ASIO · asylum · asylum seekers · injustice · investigation · journalism · media · politics · Sayed Abdellatif

UN called for asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif’s release – as featured in the Guardian

Front page of the Guardian Australia website.
Front page of the Guardian Australia website.


Exclusive: ‘Arbitrary’ detention of Egyptian asylum seeker, his wife and six children is ‘clearly disproportionate’, UN human rights council tells Australia.

By Ben Doherty and Sarah Malik
Sayed Abdellatif, an Egyptian asylum seeker falsely condemned as a terrorist by political leaders, should be immediately released from his “arbitrary” and “disproportionate” detention, which breaches international law, the UN has told Australia.

Abdellatif, his wife and six children have been held in detention for more than three years without charge.

In a seven-page formal communication sent in June and obtained by Guardian Australia, the UN’s human rights council – which Australia is seeking to join in two years – directed Australia to immediately release Abdellatif and his family. .

“Under international law Australia has a duty to release Mr Abdellatif, his wife and and their six children and accord them an enforceable right to compensation,” the council said.

But Abdellatif and his close-knit family – his wife and children daily endure the trial of wristbands, metal detectors and reinforced doors to see their husband and father in the high-security wing of Villawood detention centre – have said compensation is far from their minds.

“Freedom,” Abdellatif told Guardian Australia quietly amid the chaos of the detention centre visitors area. “We are only thinking about our freedom. We are not thinking about compensation.”

Abdellatif’s detention has exposed consistent and wilful failings within several government agencies. Asio, the Australian federal police and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection have collectively displayed “a lack of coordination, a duplication of effort and a lack of urgency”, in handling the family’s case, Australia’s statutory inspector general of intelligence and security, Vivienne Thom, found.

Abdellatif fled Egypt in 1992, having been tortured under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. He was arrested from a mosque by the state security investigations service as part of a crackdown on Islamic political opposition to Mubarak’s rule.

He has remained in exile from his country since, living as a refugee in Albania, the UK, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and – finally – Australia.

All his children were born during that exile. His youngest, a five-year-old boy, has never lived a day free, only knowing life in detention in Indonesia and Australia.

Abdellatif and his family arrived in Australia in May 2012. Australia assessed his claim for protection and found that he and his family had legitimate claims to refugee status.

But while the family were in immigration detention in 2013 Australian authorities were alerted to an Interpol red notice that said that in 1999 Abdellatif was convicted – in a mass show trial in Cairo of 107 men – of premeditated murder, destruction of property, and possession of firearms and explosives. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The trial, criticised by rights groups at the time, was later found to have been fraudulent. Evidence against Abdellatif was obtained by “severe torture”, including electric shocks.

But the case became the centre of a political firestorm when the red notice became known publicly. The opposition leader, later prime minister, Tony Abbott labelled Abdellatif a “convicted jihadist” and a “pool-fence terrorist”, in reference to the low-security fencing at the Inverbrackie detention centre in South Australia. George Brandis, now the attorney general but then shadowing that position, said he was “plainly a convicted terrorist”.

The Abdellatifs were moved to the higher security Villawood detention centre in Sydney, where they have remained.

In a two-year investigation, the Guardian has shown:

Allegations of murder, firearms offences and property destruction were never made against Abdellatif at his Cairo trial and were wrongly attached to the Interpol red notice. After the Guardian’s investigation, which included examining the Egyptian court records and transcripts, Interpol took the extraordinary step of withdrawing those charges from the red notice.

The remaining convictions against Abdellatif, for “membership of a terrorist group” and “providing forged travel documents”, relied on evidence obtained under “severe torture”. Abdellatif was convicted in absentia, without any chance of defending himself against the allegations. He has denied both charges in a letter to the Guardian.

The Australian federal police were provided with evidence, in Arabic, that Abdellatif’s convictions for violent crimes were false, and had been withdrawn by Interpol, but took six months to translate the document – then failed to tell Asio or the immigration department of this new information.

A report by Australia’s inspector general of intelligence and security said Abdellatif had not been convicted of any terrorism-related charges and made clear he was not a threat to national security.

