Dignified act

Published : Jan 28, 2011 00:00 IST

Mohamed Haneef with his wife and child at the Brisbane International Airport on December 17, 2010, ahead of the compensation meetings with the Australian government. At right is his lawyer Rod Hodgson. - EDDIE SAFARIK/AFP

Mohamed Haneef with his wife and child at the Brisbane International Airport on December 17, 2010, ahead of the compensation meetings with the Australian government. At right is his lawyer Rod Hodgson. - EDDIE SAFARIK/AFP

Canberra's apology to an Indian doctor suspected of terror links is a rare gesture by a sovereign state towards a citizen of another state.

BY any standard of political decency and plain morality, Australia's apology to the Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef, who was wrongfully detained and charged by the Australian authorities in 2007, merits unusual attention. There is more to this apology than the vindication of an innocent person who was charged, without proof, in a case of international terrorism.

Tendering a belated but dignified apology to Haneef in the public domain itself, the Australian Attorney-General's Department proclaimed him innocent of the offence of which he was suspected. The statement, issued on December 22, 2010, was not explicit in specifying that he was in fact falsely charged with reference to a heinous plot of terrorism in Britain. At the time he was wrongly suspected and charged, he was duly employed as a qualified medical professional in the State of Queensland in Australia.

The Attorney-General's Department now resorted to a diplomat's language to present the legal scene, which had adversely affected the Indian national before he was allowed to leave Australia in 2007 itself.

Such a diplomatic language is of course in line with the sovereign attributes of Australia, which has gracefully chosen to make amends for its past action against an individual national of another country.

The relevant portion of the apology statement reads as follows: The Commonwealth of Australia [has now] agreed to make a substantial payment to Dr Mohamed Haneef to compensate him for the events that occurred in 2007 which saw him arrested, charged and detained for a period and his [employment] visa cancelled with serious consequences for him and his family.

There was now a clear acknowledgment that the Australian Federal Police had in fact acted in a mistaken manner against him over three years ago. The emphatic punch line is: The Commonwealth [of Australia] apologises and hopes that the compensation to be paid to Dr Haneef will mark the end of an unfortunate chapter and allow Dr Haneef to move forward with his life and career.

If the Haneef episode has not rocked New Delhi's increasingly dynamic ties with Canberra, unlike in the case of physical and psychological attacks on Indian students in Australia, the reason is not far to seek. The interplay of an independent judiciary and a free press in Australia kept its executive authorities in check in the Haneef case. In contrast, individuals, and not Australia's federal or local officials, were directly in focus in the case of violence against Indian students in recent years.

As this is written, the issue of such assaults on Indians at Australian educational institutions had ceased to be a concern of utmost priority to either New Delhi or Canberra. There has been a downswing in such attacks, with neither the judiciary nor the press in Australia having had to intervene in a high-profile fashion to bring about some calm. Reforms introduced by the Australian authorities in immigration rules and with respect to educational standards and facilities have improved the lot of Indians who are eligible to pursue studies across Australia under the revised guidelines. However, it is anybody's guess how long the Indian student community in Australia can breathe freely. The outlook at the dawn of the New Year is, of course, bright on this front.

For a variety of reasons, Australia has had to defend its record of multiracial tolerance. And the satisfactory closure of the Haneef case, reckoned as such by the parties concerned, has certainly enhanced Australia's credentials on this score. Not only that. Canberra's unqualified apology to Haneef signifies a relatively rare gesture by a well-established sovereign state towards an individual citizen of another state. Such a gesture can, therefore, be viewed as an example for other countries as well, consistent, of course, with the relevant circumstances in any particular case.

Wrong assumption

Haneef was employed in Queensland in 2007 when he was suddenly engulfed by an acute personal crisis, which hit the international headlines. He was suspected to have had a possible link to a terrorist plot, which was partially executed in Britain on June 29 and 30 of that year.

The suspicion of Haneef's involvement was ab initio a wrong assumption, as it soon became clear beyond a shadow of doubt. But the Australian authorities of the time, under the then federal government headed by John Howard, did not want to stop or soft-pedal the investigation and prosecution. The relevant reasoning by the authorities was that the Haneef case centred on a suspicion, however slight, with reference to a terrorist plot with possible or potential international ramifications.

