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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 170

Mr MELHAM (12:44 PM) —I rise to speak on an important issue—namely, the government’s policy in relation to the use of torture in the so-called war on terrorism. Honourable members will be aware that the issue of torture has featured in two recent editions of ABC TV’s Four Corners program—one dealing with the use of torture as an integral part of the United States ‘extraordinary renditions’ program and the other dealing with the particular experiences of Mr Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen, who was almost certainly tortured by Egyptian security authorities prior to his transfer into United States military custody. I commend the ABC highly for these two documentaries and would recommend that all members of the House take the time to view these programs, as they raise very disturbing questions about the present Australian government’s attitude towards the use of torture—an attitude that, at the very least, amounts to turning a blind eye to such practices and perhaps may extend into more active complicity and connivance.

My concerns about these matters extend back to early 2002 when, as Labor spokesman on justice and customs, I first raised issues about the treatment of both Mr Habib and David Hicks. In the five years since then a great deal of information has come on the public record about the US Central Intelligence Agency’s extraordinary renditions program—the seizure and illegal transfer of terrorist suspects to third countries where they can be integrated outside of normal legal frameworks and indeed subjected to a range of techniques that by any definition amount to torture.

In August 2005 I asked a number of questions on notice of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Attorney-General about these issues. In some very carefully drafted answers in October 2005, the foreign minister replied that the government’s policy was that persons suspected of terrorist activities should only be transferred to another country through recognised legal means or where legal authority exists, such as extradition. The Attorney-General simply indicated that the government does not condone the use of torture in any circumstances and that it did not support the receipt or use of information obtained as a result of torture or other inhumane means.

This was good as far as it went, but I was concerned to establish precisely what practices the government regarded as constituting torture. Accordingly, in February this year I asked the Attorney-General whether three specific techniques constituted torture. All three have been identified as elements of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ applied to prisoners in secret CIA operated prisons in a number of locations throughout the world. These were extended sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme cold for extended periods, and the practice of immobilising a person and pouring water on his or her face to simulate drowning. This last practice is known as water boarding or water torture and produces a severe gag reflex, making the subject believe that he or she is about to die.

According to US Senator John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, this is  ‘very exquisite torture’, amounting to a mock execution which can damage the suspect’s psyche ‘in ways that may never heal’. The United States State Department has recognised water boarding as a form of torture and the United States Army’s field manual for interrogations prohibits this practice by any personnel—though not, it appears, by CIA operatives. This is a practice, I might add, that is also banned by our own military forces and explicitly regarded as torture.

What then was the Attorney-General’s answer to my question? On 10 May this year he reaffirmed that the Australian government does not condone torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. Remarkably, however, he could not bring himself to identify any of the three interrogation techniques as torture. Instead he declared that:

The application of the term ‘torture’ to a specific case will always depend on the particular circumstances of the case in question, including the impact on the individual of the conduct alleged to constitute torture.

He would not rule out any of these techniques in all circumstances. I find it extraordinary that the Attorney-General, the first law officer of the Crown, could not bring himself to explicitly and clearly identify water boarding and the other techniques in question as constituting torture. I cannot see how it could be anything other than torture in any circumstances. My question was not a trick question and it deserved a straight answer.

Why did the Attorney-General answer as he did? I suspect there are two reasons. The first is that under no circumstances does he wish to be seen to criticise United States policy and practice. After all, US Vice President Dick Cheney casually told an interviewer that what he called a ‘dunk in the water’ was not a form of torture but rather an important tool in the interrogation of terrorist suspects such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I suspect that the Australian government, through intelligence liaison arrangements with the United States and also many other countries, has been in receipt of information that has been obtained through torture. In the case of Mr Habib’s experience of torture at the hands of Egyptian authorities, Australian authorities may have directly or indirectly supplied some of the interrogators’ questions.

I do not expect the Attorney-General will change his public position, nor do I expect him to comment on intelligence matters. There are grave issues involved here and the extent of the present government’s knowledge, of both ministers and officials, about the treatment of Mr Hicks and Mr Habib and their knowledge of and possible complicity with the use of torture in relation to other persons is something that will need to be the subject of a most rigorous and independent inquiry. Ultimately, an inquiry with the powers of a royal commission may get to the truth of these matters. (Time expired)