Senate debates

Tuesday, 26 June 2012


Mackell, Mr Austin

10:30 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make some brief comments about the situation faced by an Australian citizen in trouble overseas. Senators would be aware that I have taken up the cause of Julian Assange with some vigour over the last couple of months. I want to raise tonight the plight of another individual, Mr Austin Mackell, who is an Australian journalist who was arrested in Egypt some time ago. As senators are aware, last week this chamber noted, with the support of the coalition that was gratefully received, the inconsistent or selective application of the Consular Services Charter that leaves Australian citizens in doubt about the level of assistance they may receive when facing difficulties overseas. That motion, which passed the chamber, also went on to note the selective treatment that was received by Julian.

Tonight I draw attention to another journalist who has been punished for doing his job. He is one of 163 journalists currently on the Reporters Without Borders list of those imprisoned. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has been admirably active in his concern for the welfare of Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor, who has been detained in Libya while working for the International Criminal Court. I strongly applaud Senator Carr's efforts and the trouble he has gone to, the fact that he has actually travelled to Tripoli to take up this cause, and I ask that his enthusiasm for defending Australians in trouble abroad extends to the case of Austin Mackell.

Mr Mackell, his translator, Aliya Alwi, student Derek Ludovici and labour activist Kamal Fayoumi were arrested in Egypt in March this year in an attempt by the military junta in that country to silence opposition. The arrest of individuals for bringing attention to the strikes by workers and students in Mahalla, and the threatened prosecution of a journalist for doing his job, are serious attacks on freedom of the press and also on the right to organise. Now an Australian citizen has found himself right in the middle of that.

The arrest of Austin and his associates in Mahalla is a very clear case of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—the SCAF regime—attempting to bully opponents and silence journalists, and get them out of Egypt. After the fall of Hosni Mubarak, SCAF pledged to protect the revolution and realise its objectives. Instead, they have been responsible for months of quite bloody and repressive crackdowns on dissent and on free expression in Egypt.

The case I bring up tonight, because it centrally involves an Australian citizen, is obviously something that tens of thousands of Egyptian citizens and families have been subjected to over the last months and years. Mr Mackell was accused of paying Egyptians to protest, and that is in keeping with the regime's—or, perhaps tonight we can even say the former regime's—self-serving claims that foreigners are responsible for any discontent in Egypt. It is enormously insulting to the thousands of Egyptian citizens who have put themselves, their bodies, on the line for freedoms that here in Australia we take completely for granted to have the regime say, as we have heard in many other instances, that the unrest is being provoked by foreign citizens. This is one instance where we have pretty strong evidence that those claims are completely ridiculous. Egypt was in its second day of a general strike when Mr Mackell was arrested. Strikes were quite clearly occurring in Mahalla before he and his colleagues even reached the town. The allegation that a freelance Australian journalist is responsible for the unrest in Mahalla is ridiculous.

For nearly five months, Mr Mackell has been under house arrest in Egypt, unable to work. He has relied on the benevolent fund of his union, the MEAA—and I take this opportunity to congratulate the union for sticking up for one of its members who is now in very serious trouble—and the support of many others simply to survive. The most recent development is that his case file has finally made its way to the Cairo office of the General Prosecutor where I understand a final decision will shortly be made regarding whether to set a trial date or archive his case. It is understood that this decision will be largely based on a recommendation from the Mahalla office where they were originally charged. Very serious legal inconsistencies have already been identified in the testimonies against him and his colleagues. Much of that testimony is hearsay and probably would not have been admissible in Australian courts.

The recent presidential elections in Egypt and the extraordinary events in the Egyptian judicial system that led to the dissolution of parliament have obviously played a role in the delay. As such, now is a vital time for the Australian government to make direct representations to Cairo on behalf of Mr Mackell and, as far as possible, for his associates and for people who potentially have found themselves in trouble through association with this journalist.

Mr Mackell has praised the embassy staff and in particular Mr Simon Harrison, the consul, for their efforts to assist him as far as practicable. But their purview has been limited. I will quote briefly from a post that Austin has put on a website. He says:

As I have stated repeatedly, the embassy staff have been great, making every effort possible to help. In particular Simon Harrison, the consul, has been fantastic, from bringing me and my American cellmate toilet paper and blankets, to making time outside of office hours to check up on me and see if there is any way he can help.

Again, on behalf of this chamber, I would like to thank our consular staff in the Cairo office for their work over an extended period in trying to do what they can within the limits of their mandate in the consular charter to make sure that this guy and his associates are getting as much assistance as they possibly can. While he and the other embassy staff do not make excuses or blame others, I get the distinct sense that they have been stonewalled by the foreign minister's office as much as they are by the Egyptian authorities. A little further on down the letter he says:

The disingenuousness of this 'hands off it's legal' position is further demonstrated by Carr's vigorous advocacy on behalf of Ms Melinda Taylor, currently detained in Libya on similarly politicised charges, (efforts which I applaud).

This is not intended as an implied criticism of Senator Carr's advocacy for Ms Taylor, quite the reverse in fact. But we are seeing, potentially, quite selective application on cases. You can say that it certainly politicises the situation in Libya, given Australia's support for military intervention there. But Senator Carr has gone and he has done what I think most of us would hope is the role of the foreign minister in a case like this, that he has the time and he is able to go there. Mr Mackell goes on to say:

Why is Carr willing to fly to Libya for the benefit of one citizen ... who is in trouble, but can't even make a phone call on my behalf?

I am facing a possible seven year jail term. This is very serious.

Does he realise that the demonstrable difference in the government's responses to these two cases sends a signal of selective apathy that actively weakens my position?

That is a big deal—all he is after is a phone call; he is after a phone call from the foreign minister. He is not even necessarily demanding that Senator Carr hop on a plane and go to where he is being held under house arrest but direct advocacy. Going beyond what our diplomatic staff can do in Cairo and exercising such diplomatic and political leverage as he is able to is really what we are after now. So the deflection that 'No, we don't interfere in the judicial processes of another country,' given the extraordinary nature of the charges that are potentially to be levelled at Mr Mackell, the turmoil in that country, it does seem entirely appropriate for Senator Carr to directly intervene not in the judicial process but in a political situation in Libya.

I think it is not going too far to say that, at the very least, we will take the minister on good faith to look at the remarkable events in Egypt over the last couple of days and say that it must be very difficult to prosecute or to take up these kinds of cases with the turmoil that is occurring at the moment. But, really, it is time now to stand up for this Australian citizen who has found himself in trouble a long way from home for doing the work that we rely on journalists to do—to tell the stories, to hold the powerful to account and, when necessary, to put themselves in harm's way.

His case was cited by the lawyers of ousted President Hosni Mubarak as evidence of a foreign plot against Egypt. That is about as delusional as these things come. But that is where it got to. I applaud the minister's enthusiastic advocacy on behalf of Ms Taylor, who faces equally trumped up accusations in an equally politically charged environment. I urge the minister to take an equally vigorous approach in the case of Mr Austin Mackell. This young Australian journalist now faces seven years in prison potentially simply for doing his job. I commend his case if it is possible and appropriate to do so to this chamber. I hope that we are able to stand up in another adjournment debate reasonably soon with better news or, better yet, get a statement directly from the foreign minister telling us just what action he has taken in defence of this Australia citizen. I thank the Senate.