Mamdouh Habib came home yesterday after three years in prison in
Guantanamo Bay. Lacking the courage or evidence to put him on
trial, the US Government has decided to set him free.
What happened to Habib is appalling and defies everything a
civilized society stands for. The US trampled on 800 years of human
rights progress when it held him incommunicado, assumed his guilt
and denied him his day in court. From the Magna Carta of 1215 to
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, civilized nations have
moved to protect individual liberty from exactly the sort of
arbitrary imprisonment the US Government has inflicted on Habib and
the other inmates of the Cuban jail.
Whatever terrible scars Habib will bear, he is free. He can see
his wife and children, and get a chance to rebuild his life.
There is another detainee who faces a much bleaker future. He
languishes not in Guantanamo Bay but in the Baxter detention center
in South Australia. His name is Peter Qasim. He has been locked up
for 6 years even though he has committed no crime, faces no charges
and is not considered a terrorist, an "enemy combatant" or a danger
to Australia. This detainee, virtually unknown outside a small
circle, faces lifelong detention.
From Indian-occupied Kashmir, Qasim came to Australia as an
asylum seeker. His father, a separatist activist, was murdered and
Qasim tortured by Indian security forces. His application failed.
The Government wanted to deport him to India. Eventually, he
volunteered to return. Anything was better than dying in detention.
But Qasim has no papers, no proof he is Indian, and India will not
take him. He is stateless. So he remains locked up year after year,
living in a hellish limbo. Australia doesn't want him. But because
no other country wants him either, the Government won't set him
Even the famous Iranian asylum seeker Mehran Karimi Nasseri -
the inspiration for Tom Hanks' character in The Terminal -
was allowed to set up home in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris
after he arrived there in 1988 with no papers or passport. France
didn't want him, nor any other country, but it didn't lock him up
and eventually gave him his freedom.
Qasim should be a household name in Australia. He has spent
twice as long in detention as Habib and David Hicks even though he
is not suspected of terrorism. It is our own Government that placed
him in a situation similar to the detainees in Cuba - one of utter
despair with no apparent exit route. Qasim has not been tortured -
though severe depression landed him in hospital for months. And
unlike Habib, he has visitors and phone calls.
But in other ways his situation is grimmer. While the US Supreme
Court has opened the door to legal challenges by the Guantanamo Bay
detainees, the High Court in Australia has declared that our
Government's actions are legal. By a bare majority (4-3) it ruled
last August that failed asylum seekers who have nowhere to go and
who pose no danger to the community can be in immigration detention
indefinitely. However, even one of the majority judges called the
situation "tragic" and said it showed Australia needed a bill of
Indefinite detention may be legal, as things stand, but it is
This month the US Supreme Court, in a case separate from
Guantanamo Bay, also considered the issue of indefinite detention
of illegal immigrants - mainly Cubans. It ruled 7-2 that the Bush
Government cannot indefinitely hold illegal immigrants. It said
that six months was the maximum "reasonable" period of
The Cubans in question were part of a wave who fled after Castro
briefly opened the gates in 1980. Many were criminals, released
from Cuban jails, who were quickly locked up in the US while others
committed crimes in America before their legal residence was
established. They have done their time but remain in prison. The US
doesn't want them and Cuba won't take them back.
As a defense lawyer said, it was "unpalatable and untenable" to
sentence people by default to life in prison simply because their
home country did not want them back. The Supreme Court had the
gumption to agree.
There was once a time when Liberals in Australia believed in
liberty. The freedom of the individual was precious. The core of
liberty is that citizens cannot be imprisoned indefinitely at the
will of the government. Qasim, now 30, has already spent most of
his twenties locked up. He is lost in a bureaucratic quagmire.
There is no pressure on the Department of Immigration officials -
certainly not from the Labor Party - to resolve the issue speedily.
Qasim's last hope is that the Immigration Minister, Amanda
Vanstone, will use her discretion to give him his freedom.
Yes, we live in the age of terrorism. But Winston Churchill's
words are relevant. At the height of World War II, anticipating
public opposition to the release of British fascist Sir Oswald
Mosley, Churchill said: "Nothing can be more abhorrent to democracy
than to imprison a person or keep him in prison because he is
The foundation of "all totalitarian regimes, whether Nazi or
Communist", he added, was arbitrary imprisonment without trial.
Only in times of extreme danger to the nation could such action be
excused, and once the danger had passed the person must be
Peter Qasim's long stretch is out of proportion to the danger he
presents. Freeing him will hardly endanger Australia's image as
being hardhearted towards asylum seekers.
© 2005 Sydney Morning Herald