Ramadan in Villawood

My latest feature in ABC’s The Drum.

Villawood detention centre.

Villawood detention centre.

Surviving Ramadan in Villawood

Feature: For many asylum seekers who experience a sense of hopelessness and isolation inside Villawood Detention Centre, Ramadan is a source of spiritual sustenance.

It’s iftar time in Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre. Plastic containers bursting with hummus, tabouli, garlic sauce and kebab snake their way through security and are picked up by hungry fasting asylum seekers in the visitor’s centre.

In the open courtyard around 30 asylum seekers, mostly men, gather around tables piled with the food, exhaling plumes of smoke as they rub their hands together for warmth and wait for sundown.

As Muslims around the world sit down to huge feasts at Ramadan surrounded by loved ones, it’s a lonely and fraught affair for asylum seekers inside Villawood.

Street iftar in Turkey.  Picture: Flickr/ Alper Orus

Street iftar in Turkey. Picture: Flickr/ Alper Orus

Asylum seeker Iqbal* says being away from family and friends has been tough. “It is very painful. Nothing is like home when it comes to Ramadan,” he said.

Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims who abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours, with an increased focus on devotion and prayer.

“It is a very holy month for us,” Iqbal said. “People who are not practicing other months, they become practising this month.”

For many asylum seekers who experience a sense of hopelessness and isolation inside, Ramadan is a source of spiritual sustenance.

“It is as important as seeing a mental health counsellor,” Iqbal said. He says many of the men who are reluctant to express themselves will openly cry during prayer.

“This is how we are still coping. That’s what’s keeping us alive, keeping us going, faith and belief in God.”

The asylum seekers are grateful for the delicious food delivered from outside, a welcome relief from the standard issue dinner.

The nightly deliveries facilitated by the Lebanese Muslim Association are funded by a rotation of private donors from the Muslim community.

Earlier in the month, food was not delivered because of limits around amounts allowed in, to be accompanied by a certain amount of visitors, Iqbal said.

“Sometimes we asked why there is no food came today. We found out later they were stopped and refused entry,” he said.

A LMA spokesperson said there were difficulties delivering food to the centre during the first few days of Ramadan.

“By now after all this time they (authorities) should know about this (Ramadan),” he said.

A recent rule change meant food was not allowed to be brought back into the private rooms of asylum seekers from the central visitors area, Iqbal said.

The rule fuelled wastage as fasting asylum seekers struggled to finish their allocation in a short period.

“(The idea being) we’ll let you bring in food but we won’t let you enjoy it,” Iqbal said.

“Little people have a little authority and they are just abusing it.”

In the centre, the men munch the food in the cold before returning to their rooms for solitary prayer.

Iqbal says a petition has been made for a room asylum seekers can gather in for congregational prayer.

“To cope in this situation we need that. When they make us pray alone in our rooms, we feel even more lonely and the toll becomes hard on us,” he said.

“They should provide a good facility because we are not criminals. We are not inmates.”

As night falls in Villawood, food containers are hastily packed as visitors say their final goodbyes and exit the mesh of wire and steel.

For those remaining, there is hope that someone, somewhere is listening, hoping, praying.

“We are the silenced ones. People don’t know about us,” Iqbal said.

A copy obtained of Villawood detention centre general manager Susan Noordink’s response to an official complaint made by fasting asylum seekers says standard conditions are being enforced.

“In regards to Ramadan food from the community, Islamic detainees have been advised that all standard conditions of entry will be in force,” Ms Noordink said.

“All community groups must abide by approved visits policy as provided by management and posted in notification in the Gatehouse and the visits area.”

The statement also said arrangements will be made to facilitate prayer areas for asylum seekers.

*Name has been changed at the request of the asylum seeker

RELATED LINKS

CHECK OUT: At work inside our detention centres: A guard’s story 

This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/thedrum). Read the original article here (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-15/malik-ramadan-in-villawood/6621034).

How to qawalli like a white boy

Tahir Qawwal. Picture:  tahirqawwal.com

Tahir Qawwal. Picture: tahirqawwal.com

The first thing you notice about Tahir Qawwal is his dreadlocks. The Canadian singer’s long locks wrap around his head to create turban-halo effect.

Combined with his shaggy beard and Indian kurta, the 35-year-old lead singer of sufi qawwali group Fani-fi-Allah, which translates into ‘dissolving in God’ looks the epitome of whirling dervish chic.

The somewhat incongruous pale-skinned artist looks completely at ease as he belts out passionate qawwali in his western-accented Urdu at an intimate gathering in western Sydney.

Tahir Qawwal performing in Pakistan. Picture:  tahirqawwal.com

Tahir Qawwal performing in Pakistan. Picture: tahirqawwal.com

Qawwal’s soaring rendition, accompanied by two local artists, the beating of the frenetic tabla and the harmonium piano create a mood of ecstatic celebration as the audience, a mix of hippies and middle class desi diaspora chant and sway to the rhythm.

The singer admits his journey to learning qawwali, the spiritual music of the subcontinent, inspired by Islam’s mystical Sufi tradition and popularised by iconic figures like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has been an unlikely one.

Born Geoffrey Lyons, Qawwal left his native Canada as a teen and converted to Islam at 17 after studying Indian classical music.

