam would fall so they have openly been anti-Western all the years that they were there relying on Saddam. Any democratic face that they put is a false face.
REPORTER: Why do you think they are putting on this false face now?
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: There is no other choice. After Saddam falls, there is no other choice.
The MeK denies this aspect of its past. It says that anyone making such allegations is being either directly or indirectly influenced by Iranian intelligence.
ALI SAFAVI: It is far more than a bit of a propaganda campaign. In fact the Iranian regime has spent hundreds of millions of dollars engaging in propaganda.
In Washington, the MeK’s main American backers also reject any criticism.
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: We are familiar with all the allegations and we have looked at all these allegations and we have found them to be baseless. And we’re smart, we’re not idiots. I’m a professor at the University of Michigan and Georgetown University and I think I can tell whether a person is saying something to dupe me. And Human Rights Watch and various others who say the MeK and NCRI are changing their face in order to appeal to groups like the Iran Policy Committee haven’t done their research.
While the MeK and their supporters say they’ve nothing in its history to be ashamed of, experts say that’s not how it’s viewed in its homeland.
PROFESSOR GARY SICK: They are certainly despised, there’s no two ways about that. They are seen as turncoats, they are seen as traitors, people who joined Iran’s enemies to try to overthrow the government.
For a group claiming it can make the Iranian population rise up and overthrow the government, this apparent lack of internal legitimacy is a major problem.
REPORTER: How much support do you have in Iran, in numbers?
ALI SAFAVI: Well, you know that our movement from day one has called for free elections under UN supervision. I think if such an election were held, without question… our movement would get most of the votes.
DOHKI FASSIHIAN: The claim that the MeK would actually win any support or win any elections inside Iran is really preposterous.
Dokhi Fassihian is the former executive director of the National Iranian American Council, a non-partisan group. She spent much of the 1990s in Iran and knows the political scene well.
DOHKI FASSIHIAN: In fact they are hated and detested in Iran because of their role in siding with the Iraqis in the very, very long and bloody Iran-Iraq war. And so, I would say that even more so than Iranian Americans, Iranians inside Iran really do hate the MeK and really don’t understand why some governments and some officials abroad can support such an undemocratic group and such a violent group.
Political credentials aside, the strongest claim the MeK has on Western attention is its intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.
REPORTER: How good are your sources, your intelligence from Iran?
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: Well, the intelligence is the best that exists anywhere. The best track record in terms of intelligence regarding Iran comes from the sources of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq and the NCRI. It wasn’t the intelligence community of the US, or Britain, or other Western countries that discovered Natanz.
The MeK’s biggest claim to fame has been its revelation in 2002 that Iran had a secret nuclear site at a place called Natanz. After the announcement, the International Atomic Energy Agency confronted Iran and Iran opened the site for inspection.
DAVID ALBRIGHT, INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY: So I think the Iranian opposition group, what they did, their real contribution was to start a chain of events where Iran had to admit that it had its secret gas centrifuge program and other secret nuclear programs, and help get the IAEA into Iran to start uncovering a whole set of misleading statements or hidden facilities in Iran. This building was sized to hold 1,000 centrifuges, but could actually hold more.
David Albright is a physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington DC. He’s an expert on secret nuclear weapons programs throughout the world. While he credits the MeK with bringing Natanz to the world’s attention, the site was not in breech of the Non-Proliferation treaty. Albright also says later revelations have not proven as useful.
DAVID ALBRIGHT: Since then, their record has been a lot more mixed and a lot of revelations about things going on, related to making nuclear weapons. IAEA went to one place and found nothing. There was some equipment that was imported, they said it was related to nuclear weapons. It turned out on analysis it wasn’t even suitable for use on a nuclear weapons program. So I think that you have to read beyond the detail and try to make sense out of it, and often it doesn’t make any, or it’s just speculation.
Dateline also understands that the IAEA has examined much of the intelligence provided by the MeK and its political wing, the NCRI, and while it agrees several early claims were on target, the rest have been unreliable.
REPORTER: All their revelations paint a picture of Iran having an incredibly advanced nuclear weapons program. Would you agree with that assessment?
DAVID ALBRIGHT: It’s relative to what? I mean, compared to Iraq, which had nothing, yeah, it’s quite advanced. Are they close to building a bomb? Most assessments, including our own, are that no, they are not.
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: No-one knows whether the revelations are true so how can one make a statement that the NCRI-MeK revelations are off? Intelligence people say this, but they don’t back it up. Because journalists don’t do a good job in querying them. “What is your evidence?” “Oh, I can’t say.” Hello, that’s not right.
REPORTER: But by the same token, if the NCRI holds a press conference saying, “Look we’ve got these documents, we know this information,” and there’s nothing else to back it up, how can you be sure that’s true?
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: Look, intelligence is an art. What you need is to use the NCRI-MeK allegations as lead information, which you compare with info you acquire independently.
REPORTER: But if revelations are being made, and they’re not proven, and they’re put out there in the media and put out there as a case for regime change, and they’re not actually substantiated, isn’t that alarmist?
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: How do you prove revelations with a totalitarian Islamist fascist regime?
The MeK knows that hardliners in Washington are desperate for any information that will confirm their suspicions of Iran.
PROFESSOR GARY SICK: So if the MeK is trying to get credibility as a group that the US should cooperate with in trying to overthrow the regime, focusing on the nuclear side is an absolutely logical place for them to focus, so I don’t blame them for doing that. I think that’s an area that is going to attract attention, it’s going to get them a following, and it will attract the attention of people in Washington.
According to former member Massoud Khodabanedeh, the MeK is just trying to stay alive.
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: They want to survive. They are saying, “Take us off.” The end game is “Take us off the list of terrorism and use us.”
And in a clear convergence of interests, Professor Tanter from the Iran Policy Committee is happy to help.
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: I am not a lobbyist for the MeK and the NCRI, I’m a lobbyist for America, which is different. You keep asking me questions which imply that I am trying to push the MeK on to people.
REPORTER: But you are promoting their cause, you’re trying to get them off…
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: I am not promoting their cause, I am promoting American interests. There is a difference.
REPORTER: You’re not suggesting they are necessarily a good replacement government, you are saying rather they are a good tool for Western interests?
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: That’s what you asked me, they are a tool for Western interests, yes. They are accused of being a tool of Western interests by the regime. It’s true!
REPORTER: And they are a tool for Western interests?
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: Yes! They want to be a part of the West.
“China’s Pollution Busters”
Dateline, SBS Television. 21st November 2007
Teaming up with two brave Chinese environmental activists, we go on the trail of the companies that are pumping toxic waste into the country’s waterways. With the help of the activists and local citizens who are suffering due to toxic water, we see first-hand how some major companies – including multinationals – are blatantly polluting. We also witness how dangerous it is to be a “pollution buster” in China when our car is surrounded by a factories hired thugs.
Since 2001, a mere six years ago, infant birth defects in China have increased by a whacking 40%. That almost mind-numbing rise has been linked to the increasing environmental degradation occurring in the world’s most populous nation. Ironically, that degradation indicates a seriously dark side to China’s 20 years of unbridled economic growth. Bronwyn Adcock recently met two of China’s dedicated band of brave environmentalists blowing the whistle on the country’s biggest polluters, sometimes at considerable personal risk.
REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock
Chongqing is one of China’s new mega cities, home to 6 million people, with another 25 million in surrounding areas. Like elsewhere in China, though, this rapid industrialisation has come at a heavy price, many waterways are now polluted. I’m with local environmentalist Wu Deng Ming. A long-time activist here, he’s faced threats for his campaigns against polluters.
WU DENG MING, ACTIVIST (Translation): Slow down, turn left up here.
Today he’s helping his Beijing-based colleague Yonghchen Wang, she’s using a GPS, a global positioning system, to locate polluting factories and put them on a map.
YONGHCHEN WANG, ACTIVIST(Translation): Can we take a photo in front of the factory sign?
Toxic discharge from factories is responsible for much of China’s water pollution. This waste is from a battery factory.
WU DENG MING, (Translation): You can see the outlet is tainted yellow. The untreated waste is just pumped out. But they only do it secretly at night. As you can see, the rocks around the outlet are all tainted and are a kind of bronze colour.
China now allows non-government organisations to operate, but activists like Mr Wu and Ms Wang can still face harassment from the state and the factories.
REPORTER: Why do you need to be careful?
YONGHCHEN WANG: Some factories don’t like it they put on the map.
WU DENG MING, (Translation): Go a bit further down to see the front gate. That is the front gate and the sign. Can you see it?
We pull up outside a chemical factory that is jointly owned by a Chinese and a Japanese company. We’re outside for only seconds before we’re spotted by a security guard. Mr Wu offers to show us where the waste water from this factory comes out.
WU DENG MING, (Translation): This is their waste. Waste from the factory. All the plants on both sides of the pipeline are dead. The water is polluted.
The factory makes strontium, often used in television sets. Untreated, the waste is highly toxic. The polluted water flows through a village and makes its way out here, at the local river.
WU DENG MING, (Translation): The river is very polluted and all the fish have died. The people who live nearby suffer a lot from it. The factory produces a lot of waste residues. They also contain hydrogen sulphide. This factory is notorious in Chongqing. People are very angry over the factory, especially the neighbouring villagers. They’re against the factory, but the local government protects it.
The locals use this water for their crops, they say it’s made many people sick.
VILLAGER, (Translation): For people who have been drinking the water for a long time, the experts from Chongqing did some tests. People living along the river have enlarged livers. Each person tested suffers from an enlarged liver.
REPORTER: Do many people get liver problems?
VILLAGER, (Translation): Yes, many.
YONGHCHEN WANG (Translation): What kind of diseases?
VILLAGER, (Translation): Loss of appetite. Or cancer. All sorts of terminal diseases.
Local villagers tell us the factory tries to hide its toxic waste. When inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency come, the polluted water is dumped into the river here, a few hundred metres away from the other outlet.
VILLAGER, (Translation): When the inspectors come, the factory uses this pipeline for its waste. When they aren’t here, it just dumps the waste into the river.
Somehow, the factory’s management has heard we’re here, and has come to find us. I take the opportunity to ask about the polluted water.
REPORTER: So is that water from the factory?
FACTORY MANAGER: No.
REPORTER: Where does that water come from?
MANAGER, (Translation): There’s a residential area over there. It’s domestic sewage from there.
YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): But why does it look so yellow?
MANAGER, (Translation): Well, domestic sewage… The local council hasn’t set up its sewage treatment plant. So the domestic sewage comes out without being treated. Also, there are many small family businesses in the area.
YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Can we have a look at your waste treatment?
They agree to take us into their factory. On the way, they are accosted by angry villagers.
VILLAGER 2, (Translation): We all have enlarged livers. How are we going to survive? We’re so worried. It has definitely damaged our lives, it’s dreadful. How can we common people live?
On the factory grounds, we’re shown a treatment plant for waste water. The company says it treats all its polluted water, and then re-uses it within the factory. But clearly visibly behind the treatment plant, on factory property, is the channel that comes out into the village.
MANAGER, (Translation): It’s not from our factory. We treat our waste and pipe it out into this pond. This is the same sewage you just saw. It’s from that residential area. You can go down and look.
YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): But it’s as yellow as your waste.
WU DENG MING, (Translation): But the colour..
Mr Wu appears sceptical. It’s a quick visit only, but on the way out a revealing admission is made. I ask how long has the waste-treatment plant been operating.
MANAGER, (Translation): Over a year. Before that, the waste was just pumped out. It wasn’t treated. We set up the treatment plant last year. It’s been in operation since then.
So by the company’s own admission, it was polluting a year ago. Still, I decide to go and check out its claim that the source of the pollution now is domestic sewage. Just outside the factory gates I find the start of the channel that runs through the factory property, into the village. It is not connected to any domestic sewage, and only contains some stagnant rainwater.
REPORTER: Is there anything you can do to stop this?
VILLAGER, (Translation): No way. We’re just peasants, we don’t have any power. We can’t simply remove the factory now that it’s here. We tried before it was set up, but that didn’t help.
YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Go to the local officials or the village officials.
VILLAGER, (Translation): We went to the county officials. But they wouldn’t do anything.
Ms Wang records the exact location of this factory with her GPS, and sends the information 2,000km away to Beijing. It’s given to Ma Jun, one of China’s foremost environmentalists, and the creator of the China Water Pollution Map.
MA JUN, ENVIROMENTALIST: With this map we can see the whole of China, we can enlarge that and see more details.
Ma Jun’s national pollution map is publicly available online, it gives the names and exact locations of polluting factories.
MA JUN: And this is a very detailed map, people can see where exactly in those communities the companies are. If people don’t have any idea of what is happening, how can they get involved?
The map shows 9,000 factories, including 200 run by multinationals. This figure is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Ma Jun only includes factories that have been fined by the authorities, and in some areas officials refuse to hand over this information.
MA JUN: One of the reasons is the lack of tradition for transparency, and this is rather a new issue in China, and I guess it will take some time. But we do think that some of the local officials give protection to polluters.
According to Ma Jun, water pollution is the most serious environmental issue facing China.
MA JUN: 60% of the waterways are quite contaminated.
That means 320 million people here don’t have access to safe drinking water. The health consequences are devastating. These are the world averages for stomach cancer and liver cancer, both diseases associated with drinking polluted water. And these are the averages for rural China. Strong laws governing pollution do exist, but are regularly flouted. Ma Jun hopes his map can be part of the solution.
MA JUN: We have no rights to impose any fines on them or punish them, but we let people know that this company with such a popular brand, they are violating the waste water discharge standards.
REPORTER: So a new cost of pollution is bad publicity?
MA JUN: Yes. It’s a kind of impact on your company’s reputation.
WU DENG MING, (Translation): Can you smell it? It’s from a pesticide factory. So you can smell it?
Back on the road in Chongqing, Mr Wu says part of the problem in China is that the fines for violation are too small to deter polluters.
WU DENG MING, (Translation): If they abide by the law, they have to treat the water, which is very expensive. But if they break the law and discharge the waste, the penalty is very small.
One company here was recently fined $1,500 for dumping waste with a concentration of chemicals 138 times the standard into the river. We’re going to look at a factory owned by this company.
WU DENG MING, (Translation): If they get upset, they may smash your cameras, or take them off you. The reporters from CCTV were beaten up.
This factory makes chromium salt used in the production of electronic screens like televisions and computers. It’s located right beside one of Chongqing’s main rivers, where Mr Wu says much of its toxic waste ends up.
WU DENG MING, (Translation): This product used to be made in developed countries like America and Japan. Later, the production was opposed by people there. So they transferred the pollution to developing countries like China.
While the West may not produce it, they still import it. One economist estimates that 20% to 30% of China’s pollution comes from the manufacturing of goods for export.
