Balancing civil liberties with the need to have an effective counterterrorism campaign has long been a difficult issue for liberal democracies. The arrest, detention, release and now detention of suspect Mohamed Haneef has raised important questions about the protection of civil liberties uder Australia’s legal approach to counterterrorism.
Senator Andrew Bartlett was at Dr Haneef’s bail decision this morning. And while there are legal issues to consider in the detention and findings of the court, the importance of civil liberties as a weapon against terrorism is often overlooked. As Senator Bartlett writes:
I believe it is important to show strong support at this time for upholding our basic right to live freely in a democratic society, not cowed by an ever-present threat of being caught up in guilt by association and trial by insinuation.
The Senator is correct. The basic rights of our society should not be rent asunder in a mad dash to emulate Roper and his eagerness to drive a road through the law to get at the devil. While Haneef may have charges to answer, at this stage he deserves the presumption of innocence and a transparent process. Not to be denied justice by Kevin Andrews’ murky political agenda.
One could try to justify Haneef’s treatment by comparing our judicial procedures to that of a repressive regime but one would be trivially wrong. The quality of Australian justice should be rated against the very institutions that represent the values of democracy. Not some bizarre sliding scale of glibness that implies as long as we aren’t as bad as other countries we are doing fine.
An aspect of successful counterterrorism is to win hearts and minds. To show that while in pursuit of terrorists that everyone enjoys equal protection under the law. Otherwise, people will become marginalised and suspicious of claims that freedom is being defended as the foundations of freedom are being undermined. Cooperation between groups seemingly targeted by suspension of civil liberties and the authorities hampers counterterrorism. Valuable sources of intelligence may be shut off. Disunity and distrust are sown in the community when trust and unity are needed the most.
Indiscriminate repression is totally incompatible with the liberal values of humanity, liberty and justice. It is a dangerous illusion to believe one can ‘protect’ liberal democracy by suspending liberal rights and forms of government.
But what I’m not prepared to accept is the federal government’s revocation of his visa, for no better reason from what I can make out, than to circumvent the successful bail application and lock him away again. The federal government has his passport. He is not leaving the country, so he can’t avoid facing the charges. A magistrate, after hearing evidence from both sides, has decided that he is not so dangerous that he has to remain in prison. So where is the point in putting him in a federal jail? After the trial is over we will all be in the best position to judge whether his visa should be revoked, whether or not he is convicted.
The only viable explanation that I can see is political, and it is one that ought to backfire on the government. If it doesn’t it will be because the Labor Party has laid down and agreed with their actions. The only opposition at the moment appears to be coming from Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett, and the Greens Kerry Nettle.
More from David Tiley.