“I went to India when I was 16 and was on that path of renunciation living like a yogi, sadhu or dervish and basically renouncing the comforts and material obsessions that were surrounding me in the western world,” he said.

“I felt the deep communicative powers of (qawwali) music as a spiritual language and also the teachings of the Sufis, and that inspiring path was also simultaneously very magnetic for me.”

“It’s a music of wild abandon.”

The journey took Qawwal to Pakistan where he studied under the tradition’s greats including Rahet Fateh Ali Khan, Sher Ali Khan and Muazzum Qawwal.

“They took me under their wing in those early days and I’d spend weeks and weeks in their home studying with them, and learning the basics of the music and the whole spirituality behind it,” he said.

Fani-fi-Allah ensemble. Picture: tahirqawwal.com

Fani-fi-Allah ensemble. Picture: tahirqawwal.com

Fani-fi-Allah is made up of westerners Qawwal met during his travels including blonde haired tabla player Aminah Chishti, Laali Qalandar, Jahangir Baba, Salim Chisti and Ali Shan, as well as Pakistani band members Israr and Abrar Hussain.

The band has been together 15 years but initially struggled to be taken seriously.

“The initial excitement of having white people doing qawwali waned a bit after the first few years but now we have taken our place as one of the important qawwali groups,” Qawwal said.

Street performance. Picture: tahirqawwal.com

Street performance. Picture: tahirqawwal.com

The group was overwhelmed by the generosity of locals after years performing across Pakistan at sufi street shrines.

“In the early years being there as westerners…it was a novelty and it was exciting for people,” Qawwal said.

“There was a deep appreciation for us coming all the way there and coming from such a different background culturally. It was a testament to how deeply enthusiastic we were about the music.”

Dervish stylin'. Picture: tahirqawwal.com

Dervish stylin’. Picture: tahirqawwal.com

Qawwal says he hopes the music shows a different side of a culture associated with extremism in the western imagination.

“There’s a deep rooted generosity there (in Pakistan) that’s connected to the culture and connected to Sufism in the culture,” he said.

Stop the dog whistling on radicalisation, Minister

My latest Drum piece responding to Andrew Robb’s comments on QandA.

Andrew Robb wants quick fixes and easy answers for the problem of radicalisation, but his framing of the “Muslim” as a problem to be solved isn’t helping one bit, writes Sarah Malik.

My phone is exploding with Happy Eid! texts.

Except it’s not Eid. Not for me at least.

The texts are mainly from my well-meaning white friends who have watched Eid celebrations at Lakemba mosque on Channel Nine.

I’m celebrating the next day, like half the rest of the state’s Muslims. The old school method of marking the end of Ramadan involves waiting to see the arc of the new moon indicating the beginning of the lunar month as opposed to the fixed scientific calendar method.

This is one of the million fine details of the complex and diverse Muslim communities who hail from dozens of varied cultures and strains, but are forced into a uniformity by an external culture that imposes modes of understanding aligned with its own understandings of religious ritual, politics and practice.

Chief among these is the myth of a unified and Vatican-like leadership hierarchy Andrew Robb seems to be appealing to in his demands on ABC’s Q&A on Monday night that Muslim leaders pull in their radicalised youth.

One of the great attractions of Sunni Islam is the lack of hierarchical or mediating priest-class, with a focus on the individual’s direct relationship to God.

Sure there are imams who lead prayer, and scholars who have spent years nutting out points of law, and an axis of orthodoxy most mainstream leaders are guided by. Beyond that, leaders are made more by their following and popularity rather than anointed by overarching councils or bodies.

This makes things difficult for politicians like Mr Robb, who needs someone to cop the flak for the rash of young nutcases running to the Middle East.

When it’s young Muslim men, the community is expected to take responsibility.

Only when it’s a young white male like Jake Bilardi, there is a recognition of the risk faced by young, isolated people with complex personal compulsions and histories that make them vulnerable to the call of extremism.

There is a barrage of material trying to understand the lure of militancy. Is it the search for belonging? Alienation and marginalisation? Anger at foreign intervention in the Muslim world? The promise of an Islamic golden age utopia in the face of political humiliation? Sex and kittens? The internet? An outlet for existing criminal tendencies, or just a way to escape the tedium of ordinary life?

One thing remains clear, there seems to be no one-size-fits-all approach to the trajectory of these lone and few individuals who often leave behind their own baffled and distraught families and communities.

These few individuals rarely interact with mainstream leaders or mosques. Like most young people, not just Muslims, traditional religious authorities (read: old people) have failed to connect with the millennials’ quest for meaning in a changing social media world.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

The internet, like most things, is a reflection of the people who use it.

Social media provides communities for minorities rarely given a voice in the mainstream. Hamza Yusuf and Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan are among a spate of celebrity sheikhs that have connected online with global youth audiences.

They successfully market a homegrown western Islam, that despite their detractors is grounded in the world migrant kids can understand and for all its conservatism generally stress political participation and integration.

Mr Robb wants quick fixes and easy answers for the problem of radicalisation.

There is one simple one that I can offer free of charge.

The constant framing of the “Muslim” as a problem to be solved by politicians and media who use these communities to whip up ratings and dog whistle politics is a disgrace. It is far disproportionate to any risks posed.

