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Seeking justice for Jack

 As ordinary as a slice of bread. This is how a 31-year-old man shovelling dirt in a suburban front yard in Werribee, west of Melbourne, is described by his neighbour. Moving earth as a favour for another neighbour, Jack Thomas is reputed to be generous and hard-working. He’s also alleged to have links with terrorists.

Those neighbours who peered out their windows on a November morning last year witnessed a Channel 7 camera crew outside the home in which Thomas, his wife Maryati, their two daughters and his elderly mother-in-law were sleeping. The crew was there to capture on film several police storming into the Thomases’ house with machine-guns and Alsatians. They’d come to arrest a man the media had already dubbed ‘Jihad Jack’.

Thomas was shackled and kept in isolation in Barwon maximum security prison. He faced three charges: altering his passport, receiving funds from al Qaeda, and providing support to al Qaeda. Facing up to 55 years in prison if convicted, Thomas is pleading not guilty to all charges.

‘The person we know and love bears no resemblance to the myth you read about in the papers,’ says his brother, Les Thomas.

Thomas is one of the first Australians charged under the Howard Government’s new anti-terror laws. His supporters claim he is an ordinary bloke who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. If it happened to Jack, they say, it could happen to any of us.

‘There’s a school of thought that says Jack is a sacrificial lamb in Australian politics in the war on terror,’ says his lawyer, Rob Stary.

Liberty Victoria’s Brian Walters SC describes the Government’s actions towards Thomas as ‘most improper’, ‘an abuse of power’ and ‘a breach not only of human rights, but of the law’.

Thomas’s support campaign, Justice 4 Jack, has attracted several hundred supporters around the world. America’s most outspoken political dissident, Noam Chomsky, has declared that ‘Australians should be alarmed’ about the Thomas case. Among authors, legal bodies and academics who have signed up is Dr Tim Anderson, the civil libertarian wrongly convicted for the 1978 Sydney Hilton bombings. He flew to Melbourne to support Thomas, whose case, he believes, has sinister parallels with Anderson’s own framing and wrongful eight-year imprisonment.

Thomas came to the attention of Australian police after a series of fateful events. In 1996 he began a spiritual journey that would eventually lead him to Islam. Introduced to the faith by friends at the Footscray market, where he purchased produce for work, he was impressed with the ‘serenity’ of practising Muslims and was attracted to Islam.

‘I found it hard to understand my brother’s conversion to Islam,’ says Les Thomas. ‘Being fed crude media stereo-types, I was completely ignorant of the rich tradition of culture and learning in the Muslim world, but I could see Jack had found a profound sense of meaning and peace in his new religion.’

Thomas married his Indonesian-born wife, Maryati, in South Africa, and the two made their haj pilgrimage to Mecca. In 2001, with baby daughter Amatullah, the family travelled to a number of Islamic countries, including Afghanistan, to experience life the Muslim way.

‘We pleaded with Jack not to go,’ says Les Thomas, ‘but he and Maryati were committed to it. The US was pretty supportive of the Taliban during this period. There wasn’t a lot of criticism from the West at this time.’
Thomas says his interest in Afghanistan ‘was not in the Taliban but in being a good Muslim’. He was, says his brother, ‘very sensitive to the suffering of Muslims in places like Chechnya. He wanted to help the people of Afghanistan who had been abandoned by the world and left to clean up after decades of conflict with the Soviet Union.’

At the time, Les Thomas points out, ‘there was no law about travelling to Afghanistan or the north-west frontier of Pakistan. People have forgotten what the pre-9/11 world looked like.’

In Afghanistan, Thomas became disillusioned, particularly with the Taliban, which he considered ‘excessively cruel’. He says he and Maryati were planning a return to life in Australia when the planes fatefully ploughed into New York’s World Trade Center. Thomas ‘was horrified’ at the events of September 11. Before the US invasion of Afghanistan, the family left for Pakistan. Amatullah developed pneumonia, so Maryati left for Australia with her while Jack planned to follow shortly after.

Learning that federal police had questioned his family in Australia, and hearing BBC reports about Australians David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib in Guantánamo Bay, Thomas got cold feet, fearing he’d face the same predicament. He decided to wait in Pakistan, staying at the homes of friends who would later be implicated in statements allegedly extracted under duress.

But Thomas missed his family, and eventually decided to return home. Preparing to board a plane from Pakistan’s Karachi airport on 4 January 2003, he was arrested and detained without charge in military prisons in Karachi and Rawalpindi. For a fortnight, his family had no idea of his whereabouts, only to learn of his arrest through media reports.

Thomas was interrogated by the CIA, FBI and Pakistan Secret Service. Allegedly subjected to a range of physical and psychological torture, ­­including being chained to walls, strangled to the point of near-death, deprived of food and water and forced to sleep on wet concrete floors, he says he reported this to the Australian Federal Police several times. The police say that Thomas complained only once. During a recorded interrogation later heard by a Melbourne court, Thomas requested a lawyer, but was denied one.

