Melbourne terror trial fuels Islamophobia

As the banners telling us “History is coming!” went up all over Melbourne getting ready for the AFL grand final, the verdicts came down in the trial of the Barwon 12. Twelve men were charged with being members of “a” terrorist organisation planning “a” terrorist act. Seven were found guilty, four were found not guilty and one is left in prison limbo because the jury couldn’t decide about him.

According to Murdoch and Fairfax press ASIO, the AFP and the Victorian police had saved the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG)! One of the 13 people originally charged (it used to the Barwon 13!) made a deal and turned informer. Number 13, number one story-teller, was called an inveterate con-man, fraud and liar by the presiding judge. His evidence remains the only source of the story of the MCG bomb plot.

Operation Pendennis

In Melbourne, Operation Pendennis had been going since 2004. ASIO, the AFP and the Victorian police had been watching a group of friends, brothers and cousins. Watching? They were listening, too—around 16,400 hours—almost two years worth of conversations!

Listening? They were joining in as well! Secret Agent SIO 39 was hanging out with the men. The police had been raiding people’s houses, collecting computers, CDs and DVDs.

But it wasn’t enough to charge them. In all that time this no-name collection of people had not planned an attack on anything.

Then remember, remember the third of November, 2005. That was the day that the Howard government rushed through a change in the Criminal Code: “the” terrorist organisation became “a” terrorist organisation and “the” terrorist act became “a” terrorist act.

The Senate was recalled and the amendment to the Terror Act was passed (with Labor’s support), and got royal assent before close of business the same day. Why the rush? ASIO and the AFP had been talking to Howard.

Once the word “the” in the legislation was changed to “a”, ASIO didn’t need these people to have any specific plans. The police could move.

Guantanamo-style conditions

By the end of November 2005 ten were arrested, 13 by March 2006. They disappeared into Barwon Prison maximum security prison. Civil Rights Defence, Melbourne, exposed the cruel treatment of the men on remand, but it was more than two years and after the start of the trial before the judge put a stop to it.

He ordered the men’s transfer to the Metropolitan Assessment Prison, a few blocks from the court. The men had been isolated, shackled, left in hot vans without water and subjected to multiple full searches on their journey to and from Barwon Prison and the court.

We were reminded of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib when we heard of dogs sniffing naked prisoners between the legs. The men were deteriorating fast, physically and mentally. The judge was faced with making the decision that they were not fit for trial. So they were moved.

Before the arrests, we had been subjected to a fear-and-hate-Muslims campaign in the media and in the parliament. ASIO was visiting people, asking questions. There had been police raids in mid-2005. In different places women wearing scarves had been abused, some had their scarves pulled off. Disgusting slogans like “Kill Muslims” appeared on walls.

All this led up to the ugliest display of nationalism and hatred we’d seen for a long time—at Cronulla, near Sydney. The Daily Telegraph carried the headline “Not on our beaches”. Inside was what amounted to an invitation—how to get there and at what time—to join the fascists organising at Cronulla—a dark day in our history!

In February 2008, the trial, Queen v Benbrika and others, started in the Supreme Court in Melbourne. In the court, 12 barristers defended 12 men guarded by 12 prison officers, for 12 people to decide guilty or not guilty.

There were volumes of transcripts of people talking about politics, Islam, stolen car parts, soccer, Lebanon, weight training, credit card fraud, Palestine, books, bongs, boxing, praying, fishing, family—but the crown only relied on half of one per cent of all that.

The most striking prosecution call was “truth in jest” when one of the young men who wants to go away for a weekend fishing with his friends, jokes with his wife. She is asking what he’s going away for, what’s he going to do. He says “terrorist training”. When, as it turns out, the group does fish together, eat together, bog a car together and of course pray together, the prosecution claimed that this was not terrorist training but terrorist bonding!

There are hundreds of downloads of articles, lectures, songs, films, TV shows, and books on CD and DVD in evidence too, but it was never clear who looked at them all, who looked at some or who looked at none. And the charge of being a member of a group? It was ASIO that grouped them together—as surveillance targets on an ASIO list.

And the charge of planning to explode a bomb? The only person who had a bomb was the undercover agent SIO 39. The federal police made that bomb and gave it to SIO 39. Police filmed him showing it to one other person in ASIO’s target group who never said anything about it to anyone else on ASIO’s list!

One of the young men found guilty had worked long and hard on a pamphlet “Your Rights at Work”, directing people to the Victorian government’s website to find out about equal opportunity legislation.

So there we have it—one religious teacher and an assortment of plumbers, electricians, building workers, mechanics, concreters, forklift drivers, Muslims—under siege—from a community under siege. They were under siege because they were Muslims in a post 9/11 world. They were under siege because of what was happening in Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, London, Chechnya, Madrid, Bali. They were under siege because of the hate and fear campaign in Australia and they were under siege from ASIO and the police.

Now seven of them face long prison sentences—four face 25 years maximum, one faces 15 and two face 10 years. The judge will decide in November.

They are in this position because of terror legislation rushed through by a government with a political agenda.

More than $35 million may have been spent on the whole exercise. The police have admitted to around $28 million, but ASIO refuses to answer the question: how much did you spend?


So where did it get us, this $35 million and seven guilty verdicts? Do we feel safe? More people have been killed at work in Victoria than have been blown up by angry-at-the-system people. The only people using a bomb in Melbourne recently were stealing money from an ATM—a bank—an ancient pursuit.

We definitely have a fight on our hands. Security forces can trap people by supplying and demonstrating explosives. Police can listen with impunity to our conversations.

Prosecution lawyers can construct a circumstantial “mosaic” as they called it. Judges can apply legislation that punishes talk, not even ‘conspiracy’, with a possible 10 to 25 years maximum sentence in a supermax prison.

We have an argument to make and a discussion to have with everyone, anyone trying to make sense of the world. It’s about how we, the people, can stop the killing in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan. It’s about how we, the victims of racism and war, can get together to end racism and war.

One of the young men found guilty, in his interview with the police just after his arrest, said he had never taken part in a street demonstration but would have liked to. Our argument: that our fight is on the streets, our strength is us, together, man and woman, black and white, however we talk and however we dress.

The 12 people on the jury worked their way through the volumes of transcripts of taped conversations and intercepted phone calls, the police videos, the CDs and the DVDs.

Among them were pieces of the lives of the men in the dock that didn’t fit the terror plot mosaic presented by the state. There was Cat Stephens singing “Peace Train”, “I’ve been crying lately, thinking about the world as it is. Why must we go on hating? Why can’t we live in bliss?” And the printed words of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, “Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” It doesn’t fit, does it?

Dr. Haneef said as the security forces, the police and the politicians deported him, “The truth will come out, falsehood will vanish and falsehood is ever to be banished.” Let’s hope so. Till it does, we have an argument to have and a fight on our hands.

By Tanya McConvell, eyewitness at the Barwon 12 trial


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