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.