It only adds to the genuine anguish of Muslim communities struggling against a small but virulent association of extremism with the added burden of racial aggression and hysteria.

This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/thedrum). Read the original article here (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-22/malik-stop-the-dog-whistling-on-radicalisation-minister/6411074).

 

 

The extraordinary detention of Sayed Abdellatif

Check out PART THREE of my exclusive investigation with the The Guardian’s Ben Doherty on the continued detention of Egyptian asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif, with added behind the scenes information.

PART TWO ‘Morrison’s last stand’  and PART ONE ‘Who’s afraid of Sayed Abdellatif?‘ published earlier this week, can be found here and here

Over the last few weeks I have been making the journey to Villawood detention centre, in Sydney’s south-west. After navigating forms and metal detectors I am tagged with a bright wristband and invisible ink and ushered inside.

Once inside, I have spent hours talking to Abdellatif, his wife and six children inside the secure facility. For the first time ever, they speak candidly in person, about their experiences in detention and their journey to Australia.

Sydney's Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/.M.

Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/.M.

Sayed Abdellatif and his extraordinary detention in Australian immigration

BY SARAH MALIK AND BEN DOHERTY
Exclusive: Considered a ‘dangerous terrorist’ because of previous convictions that have now been found to be false and revoked, Abdellatif, his wife and six children remain in limbo in the confused haze of the detention system

Sayed Abdellatif’s son is celebrating his 12th birthday. On a low table, plates are piled with homemade cake and colourful chunks of pomegranate, mango and kiwifruit.

The birthday boy wears sneakers and jeans. He talks loudly to his sisters and brother and mum in a broad Australian accent. The treats are offered around, and happily accepted.

It could be any party, anywhere, save for the fluorescent bands on everybody’s wrists.

The Abdellatif children are visiting their dad in a separate room just off the central visitors’ section of Sydney’s Villawood detention centre.

The whole family are detainees, and their father is considered by Australian authorities to be an extreme security risk, “plainly a dangerous terrorist” in the words of the attorney general George Brandis. Abdellatif denies the charges, which Interpol have found not to be true.
Outside the small room used by families like the Abdellatifs, the visitors’ area is packed, as it is every Sunday.

Reunited couples nuzzle in corners. Family members, friends and refugee advocates greet inmates with hugs and precious supplies from the outside. Coffee, chocolate biscuits, and food in plastic containers that have survived the metal detectors line the tables. There are no phones or cameras allowed.

Outside, Villawood is being renovated – the byzantine centre is a maze of gravel paths and patches of barren land cordoned off for expansion. Beyond that is the wire – the imposing metal fence that surrounds Villawood, the boundary that separates it from the outside world. Further still there is Sydney.

And at the centre of these concentric circles, behind the unknowable rings of security, sits Sayed Abdellatif.

Weary from 18 years in exile, two and a half of those in the confused haze of the Australian immigration detention system, he explains why he has chosen to talk.

“We were being badly treated by the immigration department,” he says. “We were silent … but that wasn’t because we were doing anything wrong. But this way didn’t work. We have to change plan.”

Sydney's Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images

Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images

A life of exile

Abdellatif’s story is that of a lifetime in exile.

The 44-year-old Egyptian has not lived in his home country since 1992. His children have known only lives in the shadows of societies all over the world, or trapped in detention.

Abdellatif left Egypt for Albania in 1992. There he worked for a civil society organisation called the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS).

He met and married his wife in Albania. His eldest daughter was born there in 1995. But the family was forced to flee in 1997, after a civil uprising toppled the government and plunged the country into an economic crisis.

“We were forced to leave,” Abdellatif says. “The only way we had at that time was UK.”

Three more children were born in the UK – in 1997, 1998 and 2000 – before the Abdellatifs were forced out to Iran in 2001. Their son, the boy who celebrates his birthday in detention today, was born in Iran in 2003.

In Iran the family were arrested as illegal immigrants. They lived for a time in an Iraqi refugee camp before spending years under house arrest.

In May 2010, an Iraqi people smuggler moved the family through Malaysia and Indonesia, in the hope of taking them back to the UK. They were stopped in Singapore and deported back to Indonesia.

“When we came back to Indonesia we were arrested by Indonesian immigration,” Abdellatif says. “Once we were arrested we applied for asylum at the UNHCR in Jakarta.”

The family spent four months in detention and had two interviews with UNHCR officers, before spending two years in the refugee “queue” waiting for a determination on their status. The family’s youngest child, a boy, was born in Indonesia in 2010.

The family spent long months, as thousands across the Indonesian archipelago do, waiting for a refugee determination. “Then we lost hope,” says Abdellatif. Running out of money, he says, with no answer forthcoming from the overrun refugee agency, the family made a decision to find a boat bound for Australia.

“We always had a hope to arrive in a safe place.”

As Abdellatif speaks, his four daughters sit, wearing neat hijabs, next to their bespectacled mother. His two boys, 12 and four, stomp noisily in and out of the glass-panelled room.

The children are allowed to leave the Villawood compound to attend school. The girls go to the local high school nearby. The two eldest, 19 and 17, will sit the HSC this year. They walk to school under guard each day.

One daughter says it is difficult to explain the toll detention has had on her family during the many years in the UK, Iran and Indonesia.

