Op-Ed: Death of a Principle by Agnes Chong Print E-mail
Friday, 10 December 2004


On October 5, 2001, Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen, was arrested in Pakistan. He was accused of having links with Al Qaeda. He is now being held in Guantanamo Bay as a prisoner of war.

So, is he a guilty man? My friend seems to think so. The fact that he has been detained for so many months, she says, is proof that they must have some dirt on him.

"Like what?" I asked. 

"Well I don't know, but SOMETHING," she said.

"Doesn't it matter that he has not been charged with anything? Doesn't the fact that he has been detained for no obvious reason worry you?"

"No, why would it worry me, he deserves it," she opined. So much for the presumption of innocence -- and, she is a practising lawyer.

Australian politicians don't fare much better. When asked whether the Australian government would do anything to help Habib, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, said, "People who muck about with organisations like Al Qaeda are bound to get themselves into trouble." This is despite the fact that no evidence has ever been shown to connect Habib with Al Qaeda, and he was in fact arrested well-before combat began in

If these are our lawyers and ministers in government, what can we expect the rest of the populace to do when it comes to the presumption of innocence? Although there is no concrete evidence on who committed the attacks on Bali on October 12, if asked who did it, the man and woman on the Australian street are quick to announce that it was, without doubt, "Islamic fundamentalists".

By association, it seems all Muslims have become suspects; regardless of the fact that there is, so far, no irrefutable evidence that the bombers were Muslim, and even if there were, no proof of a connection between these miscreants and other innocent Muslims in Australia.

Consider some of the events that happened in Australia in the five days following the attacks on Bali. In that short time, a multitude of verbal and physical attacks on Muslims occurred. On Tuesday night the family home of the President of the Islamic Association of Western Sydney was attacked by a mob in the dead of night; a girl wearing a veil was seen verbally abused and was told "Bali is all your fault" by a man on a crowded train, and when visibly trembling, no one came to her aid; two mosques in Sydney and Melbourne were attacked; Molotov cocktails were thrown through the window of a Melbourne Islamic centre at Doncaster; talk back radio was inundated with calls about "Islamic fundamentalist barbarians" and "extremist Muslim terrorists"; and people stayed at a 5 metre radius away from a Muslim girl at a bus stop just because there was an abandoned bag near where she sat.

Are these merely isolated incidents committed by deranged or uneducated members of society? Unfortunately not. The Australian Government has also shown contempt for the presumption of innocence. To date, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has raided thirty homes, all Muslim families, some with young children and babies, some with elderly men and women. As many as 30 men would surround a suburban Muslim home, all of them with black balaclavas, black flak jackets, with submachine guns ready to shoot. Sometimes they would knock first, but other times without warning, they would break down the front door of these homes with sledgehammers. These men would point sub-machine guns at the heads of 14-year old girls, they held grown men to the ground by putting their foot on their head, and confiscated those critical elements of terrorist activities: family videos, passports, birth and marriage certificates, scanners, printers, and in one case, the all-important tabloid newspaper.

None of the raids have led to any charges of any kind -- yet another indication that ASIO was too zealous in its presumptions of guilt of the homes of the people it raided.

The link between these men and the Bali bombings? The fact that they attended lectures of Abu Bakar Basyir, who is allegedly the leader of Jamaah Islamiyyah (unproven), which allegedly supported the people (unproven) who allegedly committed the crimes (unproven).

It is not only that these things have happened that is disturbing, but that it seems to be going on with wide community support. In one recent survey, 89 per cent of Australians felt that it was acceptable. Of those who said yes, only 30 per cent felt that concrete evidence was necessary for any raid to proceed.

It seems that there is yet another victim of the tragic, shocking, unnerving and deplorable bombings in Bali and the other terror attacks around the world: the presumption of innocence. This is all the more saddening and surprising since the victim is one Western society's greatest treasures.

The presumption of innocence means that the government has the burden of proving every element of a crime beyond reasonable doubt. It is one of the most basic human rights of which liberal democracies - like Australia -- are so proud; all the while, admonishing Muslim countries for their poor human rights records and inadequate judicial systems. Are Western societies sacrificing their basic principles at the altar of hypocrisy?


Agnes Chong

9 December 2004 



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