WU DENG MING, (Translation): So those countries benefit from the products, but people in Chongqing suffer from the pollution. That’s not fair.
Just 50m away from the factory, we find a village. These people literally live in its shadows.
VILLAGER 3, (Translation): When the factory makes a noise it sounds like a scream, it’s terrible and non-stop, it drives you crazy.
A man who runs a local fishing business offers to show us where water comes out of the factory into the river. He says whenever the factory is operating a strong smell comes from this water. He catches fish from the river to eat and to sell, but stopped drinking the river water years ago.
YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): What water do you drink?
VILLAGER 3, (Translation): I drink the water from under the ground. It’s said the water from under the ground is fine.
WU DENG MING, (Translation): But that water is polluted too.
VILLAGER 3, (Translation): That’s true. It’s polluted.
The villagers say many people here are sick.
YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Why don’t you move? You live so close to the factory.
VILLAGER 3, (Translation): I have to look after my fish farm and can’t just leave. Those poor and elderly people still live here. But all the young people have left.
Back in Beijing, Ma Jun has been contacted by companies who want to get off his water pollution map. If they overhaul their practices and submit to an audit, he agrees. Some high-profile companies like Shanghai Panasonic Battery Company have done this, but not all are so obliging.
MA JUN: And we do have some companies which are coming to us saying “If you keep pushing for this, we will move to Vietnam, we’re going to move to Indonesia.” I said, “Why? Why do you want to move to Vietnam?” He said, “There we can still discharge more or less freely.”
REPORTER: So these are multinational companies who said this to you?
MA JUN: Multinational company from Europe and it’s quite a big one.
Environmental activists are not the only ones demanding an end to rampant pollution. China’s central government is increasingly concerned about its toxic rivers.
I’m in the city of Harbin, on the banks of the Songhua River. Following intense pressure from the central government in Beijing, local authorities here say they’re on a mission to clean up the Songhua, and a crackdown on polluters is under way. I’ve been given permission to spend several days with the Harbin Environmental Protection Authority. The clean-up of this river has been made a national priority by Beijing, and these local officials are under orders to do the job. Today they’re taking samples to test if the water pollution has infiltrated the mud. The Songhua is polluted with industrial waste including ammonium nitrate, cyanide, arsenic, chromium and lead. These are pictures of what used to be an industrial area. The factories are gone, but the pollution remains, flowing directly into the Songhua. Those who live along the river say they feel the consequences of the pollution.
VILLAGER 4, (Translation): It has affected our eyesight. Our eyesight is deteriorating. Many people have developed kidney stones and gall bladder problems. It has also caused numbness in hands and feet.
This man has been fishing here for 30 years. For the last decade, the fish have been turning up diseased. He believes it’s connected to pollution from factories.
VILLAGER 4, (Translation): How are they connected? The fish are sick. And their numbers are decreasing. Of course they’re connected.
YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Why do you still eat the fish, then?
VILLAGER 4, (Translation): We have to. We have no other choice. It’s our only livelihood. If we stop fishing, we’ll have nothing else to live on.
ZHOU LINBO, VICE DIRECTOR-GENERAL, (Translation): It is indeed a huge job. The state is very serious about environmental protection.
Zhou Linbo is Vice Director-General of the Harbin Environmental Protection Authority. He says under the new crackdown, companies who can’t deal with their waste won’t be allowed to build factories here. And those caught polluting could be shut down.
ZHOU LINBO, (Translation): The local EPA has stepped up law enforcement. We also set a time frame for improvement. If they fail to meet it, they will be shut down.
The EPA is taking me to visit one factory that faced being shut down. The Harbin Yeast Factory is part of AB Mauri, a division of Associated British Foods plc. Its regional headquarters are in Sydney, Australia. The yeast made here is sold locally, and also exported to Asia and Australia. Six months ago, during a secret visit by EPA inspectors from Beijing, it was discovered they were discharging waste into the local river with a concentration of chemicals 20 times the standard. Factory manager Ja Win says it happened because their waste water system was broken down and they were waiting for parts to arrive from Switzerland.
REPORTER: Did you know it was broken down?
JA WIN, FACTORY MANAGER,(Translation): Yes, I knew.
REPORTER: So did you know the result of that would be massive pollution pumping into the river?
JA WIN, (Translation): I knew we would exceed required levels.
REPORTER: So why didn’t you shut down operations if you knew you were polluting?
JA WIN, (Translation): We reduced the output of our production, our waste treatment went well apart from that period. We didn’t think we would exceed the required level by too much.
REPORTER: So this is the waste water treatment?
JA WIN, (Translation): Yeah, all the ETP.
The factory was fined around $8,000 and required to set up a new system where the EPA can monitor their discharge online 24 hours a day, costing them around $100,000. The EPA and local government officials who accompany me praise the Harbin Yeast Factory for fully cooperating, and are keen to show this off as a successful outcome. The factory appears to have little choice but to cooperate.
JA WIN, (Translation): The local EPA comes regularly to get samples, do tests and spot checks. Sometimes they come to do an inspection every day. We feel they’re more strict than before.
For Harbin Yeast Factory, it’s been a costly experience, in terms of money and reputation. A sign perhaps that China is slowly becoming a tougher place for polluters.
REPORTER: Was it embarrassing for the company to be placed on this list by the state EPA?
JA WIN, (Translation): We will try our best to improve our waste treatment and to promote our factory.
ZHOU LINBO, (Translation): The public is increasingly aware and demands a quality environment. To build a comfortably-off society, we need to develop the economy but also improve quality of life.
Those who rely on the Songhua for their food and their livelihood are counting on these assurances.
VILLAGER 3, (Translation): I hope the government can make some policies to improve the environment.
But strong resistance to change still exists, as I discover at the end of a long day in Chongqing with environmentalists Mr Wu and Ms Wang.
MAN, (Translation): Who are you? Stop now. I want to talk to you.
Outside an American-owned factory that’s listed as a polluter, a group of men surround our car and refuse to let us leave.
YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Let’s go.
MAN, (Translation): What are you doing? You took pictures of us. Why did you do that? Listen, give us the camera. Why did you take pictures?
I decide it’s too risky to openly film. Two of the men are aggressive and intimidating.
YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): We’re not in, but outside your factory. Let us close the door. Or we’ll call the police. This is a public area.
MAN, (Translation): We don’t care. Just show us your ID.
After a 10-minute stand-off, we manage to get away.
YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Just close the door. What are you doing?
MAN, (Translation): We have to find out who you are first.
YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Let us close the door! Xiao Luo, don’t talk to them. Let’s go.
Mr Wu is not surprised by the incident.
WU DENG MING,(Translation): Things like this happen to us very often. These polluting factories hire hooligans. But the hooligans are really thugs. They’re hired to deal with any external personnel who they believe will damage their reputation. Especially outside people like us, or journalists.
REPORTER: Why do you keep doing this kind of environmental work when it’s so risky for you?
WU DENG MING, (Translation): If I don’t take any risks, if I don’t make some sort of contribution, the work won’t be rewarding. There is a Chinese poem which says that a divine view is beheld from a perilous peak.
“The Mystery of Mohamed Abbass”
Dateline, SBS Television. 6th June 2007
In 1999 Australian man Mohamed Abbass traveled to Egypt for a holiday. To the horror of his wife and children he never returned, apparently vanishing into thin air. In a twisted and horrifying saga his wife was contacted from Cairo and told he was being held captive for ransom. For years his wife has been battling with Australian and Egyptian authorities, and murky figures connected to the Egyptian prison system, desperately trying to save her husband.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): Yes, we’re ready.
Seham Abbass is waiting for a lift to Canberra. She has an important meeting with the Australian Government.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): Pray for us, Sahar, that God may grant us success.
In a horrendous scenario, Seham believes her husband is being held illegally by corrupt officials in an Egyptian jail.
SARAH: Ahmed, give me a piece of paper.
Along with his two sisters, 12-year-old Ahmed is missing school to go to Canberra today, hoping it will help return the father he hasn’t seen since he was three years old.
AHMED, DATELINE 2005: “To the Prime Minister, John Howard. I’m Ahmed Abbass, and I have age of nine years old. I have a problem – my Dad is in Egypt, and for six years I have not seen him.”
This has been a long nightmare for the Abbass family. A father and husband has vanished, and all attempts to help him have failed. When Dateline first met Seham and her children two years ago, they’d already been battling for years.
AHMED, DATELINE 2005: “On September 5 it is Father’s Day, and I would like to see my Dad. Please help me solve my Dad’s problem.”
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): A heart condition, health problems, psychological, financial problems – many problems. It’s too much for me. For eight years I’ve been doing everything on my own.
But today the family leaves for Parliament House with renewed hope. A mysterious man has emerged who claims to have contact with those holding Mohamed Abbass in Egypt. But as Seham tells her companions, this go-between says her husband is being held unofficially, and only a hefty bribe will get him out.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): He gave me his bank account to deposit the money. So it’s quite… complicated. But he said something I am convinced of. He said, “Your husband’s held unofficially. How will you get him out officially?”
Importantly though, this go-between has told the Egyptian community that after 8.5 years, Mohamed Abbass is still alive.
KAMEL KILANI, ISLAMIC EGYPTIAN SOCIETY NSW: Yeah, he confirmed many times that he is alive and he is well. Sometimes he get sick, and they move him to hospital and bring him back to where he is. Only one thing he said is that his eyesight is getting down, he cannot see properly as he did before.
To test this, Australian authorities gave the go-between five so-called “proof of life” questions – personal questions that presumably only Mohamed Abbass would know the answer to. The go-between brought back two correct answers.
MARTIN HODGSON, FOREIGN PRISONER SUPPORT SERVICE: I think they suggests he is in Egypt. I think they suggest he was definitely alive at the time, I think they are certainly the last piece of solid evidence we have that he was alive and while we still have belief he is alive we have to continue to look for him.
Mohamed Abbas, an Australian citizen since 1971, disappeared shortly after this home video was taken in 1999. He went to his native Egypt for a month’s holiday, but never returned. Recently retired after 20 years working for Telstra, by all accounts he was an innocent man.
MOHAMED ABDELGHANY, FAMILY FRIEND: Absolutely he have no interest in politics, absolutely he have no interest to be in any group, absolutely he have no contact with any politics or group or Islamic group or even normal society. He just practice his life like any normal person – work, house, kids, and couple of friend, just go out picnic, go out watching football game.
GREG HUNT, PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY TO MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS: We’ve spoken with all of the Australian intelligence agencies and they speak very highly of Mr Abbas, that this is not a very wealthy man, a very strong family man, no dark secrets, no engagement with terrorism, no basis for any such motive that we can find.
Mohamed Abbass was last seen by the relatives who dropped him off at Cairo airport at the end of his trip. Egyptian authorities later said he’d flown to Turkey, and in fact Turkish immigration records show him arriving. But Seham Abbas was convinced he’d never left Egypt and in late 2000 she went to look for him there. After making a fuss at a number of government buildings, she says she was approached by men outside.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): They took my telephone number and told me “We’ll contact you in three days and tell you if you can see him or not.” They did ring me three days later. They told me “You’re being watched. If you report it, it won’t be good for you. If you want to see him, we’ll organise it, but don’t talk.”
After paying a bribe, Seham was blindfolded and taken to what appeared to be a prison where she says she spent 30 minutes with her husband.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): I asked him what the problem was and he said he didn’t know. He begged me to get help from the Australian Government, as he used his Australian passport, “I’m Australian, I don’t know why I am here.”
His captors then demanded $250,000 for his release. Scared for her safety, Seham told them she’s have to return to Australia to find the money, knowing all along she didn’t have it. Instead she approached the Australian Government, which told Dateline two years ago there was no way to back up Seham’s account.
BRUCE BILSON, PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY TO MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: What we’re missing here is some concrete evidence to challenge the very clear and repeated assertion by the Egyptian authorities that Mr Abbass is not in Egypt.
But today Seham believes the Government now has the concrete evidence it needs in the form of the mysterious go-between, a man Australian authorities have been dealing with. This is the Australian Egyptian businessman who’s claimed to have contact with Mohamed Abbass’s captors. He lives in Sydney, but spends considerable time in his native Egypt. Dateline knows the name of the go-between but out of concerns for his safety in Egypt, we’ve decided to protect his identity. Seham says he’s been contacting her ever since she saw her husband in captivity, telling her that she needs to pay the ransom. Two years ago, Seham put him in touch with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): When they were here, they spoke to him on the phone. They told him, “Your requests, including meeting the Australian Ambassador in Egypt directly… when you go to Egypt, he’ll be waiting for you.”
In Egypt, the go-between began liaising with the Australian Embassy. They made it clear though, they would not be paying a ransom. Early last year Seham was informed of a breakthrough via a letter from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
AUSTRALIAN EMBASSY LETTER: “On 27 March, ???? contacted our Embassy in Egypt and advised that a prison guard at the Al-Mazraa prison camp in Cairo had given him answers to two proof-of-identity questions. This is an encouraging development, providing an indication that your husband may be alive and in Egypt.”
The Australian Government now had information it could take to the Egyptian authorities, but it decided to wait for the go-between to work through his unofficial channels.
AUSTRALIAN EMBASSY LETTER: “We think it may be worthwhile allowing that process to unfold, given advice from ???? and Sheik Hilaly that approaches to the Egyptian Government would be counter-productive.”
What’s really astounding about this letter is that it shows that Australian authorities were finally willing to accept the possibility that Mohamed Abbass was being held unofficially in an Egyptian prison.
SHEIK TAJ EL-DIN AL-HILALY: I don’t believe the Government or diplomatic way they have solution for this case.
The controversial Mufti of Australia, Sheik Taj el-Din al-Hilaly, still believes unofficial channels are the best hope for Abbass. Hilaly, who’s from Egypt, has tried to help in this case, though he personally has no contacts.
SHEIK TAJ EL-DIN AL-HILALY: This is secret…secret business. Mr Abbass isn’t under the control of the Egyptian Government. He’s with unknown parties, who don’t deal in the open.
It sounds like an incredible proposition – that rogue elements could hold an innocent man outside of the official prison system. But Egyptian human rights groups have documented many such cases.
MARTIN HODGSON: One aspect with the Egyptian system is that the Egyptian Government themselves don’t have direct control of quite a number of the prisons in the country. They’re controlled by the SSI, who are known to carry out coercive disappearances.
MARTIN HODGSON: State Security intelligence.
Martin Hodgson is from the Foreign Prisoners Support Service, which investigates the plight of Australians jailed overseas. He thinks it’s plausible that Abbass could have been held secretly for this long.
MARTIN HODGSON: There have been plenty of cases of people going beyond the 10-year mark and being released after this time. Again at least I have the names of 50 people who have gone more then five years with no contact from anyone and then they have been released.