“We already lost so many years of our life … it just feels like it’s going on forever. I’ve lived more than half my life in detention,” she says.

The demands of school make regular visits difficult.

“We don’t see Dad except on weekends,” she says, “we don’t sit as a family. I don’t remember the last time we had a proper meal together.”

Interpol and quashed convictions

The Abdellatif family’s detention in Australia began unexceptionally.

Housed in the low-security Inverbrackie detention centre in South Australia, they awaited release into the community after an Asio recommendation they be allowed to leave detention (a decision the spy agency has since recanted as a “processing error”, the first in a litany of government mistakes in the case).

But the family’s situation was cast into sudden national prominence in April 2013, when it was discovered Sayed Abdellatif was the subject of an Interpol “red notice” for murder and firearms charges in his home country.

The Abbott-led Coalition, then in opposition, used the case to lambast the Gillard government’s handling of border security. Labelling Abdellatif a “pool fence terrorist”, Abbott said the government had failed to notice that a “convicted jihadist terrorist was kept for almost 12 months behind a pool fence”.

Abdellatif says he first became aware of the firearm and murder convictions against him through the media.

“My name become in the media … (it was) huge, huge propaganda. I was shocked at that time,” he says, adding that he was given little information about why he was transferred to Villawood’s high-security Blaxland compound.

Although he was later transferred to a medium-security area within Villawood, he remains separated from his family, who live in the family compound. They have declined an offer from immigration to be removed into the community because they don’t want to be separated from their father.

The Abdellatifs live divided. Half-lives, neither in Australia nor out. They cannot be deported because of the real risk of persecution in Egypt, but by ministerial decree they are unable to apply for a visa.

Their detention is indefinite.

The Abdellatif case took a dramatic turn in June 2013 after an investigation by the Guardian, in both Egypt and Australia, resulted in the violence-related convictions against Abdellatif being quashed.

Abdellatif had been convicted in an Egyptian military court, in a 1999 mass trial of 107 men, of premeditated murder, destruction of property and possession of firearms and explosives.

The Guardian contacted the Egyptian authorities following interviews with Abdellatif’s lawyers and verified court documents that showed his convictions made no mention of murder or explosives possession.

As a result, Interpol took the extremely rare step of removing all charges relating to violence from their red notice list.

A red notice on Abdellatif’s name still exists. It now lists convictions for “membership in a terrorist group” and “providing forged travel documents”, charges Abdellatif strenuously denies.

The terror conviction relates to allegations that Abdellatif was an operative of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, but he told Guardian Australia: “I have never been a member of any group. The Egyptian government [under President Mubarak] used to falsely paste this charge to any person they want to punish or to get rid of.”

Abdellatif’s only other purported “link” with terrorism was his employment by the Albanian branch of the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society. This was mentioned at his 1999 trial, but was not part of his conviction.

Abdellatif worked for RIHS, a multi-national Islamic civil society organisation, between 1992 and 1996. It was later infiltrated by al-Qaida and outlawed by the UN.

Abdellatif claims the Albanian branch was “clear” when he worked there and he never had any involvement in organising or funding terrorism.

“It was a charity organisation. We were building mosques, supporting adoption.”

Abdellatif also denies ever forging documents.

Now new documents, subsequently submitted to Egypt’s supreme military court, and provided to the Australian government more than 12 months ago, state that the evidence used to convict Abdellatif was obtained under torture.

Abdellatif’s father, Ahmed, who gave evidence against his son in the original trial, signed a statutory declaration in 2013, stating: “All of what has been said as my words regarding my son … are incorrect and were said due [to] compulsion and torture by the interrogating authority.”

Abdellatif’s brother-in-law, who similarly testified against his relative, signed an affidavit: “all the statements that were attributed to me in the public prosecution investigation, especially the statements that mention Sayed Abdellatif, were written from the security book and dictated by the Deputy Public Prosecutor. I objected to the statements and I denied them. I was subjected to torture and electrocution in order to sign the paper.”

The State Security Investigations Service, the principal domestic security and intelligence agency of the Mubarak regime, which conducted the investigation, was dissolved in 2011, after evidence emerged it was involved in “extraordinary rendition”, and tools of torture and secret cells were uncovered at its headquarters.

In 2012, the court re-tried seven of the original 107 convicted men. All seven were acquitted, the court finding the evidence used in the original convictions was obtained under torture.

“The court, having verified the claim documents, hearing witnesses for and against the prosecution, and comparing the crime and innocence evidence … it seems that the claim and accusations against those accused are surrounded by thick layers of doubt and suspicion that weakens the evidence derived therefrom,” the court ruling says.

Abdellatif says these documents were passed to the immigration department, the AFP and Asio in December 2013.

“Every government will understand this trial is a political trial. This trial had 107 accused. We don’t know each other. We never met with each other.” He says confessions were extracted under torture and played off against each other. But the new evidence, he says, has not moved his case forward.

“Every time we give them [Australian authorities] new evidence the reaction is punishment.

“We received very bad treatment, unjust treatment, and still [we are] receiving this treatment.”

The Australian Federal Police told Guardian Australia it did not make recommendations on immigration matters, and that the extent of its inquiries into Abdellatif were to establish his identity.

“The information contained in the Interpol Red Notice and any investigation into these allegations is a matter for the Egyptian authorities,” the AFP said.