In early July 2007, Haneef was arrested at the Brisbane airport as he was about to leave for Bangalore for a family reunion. He was interrogated and also detained for 12 days without any charges being brought against him. Thereafter, he was charged with the offence of recklessness, bordering on a criminal intent, in relation to the terror plot in Britain, where he had resided before moving to Queensland for his new job. Two of his cousins were, of course, suspected of masterminding the relevant terrorist acts, which failed to cause the kind of havoc that they had allegedly plotted for.

In the eyes of the Australian authorities, Haneef's act of handing over his mobile phone SIM card to his cousins was central to the investigation against him in Australia. The same SIM card was supposed to have been put to some use as part of the terrorist plot traced to Haneef's cousins. This aspect formed the core of Australia's investigation. He was suspected of having had a criminal intent in handing over his SIM card to his cousins. Alternatively, he was deemed to have acted recklessly in parting with a valid SIM card in the post-9/11 context of global terrorism.

This crucial aspect came in for a critical comment in the November 2008 report by former Justice John Clarke, who conducted an official inquiry into the entire case. Expressing surprise that the Australian Federal Police and the prosecutors had not at all reflected on what Haneef was known to have done with his SIM card in Britain before he took up a job in Queensland.

Clarke noted that the SIM card could have been bought for a small sum of money, even with a false name [as the user] in the United Kingdom. Moreover, Haneef had parted with the card about a year before the relevant terrorist attack in Britain. In such circumstances, Clarke emphasised, the evidence demonstrating criminal intent or recklessness [on Haneef's part] would have had to be very strong indeed, if a conviction were to be secured. It transpired during Clarke's inquiry that only one Australian official seems to have expressed that view at the time Haneef was charged. The Clarke inquiry fully laid bare the defective reasoning by the relevant Australian officials that Haneef deserved to be taken to court on the grounds that he tried to flee when he came to know that his SIM card was becoming a material factor in the probe against his cousins in Britain.

To complete the sad saga of Haneef's ordeal in 2007, the cancellation of his Australian work visa, upon his being granted judicial bail, was effected even as he was served with a criminal justice stay certificate. With that, any chance of his being deported evaporated. As a result, his ordeal was prolonged further until he was allowed to leave Australia in the general context of what Clarke later characterised as the spectacular and speedy collapse of the prosecution.

The passage of time has not camouflaged the bleak landscape in which the Australian authorities subjected Haneef to some poignant wrongs of state power in 2007. He returned to Australia in December 2010 for the legal mediation of a compensation settlement in his favour after Clarke's findings created a climate of public opinion conducive to such an exercise.

Unsurprisingly, Haneef now received an icing on the cake of material compensation a public apology from sovereign Australia. Periodic interventions by the Australian press and judiciary have contributed to this positive denouement in no small measure.

A logical long-term poser in East Asia, a theatre of perceived historical wrongs in inter-state relations, is whether Australia's latest example of apologising to an individual can serve as an example for other countries as well. It is not that Japan has not apologised to its neighbours for their tragedies under its past imperial actions as a colonial power.

The sufferings of countries such as China and the two Koreas, as also some South-East Asian countries, at the hands of the bygone imperial Japan are widely reckoned to be far worse than India's historical experiences under British imperial rule, for instance. This fact may partially explain why Japan has not so far had a smooth post-imperial equation with its neighbours, unlike post-colonial Britain in its ties with India in particular.

Even as Japan's imperial-era actions still rankle people in China and the two Koreas in particular, a revisionist view is gaining currency on an altogether different front. It is no longer a political puzzle how the United States has established a very strong military alliance with Tokyo after having dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the end of the Second World War and ended Japan's imperial run. A view in Japan now is that a comprehensive U.S. apology for those nuclear strikes might be much more than just a good idea.

Regardless of whether Australia has considered the Haneef case as something larger than the rendition of justice to an individual, apology can still be a creative aspect of statecraft in exceptional circumstances.

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