Former Guantanamo Bay inmate Mamdouh Habib has spent time in Egypt’s unofficial prison system, sent there by the United States as part of its rendition program. As Dateline first reported in 2005, Mamdouh Habib says he saw Mohamed Abbass in prison. Interrogators paraded Abbass before him.
MAMDOUH HABIB: They say “You know this guy? He’s Mohamed Abbass. He disappeared two years ago.”
Habib says that those running the prison were in the business of making money.
MAMDOUH HABIB: Running their own business there, that’s what happened.
Based on the go-between’s assurance that release could be imminent, in 2006 the Australian Embassy in Cairo even issued a new passport for Mohamed Abbass. But after months of waiting for the go-between to deliver on his promises, it decided to make an official approach. A strategy was devised whereby Australia’s Ambassador in Cairo would tell the Egyptian Foreign Minister that his country might be detaining an Australian in a case of mistaken identity.
AUSTRALIAN EMBASSY LETTER: We are hopeful that by offering the Egyptian Government a face-saving solution they might be more likely to confirm that Mr Abbass is in detention. However, I should stress that there is no guarantee the Egyptian Government will provide a positive response, and there is a small risk that Mr Abbass might be relocated to prevent his discovery.
But the Egyptian authorities continued to deny holding Mr Abbass.
REPORTER: Have Egyptian authorities made attempts to see if there are indeed corrupt elements within the system who are holding Mr Abbas?
MOHAMED TAWFIK, EGYPTIAN AMBASSADOR: This issue I think is totally unbelievable for anyone who knows Egypt. This sort of situation could happen really in a failed state. Egypt is a strong state. There is strong control over the different elements of the state.
Seham Abbass believes the only reason that the go-between’s dealings with the Australian Embassy came to nothing was because the ransom wasn’t paid. In a terrible predicament, she says the only way she could get the money was by selling her house, but she couldn’t because it’s held in her missing husband’s name.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): When he told me that the embassy didn’t agree to paying a ransom, I told him “You know, I don’t have the authorisation to sell the house so that I can give you the money. Why don’t you ask him to give me the authorisation and I’ll sell the house and pay you the money?” He said “No, you work something out. Borrow money or whatever and he can pay it back.”
A final chance appeared two months ago when the go-between – who was in Egypt – called community members here.
KAMEL KILANI: So he rang up here, a friend of ours, and he told him he had a chance to get him out if we pay $100,000.
This time a rallying cry went out, and dozens from Australia’s Egyptian, Lebanese and Anglo communities pledged money. Kemal Kilani called the go-between in Egypt.
KAMEL KILANI: I told him that we collecting the money, ready to do it, but please tell us how we send the money to Egypt. He said “Alright, give me time, I will go back to the people, and I will call you back.”
A few days later, the go-between called from, of all places, Germany.
KAMEL KILANI: He rang me up, and he said “I am in Frankfurt.” I said, “What’s going on?” He said, “I left Egypt, I am in Frankfurt now, and I feel I am in dangerous position and I cannot do any more. You have to forget about this deal.”
With the go-between saying the deal was finished, Seham Abbass was placing her hopes on the meeting at Parliament House. Afterwards, her own lawyer cautions against undue optimism.
STEPHEN KENNY, LAWYER: If they are not able to find him within a prison then there’s not a lot the Australian Government can do. It makes it difficult for them and for us.
But Foreign Affairs officials promised Seham they would meet with the go-between. When Dateline spoke with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs last week, he revealed the surprise outcome of the Department’s conversation with the go-between.
GREG HUNT: In that interview, he denied having encountered Mr Abbas, he denied any information as to where Mr Abbas might actually be, and he denied having made requests for money from Mrs Abbas. So when we actually confronted him, it’s unfortunate, but the information which he had allegedly offered to provide to others, evaporated.
REPORTER: Will attempts be made to make Mr ???? reveal his sources in Egypt?
GREG HUNT: Well, he denied to us that there were any sources.
REPORTER: But he has already told Australian authorities in Egypt that he does have sources, so how can he deny it now?
GREG HUNT: I can’t speak for him. I can only tell you the very latest information of us having interviewed him only recently. We in fact have also referred it to the Federal Police to see if they may have any success with him.
Dateline has been trying to speak to this mysterious go-between for weeks.
REPORTER: Hi, can I speak to ???? please?
We finally spoke to him this morning, and while he refuses to discuss his involvement in this affair, he did express concerns for his safety in Egypt. He also disputed the Government’s account of his retraction, saying he told them “Please get me out of this.” He also told Dateline that Seham needs to pursue this legally in Egypt because “anybody like us cannot help any more.” Seham Abbass, however, still wants his help. She believes he is the best link to her husband’s captors.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): I want to tell him please, please help us. Help my children, help us. You know the situation inside out. So, please help my children because they’re upset and sad. Nothing can make them happy except the return of their father. Please, help me to let my children smile again.
Supporters of the Abbass family now hope that Australian authorities can do something with the information this man gave in the past.
KAMEL KILANI: That’s what we hope, because he said he gave them all the information, even unofficial name for him, and whereabouts he is.
GREG HUNT: Well, we’ve followed every avenue and we’ve followed the official, we’ve followed the unofficial, we’ve worked through governments, we’ve worked through security agencies, we’ve worked through prisoner groups, we’ve worked through the Egyptian community, and everything that the individual in question has said has amounted to nothing.
REPORTER: Given that the approach, the face-saving solution to the Egyptian Government, that strategy didn’t work. Do you think perhaps it’s time to play a little hard ball with the Egyptian authorities?
GREG HUNT: Well, I spoke with the Egyptian Ambassador and we called him in only last week, and we’ve.. What you are assuming – your whole assumption to this is that there is a secret plot to hold this man.
After seeming so close to her husband’s release, Seham is now back to where she started, trying to convince sceptical officials that Mohamed is being held in Egypt. It is an extraordinary-sounding plot, and hard information is difficult to find, but if Mohamed Abbass is indeed held in a shadowy, unofficial prison, that’s little wonder. For the family left behind, it’s nothing short of a tragedy.
REPORTER: What impact does it have on your family?
DAUGHTER: I guess it makes us, like, kind of less of a family, because we have one member missing.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): My children and I, and all his family, are still as determined as on the first day. It’s 2007, but our determination is as strong as it was back in 1999. Yes, my husband is alive.
GEORGE NEGUS: Just before we went on air, we heard again from the elusive go-between, this time via his lawyers. The go-between says he never suggested to the Abbass family that he personally would have a role in the paying of any ransom. And, as Bronwyn reported in that story, he categorically rejects that he made any about-face with the Government.
“The Extraordinary Rendition of Mamdouh Habib”
Dateline, SBS Television. 9th March 2005
After nearly 4 years in captivity Mamdouh Habib returned home to Australia in early 2005. This award winning story is based on an extensive interview with Habib, and raises serious questions about the involvement of Australian intelligence in his transfer to Egypt and subsequent torture.
“The Extraordinary Rendition of Mamdouh Habib”
Reporter/Camera: Bronwyn Adcock
Air date: 9th March 2005
After spending the last 3.5 years locked up in four different countries, Mamdouh Habib is learning to find his way around the streets of Sydney again.
MAMDOUH HABIB: I was lost – until now lost in the streets. I didn’t know the streets.
He’s been a free man for just over a month now but says it’s only partial liberty.
MAMDOUH HABIB: Actually I not feel I’m free yet.
REPORTER: You don’t feel you’re free?
MAMDOUH HABIB: No.
REPORTER: Why not?
MAMDOUH HABIB: I feel I’ve been under the pressure from the Government yet and I feel I’ve been follow. They doesn’t want to leave me alone. So I feel free when these people leave me alone.
REPORTER: Do you think you’re being followed?
MAMDOUH HABIB: Yes. Actually, I’m not thinking – I’m sure I’ve been followed.
On a recent trip to his accountant, Mamdouh Habib says he spotted a man he knows as an ASIO agent.
MAMDOUH HABIB: And I go down the stairs for a smoke I see him, he’s next to my car. As soon as he sees me he moves and tries to go away from me. I follow him. When he sees me, I follow him and he disappear.
REPORTER: Where did you recognise him from?
MAMDOUH HABIB: Before I left I know a lot of people from ASIO used to come to my house. I used to be followed by same people before.
If this is true, Australia’s spy agency, ASIO, is fulfilling a US desire, that a close eye be kept on their former prisoner. Habib, though, sees it as unwarranted harassment.
MAMDOUH HABIB: I believe I’ve been released by United States and the United States say they dropped their case, they have nothing to do with me and I believe Australia shouldn’t harass me anymore.
REPORTER: Is he under surveillance now?
PHILIP RUDDOCK, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, they’re not matters about which we comment publicly. We have a range of laws that deal with security issues and they operate in relation to all Australians. And in terms of what appropriate authorities do, it’s a matter for them and their judgments.
It’s clear that many Australians would be happy if Habib was under surveillance.
RON WILSON – CHANNEL TEN NEWS: Some very interesting first results just in for Ten’s news poll. Tonight we’re asking: Do you believe Mamdouh Habib is a threat to our security? So far a whopping 78% believe that he is.
Suspicions were fuelled when during his much anticipated first television interview with ’60 Minutes’ he refused to answer questions about what he was doing overseas before his arrest.
ALAN JONES – RADIO 2UE SYDNEY: I think any performance was worth the audience hearing because we now know how evasive this bloke is towards the answers that we seek from him.
SALLY LOANE – ABC 702 SYDNEY: The thing that I found a bit frustrating was when he wouldn’t answer the questions about why he, you know, was in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
STEPHEN HOPPER, MAMDOUH HABIB’S LAWYER: Did you have a read of it?
MAHA HABIB: The one you gave me?
STEPHEN HOPPER: Yeah. Do you want to read it?
It as Habib’s lawyer, Stephen Hopper, who brokered the lucrative deal with ’60 Minutes’ and advised Mamdouh Habib not to talk about his overseas activities. For Dateline’s interview we didn’t pay a cent, but Stephen Hopper is extending his media strategy even further. A condition of granting the interview was that we weren’t allowed to even ask Mamdouh Habib what he was doing before he was arrested. Stephen Hopper keeps his client on a tight rein.
REPORTER: How many trips had you made to Pakistan before…
STEPHEN HOPPER: No, he’s not going to answer that at this stage. We’re still reconstructing all of the evidence about those things. He’s not prepared to go into that.
REPORTER: To talk about how many trips he’d made to Pakistan?
STEPHEN HOPPER: No.
REPORTER: Mr Hopper, why won’t you let your client talk about what he was doing before he was arrested in Pakistan?
STEPHEN HOPPER: Well, it’s not a matter of me not letting him do it. He’s quite happy to talk about what happened it’s just he’s going to do it at the appropriate time – the appropriate time is in court.
REPORTER: But doesn’t common sense say if he was doing nothing wrong at all you would be talking about it – in fact you’d be shouting it from the rooftops?
STEPHEN HOPPER: Look, that’s extremely simplistic. When someone has to prove a case – whether it be a case for compensation or a case for a passport, or a case for whichever avenue we may go down – it has to be carefully constructed so the evidence is ventilated in the proper way and the trier of fact gets to see that evidence in an untainted light.
Hopper has maintained all along that he’s holding back for an unspecified court case. He’s now also claiming he’s keeping evidence that may prove Habib’s innocence out of the public domain.
STEPHEN HOPPER: We’re quite concerned that either the security agencies here could tamper with evidence or a security agency in another nation or another government could tamper with evidence. This has happened before in other cases. Indeed, it’s happened in this case.
REPORTER: What evidence has been tampered with?
STEPHEN HOPPER: We don’t want to disclose that yet, but certain steps have been taken and we’re very concerned about the way ASIO and the Government are dealing with things with this case.
Stephen Hopper will not provide any evidence for this serious accusation. However, he says twice in the last month the Habibs’ home has been broken into. While valuables were left behind an item he says could assist Habib’s case was taken. The family is also asking why none of the possessions he had on him before his arrest have been returned.
MAMDOUH HABIB: Well, people have to understand 100% I’m not hiding anything. I’m happy to tell them everything. But they have to understand too we have a court case running and they have to understand the ASIO trying to destroy every evidence I have to present in court. The time of waiting for the day of the court, the judge, to prove my innocence to them. They doesn’t want to make me prove myself as innocent. These people do dirty business and I no want to give them this chance.
PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, if he believes that the agency is operating incorrectly or inappropriately, there are avenues open to test those issues. There is an independent agency that scrutinises the activities of intelligence organisations. And if he believes that, rather than dealing with it through the press, he should make his particular complaints known to the relevant authority.
While there’s no doubt Habib’s refusal to tell the full story damages his credibility, he’s not the only one being evasive. A key part of the Mamdouh Habib story is how, after his arrest in Pakistan, he was transferred to Egypt and held for six months before being taken to Guantanamo Bay. It’s on the transfer to Egypt the Australian Government has been notoriously difficult to pin down.
LAURIE OAKES, SUNDAY-CHANNEL 9: Do we raise it with the US who took him there – in effect abducted him from Pakistan?
ALEXANDER DOWNER, Well, I don’t have – I don’t have all the details of that. I don’t have any evidence that the Americans took him there, to the best of my knowledge.
LAURIE OAKES: He didn’t walk.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, he went from Pakistan to Egypt. There are a lot of different ways you can get from Pakistan to Egypt. I mean I just do not have that information.
While the Australian Government claims no knowledge about Habib’s transfer to Egypt, they are absolutely certain about what he was up to before his arrest. Recently under the protection of parliamentary privilege the heads of Australia’s spy and police agencies outlined their very serious case against him.
MICK KEELTY, AUST. FEDERAL POLICE COMMISSIONER: The investigators formed a view that he went there to train with the LET and be paid for that training and that he was then offering his services to al-Qa’ida, for which he was going to be paid a sum of money.
DENNIS RICHARDSON, ASIO DIRECTOR GENERAL: He was actually with people in Afghanistan who had a history of murdering innocent civilians.
No evidence has been presented to support these allegations, nor have they been tested in a court. A different set of allegations made by the Americans have had some scrutiny.
Last year the US military was forced to outline its case against Habib to justify his ongoing detention in Guantanamo Bay. At the time they said that Habib knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, helped train some of the hijackers and even planned to hijack a plane himself. Habib’s American lawyer Joe Margulies has seen the classified file upon which these accusations were based. He’s not allowed to discuss what he read, but can reveal that part of the file was based on confessions Habib gave in Egypt. Joe Margulies says this meant the US case against Habib was seriously flawed?