Scott Morrison, when immigration minister, defied the advice of officials from his own department, who had recommended Abdellatif be allowed to apply for a visa, and refused to allow Abdellatif to make an application.
In June this year, the UN human rights council’s working group on arbitrary detention wrote to the Australian government: “The detention is clearly disproportionate … the deprivation of liberty of Mr Abdellatif, his wife and their six children is arbitrary,” it said.

“Under international law Australia has a duty to release Mr Abdellatif, his wife and and their six children and accord them an enforceable right to compensation.”

Guardian Australia has made repeated attempts to seek information about Abdellatif’s case from the immigration department. After promising to provide answers to a series of questions, it declined to comment.

Abdellatif’s wife and family have previously been offered community detention but the family have consistently said they do not want to be separated from their husband and father.

Nearly six months after the UN direction, and after more than three and a half years in detention, the Abdellatifs remain incarcerated – Sayed Abdellatif in the high-security wing of Villawood detention centre, his wife and children in the family compound.

This year the department wrote to the family informing them that the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, had “lifted the bar” on their application for a protection visa. The family submitted a visa application in July, which has been acknowledged by the department as a “valid application”. But there has been no communication since.

Abdellatif says he feels that his life and those of his children are being slowly destroyed by their continuing detention and separation. “It’s been six months since the Australian government received [the UN] report but they did nothing, they ignored it completely,” he said.

“No one in the department is [taking] responsibility for our detention. We’re losing our lives by the immigration department of Australian government and no one cares. Who will take responsibility for this wasting of our lives?”

Abdellatif said he was constantly frustrated in his efforts to communicate with the department. He believed it was embarrassed by its handling of his case.

Analysis Sayed Abdellatif: asylum seeker trapped in detention by callous disregard
This man and his family remain locked in Australia’s detention system, despite recommendation from immigration department to grant visa

“They keep us in detention because we are found to be innocent,” he said. “They don’t want to say, ‘We were wrong’. They think, ‘We should keep them in detention to avoid embarrassment.’”

His children were suffering and the government was not interested in redressing its past mistakes, he said. “They think, ‘You can prove your innocence, but we are going to destroy you, every one of you.’”

The human rights council is one of the UN’s most powerful bodies, mandated with “the protection and promotion of all human rights around the globe”.

The foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, told Guardian Australia in September the government was “strongly committed” to a bid for a seat on the council for 2018-20.

Australia will compete against Spain and France for two seats from its poli-geographic group in 2017.

Jordan · media · travel

Jordan reflections

Friends of mine have been curious to know what the people are like here and the political issues (besides the amazing food and stunning natural beauty, see video by my very talented friend The Graphical Baker ^).  I’ve been wary because  I don’t want to make generalisations. So disclaimer- here are some observations based on my limited experience and interactions here.

Money /The Government/Wasda

There’s a huge divide here between those who have means (who live in West Amman) and those that don’t (generally East Amman). It came to a head when the Mercedes- driving son of a minister went on a tirade on facebook about his argument with a Kia driver, raging against the ‘backward xxxxs’ in Jordan. A local I met recently, Ali*, told me this was particularly galling because most people in Amman drive cheap Kia cars. Everything is expensive here, due to import taxes. I was flabbergasted to see a toaster with a tag of 25 JD ($AUS37) at the local shopping centre. I’m told the minimum wage with tips will get you around 250 JD a month, which is roughly half the weekly rent for a roomy apartment in central Amman. High employment combined with the rising cost of living and the perception of widespread nepotism and corruption has created a powder keg of discontent.

For young middle-class educated Jordanians, the aspiration seems to be to go abroad. Ali, a languages student who speaks Russian and Spanish, wants to work as a diplomat but says nepotism means plum postings are generally reserved for the connected elite. There’s even a term for it: ‘wasda’.

Rabia*, a young teaching student at Jordan university, says it’s so bad you’ll have guys who will not turn up to class all semester, but will show up at the end to  be ‘passed’. I asked how that works for professions where you could actually kill someone, and she said in med school you have some professors who will tell the class straight up, there’s no ‘wasda’ here, so don’t even try.

