SIM-ply reckless

The Southasian habit of thrift – not wanting a good deal on a mobile phone to pass by – seems to have gotten Indian doctor Mohammed Haneef into deep trouble. Charged with providing "reckless support" to the botched car bombings in London and Glasgow in late June, Haneef is now a 'terror prisoner' in Wolston Prison, Brisbane. Currently in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, Haneef is the first suspect to be detained under the new, stringent anti-terror legislation introduced in Australia in 2004. By the 2004 amendment, indefinite detention is now permissible. The legislation also followed up on a 2003 move to empower the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to detain not only suspects, but also 'non-suspects' who may be holding information regarding possible 'terrorist' offences. If convicted, Haneef faces 15 years in jail.

Curiously, Haneef, who seemingly had only peripheral involvement in the late-June plans, has been speedily charged of the bombing attempt. Meanwhile, the driver of the jeep involved in the attack, Kafeel Ahmed, currently lying in a Glasgow hospital with burns covering 90 percent of his body, is technically not under arrest.

What is Dr Haneef's story? Last July, upon leaving the UK for Australia, where he works in a Brisbane hospital, Haneef gave his mobile-phone SIM card to his cousin Sabeel so that Sabeel could take advantage of a good deal. Sabeel Ahmed and his brother Kafeel were later alleged to have played a significant role in the car bombings. Apprehended on 2 July at Brisbane airport on his way to Bangalore on a week's leave to meet his wife and newborn daughter, Haneef and his one-way ticket were viewed by Australian authorities with deep suspicion. But Haneef's subsequent explanation will, undoubtedly, make sense to Southasians: following the delivery of his first child by emergency caesarean section, his father-in-law sent him a one-way ticket. Since his wife was contemplating joining him in his return to Australia along with their baby daughter, and since it was cheaper to buy all the tickets in India, the one-way ticket made good sense.

Besides concerns about dodgy evidence being used as the basis for charging suspects under increasingly draconian immigration and anti-terror laws, the case of the borrowed SIM card reveals a worrying tussle within the Australian establishment. Amidst growing protests by civil-rights groups against Haneef's detention without charge for 13 days, on 16 July a Brisbane magistrate charge-sheeted Haneef, but also granted him conditional bail. The official observed Haneef's 'recklessness' in giving away his SIM card, but admitted that there was no direct evidence of his involvement in the plot. Just hours later, however, Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews cancelled Haneef's work visa, and extended his detention on grounds of 'character'. Andrews promised that even if Haneef turned out to be innocent, he would be deported nonetheless because his character was "so bad". Such sweeping statements are all the more surprising given that they were made on the basis of information from the same police sources that had furnished Haneef's lawyers with that led to his successful bail application.

The Australian media has also exposed significant discrepancies between the police affidavit filed in court and the 142-page record of Haneef's first police interview. The affidavit seems designed to emphasise the links between Haneef and his cousins, and to imply that he had more knowledge of the bombing plot than he claimed. More curious was what took place after the entire transcript of the police interview (in which Haneef comes across as a professional with moderate views on Islam) was published by The Australian on its website. The document was later removed, reportedly due to "tremendous pressure" from the government. (The transcript is now available on the website of The Hindu.)

Meanwhile, the seemingly excessive implication of an Indian citizen in Australia for the London and Glasgow car bombings at least lifts from Pakistan the unhappy image of 'terror-exporting' country. Following the widely criticised decision to grant conditional bail to Haneef, Australia has readied itself to tighten the screws on 'terror' suspects. The Canberra government has said that it will consider changing national laws such that people charged with terrorism-related offences will find it increasingly difficult to get bail. When this is coupled with Australia's rigid 1958 Migration Act, any non-citizen in Australia accused of crimes, especially those related to 'terror', will be in for an increasingly hard time.

Once the identities of those implicated in the failed bombings in London and Glasgow began to emerge, Pakistanis collectively heaved a sigh of relief that none of their fellow citizens were involved. Of course, this might now lead to Indians, particularly Muslims, being viewed with suspicion in the Western countries, a particular burden of Pakistan before this.

While the Haneef case provides an opportunity for India to demand that its citizens' rights be protected overseas, a little introspection on India's treatment of its own 'terror' suspects is also warranted. After Australia sought formal assistance from New Delhi in probing "links and antecedents" to Haneef, Central Bureau of Investigation Director Vijay Shanker told the media: "The most important aspect is to ensure that Dr Haneef gets justice, and is not accused of something which he has not done. Our effort and cooperation will be focused to see that he is treated justly and fairly by the Australian authorities and courts." Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's appeal to Australian authorities to "extend all facilities within the law and the rights [Haneef] is entitled to" is also welcome. If only the Indian authorities were as mindful of the civil rights and presumptions of innocence of those accused of 'terrorism' in India – many of whom continue to languish in detention with no charges filed against them. At the global level, the post-9/11 anti-terror hype must be examined more closely, and a more acceptable balance between security and individual liberty must be reached.

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Himal Southasian