JOE MARGULIES, MAMDOUH HABIB’S US LAWYER: Well, if they believed it to be true they wouldn’t have sent him home. They obviously do not believe it to be true. The reason they don’t believe it to be true is that by the time Mr Habib confessed he would have confessed to absolutely anything. If you put a piece of paper in front of him – he says as much, “Whatever they put in front of me I signed.” Some of the things he signed were blank documents they later filled in which we know from people released from Egyptian custody were standard practice of the Egyptians. He would have confessed to assassinating Abe Lincoln. There’s nothing he wouldn’t have said and there’s no truth in it. Well obviously you can’t rely as a basis for prosecution or a basis for any continued detention on evidence that is so demonstrably ill-gotten.
REPORTER: Does any of the case the Australian Government has come from information obtained in Egypt?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: I’m not aware of information that was obtained by inappropriate means. Just let me make that very clear. I mean, Australia is very strongly of the view that people should not be tortured, but in relation to the material that I rely upon, it is from third parties, not from admissions by Habib himself other than information that was obtained when he was interviewed by Australian officials where there was absolutely no duress.
REPORTER: So the central accusation, Mamdouh, that you trained with terrorist groups, is that correct?
MAMDOUH HABIB: I never trained with anybody. That’s full of lie. I never trained anything, with anybody.
REPORTER: Did you spend time with any terrorist group?
MAMDOUH HABIB: I haven’t been with any terrorist group. I work with normal people. I don’t know who they are. But I been never any training terrorists, I never been training with anybody, I never know anybody as a terrorists, I never worked with terrorist anywhere.
Habib’s rejection of this allegation puts him at odds with Australia’s spy agency and not for the first time. For much of the 1990s, ASIO was watching him, an interest sparked because of his contact with Islamic extremists overseas. But in an extraordinary allegation, Habib says that the agency that was after him also wanted him to spy for them.
MAMDOUH HABIB: They asked so many times. I know so many of them, they come to me and they ask me to help him. I feel I going to be a spy for somebody and this is not my way of life and I refuse so many times.
He says the last time ASIO approached him was shortly before he went overseas in 2001.
MAMDOUH HABIB: He tell me, “You work for us.” I said, “What do you want me to do?” He say “Because we got bad people, maybe you got bad people in Australia maybe they try to do bad thing.” I say “I don’t know bad people. How I know bad people”. He say “We need somebody to tell us what people do maybe in the mosque.” I say “Listen, I not going to work for you, or nobody. That’s not my way of life. I can’t be two faces.”
REPORTER: Did they know you were going to go overseas?
MAMDOUH HABIB: No idea – I have no idea.
Mamdouh Habib arrived in Pakistan in July 2001. Both he and his lawyer refuse to say whether he crossed the border into Afghanistan. His lawyer is sticking to the story he’s maintained all along, that Habib was looking for business opportunities and schools.
REPORTER: Do you have any evidence to support that – for example, names of schools, information about businesses that he may have got some interest from?
STEPHEN HOPPER: We have information relating to Mr Habib’s activities when he was overseas and that will be disclosed at the appropriate time.
At some point, ASIO became concerned about Habib’s trip overseas. Just a week after the attacks on America, on September 11 2001, his family home in Sydney was raided. The head of ASIO recently revealed for the first time they were looking for him.
DENNIS RICHARDSON: We and others were actively looking for Mr Habib before 5 October. Because of his activity in Afghanistan and our concern about that. There was considerable interest in indeed ascertaining his whereabouts.
REPORTER: At that time, did you think that Australian authorities were looking for you or following you perhaps?
MAMDOUH HABIB: Maybe. Maybe.
REPORTER: Were you aware that you were under surveillance in Pakistan?
STEPHEN HOPPER: I’d rather him not get into that sort of stuff.
REPORTER: Why is that?
STEPHEN HOPPER: Well, we’re building a case and we don’t want that sort of information disclosed.
REPORTER: Had you seen any other Australians in Pakistan?
STEPHEN HOPPER: Again we don’t want to touch that sort of stuff.
Australian authorities may have been looking for him, but it appears his arrest was either due to Habib’s bad luck or bad judgment.
Meet Ibrahim Diab. He’s one of the German men arrested with Habib in Pakistan and is speaking publicly for the first time. Today he’s in Germany, but back in 2001, he and another German-Albanian man were in Afghanistan visiting al-Qa’ida camps. In extensive interviews with German police after his arrest, Ibrahim gave names of people he met in Afghanistan, but never implicated Habib. He said then and still maintains that he met Habib for the first time here at this bus station in Quetta, Pakistan. All three men were trying to get to the Pakistani city of Karachi to fly home and agreed to travel together. Midway through their bus journey, the bus was stopped by police.
IBRAHIM DIAB(Translation): The bus driver stopped and two men in Pakistani attire got on and asked my Albanian friend and me for our names. When we asked who they were they said “Police officers”. Mamdouh Habib was watching but he did not say a word. He remained seated, when he saw us get off the bus he could not restrain himself, so he asked where they were taking us and what they wanted from us. They answered that they had orders to arrest both of us. Then they asked him if he was our friend, or if he knew us, and he answered affirmatively. This was an error on Mamdouh’s part.
MAMDOUH HABIB: I said, “Where are you taking them? What do you want from them?’
Habib agrees he did confront the police who were arresting the Germans.
MAMDOUH HABIB: He say “ You know these guys?” I say I know them, what’s wrong? He says you too, you can come with us. I say what’s going on? He say we talk down off the bus.
REPORTER: So why did you make a fuss? Why didn’t you keep quiet?
MAMDOUH HABIB: You can’t keep quiet when you see something wrong. I can’t see any reason to take him. I don’t understand. Because the guy, firstly, doesn’t speak English and he’s very young. So I don’t know why.
REPORTER: The German guy?
MAMDOUH HABIB: Yeah. I don’t know why they try to take him. Maybe there’s some explanation I have to explain for these guys.
REPORTER: In hindsight, do you ever wish you said nothing?
MAMDOUH HABIB: No, I’m happy with what I said.
REPORTER: Didn’t that lead to you getting arrested and this whole three years’ beginning?
MAMDOUH HABIB: I never plan myself for what I did. When you do something good, you never plan yourself for it. I’m happy.
A stunning statement given where his intervention on the bus landed him. After around a month’s detention in Pakistan, Habib ended up here, in Cairo. Egypt is a country routinely condemned by the US State Department for its use of torture. For six months Habib says he was subjected to brutal torture – including regular beatings, electric shocks and the threat of being raped by dogs.
MAMDOUH HABIB: Actually I been tortured the first day. I don’t know – every question they been torturing me from the beginning to the end. I don’t know why. It’s not torturing about questions. I think they enjoy to torture – that’s it.
JOE MARGULIES: The tortures that he was subjected to in Egypt were creative and diabolical in a way that I never could have conceived. The United States Government does not maintain that those tortures were not true. In fact when he was released their position now is that there was no evidence he was tortured in US custody. They’re very careful to exclude the fact that he was tortured in Egyptian custody.
While Habib was not in American custody in Egypt, they sent him there. In an interview with Dateline last year, the Pakistani Interior Minister said that while Habib was arrested by the Pakistanis, once they’d finished with him, they handed him over to the Americans. He was in US custody when he was transferred to Egypt.
REPORTER: The United States requested that he be sent to Egypt?
PAKISTANI INTERIOR MINISTER, 2004: The US wanted him there for their own investigations. But we are not concerned where they take him. Once that was over, once we were satisfied with our own investigations, certainly we had no problem in handing him over to an ally of ours.
REPORTER: The Americans?
PAKISTANI INTERIOR MINISTER: Yes, that’s right.
Post 9/11 the United States has increasingly used the secret policy of extraordinary rendition. It involves sending terror suspects to countries like Egypt where they can be interrogated in a way that Western democracies can’t. It’s effectively the outsourcing of torture. The US gets the information they want without getting their hands dirty.
Joe Margulies says Habib’s story fits in with what’s known about the rendition process.
JOE MARGULIES: We’re not going to get the torturers from Egypt to come forward and say, “This is what we did. This is how we filled the room with water. Here’s the lever we pushed to allow the water to come into the room and fill up to his neck while he stood in a room with his hands handcuffed behind his back.” That’s not going to happen. But what we have is pieces of it that are corroborated by other people, other people to whom things like this have happened. Other people who confirm now that the United States has for some years been involved in the practice of extraordinary rendition – that’s what it’s called – and they have sent people to places like Egypt where they know they’re going to be tortured.
The main agency involved in extraordinary rendition is the CIA. John Radsan is a former CIA lawyer.
JOHN RADSAN, CIA LAWYER: He was rendered, if his allegations are true, he was rendered from our control to Egyptian control. What we don’t know is if he was mistreated or if he was mistreated whether the administration had any reason to believe that he would be mistreated in Egypt. But let’s be clear if the administration knows that a jurisdiction is going to mistreat or torture someone and they go ahead and turn this person over, this is a violation of US law.
Up until a year ago, John Radsan was legal counsel for the CIA. One of his tasks was to build a legal framework around the administration’s tough new anti-terror policy. He raises the possibility that if Habib was tortured in Egypt, then Australia may also bear responsibility for what happened.
JOHN RADSAN: If my assumptions are true – and I think they are – that Australia is a part of the convention against torture, that they have similar prohibitions against torture in Australian law, and if the Australians were involved in Mamdouh Habib’s transfer, if they had control, if they had jurisdiction over him, or if they shared jurisdiction with American authorities, then I think they’re drawn into the responsibility. The other possibility is they’ve kept a distance and they’ve been apprised that the Americans are going to transfer that person to Egypt. That may have different implications, different legal implications, but I think from an Australians perspective you would ask, “Shouldn’t my Government be doing more to protect me? I’m an Australian citizen – and not to allow me to go to a country that people have a fair reason to believe, tortures people.” But that’s a political question less a legal question.
Potential Australian complicity in the illegal rendition and torture of Mamdouh Habib is an extremely sensitive issue for the Government. It’s always sought to distance itself from Habib’s transfer to Egypt. In late 2001, Maha Habib was informed by the department of foreign affairs that it thought her husband was in Egypt.
DOCUMENT: As I advised in my fax 10 December we believe that your husband is now detained in Egypt.
But it stressed it had no idea how he got there.
DOCUMENT: If in fact your husband is in Egypt, as we believe, we are not aware of the details of his movement to Egypt from Pakistan.
Now nearly 3.5 years on, the Government says it still doesn’t know.
REPORTER: Do you agree that Habib was subject to a process called extraordinary rendition, that he was taken by the United States to Egypt for the purpose of interrogation?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: I can’t comment on those matters. I have no personal knowledge and Australia has no personal knowledge – we were never advised that he was being removed. We sought – and continued to seek – access to him and sought to find out what had happened to him and where he’d gone.
REPORTER: Do you believe that Mamdouh Habib was tortured in Egypt?
PHILIP RUDDOCK:I don’t know. I hear his claims but I don’t know. All I know is that we sought confirmation as to whether he was there and that was never forthcoming but we formed the view that he was.
If Australia had any role in American plans to send Habib to Egypt, then there would have been a level of cooperation or at least contact between the two allies here in Pakistan. Habib was held here for a month before the decision was made to send him to Egypt. Under questioning in the Senate recently the head of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Keelty, revealed for the first time there was contact between the Americans and the Australians. It happened the day Habib was arrested?
MICK KEELTY: The FBI’s legal attache in Pakistan advised our AFP liaison officer in Islamabad that a person who had a similar name to Habib had been detained in Pakistan. That person was later positively identified as Mr Habib.
LYN ALLISON, VICTORIA: It was the US who informed us?
MICK KEELTY: The US legal attache in Pakistan.
The Australian Government has acknowledged that ASIO and federal police officials were on the ground here in Pakistan to see Habib. Given the years of surveillance of Habib in Sydney, it’s logical to assume these officials carried a weight of information about him. Former CIA lawyer John Radsan says it’s hard to believe that they didn’t share their information.
JOHN RADSAN: If the Australians were on the ground, then it’s a very reasonable hypothesis that there was a sharing of information for two broad reasons: One, there’s going to be the sharing of information between the intelligence services. We’re going to find out as much as we can of the host from the country where that detainee comes from, whether it’s Mamdouh Habib, David Hicks. Perhaps the Australians have information on whether they’re bad people, whether they’re terrorists. We’re going to perhaps share information that the CIA has on them to get a better sense of the person we’re dealing with. The second reason is that we have our diplomatic relations and want to make sure we don’t create a diplomatic incident between in this case the Australian and American governments. So to reinforce the liaison relationship between the intelligent services and to preserve our diplomatic relationship I think it’s a fair assumption that we kept the Australians informed.
REPORTER: Presumably when ASIO as we know turned up in Pakistan or perhaps they were already there to interview Habib, they came with a significant amount of intelligence that had been gathered on Mamdouh Habib for nearly the last decade. Was any of that information or intelligence shared with the United States on the ground or in Pakistan?
PHILIP RUDDOCK:They are not matters on which I comment. It is quite inappropriate for me to comment on what arrangements are made between intelligence operations in terms of sharing information.
Mamdouh Habib’s version of events goes way beyond the question of information sharing. He alleges on one occasion in Pakistan he was interrogated by American officials with an Australian present.
MAMDOUH HABIB: They call me again for another interview and was this guy and two women – American women – and one man over – maybe 60, maybe over – and the Australian consul and about two Pakistani people.
REPORTER: And was this an interrogation?
MAMDOUH HABIB: It was like interrogation and they ask me questions but wasn’t really as serious. And they ask me if I know anybody in Afghanistan, if I know anybody terrorists – I say why you ask me this question – have nothing to do with me. I don’t know. I haven’t been in Afghanistan. I don’t have to answer your questions. If you want to question me, take me back in Australia. I told the consul, “Why you here? What these people to do with me ?” He say, “I have nothing to do with this. I’m here just to watch.” I say, “Why you watch? Nothing to do with me.” I was very upset, I was very angry with these people.
REPORTER: Who led the interview?
MAMDOUH HABIB: The American people, the Australian consul was sit down next to me.
This account is backed up by Habib’s cell mate at the time, Ibrahim Diab. He says Habib returned to his cell one day and said he’d just been interrogated by Americans, Pakistanis and an Australian.
IBRAHIM DIAD: He told us that they asked him bad questions and they want to take him to the jail and they want to take him to America. And they say “You done this, you must say that I done this”. He say “How? I didn’t done this, how I can say it?”
Both the Australian Government and Habib agree that he was interviewed by an Australian in Pakistan. They disagree on who that person was. Habib says it was the consul. The Government says it was ASIO. We asked the Attorney-General if any Australian witnessed Habib being interrogated by Americans.
PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I simply make the point that in relation to the access, we obtained access to Habib with Australian officials. That’s been outlined to the Senate Estimates committee. Other parties were present, but I don’t intend to elaborate on who may or may not have been present. There was no inappropriate questioning of him in the presence of Australian officials.