While Jordanians I spoke to are not entirely happy with the status quo, they are grateful for stability and safety in a region where Jordan seems to be the only safe harbour. They are wary of the unrest revolution in nearby countries has created. One of my teachers said that whilst we’re not entirely happy, we don’t know what the alternative would be. Ali says Jordanians don’t want a revolution but they want change. Any discussion of the ruling Royal family is done in hushed tones and in private.

Palestine

In a country where most people are of Palestinian background, the conflict with Israel is central. It’s the recurring issue in personal stories and in the news. Pretty much everyone has a story of being denied entry into Israel (especially young men), of a grandparent losing everything and migrating but dreaming of being able to visit again. Many won’t recognize Israel as a country and say Palestine instead. There’s a perception that US is not an unbiased mediator. It’s the cause of a lot of anger and disbelief and there is pessimism there will ever be a real solution to the conflict.

Refugees

Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: UNHCR/ Jared Kohler
Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: UNHCR/ Jared Kohler, Flickr

A lot of NGO workers I’ve met here are working on building camp infrastructure for the thousands of Syrian refugees flooding in over the border. A conversation between two Jordanians I met reminded me of the debate around asylum seekers in Australia.

A: It’s costing us a lot of money.

M: The UN is paying for everything. I’m really worried about the camps. I heard people are dying there.

A: The problem is people coming here without passports and papers. You can’t have open borders.

A: I feel sorry for them. They’re fleeing for their lives, they might not all have papers.

M: Also Syrians are willing to work for less than Jordanians creating problems for locals.

A: They contribute. I feel sorry for them.

M: So do I. I hate the situation not the people.

The difference of course is that M has loads of Syrian friends and a great deal of sympathy for the plight of those fleeing, generally reflected in the public mood towards refugees with numerous fundraisers and events dedicated to Syria (in Australia, the right-wing view features mostly hatred, hysteria and racism). I think the fact that Syrians, like Jordanians, are Arab Muslims, probably makes a big difference.

Gender/Religion

Jordan is generally a conservative country but I think liberal by standards in the region. A local tour I went on (where we were the only foreigners) and a group of artsy liberal Jordanian students I met recently seemed like hanging out with a group of 20-somethings back in Australia, down to justifying my abstention from alcohol (which is freely available). The men love to dance, openly hug and kiss each other and seem really to know how to have a good time (that was just on the tour bus). Most women wear hijabs with fashionable western clothing but many don’t. You can walk around safely pretty much anytime of the day or night, and will not be bothered except for the occasional hooligan, though I have heard of foreign looking women being hassled. Like Pakistan it feels like you have a divide between two groups -those who are liberal and irreligious, mix freely and party and those who are religious and conservative. But I think there is hope for that rare breed- the religious liberal – bucking tradition but staying true to their Islamic roots. One of my teachers is a single hijabi and practicing Muslim who works, lives out of home and travels abroad despite societal and family disapproval.  It will be interesting to see if it is people like this, who can successfully reconcile tradition and modernity within themselves, can pave a navigation of those forces within society.

*Names have been changed.

interview · religion · sexuality · spirituality

The Citadel

The topic of sex seems to always draw a crowd. Sex, Islam and the Arab world seems to magnetize one. The western obsession with Arab and Muslim sexuality seems fixated on harems and hijabs with a sometimes prurient and salacious gaze that fetishizes the exotic other.

Former Al-Jazeera presenter Shereen El-Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel is thankfully not part of the ‘harems and hijabs’ brigade. But her book does delve into the bedrooms of men and women in Egypt and across the region to look at the ways in which sexuality intersect with religion and tradition and is linked to politics and the greater fight for democracy in the region.

Continue reading “The Citadel”

Pakistan · politics

Soap Opera Outrates Politics In Pakistan

As Pakistan’s interior Minister Rehman Malik calls for the arrest of ex-president and dictator Pervez Musharraf in the musical chairs that is Pakistan’s leadership dramas, regular Pakistanis are switching off — preferring the drama of the screen.

“Humsafar”, a soap opera that translates roughly to “soulmate”, is the latest rage that has captured the Pakistani imagination. Thousands of diaspora Pakistani women crash YouTube every week to get their latest fix of the love triangle between hunky Asher, Khirad and Sarah.

Continue reading “Soap Opera Outrates Politics In Pakistan”