The AFP said other inquiries regarding Abdellatif’s status should be directed to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Asio refused to answer questions about Abdellatif.

The immigration minister Peter Dutton has refused to comment on Abdellatif’s case. His department would say only that security issues were a matter for Asio and, “the department has offered Mr Abdullatif’s [sic] family placement in the community. They declined this offer.”

The Abdellatifs say they declined because they do not want to be separated from their husband and father. And regardless of where they are housed, Abdellatif’s family cannot – and unless the minister’s decision is overturned, can never – apply for a visa.

Life in Australia

Abdellatif looks tired.

“When we decided to come to Australia we had a big hope to come and start a new life.”

One of his older daughters translates the difficult English phrases into Arabic for him. She breaks down in tears as she talks about the difficulties of being separated from her dad.

Abdellatif watches on silently. The breakdown in composure and the language difficulties compound his powerlessness. His daughters are teenagers still, but burdened with adult realities.

“After what happened to us in Australia we are very disappointed,” he says.

Abdellatif suffers Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition, and he has twice gone on hunger strike in detention.

“When I become frustrated or angry my Crohn’s disease becomes very active and painful,” he says. “I can’t sleep. I can’t sit on the chair.” He says he has suffered bleeding and weight loss in detention, and his family worries for his health.

One of his daughters speaks. She says the effect of the family’s experiences in detention has been compounded by the expectation that life in Australia would be different.

“We have seen all detention in all countries. What happened in other countries we expected it. But in Australia I expected they would follow the rules and respect human rights.”

From Villawood’s less-regimented family compound, his wife and children make regular visits to see their father and husband. They all feel trapped by their father’s legal limbo.

“We are completely frozen,” one daughter says. “We need the minister to lift the bar and allow us to apply for permanent visa.”

For the Abdellatif children, a future of apparently-endless detention is a bleak uncertainty. They struggle for the smallest normalities. At school, the girls are often invited out to parties. They can never go, or even explain why.

“They [my friends] think I’m rude,” one daughter says. “It kills. Every day you wake up, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The girls studying for their HSC have to compete with 40 other detainees for access to three computers for their one hour of daily internet time. It makes studying and finishing assignments difficult. A younger sister says detention is “like being trapped in a place where you can’t see anything … like a blank page”.

And another says the impact of being separated from their father is fraying their own relationships. Sometimes her siblings will sullenly withdraw, retreating to rooms and refusing to talk. Or they’ll fight with each other and scream.

“If I knew I had done something wrong and was being punished for it, I’d accept it,” she says. “What makes it harder is that I know none of us has done anything wrong.”

Her life is a carefully-circumscribed existence, of wristbands and metal detectors, of visiting hours and security details following her to school.

Her dream is simple: “To go to the mall with my friends.”

This article originally appeared in the Guardian on 18/2/15.

Morrison’s last stand

Check out PART TWO of my exclusive investigation with the The Guardian’s Ben Doherty on the continued detention of Egyptian asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif.

PART ONE ‘Who’s afraid of Sayed Abdellatif?‘ published yesterday, can be found here.

 

Former Immigration Minister Scott Minister. Picture: Twitter

Former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Twitter

PART TWO

EXCLUSIVE: Morrison defied advice in denying Sayed Abdellatif chance to apply for visa

BY SARAH MALIK AND BEN DOHERTY

In one of his final acts as immigration minister, Scott Morrison defied the advice of his officials by refusing to allow asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif to apply for a visa, despite all convictions for violence against him being found to be false. A government agency has also said he was no threat to national security.

The Egyptian father of six, falsely convicted in absentia of murder in a mass show trial that has since been discredited in his home country, remains in indefinite secure detention in Australia by ministerial order, more than a year after the minister’s own department chief said he should be considered for a visa.

A 2013 Guardian Australia investigation into irregularities in Abdellatif’s trial resulted in Interpol dropping all convictions for violence against him.

And court documents revealed by Guardian Australia – that have been provided to Australian authorities – state that the admissions used to convict Abdellatif on other charges, including testimony from his father and brother-in-law, were obtained under torture.

Despite the removal of all of the convictions involving violence, and serious doubts raised about the remaining crimes, Abdellatif remains incarcerated in a secure wing of Villawood, separated from his family, and facing the real prospect of indefinite detention, in immigration limbo until he dies.

Sydney's Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images

Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images

It is also in spite of the government finding he and his family have a prima facie legitimate claim to refugee status, and the head of the immigration department asking then minister Morrison to consider allowing Abdellatif to apply for a visa.

A year ago, then secretary of the immigration department, Martin Bowles, wrote that a submission had been sent to Morrison, requesting he consider “lifting the bar” against Abdellatif applying for a visa.

“The submission requests minister Morrison’s consideration of his non-delegable, non-compellable power to lift the … bar for Mr Abdellatif and his family,” Bowles wrote.

However, after 10 months’ consideration, and in the final days of his term as immigration minister, on 10 December last year, Morrison refused to allow Abdellatif to apply for a visa.

Guardian Australia has obtained a copy of the letter sent to Abdellatif:

“After careful consideration of your case … the minister was not satisfied that it is in the public interest to exercise his power … to lift the application bar and allow you and your family to make an application for a protection … visa,” it says.

