The Jack Thomas Case: Australian civil liberties under attack

31 March 2005

You may be familiar with the name ‘Jihad Jack’ which has been bandied around the public domain by the popular press in recent months, alongside the Federal Government’s ubiquitous current catch-cries of ‘al-Qaeda’, ‘terror suspect’ and ‘war on terror’. Yet despite the tendency of many Australians to accept this catch-cries at face value, Jack’s case has dire implications for all those who seriously value their intellectual and civil autonomy. Recently released on bail after a total of nine months imprisonment and torture, Melburnian Islamic convert Jack Thomas faces 55 years imprisonment for, as yet, unsubstantiated charges under the government’s recent anti-terror legislation.

According to which media source, or indeed political ideology you subscribe to, during a religious tour of Afghanistan in 2002, Jack may possibly have “sited Osama bin laden at close quarters”, “met with Osama bin Laden on more than one occasion”, or maybe, once, “drunk red cordial with a friend of a friend of an un-Australian journalist”. I spoke to his brother, Les Thomas, to try and get a glimpse at the story behind the rhetoric.

Former chef and taxi driver Jack Thomas converted to Islam in 1996. Having had much exposure to the religion though Lebanese friends during high school, Jack apparently took to his new faith with all the devotion of a new convert, undertaking rigorous scholarship and devotional practice. Two years later in 1998, he married Indonesian Maryati and together they performed the ritual Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. Jack and Maryati’s first daughter was born in early 2001 and shortly afterwards they travelled to Pakistan, where Jack hoped to more fully engage with Islamic scholarship and to experience life in a society regulate by Islamic Sharia law. Jack spent the following months travelling in North-West Pakistan where he stayed at various madrasas to meet with Islamic scholars. During this period, he also travelled to Afghanistan, where, in brief communications with his family he expressed shock and disagreement with the “excessive cruelty” of the Taliban’s regime. After learning of the events of 9/11 via BBC radio, Jack was further ‘horrified and disgusted’ at the violent tactics of extremist Islamic groups.

Jack returned to Pakistan before the US invasion of Afghanistan. According to his brother, he was “alarmed” by the ensuring death and destruction as well as by reports of the hasty arrests of people like David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. Shocked by these injudicious incarcerations at Guantanamo Bay, Jack was reluctant to “front up at an Australian Embassy”. Eventually, Jack attempted to return to his family from Karachi airport in Pakistan where he was arrested on January 4th 2003 and transferred to a nearby military prison. In the following days, Jack enduring 100 hours of torture and interrogation by agencies including the CIA, FBI and ISI (Pakistani Secret Service). During this period, Jack is alleged to have been hooded, handcuffed and chained, to have suffered sleep deprivation and threats of various forms of bodily harm, as well as claims that his wife would be raped and murdered. Yet it was not until after five months detention without charge, that Jack was finally released by the Pakistani authorities and returned to his family in Australia. Jack’s brother describes the family’s sentiments of ‘massive relief’ at believing the ‘nightmare over’.

Jack spent the next 18 months attempting to resurrect a ‘normal’ life in Melbourne, working hard at two jobs in order to pit a deposit on his house and care for his recently born, second daughter. On the evening of November 18 last year, Jack’s house was raided by the Australian terror task force and Federal police who arrested Jack and imprisoned him the following day on charges of receiving funds from al-Qaeda, providing support to a terrorist organisation and the possession of a false passport. From that date, Jack was detained in solitary confinement at Victoria’s maximum-security Barwon Prison under conditions, which according to psychiatric assessment were tantamount to ‘secondary torture’. Denied contact with other prisoners and locked in his cell for between 18 and 23 hours a day, Jack was permitted only one hour’s weekly contact with his wife and family through a glass panel. It was the threat which these extreme conditions posed to Jack’s fragile psychological health, as well as his consistent record of co-operation with authorities, which influences the judicial decision to grant Jack bail last month in the Supreme Court. These extenuating conditions were seen to constitute the narrowly defined ‘exceptional circumstances’ required to grant bail under the anti-terror legislation.

However sever the documented concern for Jack’s mental health may be, the government has been quick to announce its intention to appeal the decision. When asked about their primary incentive for doing so, Les suggested that in the Howard governments’ rigorous pursuit of ‘terror-suspects’ like his brother “it doesn’t really matter to them that Jack doesn’t actually represent a threat to anybody”. On the contrary, “they just want to see people charged and behind bars so that they can beat their chests and say ‘aren’t we great for making Australia safe’ when really all they’re doing is ruining somebody’s life with no positive purpose”. Like the myriad of other alleged terror suspects rounded up by both US and Australian Governments since 9/11, a vilified and convinced, Jack Thomas represents a ‘feather in their cap — a kind of trophy of the war on terror’.

The significance of this case does not seem to lie in the perceived contention of, in the words of one Indymedia journalist, whether or not Jack Thomas did in fact ever “drink raspberry cordial with a friend of a friend of someone who was once a member of al-Qaeda”, but rather, in the unashamed degradation of popular civil rights which it signals. Like the Mamdouh Habibs, David Hicks, and countless other legally violated ‘terror suspects’, the severity of Jack Thomas’ detainment and sentence remains dubiously unsubstantiated in evidence. Like the fate of others, Jack’s potential life imprisonments rests on precariously weak legal foundations. Despite ASIO’s scrupulous monitoring of Jack’s everyday existence since his return to the country, the charges against him continue to be supported by a single interview conducted by the Australian Federal Police in a Pakistani prison. Not only was this interview preceded by 100 hours of what legal institutions politely term ‘duress’, but moreover, Jack’s request for the presence of a lawyer was refused by the Pakistani authorities. Ordinarily, this factor would render the evidence inadmissible in an Australian court of law. As Les notes, “if somebody is supposedly presumed innocent until proven guilty, I don’t understand why they would want to put them in solitary confinement, especially if it’s going to break them mentally. It seems totally unjustified.”

Jack’s conviction on the basis of the prosecution’s scant evidence would indeed set “an appalling precedent” for the state of long-revered (thought not to say upheld) legal and civil tenets. Allowing of evidence extracted after torture and the denial of legal representation “opens up all kinds of horrible and frightening possibilities for anyone who disagrees with the ideas of John Howard and George Bush. Whether you an activist, a trade unionist or environmentalist, this case is incredibly important’. As evidence, by the 3 million dollars exerted on demonising the Bakhtiari family, the Howard government has “great resources to pursue these kinds of things”. The Thomas family has yet to see, “how much they will spend to make an example out of somebody like [Les’s] brother, despite the fact that he poses no risk, that he is no threat to broader society”.

The magnitude of this case expands the just fate of Jack Thomas. Rather, ‘Jihad’ Jack is symptomatic of a broader social fervour of paranoia and propagated fear that was the lynch-pin in securing popular support for the Coalition’s war on Iraq. As its continuum, Les surmises that “you can go back to the witch trials or the McCarthy era and the same thing is happening — real peoples’ lives are being destroyed and real families are being crushed”. The exact price the Howard Government will charge for their program of ‘Protecting Australia from terrorism’ is yet to be revealed in full. But it remains clear that the currency is social. We have already made a deposit in religious tolerance and we are still paying off freedom of assembly. Uncritical submission to this dubious rights paradigm, where certainty of the most elementary freedoms of speech and belief is jeopardised. Whether or not we accept the cost of Howard’s self-congratulatory efforts to stake a claim in the War on Terror, is still to be determined.

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