REPORTER: I’m not asking about inappropriate questioning. I’m asking about an incident where Mamdouh Habib says he was interviewed, interrogated, by US authorities in Pakistan and there was an Australian official in the room watching the interview.
PHILIP RUDDOCK: That official was alleged to have been a Foreign Affairs official. It was alleged it was at an airport. No… No such event took place. I don’t intend to be interrogated as to who was where at particular times.
Around a month after his arrest, Habib was taken here – bound and gagged and put on a plane for Cairo. He says the same Australian who witnessed his interrogation by the Americans was also at the airport. The Government denies this and denies any knowledge of his impending rendition. However, former CIA lawyer John Radsan says it’s probable that Australia would have at least known what was happening.
JOHN RADSAN: I have no way of knowing that – even if I did know it from my service in the CIA I wouldn’t be at liberty to tell you – but I think it is a reasonable hypothesis that if we’re going to move an Australian from our jurisdiction somewhere else and we’d been in touch with Australian authorities, that we would keep the Australians apprised of these developments.
According to the records, the first Australian agency to find out Habib was in Egypt was ASIO. They say they learned this out a matter of weeks after he went there?
WOMAN: So your information that he was most likely in Egypt allegedly came through DFAT?
DENNIS RICHARDSON: No, it was through our own activities.
Just who told ASIO Habib was in Egypt is not something the Government will discuss.
According to Mamdouh Habib, the Australian involvement in his rendition extended to his incarceration in Egypt. He makes the serious allegation that in one particular interrogation session here, he was asked questions specifically about a SIM card from a mobile phone that could only have come from Australia.
MAMDOUH HABIB: When they interrogate me, I believe everything they get it from Australia, because they gave me phones – they gave me about 300 phone number, or maybe more – and they put me in a room and they tell me, “You have to tell us” – some of the phone they have a names – some of the phone they have a number. And they tell me, “You have to give addresses and who are these people and how you know him.” And they put me in a room with a few guard and if my hand stopped writing I get beaten.
REPORTER: So these phone numbers – where could they have come from?
MAMDOUH HABIB: I believe they been taken from Australia because I don’t have any SIM card with me when I left.
REPORTER: Did you have any SIM cards in Pakistan from Australia?
MAMDOUH HABIB: No from Australia, I have nothing from Australia. Because when you go overseas you have to buy a SIM card.
REPORTER: So what you’re saying is you believe that the telephone numbers you were questioned about in Egypt came from a SIM card in Australia.
MAMDOUH HABIB: Yes, that’s positive, yes.
In 2001, the Habib family home in Sydney was raided by ASIO. According to the record held by the family, a number of mobile phones were taken. Habib says that in this same interrogation in Egypt he was asked to give evidence against a number of Australian Muslims living in Sydney.
MAMDOUH HABIB: And they ask me, they say, “Do you want to be a witness against somebody?” And I don’t know these people, maybe I saw them in the mosque, yes, maybe I saw them in Lakemba, yes, but I don’t know what these people do. They tell me it’s the only way for me to be released – if I be a witness against these people, maybe we make you a witness and we release you.
REPORTER: Mamdouh Habib has said that on one occasion in Egypt he was interrogated with a whole set of telephone numbers that came from a SIM card that he left behind in Australia. How did the interrogators in Egypt get hold of that information?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: I’ve got no idea. Nor would you expect me to have any idea. One, I don’t talk about what intelligence agencies do and confirm or deny matters of that sort. But I’m simply saying we sought from the Egyptians confirmation that he was there. That was denied. And I have no knowledge of whatever claims he may make. I’ve got no knowledge.
REPORTER: Would it concern you, though, that if information gathered in Sydney by Australian intelligence turned up in an interrogation cell in Egypt, would that be of concern?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: Look, I don’t know. I’m simply saying there are a lot of claims Mr Habib has made at different times which I know to be untrue. You tell me he’s made a further claim. It may or may not be true. I don’t know.
REPORTER: Regardless of whether you believe it to be true or not, is that something that would be acceptable for Australian intelligence to be used in a process of ongoing interrogation and torture of an Australian citizen in another country?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: Let me make this clear. I expect intelligence authorities to do everything they can to avert terrorist activity here or anywhere else and I expect them to take any lawful steps that they can to deal with those issues and if that means exchanging information for intelligence purposes, I’ve got no problem with it.
The Attorney-General’s comments raise important questions about Australia’s role in the global war on terror. If Australia is willing to share intelligence, can we ever be sure it won’t be used to torture an Australian citizen or anybody else?
REPORTER: What if it does occasion harm? What if it’s used in an interrogation where someone is being tortured?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: I don’t care if it’s used in interrogation. Any information is used in interrogation or questioning. I do believe it is inappropriate to torture people. I’ve made that very clear.
Mamdouh Habib goes further with his claims of Australian involvement in Egypt. On one occasion he claims he was led into an interrogation room and saw an Australian.
MAMDOUH HABIB: They blindfold me. They tied it up like this. Before they tied it up I closed my eyes very tight and when they release it, I release my eye, I can see a gap from the bottom if I lift up my head like, I can see people. And that’s what I was do. On this day, they take me in a room and I see this Australian guy.
REPORTER: How do you know for sure he was Australian?
MAMDOUH HABIB: He was Australian the way he talk, the question he ask. And the American, he can understand from the question he ask. And the way he talk too.
Habib says he heard the American and Australian talking amongst themselves but once the interrogation began they let the Egyptian do the questioning?
MAMDOUH HABIB: They never questioned me directly. After one Egyptian guy, the interrogator, came in and he talked to me. I was sit down and they sit next to him. I can see only their lips. They have paper, they write questions, and they hand to the Egyptian guy and the Egyptian guy ask me what they ask me for.
This does fit in with what we know about extraordinary rendition, where the whole purpose is for the US to get the information while remaining at arm’s length. In this particular case, though, there is no evidence other than Habib’s testimony and he has admitted to having memory blackouts in Egypt.
REPORTER: Are you absolutely sure about that, Mamdouh. It was a very stressful time for you, you said. You were being tortured, forced to take drugs. In your own mind do you feel really confident that you did see that – see the Australian and the American there in Egypt?
MAMDOUH HABIB: I was positive about these guys. Really, like what I see you now I can see these guys. I can point my finger again and tell you these are the guys. I never lost him from my mind.
REPORTER: Did an ASIO officer or any other Australian official see Mamdouh Habib in Egypt?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: I simply make the point in relation to those matters that we were seeking access to him if he was there – it was never obtained. I think that’s the end of the matter. We have no knowledge of him being there. We formed a view that he was there. And I think it’s quite clear from what I’ve said that if we formed a view that we didn’t have anybody who have seen him at any time.
According to the Government’s account, Australia’s spy agency effectively lost contact with one of their most wanted men. ASIO had been told he was arrested in Pakistan and given access to him. But then he simply disappeared – into the hands of the US, our closest ally in the war against terror and we knew nothing until he turned up in Guantanamo Bay six months later. If you believe Habib, though, ASIO didn’t lose track of him. Not only did they know about his rendition to Egypt, but were complicit in his interrogations there.
JOE MARGULIES: It just seems to unlikely that the United States would not have sought information from one of their closest allies, Australia. And if people in Australia had information about it, that they would have come and participated or at least been present. But do I know that definitively? Do I have the videotape that was taken before he was bundled on the plane? No. I think we would have got that videotape if he stayed in custody. That might be one of the reasons why they let him go.
Somewhat ironically, Habib’s release means it’s now less likely that any of the detail of his secretive rendition will ever be revealed. In the months prior to his release, Habib’s American lawyer filed an action in the US District Court. If that case had continued, Joe Margulies believes they would have uncovered crucial information through the legal process of discovery.
JOE MARGULIES: If the conduct was illegal, we’re allowed to explore the actors, the identity of the actors. I think we would have gotten the tape, I think we would have gotten the still photos. I think we would have learned their identity, who they worked for, whose authority they were acting under. It’s just the beginning of the end.
Joe Margulies believes one of the key reasons the Americans released Habib so suddenly was to stop that court process going any further.
JOE MARGULIES: Once it became apparent they were going to be called upon to justify the detention in a US courtroom, they made the decision to release him. They would rather release someone than disclose the nature of their detention practices. And that is what I mean by they will do what they can to maintain detentions beyond judicial scrutiny, even if it means releasing people. What they would have disclosed if they had come forward was they had no basis to continue to detain him, that they clearly did not believe and could not defend the allegations they were making against him. If they could defend them, he would still be there. They were indefensible.
It also seems unlikely now that any further information about Habib’s rendition will be volunteered or sought by the Australian Government.
REPORTER: Why do you think he was taken to Egypt?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: I don’t know.
REPORTER: Have you asked?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: It’s not a question of have we asked. Who do you ask?
REPORTER: The United States?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, no, we ask Egypt and Egypt denied he was there.
REPORTER: Given what is known now about the practice of extraordinary rendition, do you think it is time now to ask the United States about Mamdouh Habib and if indeed that was what happened to him?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I mean, what would be the value of it? To make it public? I don’t think anyone is going to answer any questions that we might put that is going to deal with those issues in a more transparent way.
REPORTER: But you’ve said as the Attorney-General that you are opposed to the process of extraordinary rendition. Is that correct
PHILIP RUDDOCK: I’ve made it clear I don’t believe people should be tortured.
REPORTER: So why not ask the United States if this happened to an Australian citizen?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I ask questions to which I realistically expect to get an answer and I don’t think I’d get an answer.
We may never know exactly what went on between Mamdouh Habib and Australia’s intelligence community, but the man who many Australians say they feel afraid of is claiming he too is scared. He says that when he was visited by ASIO officers in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, his family was threatened.
MAMDOUH HABIB: I’ve been told by ASIO “Your family is not safe”. I was told my wife will be arrested. I was told a lot of things.
REPORTER: When were you told that?
MAMDOUH HABIB: This is in Cuba. Too many times. My kids is not safe. They tell me they can make any case about my kids, put them in jail. They threaten me and my family not once but so many times. They tell me your family. They tell me they’re going to send me back to Egypt and they tell me they cancel my citizenship and they tell me your not Australian anymore.
REPORTER: So this is ASIO?
MAMDOUH HABIB: Yes, ASIO. One is (bleep). The other one’s name is (bleep). And the other one is (bleep).
REPORTER: He was in Guantanamo Bay?
MAMDOUH HABIB: Yes. I told him, he speak to me in Arabic. I told him I don’t want to speak with him. I refuse to speak with him so many times they always bring him to me. He say your wife in jail, your kids under the hand of the Government.
Mamdouh Habib says his fear of ASIO is one of the reasons he’s holding back on parts of his story. He offers to tell all, including what he was doing overseas before his arrest. If can be protected from the agency he thinks is out to get him.
MAMDOUH HABIB: You’re quite welcome to have everything you want – save me from the ASIO, I tell you what you want. Whatever question you ask. I’m not going to stay here and ask my lawyer, I’m not going to ask any lawyer – but if you promise me in paper, in writing, you save me from these people. I am here with you now. I don’t know what they do in my house. I am here with you, I don’t know what they do with my car.
“The Trials of Mamdouh Habib”
Dateline, SBS Television. July 7th 2004
Broadcast in 2004, this story was one of the first comprehensive investigations into the arrest and detention of Australian man Mamdouh Habib. It was also one of the first journalistic exposes of “extraordinary rendition”, the Bush Administration policy of “outsourcing torture” which later became an international scandal. This story contains on the ground reporting and investigation from Australia, England, the United States, Pakistan, Qatar and Egypt.
The Trials of Mamdouh Habib
July 7, 2004
Of the two Australians held in Guantanamo Bay by the Americans, the case of Mamdouh Habib has been the least publicised but possibly the more disturbing. Habib was arrested in Pakistan in October 2001. Soon after he was handed over to American custody and then taken, for reasons unknown, to Egypt. For six months he was left at the hands of his Egyptian interrogators. According to him and other witnesses in tonight’s report, Mamdouh Habib was severely tortured there before being delivered to Guantanamo Bay where he remains to this day without charge. His case raises a series of questions for the Australian Government. Who sent him to Egypt and why? Did the Australian Government know and what steps were taken to ensure that his most basic rights were protected? Later, Mark Davis will be putting these questions and others to Attorney-General Philip Ruddock but first Bronwyn Adcock reports on how one Australian has fared under American justice.
REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock
This suburban bowling club in western Sydney might seem like an unlikely venue for a discussion of international war and politics. But for Maha Habib, the US Government’s declared war on terror is very close to home. Her husband, Mamdouh, was arrested in the early days of the war. He’s been detained by America in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for over two years. Extraordinary world events have thrust her into a very public spotlight.
MAHA HABIB: Thank you very much everybody for being here. To be honest, I came to a stage where I thought I was fighting alone the campaign, but it looks like, having everybody here, I’m not by myself. I really thank you all for being here.
Maha and Mamdouh Habib’s lawyer is Stephen Hopper. In another sign of the unusual nature of this war, he’s never been allowed to meet or speak with his detained client. The information blackout means that mystery surrounds many aspects of Mamdouh Habib’s detention, but new information is emerging.
STEPHEN HOPPER, MAMDOUH HABIB’S LAWYER: A week or so ago Maha and I travelled to London and then to Manchester to speak to two people who’ve actually been in Guantanamo Bay and were released.
The two men had seen Mamdouh Habib in Guantanamo Bay and provided the first eyewitness account of his physical and mental state.
STEPHEN HOPPER: Mamdouh couldn’t walk properly and he couldn’t walk with his eyes open. When we came back, Tarek asked him about that, and he said, “Why can’t you open your eyes? What’s wrong? Why are you so unsteady?” He said, “Well, when I was in Egypt I was blindfolded for the entire time. I was electrocuted by them, I was beaten regularly and tortured.”
The two British men were released from Guantanamo Bay without any charge. They’re not facing any charges at home either. Despite this, Tarek Dherghoul wanted his identity disguised for this interview, because he’s scared of being vilified in the street.
TAREK DHERGHOUL: To me he was a nice guy. He spoke good words. And I could relate to him. He spoke about his family constantly.
Tarek claims that in Guantanamo Bay he saw Mamdouh Habib being dragged around in chains and bashed. He also says American interrogators told Mamdouh his family is dead and that Mamdouh firmly believes this.
MAHA: “Darling, take care of yourself and children. Say hello to everybody.”
For Maha, this explains why Mamdouh has not written to her since March last year.
MAHA: I said “It’s just not him, you know, there must be something wrong.” I mentioned that and I said that so many times. But when we went to London after speaking to Tarek and Jamal, it made sense to me as to why he hasn’t been writing, because they said he believes that his family’s been blown up and they don’t exist.
