Case Watch: Australia's Complicity in Torture—An Update

In our “Case Watch” reports, lawyers at the Open Society Justice Initiative provide quick-hit analysis of  notable court decisions and cases that relate to their work to advance human rights law around the world.

Earlier this year, the Australian government decided to settle a case that had been brought against it by Mahmoud Habib, an Australian citizen who had been detained in Pakistan, Egypt, and at various U.S. military bases between October 2001 and January 2005. Habib was later released without charge.

During his detention, Habib says that he was repeatedly tortured. His case was based on claims that Australian officials provided information that was used during his interrogations and were present during some of them. The government, of course, denied its officials were involved and claimed that it did not even know that Habib had been transferred to Egypt, let alone what was done to him there.

But just days after the government announced it had settled the case, Habib’s lawyers produced a statement from an Egyptian prison guard saying that an Australian official was indeed present during the interrogations. As a result of this revelation, the new government announced an inquiry by the Inspector-General of Security and Intelligence into the role of Australian agencies in Habib's arrest and detention.

This week, we saw the first results. Although the inquiry is only half complete, the inspector general told the parliament that that she had informed the prime minister that there was evidence that Australian officials from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General’s Department had indeed been involved in decision making during the time that Habib was detained and tortured. To her credit, the new prime minister, Julia Gillard, then authorized the continued investigation of the activities of those departments—an investigation that is expected to continue until the end of this year.

The inspector general’s confirmation underscores the importance of objective and independent investigations whenever there are credible allegations of government complicity in torture or related abuses, even when those abuses occur offshore. It also reminds us that blanket denials and claims by the government that we cannot examine its actions too closely for reasons of national security must often be treated with skepticism. The early denials now look very shaky indeed.

The inspector general appears to have made a promising start to the investigation, and, since the settlement of this case, Habib has launched another in Egypt against former Egyptian officials that he argues are also responsible for his torture. We hope that both will be permitted to continue independently to their natural conclusion. And if the allegations of torture and complicity are indeed borne out by the evidence that those responsible will be held accountable.

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