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Secret trials in the Australian 'police state'

  • 26 November 2019


It sounds like a police state effort. An author makes an attempt to assist a pseudonymously named prisoner publish a memoir. The effort is scotched by the authorities. The police spring into action raiding the cell of that prisoner, and that of his brother. All take place without the knowledge of the Australia media or public.

Not much is known of Alan Johns, other than he was a former military intelligence officer. Both his crime and his background remain cloaked by secrecy. In fact, the entire matter of his conviction and his existence would have remained secret but for legal proceedings arising from his draft memoir penned while in prison.

In the Supreme Court of the ACT, Justice Burns heard a case dealing with judicial review of decisions made by the Director General of the ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate. The Alexander Maconochie Centre had informed the Australian Federal Police about the manuscript, a copy of which had been emailed to the inmate's brother. The AMC, it was claimed, further 'took administrative action against him by withdrawing privileges without following notified policy'.

Ironically enough, the writing process was deemed a restorative one for Johns, part of a Mental Recovery Health Plan involving the completion of three manuscripts over six months. But on being informed of the memoir's existence, Johns' cell and the home of his brother were raided by the AFP. Both email and phone communications were also frozen.

Unfortunately for Johns, no relief was possible. He was no longer an inmate of the AMC, and did not establish 'that the declarations are aimed towards legal controversies regarding rights that are protected or enforced in the courts. On the facts of this matter, none of the plaintiff's rights have been infringed.'

The entire affair stunned the assisting author, the Canberra-based Robert Macklin. 'I didn't think we had secret trials in Australia. It worries me that we do.' This was a sentiment repeated by former ACT chief minister John Stanhope. 'I just didn't think it was credible.' The proceedings were 'held in such secrecy that not even the media was aware that this trial had occurred and that an Australian citizen had been sentenced to imprisonment'.

The tension between exposing a case and concealing both its fact and its contents are matters peculiar to the Anglo-Australian legal system. Underlying this play is the sketchy idea of open justice, a concept explained by the Australian High Court