Perhaps the most disturbing allegation, though, concerns what happened to Mamdouh in Egypt, where he was detained for around six months before Guantanamo Bay. Tarek met Mamdouh in the hospital shortly after he’d come from Egypt.
TAREK DHERGHOUL: Very confused, dizzy. Dazed. Weak. Slow – he spoke very slow – he spoke in riddles. I couldn’t really make out, I mean, like he was telling me stuff about Egypt, he’d been taken to Egypt.
Mamdouh explained he’d been brutally tortured.
TAREK DHERGHOUL: He told me he’d been electrocuted, put in water, electrocuted, he’d been stripped, been punched, kicked and punched, used as a punching bag. He said something about a dog being put on him as he was naked. Cigars put out on his body. Blindfolded.
MAHA: “Allah is with you.” God is with you, that means.
Some hint of what he’d experienced had already been received in his letters home.
MAMDOUH: “I’ve been blindfolded for eight months. I never see the sun, but I see you and the kids every minute. I never forget you or forget my children. They took me to Egypt and they say they want to bring you in Egypt and the kids and I was suffering to not let these people bring you in Egypt and I hope you are still in Australia.”
It was only after the British men’s allegations were made public that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs revealed Mamdouh had, in fact, made similar allegations to them two years ago.
IAN KEMISH, DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE: To give you a complete picture, I think it’s important to say that on the first Australian visit to Mr Habib in Guantanamo Bay, which was only 10 days after his transfer there from Egypt, Mr Habib made some serious complaints about maltreatment during his time in Egypt.
To find further evidence about the authenticity of these claims, Dateline travelled to the Gulf state of Qatar. I’m here to see a man who says he has inside knowledge of Mamdouh Habib’s time in Egypt. Dr Najeeb al-Naumi is a lawyer and the former minister for justice in the government of Qatar. He has impeccable contacts in the Arab world. Dr Najeeb says that towards the end of Mamdouh Habib’s time in Egypt, he received information about the Australian.
DR HAJEEB AL-NAUMI, FORMER MINISTER OF JUSTICE, QATAR: They said he will die.
REPORTER: Tell me more specifically what you were told from your sources about what happened to Mamdouh Habib in Egypt.
DR HAJEEB AL-NAUMI: Well, he was in fact tortured. He was interrogated in a way which a human cannot stand up.
REPORTER: And you know this absolutely?
DR HAJEEB AL-NAUMI: Yes. We were told that he – they rang the bell that he will die and somebody had to help him.
REPORTER: And again, did your sources tell you what kinds of things he was saying in Egypt to his torturers, to his interrogators?
DR HAJEEB AL-NAUMI: My sources did not say exactly what dialogue but they say that he accepted to sign anything.
REPORTER: So he was talking lots?
DR HAJEEB AL-NAUMI: Yes – “Whatever you want, I will sign. I’m not involved. I’m not Egyptian. I’m Egyptian by background but I’m Australian.” But he was really beaten, he was really tortured.
REPORTER: Do you think…
DR HAJEEB AL-NAUMI: They tried to use different ways of treating him in the beginning but in the end of that they thought he was lying and that’s why they were very tough.
There seems little doubt now that Mamdouh Habib was tortured in Egypt, but why was he ever sent there? He was arrested in Pakistan and despite being born in Egypt Mamdouh Habib has been an Australian citizen for two decades. He travelled on an Australian passport, even getting tourist visas when he went to visit his parents in Egypt in the past.
STEPHEN HOPPER: What we believe happened is that he was handed over to the US authorities by the Pakistan Government at the request of the US authorities and the US authorities took him to Egypt and they took him to Egypt because, firstly, it was convenient, because they could have a cover story, because he was born in Egypt, so they could just try and smooth over why he was there.
The second reason why they took him to Egypt is because they knew he’d be tortured there and they wanted to get whatever information Mamdouh might know that would be useful to them out of him. I want to know under whose authority he was transferred to Egypt.
To answer this, we need to go to Pakistan, to the beginning of Mamdouh Habib’s journey. According to his wife, Mamdouh Habib came to Pakistan in July 2001 looking for a sea change for the entire family. The Habibs’ life in Sydney had turned sour. They’d been traumatised by the murder of one of their son’s young friends, a business deal had gone wrong and Mamdouh was facing animosity from some members of the Muslim community in Sydney, who accused him of being a CIA spy.
REPORTER: So was he feeling a bit disenchanted with life in Australia?
MAHA: Yes. What really also encouraged us – you know, we sat down and we talked and we thought if we go out of Australia, maybe a couple of years or something, away from all the headache that we had, maybe – we applied for different countries to go. We haven’t heard anything from anybody, but one of those countries was Pakistan. And we got the visa. But we thought it would be more wiser if he goes himself and check, because it was going to cost us a lot of money.
According to Maha, he was here on a 3-month visa, checking out potential business opportunities and looking for a school where his children could get an Islamic education. Mamdouh was also suffering from depression.
MAHA: He was on medication. He was seeing, you know – treated for that. And when he left he was still on medication.
REPORTER: When he left for Pakistan?
REPORTER: Were you worried about him?
MAHA: Of course I was worried about him, yes. He’s my life. Him and my kids, they’re my life, you know.
Halfway through his journey, the attacks of September 11 occurred in America. Almost overnight, the situation on the ground in Pakistan profoundly changed. The Pakistani President, General Musharraf, threw his support behind America and a period of unprecedented American and Pakistani cooperation began. Dr Najeeb al-Naumi was one of the first lawyers to represent people arrested in what he says were joint Pakistani and FBI operations.
DR HAJEEB AL-NAUMI: They would start arresting people where they are known as students coming to Pakistan or religious schools where they are teaching learning as well or charity workers. These groups start picking up on these people.
REPORTER: So how big was the FBI involvement in this?
DR HAJEEB AL-NAUMI: They were totally involved in all the arrests. All the arrests, they were aware of it. They were making databases. They were collecting all information.
Much of this activity centred on the province of Baluchistan closest to Afghanistan. In early October, Mamdouh Habib was in the capital, Quetta. It was from here he called his wife.
MAHA: Then he made another phone call saying that he’s on his way back home. He left it on the answering machine. And I never heard from him since.
On October 4, 2001, Mamdouh Habib came here to Quetta bus station. He was on his way home. It was here he met two German nationals – Ibrahim Diab and Bekim Ademi. Dateline has seen copies of the interviews these two men gave German police when they returned home. They said they met Mamdouh here and upon discovering they were all trying to get to the city of Karachi to fly out, agreed to travel together.
BEKIM ADEMI: He talked to us because we were Europeans. We found out we had the same way as far as Dubai. We bought a ticket to Karachi. The Australian lent us the money.
The two German men were fleeing from Afghanistan. While in their police interviews they both gave frank admissions about their time spent in al-Qa’ida training camps, neither of them said they saw Mamdouh Habib in Afghanistan. Under intensive questioning, they did not incriminate him in any terrorist-related activity.
GERMAN POLICE INTERROGATOR: What could you tell us about the Australian?
BEKIM ADEMI: First I know he’s called Habib. Later I know Mamdouh. He comes from Sydney and has four kids. He said he had great problems in Australia and he wanted to immigrate to Pakistan. The trip was about seeing whether it was suitable for the family to come. He said he liked Pakistan.
600km into the journey, the bus was stopped at the town of Khuzdar. Pakistani police arrested all three men. Dateline asked the Pakistani Interior Minister why Mamdouh Habib was arrested.
REPORTER: Was he arrested because he was under surveillance, or was he merely caught by chance?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT, PAKISTANI INTERIOR MINISTER: We’ve gone through a long process of investigation as far as this was concerned. And without any doubt, let me confess and share with you that there is certainly a very strong linkage of this gentleman and, as I already mentioned to you, some other people also who were actively involved with this gentleman, in assisting the extremist element, the terrorist element, at that point in time.
But despite the assertion of terrorist links, later in the interview the Minister suggests that Habib was arrested merely for being in the restricted province of Baluchistan without the correct visa documents.
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: If you are not allowed to go to Baluchistan, if you haven’t got visa to visit Baluchistan, obviously you become a suspect. That is a non-denying fact.
REPORTER: So foreigners in Baluchistan in 2001 were automatically considered suspects?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: Yes, certainly, yes.
REPORTER: Could it be possible that someone was there who wasn’t involved in al-Qa’ida or terrorism?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: If a person is not involved in any of these activities, why should he or she be in such a sensitive area, in such a sensitive place? There has to be strong suspicion regarding anyone’s involvement in that respective region.
REPORTER: Suspicion, but not necessarily evidence?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: It always starts with suspicion. Suspicion eventually leads you to a certain amount of evidence and we have evidence to that effect.
However, there are some who cast doubt on the veracity of Pakistani intelligence.
YASSER AL-SIRRI, (Translation): I think Pakistani authorities sell illusions to the Americans.
Yasser al-Sirri is an Egyptian Islamist wanted by the Egyptian Government. He’s exiled in London where he heads the Islamic Observation Centre. He says that Pakistan often exaggerates the importance of people they arrest in order to win favour with America. He’s investigated the case of Mamdouh Habib and believes this is what’s happened to him.
YASSER AL-SIRRI, (Translation): In fact, all I know about him is that he used to be a businessman or used to be involved in trade. His name was definitely not known as a member or a leader in al-Qa’ida. This is an exaggeration of his case and he could be just an ordinary Muslim whose bad luck put him in the way of the Pakistanis.
In Qatar, Dr Najeeb al-Naumi argues that the sweep that picked up Mamdouh Habib was not based on good intelligence.
REPORTER: But how could an intelligence service like the Pakistanis and the FBI make such big mistakes?
DR HAJEEB AL-NAUMI: No, they know what their idea is. Their idea is, “Let us pick them all up and find out which one is belong to al-Qa’ida and which one is actually a supporter or a member or associate.” But in the end, all of them are actually in Guantanamo.
After his arrest, Mamdouh Habib was taken briefly to a prison in Quetta. Then he was moved here to Islamabad. Pakistani authorities did not tell the Australian High Commission that they’d detained an Australian citizen. But someone did tell the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ASIO, because they turned up in Islamabad and visited Mamdouh Habib in prison three times. Mamdouh Habib’s lawyer wants to know how Australian intelligence got involved and what they knew about Habib’s detention in Islamabad.
STEPHEN HOPPER: Now they’ve seen him in a prison in Pakistan, what are they up to? They would have heard Mamdouh’s story and they would have been in contact with other intelligence agencies on the ground there, such as the CIA. And then they would have reported back to their political masters in Canberra. So there seems to be a chain that leads all the way back to Canberra. We’d like to know what the Prime Minister knew, what the Attorney-General knew and what the Foreign Minister knew about this.
The Australian Government has told Dateline that their officials found no evidence that Habib had been mistreated. The two German men arrested with Mamdouh Habib were released into German custody after several weeks and flown home. Dateline understands they were interrogated by the FBI before they left. Mamdouh Habib, however, remained.
STEPHEN HOPPER: What the German Government did was quite simple. They just put a bit of pressure on the Pakistanis and said, “We’re not going to tolerate you holding our citizens and we’re not going to let the US interfere with our citizens. We want them back”. It’s as simple as that. Now the Australian Government just didn’t try hard enough.
REPORTER: Did the Australian Government ask to have Mamdouh Habib deported to Australia?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: No, they did not.
The High Commissioner in Islamabad, Howard Brown, told Dateline that he vigorously attempted to get consular access to Mamdouh Habib but was denied. He said he wasn’t told Habib was being sent to Egypt and only found out after he’d gone. The High Commissioner was told by Australian law enforcement authorities.
So who organised and authorised the removal of Mamdouh Habib to Egypt? A source who’s spoken to Pakistani intelligence told Dateline that after Pakistan finished interrogating Mamdouh Habib he was handed over to the FBI. They interrogated him here at Chakalala airport in Islamabad. Then, the source says, the US sent him to Egypt.
We pursued this allegation with the Pakistani Interior Minister.
REPORTER: And who sent Mamdouh Habib to Egypt?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: You see, now you are transgressing into some very sensitive areas, you know. This is an area, unfortunately, we cannot simply share the outcome of the investigations with anyone.
REPORTER: Was it a Pakistani decision?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: Obviously it’s a Pakistani decision initially, because if anyone is caught on Pakistan soil, it’s Pakistan’s decision, it’s Pakistan’s prerogative, certainly.
REPORTER: So, just to clarify, it was a Pakistani decision to send him to Egypt?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: It’s not exactly a Pakistani decision. You know, a person who is caught in Pakistan – let me also clarify this. If he or she is of Pakistan origin, certainly they do not go out of Pakistan. If that person is of foreign origin, then if he or she is wanted by a foreign government – any government – they put in a request to Pakistan and the arrangements which we have on a reciprocal basis, on a bilateral basis, even with some countries on a multilateral basis, if we feel that their request is valid and genuine, then we do accede to that request.
REPORTER: Which country are you talking about?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: I’m talking about all the countries. The US, the European Union, Egypt, you know, all these countries.
REPORTER: So are you implying that Egypt request…
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: No, Egypt did not request us.
REPORTER: Egypt definitely did not request Mamdouh Habib?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: No.
REPORTER: So did the United States request him?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: Yes, they did request it, yes.
REPORTER: The United States requested that he be sent to Egypt?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: The US wanted him for their own investigations. We are not concerned where they take him.
REPORTER: You don’t see it as Pakistan’s issue?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: No. As far as we are concerned, we were satisfied with our own investigations at that point in time. Once that was over, once we were satisfied with our own investigations, certainly we had no problem handing him over to another ally of ours.
REPORTER: The Americans?
MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: Yes, that’s right.
It’s clear, therefore, that at the time Mamdouh Habib was sent to Egypt, he was in American custody. It’s also clear that Egypt did not request his extradition. So why did the Americans send him?
STEVE WATT, CENTRE FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS IN NEW YORK: Egypt has a long history of use of torture on persons in detention and we believe that Mamdouh was sent there for the express purpose of interrogating him under torture.
Steve Watt is with the Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York. He represents many Guantanamo Bay inmates in America, including Mamdouh Habib.
STEVE WATT: What this is, is state-sponsored abduction and that’s a violation of international law.
This is a serious allegation, but not an isolated one. Although there’s been little discussion in the West, the Arab world is on fire with talk of an American policy called rendition, essentially farming out detention and interrogation. There are dozens of documented examples of this happening, not just in Egypt.
STEVE WATT: We represent Maher Arar, a Canadian of Syrian descent, who was rendered by US authorities to Syria, a country with which he had had no connection for 17 years. He’s a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen, but had left there when he was very young with the rest of his family. He was sent back to Syria and he was interrogated under torture and the ambassador to Washington, the Syrian ambassador to Washington in an interview said they took Maher as a favour to the United States Government and that they shared all the information they gleaned from Maher, including information under torture, with the United States, and that they were communicating with the United States throughout his detention, a detention which lasted one year.