The minister offered no reason for his refusal, made under Section 46A(2) of the Migration Act, which grants the minister broad powers to refuse a visa application on grounds of undefined “public interest”.

Only the immigration minister can lift the bar.

Asked on Sky News to respond to Guardian Australia’s story about denying advice on Abdellatif’s case, Morrison said: “I don’t get into the habit of commenting on commentary. That report – I can’t verify that and I don’t think they can either.

“I never get into the habit of discussing what advice was provided to me as ministers and I’m quite sure that any advice they believe they have would not have been the full picture of the brief that was presented to me.

“That case did involve some security issues at the time and I’m not going to go into any further detail about that. The decision I made at that time was made at that time. It’s for other ministers to deal with how the situation may have regressed till today.”

The power now rests with Morrison’s successor, Peter Dutton. He refused to answer written inquiries about Abdellatif but a source within his department said the minister was aware of the case.

A spokesman for the department said it had “offered Mr Abdellatif’s family placement in the community. They declined this offer”. Abdellatif’s family say they do not want to be separated from their husband and father.

Morrison did not respond to questions on his decision to deny Abdellatif, as well as his wife and six children, the right to apply for a visa.

The Australian federal police told Guardian Australia it did not make recommendations on immigration matters, and that the extent of its inquiries into Abdellatif were to establish his identity. “The information contained in the Interpol Red Notice and any investigation into these allegations is a matter for the Egyptian authorities.”

The AFP directed all other inquiries on Abdellatif to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Asio, however, refused to answer questions, saying it “does not comment on individuals or investigations”.

However, Guardian Australia has confirmed Abdellatif remains the subject of an “adverse” security assessment by Asio, despite the withdrawal of all convictions for violence against him, and significant concerns over the fairness of his trial.

The case has been a consistent embarrassment to Australian authorities – in particular the immigration department, the AFP and Asio – whose handling of the case was condemned in a report by the inspector general of intelligence and security.

Dr Vivienne Thom found that the AFP was provided with evidence, in Arabic, showing Abdellatif’s convictions for violent crimes were false, and had been removed.

It took the agency six months to translate the documents, but, even then, the AFP did not tell Asio or immigration of this information.

“Overall there was a lack of co-ordination, a duplication of effort and a lack of urgency in obtaining information about whether a person in immigration detention potentially matched a national security alert.”

The inspector general’s report made it clear Abdellatif was not a threat to national security.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 17/1/15. 

Who’s afraid of Sayed Abdellatif?

Some news, dear readers. I have recently been working on a lengthy investigation with the The Guardian’s Ben Doherty on the continued detention of Egyptian asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif.

For those who aren’t familiar with the case, Abdellatif and his family attracted national media attention in 2013 when Tony Abbott, then in opposition dubbed him the ‘pool fence’ terrorist and slammed the Labor government of the day for failing to note that a ‘convicted jihadist terrorist was kept for almost 12 months behind a pool fence’.

A Guardian investigation later exonerated him of all violence-related offences, dating back the Mubarak dictatorship era, contradicting claims Abdellatif was a security threat.

I spent hours with Abdellatif and his family inside Villawood detention centre. The family who have been denied the right to apply for an Australian visa, remain in limbo. For the first time they speak about  life in detention and  reflections on being Australia’s most infamous detainees.

We also reveal new documents which show evidence used to convict Abdellatif in an Egyptian military court – the basis for his indefinite detention in Australia – was obtained by torture.

Check out the first instalment here with further updates and behind the scenes information on the blog.

Sydney's Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images

Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images

PART ONE 

Revealed: indefinite detention of asylum seeker is based on conviction secured by torture

Exclusive: Sayed Abdellatif faces a lifetime of indefinite detention in Australia because of an adverse Asio assessment relying on evidence from an Egyptian court which documents show was obtained by torture

BY SARAH MALIK AND BEN DOHERTY

Evidence used to convict asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif in an Egyptian military court – the basis for his indefinite detention in Australia – was obtained by torture, court documents state.

The Egyptian father of six, falsely convicted in absentia of murder in a mass show trial that has since been discredited in his home country, remains in indefinite secure detention in Australia, despite the inspector general of intelligence and security finding he was not a threat to national security.

The three most serious convictions against him were found to be false, and entirely discarded by Interpol, following a Guardian Australia investigation two years ago.

Now, court documents state torture, including by electric shock, was used to gather false admissions on other charges against him.

Abdellatif’s own father, forced to give evidence against his son more than a decade ago, has sworn before a Cairo court “my words regarding my son… are incorrect and were said due [to] compulsion and torture by investigating authorities”.

Despite the new information, 44-year-old Abdellatif faces a lifetime of indefinite detention in Australia without charge or the prospect of release and sees only “a dark future”.

“I will be ignored for years … they used my life and my family’s life as a game,” he told Guardian Australia.

In his first interview from inside detention, Abdellatif spoke of the difficulties of being separated from his wife and children inside Sydney’s Villawood centre where they are all held.

His six children, who must wear security wrist-bands to see their father, only want to lead normal lives, he says, lives where they don’t have to walk to school flanked by security guards.

“We don’t see Dad except on weekends,” one of his daughters said. “We don’t sit as a family, I don’t remember the last time we had a proper meal together.”

