Promoting fear and loathing of Dr Haneef

Published in Right Now (human rights in Australia law magazine), Issue 2, December 2007

The saga of Dr Mohammed Haneef’s 12 days detention for questioning under Australia’s terrorism legislation, following his second cousin being implicated in an attack on Glasgow Airport in England, has become widely reported around the world. On 1 August 2007 an amazing confluence of events occurred. Each of them, seemingly insignificant, will in a few weeks have disappeared from the public mind only to merge into a subterranean climate of fear. It is well worth laying down exactly what happened.

On August 1 Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty was continuing to incorrectly assert that an old mobile phone SIM card which had been owned by Dr Haneef was found in the vehicle used in the failed attack on Glasgow airport. British Police maintain the SIM card was located in Liverpool. Keelty was subsequently forced to recant. Dr Haneef was eventually charged with supporting terrorism by leaving his SIM card with one of his second cousins in England. He was granted bail after three days. A couple of hours later, Minister for Immigration Kevin Andrews revoked his work permit on the grounds that he ‘has or had had an association with people involved in criminal conduct’. At a hearing to appeal the cancellation of Dr Haneef’s visa the Federal Court judge commented that he too would fail Andrews’ character test as he had defended murderers in the past.

Andrews indicated that Dr Haneef was to be incarcerated in Villawood. However, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions reviewed the evidence and dropped the charges. Haneef was eventually allowed to return to India to be with his wife and recently born baby daughter. On the night that Dr Haneef returned to India, Minister Andrews asserted that he was even more convinced that he was correct to suspend Dr Haneef’s visa because Haneef had ‘hastily’ left the country. Andrews’ actions came under criticism from lawyers and commentators. They noted it was strange for a minister of a government which loudly boasts its pro-family values to criticise Dr Haneef for ‘hastily’ returning to his family, after being incarcerated in Australia for two weeks.

Andrews eventually released what he maintained was part of the information given to him by police which had led him to decide that Dr Haneef was not ‘of good character’. He claimed that, on police advice, he could not release any more information as it could compromise ongoing investigations, despite the assertion by Dr Haneef’s lawyers that the information conveyed to the public had all been available to the magistrate who had granted Dr Haneef bail.

Two other things happened on August 1. The first was a Dateline interview on SBS in which a reporter described his meeting with an unnamed Indian police officer. This police officer had given him a copy of a le which alleged that because Dr Mohammed Haneef had been educated in Karnataka State in India ‘he must have come into contact with terrorist entities’. SBS has placed a warning on its website stating: ‘It is not clear whether the purpose of this dossier is to set out mere suspicions to be investigated by the Indian police or actual allegations. Dateline has seen no evidence in support of any allegations in this document’. Nothing further has come of this Indian police leak. It raises questions as to why a respectable public affairs program such as Dateline would beat up such an insubstantial story.

The second strange event was an announcement by David Johnson, the Minister for Justice, that legislation would be introduced in the Federal Parliament to allow for secret surveillance of individuals and organisations. It would also allow the secret copying of computer les by police who would be entitled to enter buildings without the owners’ knowledge. He told the ABC’s The World Today that it was not desirable for police to get a warrant from a judge because someone in the support network surrounding judges might leak information. The failure to successfully prosecute Dr Haneef, he argued, underlined the need for the new legislation. Later, on the PM program he amended his earlier statement to say that the police would need to get a warrant from a judge or a member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. This legislation was supported by both the Government and Labor in the Senate on August 8.


Throughout this sorry saga there has been a concerted attempt to drum up a prejudicial climate of fear in the public’s mind. The federal police have selectively leaked to sections of the media. They have interfered with evidence. When Dr Haneef’s barrister gave a copy of the first record of interview to the media the Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock claimed that he would be prosecuted and had behaved unethically. Several ministers have made assertions about the motives of Dr Haneef which would make it virtually impossible for him to obtain a fair jury trial in Australia. Kevin Andrews continues to assert that he has more evidence against Dr Haneef. The Prime Minister claims it’s better to be “safe than sorry”.

All Australians’ human rights are under direct challenge. Due process, just dealing, the presumption of innocence and freedom of movement are being undermined. There is an attempt to replace them with trial by administrative or ministerial at. The only things which have saved us from this, have been some outspoken lawyers and judicial officers, some very good reporting and some Australians’ sense of decency.