Montaser al-Zayat is a leading Islamist lawyer here in Egypt, where the practice of rendition was pioneered. While he says he knows of one case in the last few years where Americans were actually present during the interrogation, the normal practice is for the locals to do the job for them.
MONTASER AL-ZAYAT, ISLAMIST LAWYER: (Translation): The United States or its security organisations would prepare memos for the Egyptian authorities that include the names of the persons and the type of information required about such persons. The Egyptian authorities would then interrogate these people and supply the Americans with information about them.
It’s alleged there are also thousands of cases where suspects are picked up and interrogated purely to provide intelligence for the Americans.
DR HAJEEB AL-NAUMI: Syria, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Qatar, Philippines, Thailand – they’re detained because they were requested by the Americans. They were interrogated on behalf of the Americans, with some people sitting on the back side and getting the information, the questionnaires, because they can have a database from Guantanamo.
The policy of rendition started well before September 11, but since then it’s become much more widespread as America’s need for intelligence has increased.
YASSER AL-SIRRI, (Translation): After the events of September 11, these regimes were forced to cooperate fully. Not some cooperation, but full cooperation. Whether they liked it or not, they had to cooperate. As I said, there’s Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen, Jordan cooperates strongly and there’s repression in its jails on behalf of the Americans. In Morocco about 23 persons were handed over but they were placed in a secret prison in Morocco and nobody knows anything about them. This information was leaked by former detainees in that prison.
Here in Egypt, torture in prisons is endemic, as seen in these pictures painted by torture victims themselves. It’s no accident that the countries used for rendition by the US have such a reputation. According to Tarek Dherghoul, a former inmate of Guantanamo Bay, US interrogators use rendition as a direct threat – “Talk to us or be tortured overseas”.
TAREK DHERGHOUL: I was first of all in Bagram. I was beat up by an interrogator and told that they would kill me and told that I would be sent to Morocco or Egypt. That was my first – first time I had been threatened with being sent to Morocco or Egypt. The next time was in Cuba and then again by an interrogator – threatened to be sent to Morocco or Egypt.
Dateline approached the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Council, Centcom, the State Department and the Department of Defence to talk about rendition and Mamdouh Habib. They all refused to comment. However, in the hearings of the 9/11 commission a few months ago, a former State Department intelligence official said renditions were a key counter-terrorism strategy.
CHRIS KOJM, US STATE DEPARTMENT 1998-2003: We will first discuss the CIA’s support with renditions. In other words, if a terror suspect is outside of the United States, the CIA helps to catch and send him to the United States or a third country.
Ex-CIA director George Tenet was even happy to acknowledge that 70 people were rendered prior to September 11.
GEORGE TENET: There were – you know, I’ve testified there were over 70 renditions.
STEVE WATT: It’s a policy – I mean, former director of the CIA again, George Tenet, testified to that fact. He said it’s a policy of the United States. They use it and they’ve used it effectively and they’re proud of what it achieves.
Proud of the intelligence, but not necessarily the methods used to extract it. The official position of the United States is that it does not condone or use torture.
GEORGE BUSH, US PRESIDENT: We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.
But in the Arab world and among lawyers representing Guantanamo Bay inmates, this is not accepted. In fact, they regard rendition as the deliberate outsourcing of torture to give the US some deniability.
STEVE WATT: Particularly so when the United States has signed up to the Convention against Torture and said that it would never do this kind of action. Also in light of the fact that there is an act of Congress which makes it United States policy that it will not send persons to countries where there’s substantial likelihood they’ll be subject to torture. So that makes it all the worse that they are actually doing this entirely outside the law and in flagrant violation of their international and domestic obligations.
After around six months in Egypt, Mamdouh Habib turned up here at Bagram, the US base in Afghanistan. This was the first time that the United States publicly admitted he was in their custody.
STEVE WATT: Bagram Air Force base is under the complete jurisdiction and control of the United States military, so it’s them that would have had to authorise the plane that touched down. And from the information that we have, Mamdouh was taken to Egypt by the Americans and he was flown out of there by the Americans.
By May 2002, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and it seems a safe assumption that any intelligence gathered from his interrogation in Egypt would have come with him. Stephen Hopper says this kind of evidence is massively flawed.
STEPHEN HOPPER: It’s been proven over hundreds and hundreds of years of the development of the common law and our legal systems it just cannot be relied on. People will say anything to stop pain or psychological torture. Just because they say it doesn’t mean it’s true in those circumstances.
Three years after he was arrested, Mamdouh Habib has still not been charged with anything, though the American administration has indicated recently he’s likely to be listed for a military tribunal soon. The Australian Government is convinced that Mamdouh Habib, like the other Australian detained at Guantanamo Bay, David Hicks, does have a case to answer.
PHILLIP RUDDOCK, ATTORNEY-GENERAL: And, in fact, we know, because we’ve received advice on these matters from the United States, that the charges that will ultimately be brought evolve around their training with al-Qa’ida and Lashkar-e-Taiba and their involvement with those organisations has been of a very significant order.
STEPHEN HOPPER: I would say that’s bullshit. Mamdouh Habib wasn’t training with Lashkar-e-Taiba. It’s very funny that this allegation wasn’t raised until Lashkar-e-Taiba was proscribed in November last year. Now come on. The Australian Government has to put up or they’ve got to shut up. What is the evidence? What is the evidence that a 47-year-old overweight man trained? I don’t believe there is any evidence. I believe that Mr Habib was picked up in a general sweep in Pakistan in the lead-up to the war in Afghanistan. I believe that perhaps his documents weren’t in proper order and he was taken in for further questioning. At this stage either Australian intelligence officials or the CIA got involved and life went downhill dramatically for Mr Habib at that stage.
Just how far downhill is probably best judged by his deteriorating mental health. Psychiatrists who deal with torture victims say treatment is essential. According to recent reports to the Australian Parliament, Mamdouh Habib is still spending periods in solitary confinement. He’s also at times refusing to take his medication for depression.
IAN KEMISH: Mr Habib has not been communicative. And he only provides feedback on his welfare in response to direct questions. He does not always answer them. He can be belligerent in discussion with our Consul General, but for the most part is simply reluctant to communicate.
In May this year, US authorities conducted an evaluation of his physical and mental condition and said follow-up care was not needed. However, based on conversations with other recently released inmates, his American lawyer is concerned.
STEVE WATT: Extremely concerned. They were actually housed in cages beside Mamdouh Habib for a number of months and just two weeks prior to their departure from Guantanamo in March, they said that Mamdouh couldn’t even recognise them. They also said that he looked physically unwell. They said he’d fallen down in his cage at one point. He’d been mistreated by the guards. And he told a whole litany of horrors that he had been subjected to during interrogation. So he’s in a very bad way physically and mentally.
MAHA: Will he listen to a 3.5-year-old?
Maha Habib is continuing her own campaign to have her husband released. Today she’s waiting outside a TV station in Sydney. The Prime Minister is inside and she wants to hand him a letter on the way out.
MAN: He won’t be stopping the car. The car will just be going past, OK? You can understand he’s the PM of Australia. He’ll travel out of the studio and keep going, OK? I’ll definitely hand him the letter…
MAHA: What’s so special about Prime Minister? I’m here for my husband’s right, for my family.
MAN: OK, I can appreciate that.
This day, Maha Habib is unsuccessful. However, she’s vowed to keep trying to bring her husband home.
MAHA: My husband never committed no crime – the crime has been committed against him and against us, OK? If he has committed any crime, alright, bring him here, let him see justice. But if he hasn’t done, just let him go home, let him see his family – almost three years. 29 July, he will be away from us for three years now.
Dateline, SBS Television. 4th April 2007
This report from inside Iran canvasses the views of everyone from the Iranian Foreign Minister, high profile economists, down to the man on the street. What we find is overwhelming support for Iran’s nuclear program but growing unease at the parlous state of the economy and the confrontational style of President Ahmadinejad.
REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock
Ever since Iran elected a new president nearly two years ago I’ve been applying for a visa to come here.
REPORTER: So do I need anything in particular to get this press pass, just my passport?
MAN: They just take a photo of you, that’s all, and you have to fill out one or two forms.
On my last trip five years ago the nation’s slogan was “dialogue among civilisations”. Now, thanks to Iran’s nuclear program, it’s facing sanctions and the threat of war. The man leading the country on this apparent collision course is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While he was voted in on the promise of bringing wealth to the poor, it’s the nuclear issue he’s since embraced, taking on perceived Western hypocrisy.
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, (Translation): They pile up their own arsenals of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, yet when it comes to the desire of other nations to develop nuclear energy for peaceful technological and scientific purposes, they start shouting slogans about global security.
Here in the city of Karaj, many Iranians have come to give their President letters containing their personal concerns. This is a hallmark of this self-styled man of the people. He’s apparently received 5 million letters since he became President. But how closely is he reading their concerns?
REPORTER: One sign that President Ahmadinejad’s popularity could be on the decline came in local council elections in December. Across the country, Ahmadinejad and his supporters suffered heavy defeats. Here in Tehran, they won only 2 out of 15 seats in the local council.
These losses in Tehran are particularly significant for a man who was once the mayor of this city. I’ve come to Friday prayers at Tehran University, a good place to gauge what the conservative, religious elements in Iran are thinking. I’m only allowed to film from the women’s section and can’t see today’s speaker, but it’s Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – an influential cleric and former president. He’s delivering a message to the West about Iran’s nuclear program, a message that’s almost a mantra in Iran nowadays.
AKBAR HASHEMI RAFSANJANI, (Translation): We’re prepared to give you our complete assurance, that if we can sit at the negotiating table on terms of complete equality, then Iran will prove to you that it has no objective other than the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Under Ahmadinejad, Iran seems prepared to risk everything to achieve their aim,
REPORTER: At what point, though, will you question is it worth a very high price to pay? Mottaki:
MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: The only price which we are not going to pay, and definitely we will not pay, is to ignore for the right of our nation. We cannot accept this discrimination approach in the international relations.
REPORTER: But will it have such a tangible benefit for the Iranian people that it will be worth…?
MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI: We are going to spend tens of billions of dollars for production of 20,000 megawatts of electricity in our country through nuclear power plants. It is our national interest for our nation.
Back outside, after Friday prayers, ordinary Iranians are embracing this political message.
MAN 1 (Translation): We don’t intend to use it for mass murder. We want to use it for medical advancement and nuclear advancement.
MAN 2: The nuclear issue is one of the science issues in Iran and all over the world. And all the people of the world, has the right, the equal right, for reaching to this point, and it is part of the scientific effort of the Iranian nation.
From an Iranian perspective, there’s a deep sense of outrage that they’re being denied what other countries have.
MAN 2: More than 70% of the energy of France comes from atomic power, and we have the right.
PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM, POLITICAL ANALYST TEHRAN UNIVERSITY: Many Iranians feel that, think that the West is against us. Not for the nuclear program per se, but the West is against Iran not to advance scientifically. This is something that many Iranians believe.
Until the Islamic revolution of 1979 that removed the American-backed Shah and installed Ayatollah Khomeini in power, this compound was the United States Embassy in Tehran. These murals tell the Iranian history of American interference in their country. For many, the nuclear debate is seen in this context.
MAN 3 (Translation): Iran has always had a proud history. And you must also know it’s always been the case that some have tried to impede our national progress. If you look at the Quajar or Pahlavi dynasties or even the early days of the revolution, countries like Russia, England or America have always tried to divide us.
REPORTER: Are you a supporter of President Ahmadinejad?
MAN 2: Me?
MAN 2: All these people are like Ahmadinejad, every of them is one Ahmadinejad.
REPORTER: What is it that you like about President Ahmadinejad?
MAN 2: Everything!
REPORTER: Can you give me some examples?
MAN 2: He is the most brave man in the history of the Muslim world.
MAN 4 (Translation): Ahmadinejad is equipped with the weapon of both faith and science. And he’s now resurrecting the weapon of “Allah is great” that Imam Khomeini used to win the revolution. God is great.
PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: Because he has been acting as the champion of resisting US pressure. And, in a way, he has identified himself very much with Iran’s nuclear program. So in a sense, if you go after him, you look a bit unpatriotic.
Despite having the power of patriotism on his side, people are speaking out against Ahmadinejad, an extraordinary thing in a country where free speech has both limits and consequences. I’m heading to the north of Tehran to see one of his critics. Dr Ebrahim Yazdi was Iran’s first foreign minister after the revolution. He soon fell out with the leadership though and became a dissident voice who’s faced arrest many times.
DR EBRAHIM YAZDI, IRAN FREEDOM MOVEMENT: You know, when I was not here five years ago and the security forces came and they took many of my pictures with Khomeini and now I don’t have them. I have some in my office, but now I don’t have it.
Ahmadinejad says that he wanted to refresh, or rearrange everything, in accordance with the first days of the revolution. This is impossible. The generation of the revolution is different than this generation. Therefore when he is talking everybody look around like he is talking nonsense.
While Dr Yazdi supports in principle Iran’s right to nuclear technology, he thinks the issue is being manipulated by a populist president.
DR EBRAHIM YAZDI: Many governments, like Iranian Government, in the world, when they have failed to give the proper services that people expect, then they try to bring in a foreign threat, replace it with a foreign threat. I’m afraid that even today the Bush Administration play the same game. Exaggerating the foreign threat. The same thing in Iran.
Dr Yazdi accuses the President of exaggerating the nuclear issue to disguise the fact he’s failed on his key election promise of reducing the gap between rich and poor. To find out more, I take a trip to Tehran’s main bazaar, the economic heartbeat of the country. Despite it being the lead up to Iranian New Year, the owner of this decorations shop, Saeed, tells me business is slow.
SAEED: I think most of my customers are… do not they are not optimistic for the future, they feel worried about the future. Therefore, as you know, our items are decorations and when they do not feel secure they do not buy some decorations, they prefer to pay for something basic, for example food and something like this.
The story is the same in this cosmetics shop.
REPORTER: How bad has it been compared to other years?
MAN 4 (Translation): I can confidently say in previous years our sales exceeded 10 or 12 million toman. Now it’s about 4 or 5 million. Maybe people want to hang on to their money in case there’s a war or something.
REPORTER: How is business now?
MATTAVI: It’s not good, it’s not good.
Mattavi owns and runs a plastics business. He tells me he can only afford to pay his sole employee around US$140 a month. I soon discover what a sensitive issue the economy is.
REPORTER: What do you think is the reason for the economy being bad?
MATTAVI: You see, it’s the politics problem of course, just that. Economic problem is just politic problem.
REPORTER: You were saying the problem is politics, what do you mean by that?
MAAAVI: I cannot be talking about that, it make problem for me, take it easy. Any of the persons in Iran cannot talk about politics so much. It make problem for them, take it easy, miss.