The Australian government has found Abdellatif and his family have a prima facie legitimate claim to refugee status, but the Egyptian convictions have caused his asylum case to stall.

Abdellatif was convicted in 1999 in a mass trial of 107 men in Cairo military court.

The trial was widely condemned, by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and others, as a political show trial, that relied on evidence obtained under torture, and was contrived to marginalise Islamist political opposition to the Mubarak regime.

In absentia, Abdellatif was convicted of premeditated murder, firearms possession, property destruction, membership of a terrorist group, and document forgery.

In 2013, a Guardian Australia investigation into Abdellatif’s trial showed there was no mention of murder, weapons, or property destruction at his trial.

The investigation resulted in Interpol dropping all convictions for violence against Abdellatif.

Abdellatif’s original 1999 conviction relies on the evidence of five men also accused in the same mass trial (one of whom has since been hanged), an Egyptian army officer, and Abdellatif’s father. The evidence presented to the court alleges Abdellatif was a member of a terror network, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, that attended meetings of the group, and helped illicitly move money to members.

Abdellatif has consistently denied the allegations. He told Guardian Australia: “I have never been a member of any group. The Egyptian government [under Mubarak] used to falsely paste this charge to any person they want to punish or to get rid of.”

Now, 2013 court documents – obtained by Guardian Australia, and that have also been provided to the Australian authorities – state that the admissions used to convict Abdellatif, including testimony from his father and brother-in-law, were obtained under torture.

The documents have been verified by authorities in Cairo.

The 1999 court documents state that Abdellatif’s father, Ahmed, told investigators his son had occasionally sent him money, usually in the hundreds of dollars, to be deposited in certain accounts, and that his son “belongs to a religious group but [his father] did not know the name of the group”.

However, a testified declaration signed by Abdellatif’s father states: “I declare that all of what has been said as my words regarding my son… are incorrect and were said due [to] compulsion and torture by investigating authorities”.

Abdellatif’s brother-in-law, Essam Abdel Tawwab, a co-accused in the 1999 trial, gave evidence then that Abdellatif was a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

But in 2013, he told the ministry of justice in a signed affidavit: “I … declare that all the statements that were attributed to me in the public prosecution … especially the statements that mention Sayed Ahmed Abdelmaksoud Abdellatif were written from the Security book and dictated by the Deputy Public Prosecutor. I objected to the statements and I denied them. I was subjected to torture and electrocution in order to sign the paper.”

Affidavits submitted to the Egyptian supreme military court from two more of the co-accused who gave evidence against Abdellatif state: “their confessions in this case were the result of severe torture and physical and moral compulsion that they were subjected to by the dissolved State Security Apparatus”.

The State Security Investigations Service, the principal domestic security and intelligence agency of the Mubarak regime, and which conducted the investigation, was dissolved in 2011, after evidence emerged it was involved in “extraordinary rendition”, and tools of torture and secret cells were uncovered at its headquarters.

In a 2012 re-trial of seven of the convicted men, Egypt’s supreme military court ruled on the evidence presented in the mass trial of the 107: “the claims and accusations against those accused are surrounded by thick layers of doubt and suspicion that weakens the evidence derived therefrom”. All seven were acquitted.

An Interpol red notice on Abdellatif’s name still exists. It now lists convictions for “membership in a terrorist group” and “providing forged travel documents”, charges Abdellatif strenuously denies.

The terror conviction relates to allegations that Abdellatif was an operative of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, of which he said “I have never been a member”.

His only other purported “link” with terrorism was his employment by the Albanian branch of the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society. This was mentioned at his 1999 trial, but was not part of his conviction.

Abdellatif left RIHS, an multi-national Islamic civil society organisation, in 1996.

Six years later, in 2002 – and three years after Abdellatif’s convictions in Cairo – the Pakistan and Afghanistan branches of RIHS were proscribed by the United Nations after they were infiltrated by al-Qaida.

Those branches alone remain outlawed. The UN’s Consolidated List of wanted terrorists and terror organisations states: “Only the Pakistan and Afghanistan offices of this entity are designated”.

However, in 2008, the US government banned the organisation worldwide, alleging it “used charity and humanitarian assistance as cover to fund terrorist activity”.

Abdellatif claims, while he worked at RIHS, the Albanian branch was “clear” and he never had any involvement in organising or funding terrorism.

“It was a charity organisation. We were building mosques, supporting adoption.”

Abdellatif’s employment by RIHS has never been part of any conviction against him. No authorities have ever alleged his involvement with RIHS was improper, or linked to any terrorist activities.

Abdellatif also denies the final Interpol conviction: providing forged travel documents.

A report last year by Australia’s inspector general of intelligence and security found Abdellatif did not attempt to conceal, or lie about, his identity to Australian authorities at any time.

Abdellatif has provided the Egyptian court documents, and translations, to Australian authorities.

The Australian federal police said its inquiries were simply “to ascertain the identity of Mr Abdellatif”.

“The information contained in the Interpol Red Notice and any investigation into these allegations is a matter for the Egyptian authorities.”

The AFP directed all other inquiries on Abdellatif to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Asio, however, refused to answer questions, saying it “does not comment on individuals or investigations”.