The recording was made three months into Thomas’s imprisonment, allegedly following prolonged spells of sleep deprivation, violent abuse and threats to harm his family. This, says Thomas, is when he finally broke. In a March 8 interrogation, he told his captors what he thought they wanted to hear. After five months, he was released without charge and allowed to return to Australia. Here, he sought medical treatment for psychological damage. Australia’s foremost expert in torture psychology, Professor Patrick McGorry, testified in court that he had no doubt that Thomas had been subjected to torture.

The AFP have admitted in court to finding no evidence to incriminate Thomas since his return, even though he has been under near-constant surveillance. It’s this lack of legally obtained evidence, and his subsequent treatment at the hands of federal and state authorities in Melbourne’s Barwon prison, that enrages civil rights advocates.

‘Mr Thomas, who has been convicted of no violent crime at any time,’ says Brian Walters SC, ‘was held in the Acacia maximum security prison in Barwon. He was kept in solitary confinement. He was locked down for 21 hours a day. In the three hours he was not locked down he was required to wear handcuffs, leg irons and restraints. He was allowed one contact visit with his family per month and that through glass. He requested contact with a psychiatrist, but found it very difficult to obtain psychiatric support. That is a breach not only of his human rights, but of the law of Victoria.’

The question as to why Thomas was arrested and charged in November 2003 remains. Rob Stary suspects it may have been politically motivated. ‘The case against Mamdouh Habib is collapsing, the case against David Hicks is on its knees. So, a school of thought says, well, we need a sacrificial lamb in Australia. There was one Australian who was detained in Pakistan and that’s Jack Thomas.’

Writing to Attorney-General Daryl Williams in April 2003, the Law Institute of Victoria’s president Bill O’Shea noted that Thomas’s detention in Pakistan ‘comes within the broader context of the growing trend across many nations to disregard the rule of law in the name of “national security”.’ O’Shea said that even though Thomas was being held in Pakistan, the Government was still obliged to ensure that Thomas’s right to be informed of the charges against him and access to legal representation be respected.

The Australian Government claims that Thomas is a ‘sleeper agent’ awaiting instructions from al Qaeda. Based on the interviews recorded during Thomas’s detention in Pakistan, the Government alleges that during his time in Afghanistan, Thomas met and discussed plans with Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir; that he undertook military training at al Qaeda’s Al Farooq training camp in Kandahar; and that he was a guest in al Qaeda safe houses. It is further alleged that Thomas has seen or met Osama bin Laden, and was given $US3500 and an airline ticket to Australia by al Qaeda. Thomas is alleged to have overheard a plan to shoot down a plane carrying Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, and to have discussed a plan to liberate a prisoner from Guantánamo Bay. In Thomas’s bail hearing, magistrate Lisa Hannan reportedly said no properly instructed jury could convict on the basis of this evidence. Given that his trial is pending, Thomas can’t answer these accusations publicly.

Thomas was eventually granted bail in February 2005. In granting bail, Chief Magistrate Ian Gray again questioned the likelihood of the Government’s evidence being admissible at trial. But the Government launched an appeal, attempting to have Thomas’s bail overturned. While this failed, Thomas nervously awaits a Supreme Court trial that will set a precedent in Australian criminal legal history.

To the objection of media organisations, the Government has successfully applied for a closed court for ‘national security’ reasons, ‘which is ironic,’ says Stary, ‘considering the media stunts.’ In addition to the frenzy generated at Thomas’s arrest, during his bail hearings, Thomas was taken into court shackled, and flak-jacketed counter-terrorism officers conspicuously checked the court for bombs.

‘I’ve been practising for 25 years and I don’t think I’ve seen an accused person being pursued in as zealous a fashion as I have with Jack Thomas,’ says Stary.

Thomas’s lawyers have asked for the forthcoming trial to be conducted in an open court, believing that justice will more likely be served if the process is conducted on the public record.

‘The rules, it seems, have been thrown out the window,’ says Stary. ‘Jack Thomas’s case represents a very important milestone in criminal legal history. We know that every Western government is seeking more powers in their so-called war against terror. Unless we stand up and fight vigorously for Jack Thomas’s rights, there will be people suffering the same sorts of repressive circumstances that Jack Thomas has been subjected to: solitary confinement in detention, confessions extracted in circumstances in which they would never be admitted in a conventional criminal case.’

Brian Walters claims the Thomas case demonstrates how Australia’s terrorism laws ‘are a win for the terrorists, because they undermine our democracy’.

In April, Noam Chomsky issued a statement saying, ‘The actions of the Australian Government in pursuing Jack Thomas suggest that they are willing to trample on basic civil and human rights in the name of the “war on terror”.’

Innocent or guilty, Thomas and his family will feel the effects of this trial for years. Having put their house up for bail security, other costs are mounting. ‘The Commonwealth has financial means and resources for this case way beyond the capacity of the Thomas family,’ says Ian Thomas, Jack’s father.

Now out of prison, Thomas is working at different jobs to pay the mortgage on the house he planned to buy the day of his arrest, and the legal case he never imagined facing.

Of her son, Patsy Thomas says, ‘The boy that came home is a very meek, very scared young man, and I’m hoping that old Jack’s still in there. He’s been shattered. We have to fight as a family to get that old Jack back.’ 

Katherine Wilson is a freelance writer. She was assisted in writing this article by Stefan Markworth, who made a documentary film about the Jack Thomas case.


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