REPORTER: OK, no problem at all.
It’s little wonder ordinary Iranians are scared of speaking out when you consider what’s happened to those further up the food chain. Economist Saeed Laylaz says the President personally had him sacked from his government job for criticising his economic policies.
SAEED LAYLAZ, ECONOMIST: There are a lot of people, there are a lot of people who have to leave their jobs because of their warning and publishing their opinion about the economy or about the politics and so on.
REPORTER: Why do you think it is that the President is so sensitive about the economy?
SAEED LAYLAZ: This is because he failed in his economic policies, I believe. Frankly speaking, honestly, there is not one policy which has been successful by him since the past 16-17 months ago.
The biggest problem according to economists like Laylaz is the President’s spending spree. On entering office he took billions of dollars from Iran’s Oil Stabilisation Fund, a reserve of excess oil revenues. He spent up big on infrastructure projects, subsidies to the people, new government jobs, and salary increases. This dramatic expenditure led to a surge in inflation.
SAEED LAYLAZ: Everybody is worried, especially the Supreme Leader, personally is supervising the situation and because of this inflation rate which is increasing very fast.
Economists are warning that uncontrolled inflation could lead to disaster.
SAEED LAYLAZ: I believe the main reason is the huge gap between the social classes in the society. There are a lot of poor people who cannot save themselves in a potential wave of inflation. In this case there are a lot of people who cannot receive enough money even for continuing their life. And because of this there will be unrest and social turbulences in the country.
This dire prediction is being heard. Despite the warm welcome the President received in parliament last month, there is serious discontent here. In an unprecedented move, 150 members of the conservative dominated parliament, or Majiles, signed a letter criticising his economic policies. Significantly, the discontent is not coming just from his political opponents.
PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: They are actually coming from his own rank. A number of senior conservative figures, particularly in the Majiles, have actually been highly critical of Ahmadinejad’s mainly economic policies.
Ahmadinejad has also come under fire for some of his other contentious forays into foreign policy, such as publicly questioning the truth of the Holocaust, and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map. Dr Afarideh is a reformist member of parliament and keen advocate of Iran’s nuclear program. However, he thinks the issue has been mishandled. The fact a member of parliament is prepared to speak out is an indication of the mood here.
HOSSEIN AFARIDEH, MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT: In my opinion the President brought some argument that was not necessary, he mixed some argument to the nuclear issue. For example, the time the Iranian case was discussed in the UN, he started to talk about the Holocaust. This bring big damage to Iranian benefit.
DR EBRAHIM YAZDI: What does it have to do with our national security? It has brought up more negative response, increased the pressure on Iran. It is not a wise policy to say and do things to solidify the front against Iran. You know, foreign policy basically, the mission is, or the function is, to reduce foreign tension.
One of the most damaging critiques came from a newspaper called ‘Jomhuri Islami’. This is not just any newspaper. It’s seen as close to the Supreme Leader and the semi-official voice of the hardline clerical establishment. In an open letter to the President it said: “We acknowledge your endeavours to campaign for Iran’s rights to develop nuclear energy.” However, it went on: “What is the need for such aggressive rhetoric when it can only provide a pretext for the bullies to exert further foreign pressure. The way you have been presenting the nuclear debate would lead the listener to form the view that you are exaggerating the significance of the issue in order to divert the public’s attention from other failures of your government.” This editorial led to speculation that Ahmadinejad may have lost the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. If so, it’s a sure sign of political death in Iran.
PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: We cannot say definitely or categorically that the Supreme Leader has withdrawn his support for Ahmadinejad. What we can say is the Supreme Leader is no longer willing to give him carte blanche, to give him absolute support, to give him point-blank support.
REPORTER: Would you agree that there is some domestic concern in Iran now about the conflict situation that is developing? There are some critics who are saying the President has been too defiant, too confrontational.
MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI: If you are talking there are different opinions, for daily life, economic, politics and the others, we have an alive society, a very active society, even politically, and that is quite normal and natural. The people are deciding here, and the nuclear issue is a consensus issue in the country.
While considerable unease about Ahmadinejad does exist in Iran, there is still comprehensive political support for the nuclear program. The Foreign Minister warns any outsiders not to place their hopes on any disunity within Iran.
MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI: We do not have any problem among ourselves, inside the country. Those who are going to invest on this possibility, they will lose, they will not get benefits.
Nevertheless, there have been strong rumours that the numbers are being gathered in parliament to impeach the President.
REPORTER: Do you think that’s a real possibility?
PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: I don’t think it’s a real possibility for the time being. I think in a sense maybe the nuclear issue is a god-sent issue to help him, because obviously even a school child will tell you that it’s very unwise to impeach him while Iran is under so much pressure from outside on this nuclear issue.
Ironically, it could be pressure from the West that saves Ahmadinejad’s political skin. It could also gain him support from the people. It’s early morning at Tehran’s bazaar, and Hussein Hadad is opening up his shop. Hussein is a metalworker. I met him early on in my trip at Friday prayers. A politically conservative and religious man, Hussein begins his work day by reading the Koran. He didn’t support Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections. In fact, he campaigned on behalf of his main rival. But that has now changed.
REPORTER: Even though you didn’t vote for him in the last election, do you now call yourself a supporter of Ahmadinejad?
HUSSEIN HADAD (Translation): Yes.
REPORTER: Why, what’s changed?
HUSSEIN HADAD (Translation): We don’t trust global imperialism.
The threats from America have convinced Hussein to now support the President.
REPORTER: Does the majority of the bazaar still support President Ahmadinejad?
HUSSEIN HADAD (Translation): The victory of the revolution proves that everyone supports it and this is what we’re seeing in Iraq now. American soldiers breaking into people’s homes by force. Can we really trust the Americans?
PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: Millions of Iranians, millions and millions of Iranians would rally behind the Islamic regime if it is attacked by the United States or any other foreign power. It is one thing for me to criticise Ahmadinejad, but if Ahmadinejad is attacked by the United States, I am the first person who will defend Ahmadinejad, who will rally behind Ahmadinejad, I have no other choice.
“Iran’s Jews – Shalom Saalam”
Dateline, SBS Television. 16th May 2007
Synagogues and Kosher cafes are not what you’d expect to find in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but the country is in fact home to the largest Jewish community in the Middle East, outside of Israel. This story gives a rare insight into this community, who as you’ll see live with both freedom and fear.
REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock
It is Thursday night in central Tehran and inside this unmarked, nondescript building a special event is under way. Some of Iran’s 25,000-strong Jewish community are celebrating the festival of Purim, commemorating the ancient tale of a plot to kill all the Jews of the Persian Empire. It’s a story of survival that shows the deep Jewish roots here going back more than 2,500 years.
HAROUN YASHYAEI, JEWISH COMMUNITY LEADER, (Translation): Iran is, in fact, the cultural homeland of Judaism. It’s interesting to note there are even more sites relating to Jewish history in Iran than there are in Israel.
For almost 30 years though, Iran’s Jewish community has lived in an Islamic State. Synagogue board member Robert Khalder believes the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was good for their faith.
ROBERT KHALDER, COMMUNITY LEADER, (Translation): I think that a positive outcome of the Islamic revolution for the Jewish community is that most Iranian Jews in Iran have become more religious. Obviously, living in a religious environment is more conducive to becoming religious than a non-religious environment.
Robert Khalder is one of few people here who agreed to speak with me.
ROBERT KHALDER: She is my mother.
Iranian Jews prefer to keep a low profile, and are uneasy about foreign journalists constantly asking what’s it like to live in an Islamic state.
ROBERT KHALDER (Translation): I don’t know why it’s so important to the people of the world. We are comfortably doing everything we want to do here. We can perform all our religious, cultural and traditional celebrations. Our schools, our holy days, we have all those in complete freedom. But as I said, maybe this is not projected in the West.
The existence of a Jewish community here has long fascinated the West primarily because of the Iranian Government’s hostility towards the Jewish state, Israel. And Iranian Jews recently came to international attention when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the Holocaust as a myth. For Iran’s only Jewish Member of Parliament this was too much. Maurice Mottamed describes himself as Iranian first and a Jew second, but felt compelled to speak out.
MAURICE MOTTAMED, MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT, (Translation): When Mr Ahmadinejad, in his capacity as President of Iran, denied the appalling tragedy of the Holocaust, I issued a statement which was distributed worldwide, objecting to his assertions about the Holocaust because the Iranian President attempted to deny and reject the most awful tragedy known to human history. And I publicly declared there and then that this was a huge insult to all Jewish people around the world.
Despite the controversy caused by Ahmadinejad’s comments, Maurice Mottamed says the President was not supported by other Iranian politicians, and later appeared to modify his views.
REPORTER: Holocaust denial is frequently linked with anti-Semitism. Did the President’s comments make you feel insecure about the position of the Iranian Jewish community?
MAURICE MOTTAMED, (Translation): Fortunately there was never any threat to the safety of the Jewish community. The main reason for this is that the general policy of the Iranian Government has never entailed anti-Semitism and hopefully that will continue to be the case in the future.
In modern-day Iran there are virtually no cases of anti-Semitic violence of the kind you hear about in some parts of Europe, indeed all indications are that Jews and Muslims live harmoniously. Nowhere is this better illustrated then here, at this Jewish hospital in southern Tehran. It’s one of only four Jewish charity hospitals in the world and reputedly one of the best hospitals in the country. I’m shown around by a Muslim man who’s worked here for two decades.
MAN: Intensive care unit.
Staff here are Muslim and Jewish, as are patients. Farangis Hassidm, a Jew, is in charge of administration.
FARANGIS HASSIDM, HOSPITAL ADMIN: Whoever comes to our hospital we are asking, “What is your pain? What is your suffering?” We are not asking what’s their religion, or how they think, or what’s their ideology, no. And most of the patients, more than 95 patients that we are treating in this hospital they are not Jewish.
The hospital runs primarily on donations from Jews both in Iran and abroad, though recently the government of President Ahmadinejad made a donation of 25 million tomans, or A$32,000.
DR SIAMAK MORSEDEGH, DIRECTOR OF HOSPITAL: 25 million tomans is not a significant payment, a significant amount according to our costs. But in the other hand, as a part of this donation, it have a cultural effect on us and says that government wants the hospital to persist and to work and to serve Iranian population.
REPORTER: So it was a positive message as well actual..?
DR SIAMAK MORSEDEGH: Yes, it is a positive message. This message say to us that conditions is not very bad and there is not a specific problem between Iranian Jewish society and Ahmadinejad Government.
All around Tehran there is a significant, albeit discreet, Jewish presence. Inside this building is a Jewish library with books in Hebrew and in Persian, where pictures of Islamic revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini and Moses sit side by side. There’s a kosher butchery where kosher meat is served up by Muslim butchers. And there is also at least one kosher restaurant. It’s here I try and talk to some young Iranian Jews who believe their country is misunderstood in the West.
WOMAN, (Translation): They think Iran is undeveloped and backward but that is not the case.
But before we get too far, our interview is stopped by a member of the Jewish community.
MAN, (Translation): You should stop filming now. That’s enough. Stop, please. You only have a permit from our council.
INTERPRETER, (Translation): But we got the permit.
MAN, (Translation): They gave you a permit to film in the synagogue, that’s all. Please stop, we have problems. If our members happen to say the wrong thing by mistake. This woman is very cluey. I’ve listened to her. She’ll go to the other side of the world, something will be printed and we’ll get in trouble for it.
Free speech is limited for everyone in Iran, so this incident is not necessarily evidence that Jews are being singled out. However, a US State Department report has noted that Jews here are reluctant to talk about mistreatment, fearing government reprisal. Moses Baba, a well-known Tehran identity and antique dealer, is a good example of the fact that Iranian Jews enjoy a degree of freedom that would surprise many in the West. In recent years, Jews like Baba have been allowed to freely visit Iran’s archenemy, Israel.
MOSES BABA, (Translation): They came to our synagogues on Saturdays and told us, “You can go to and from Israel as you please.” They promised we would have no problems. Every year, I first go to Turkey. Turkey, then Israel, then the US, then back to Turkey, then Iran.
While many Iranian Jews are now travelling freely, statistics show that the number leaving for good is actually falling. Despite the fact he has children and grandchildren in Israel, Moses Baba says he isn’t going anywhere.
MOSES BABA, (Translation): Because I love Iran. I swear to God. Each time I go abroad, I stay 20 days, then run back. There are some fantastic Muslim people here, unique in the world. They are faithful, God-fearing, they respect me a lot.
Amazingly it was the Islamic revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who paved the way for the protection of Jews in the Islamic state. Haroun Yashyaei is a Jewish community leader who was in contact with Khomeini back in 1979.
HAROUN YASHYAEI, (Translation): The Imam’s clear and unequivocal view was that Zionism is a political ideology and of course he was opposed to Zionism. Judaism is a religion, which he respected. And Iranian Jews, as he stated in one of his speeches, are citizens of Iran, and their rights as citizens are respected just like those of all other Iranians.
Iranian Jews have certainly fared better than some other religious minorities in Iran, such as the Baha’i. But Maurice Mottamed, the Jewish Member of Parliament, says discrimination does exist.
MAURICE MOTTAMED, (Translation): But if you want to compare the rights of religious minorities with those of mainstream Muslim populations, we have to say that there are some glaring differences. We have successfully abolished some of them and continue to pursue solutions to our problems.
These problems include a law that says if one member of a Jewish family converts to Islam, then they will inherit over the other members. There’s also discrimination in the workplace – Jews can’t take sensitive positions in the armed forces or intelligence and have problems rising to higher levels of management in some government departments. Down the road from the synagogue a mural celebrates armed attacks on Israel.
REPORTER: Does it trouble you that the Iranian Government, at the very least, verbally support groups that attack and kill Jewish civilians in Israel?
MAURICE MOTTAMED, (Translation): As representative of the Jewish community in the House I have always opposed violence and bloodshed towards innocent people on both sides, Palestinians and Israelis.
For Mottamed, or any other Iranian Jew, supporting Israel is absolutely out of the question.
MAURICE MOTTAMED, (Translation): Currently, Iranian foreign policy is opposed to recognising the state of Israel. Politics may dictate, from time to time, flexibility, and at other times it may dictate aggression. In any case, we are a section of this community and must be in agreement with Iranian policies.
Perhaps to Westerners used to the scenes of conflict between Jews and Muslims in Palestine, the concept of Jews living happily in a Muslim state is a strange one. But here in Iran it doesn’t appear unusual.
HAROUN YASHYAEI, (Translation): No-one says “I’m a Muslim and you’re a Jew.” Iran’s cultural link with its Jews is stronger than the link with its Muslims. You see, the common points of agreement between Judaism and Islam are a lot closer than with other religions. Jewish theology is in complete harmony with Islamic theology.