Have we learned anything from the Haneef case?

Georgia King-Siem

AS MOST readers would be aware, Dr Mohamed Haneef was arrested, detained, charged and prosecuted by the Australian government in connection with terrorist bombings in the UK. At the time, the Australian government was strongly criticised for its handling of the matter.

Some notable issues included a failure by the prosecution to reveal key facts about the matter to either the defence or the court and an apparent abuse of process in cancelling Dr Haneef’s visa.

An inquiry into the government’s handling of the case was announced in March 2008. The terms of reference for the inquiry were relatively limited and the independent investigator — the Hon. John Clarke QC — was not given any powers to compel documents, protect witnesses or otherwise conduct the inquiry as effectively as one might have hoped.

A large number of submissions were made to the inquiry, ranging from government departments to civil rights groups to interested individuals. Rather than re-invent the wheel, Liberty endorsed the submission of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties and worked with other organisations to ensure the inquiry was not swept under the rug.

Under the terms of reference, there was no requirement for the government to release the report to either the Parliament or the public. In November last year, Liberty along with several other prominent civil rights groups issued a press release and wrote to the Attorney-General seeking assurances that the report would be made public. The government did so in late December — suspiciously close to Christmas.

Although beyond the terms of reference, the Clarke Report vindicated Dr Haneef of any wrongdoing. Interestingly, it also found that both the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and the Australian Federal Police had concluded that there was not enough evidence to charge or prosecute Dr Haneef. The decision to do so was taken at a higher level.

Moreover, the Clarke Report found the cancellation of Dr Haneef’s visa mystifying — largely due to the timing, but also because of the apparent failure of the Acting Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to provide accurate advice to the Minister who made the decision.

Ultimately the Clarke Report made 10 recommendations including greater oversight and coordination between government agencies and the appointment of an independent reviewer of counter-terrorism laws.

Given the terms of reference, the Hon. John Clarke QC is to be congratulated on conducting an independent, if limited, inquiry into the Haneef case. However, this inquiry has highlighted several shortcomings in Australia’s approach to counter-terrorism and civil rights.

First and foremost, it illustrates how our increasingly draconian terrorism laws can be used to arrest and detain people for extended periods of time with little or in fact no evidence of any wrongdoing. From a governance point of view, it shows that our security and intelligence agencies have insufficient oversight and that greater judicial oversight is needed.

Finally, the failure by the government to afford the Clarke Inquiry sufficient powers to conduct a proper and full inquiry into such an important matter is of great concern. Good government is founded upon openness and accountability, without which corruption and incompetence can flourish. It is hoped that incidents such as this will prompt action in the right direction.

Georgia King-Siem is a vice-president.