However, a source with knowledge of the case confirmed Abdellatif remains the subject of an “adverse” security assessment by Asio, despite the withdrawal of all convictions for violence against him, and significant concerns over the fairness of his trial on other charges.

Abdellatif’s wife and children have been refused protection visas but told by immigration they can live in the community. They declined, saying they did not want to be separated from their husband and father.

From his detention compound in Villawood, Abdellatif told Guardian Australia he had been honest with Australian authorities “but they cheated me”.

He said Australian Federal Police did not reveal to him the details of the initial “red notice”, and he was not told of the false convictions against him.

“The first time I became aware [of the charges] was from the media. I was shocked.

“During the interview with AFP I told them everything, but they hid everything from me. They didn’t tell me anything. I didn’t know why I was put at extreme level of risk.”

Abdellatif says he has lost faith in the Australian government, which he believes is keeping him incarcerated out of embarrassment at its own consistent mishandling of his case.

“They don’t want to say sorry. They want to say ‘we were right and you were wrong’.”

“We are innocent people and we proved our innocence,” Abdellatif says. “I want to prove my innocence to the Australian community because I don’t trust the Australian government.”

The inspector general’s report from last year said Abdellatif was not a threat to national security.

The report also heavily criticised Asio, the AFP and the immigration department for their handling of the case, saying the authorities lacked urgency, withheld information from each other, and made basic errors.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on the 16/1/15. 

What kind of ‘Serial’ fan are you?

serial

‘Serial’ has broken the internet. Picture: Casey Fiesler/Flickr

If you have not heard of ‘Serial’ yet- chances are you are living under a rock or one of those annoying I-hate- the-internet type people that must immediately stop reading because nothing I say will be relevant to you.

If you are part of the rest of the 99 per cent of the population you will know what I am talking about. The wildly successful podcast produced by the creators ‘This American Life’ (TAL) re-investigates the 1999 homicide of American teenager Hae Min Lee in Baltimore County, Maryland and has basically broken the Internet.

Journalist Sarah Koenig interviews various players in the case, namely Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Syed who maintains his innocence is currently serving life imprisonment for her murder based on the eye-witness testimony of star witness Jay Wilds.

Even after its conclusion the podcast has spawned mega cyber hits and controversies. Wilds, who refused to be interviewed by Koenig, recently hit back at his portrayal in the podcast and the internet stalking it has fuelled in an interview with The Intercept.

Serial’s mesmerising part documentary, part editorial format invites the listener on Koenig’s journey as she navigates the murky waters of crime, the justice system, truth, memory and the strange beast that is the modern jury. The response to the podcast has in turn provoked questions on privacy, the internet and trial by media in the modern age.

Beyond these very serious questions however is the more pressing one on how to discuss the internet phenomenon of our times. ‘Serial’ is a phenomenon akin to being stranded on a desert island- it invites strange intimacies with unlikely bedfellows. Long conversations and speculation bonding strangers as they try to nut out and solve the conundrum of ‘Serial’.

Those who parry tend to fall into these main categories:

Total Noob

The TN will come in late in the conversation; usually having binge listened to the podcast after realising they don’t understand any of the conversations around them. They will enter the fray armed with what they think is an impressive contribution, but mispronounce someone’s name or have no recount of basic information like the call log. They will get stuck on a piece of information long after the topic has been dissected, dealt with and explained.

The Know-It-All

They started listening to ‘Serial’ before it became famous. They have an account on reddit. They get the Crab Crib reference. They probably introduced you to the podcast. They are the first to post or message you with the latest hilarious parody or update and know all the extraneous, context information. THEY WOULD ALSO LIKE TO REMIND EVERYONE OF THAT FACT. There is nothing worse to the know-it-all then to be shown up by a more hardcore know-it-all. The benefits of talking to the know-it-all is as long as you exhibit the proper homage; you have a personal ‘Serial’ breaking news service.

 Sitting on the Fence but don’t think there is Enough Evidence to Convict

Well du’h. The most obvious and safe position. The sitting on the fence guy is usually the good guy in the office who shuns gossip and just wants to avoid confrontation. They won’t hazard a theory because they’re modest enough to admit they just don’t know.

I’ve Got a Feeling

The ‘I’ve got a feeling’ person will pretty much bypass all evidence to create their own judgment based on their ‘gut feeling’.

This fan is very much in touch with their emotions. She’ll say things like: ‘He just doesn’t sound guilty to me’, or ‘I don’t trust him’. The ‘I’ve got a feeling fan’ relies on what they believe is their highly developed perception, which is like an in-built lie detector test that allows them to magically read people. They will analyse voice inflection and character and feel they can imaginatively enter into the minds of main players and surmise their inner most motivations.

 Solved it Cowboy

The solved it cowboy is completely invested in their verdict and is not open to dialogue or negotiation. The case that has puzzled legal minds and hard working journalists and advocates is really an open and shut case to the cowboy. The solved it cowboy (usually male) just knows how it all went down and won’t bother with the fine details or ambiguity, because well… trust him on this one.

 The Moral High Ground Crusader

The MHGC will go to great lengths to lament how tragic or exploitative the media/justice system/the case is just to prove how much finer their sensibilities are. They will however continue voraciously consuming and critiquing anyway.

If you are the first to share this article with your friends, you know who you are. If it is shared to you, I’m sorry sister but you’re a TN for life