The Guardian on June 6, 2013 released the following:
“Court documents and lawyers suggest man whom Tony Abbott called a ‘jihadist terrorist’ was not convicted of murder
[BY] Oliver Laughland in Sydney, Louisa Loveluck in Cairo, Seumas Milne in London
Serious doubts have arisen over claims that an asylum seeker at the centre of a political furore over immigration security was convicted of murder and the possession of explosives, Guardian Australia has learned.
Sayed Abdellatif, an Egyptian asylum seeker who arrived in Australia in May 2012, has been labelled a “convicted jihadist terrorist” by the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, and in numerous media reports. Last Thursday Australian federal police deputy commissioner Peter Drennan told a Senate estimates committee that Abdellatif had been convicted of premeditated murder and possession of explosives.
The allegations and the fact that Abdellatif had been placed under a severe “red notice” warning by Interpol since 2001, prompted Julia Gillard on Wednesday to call for an immediate review by the inspector general of intelligence and security of the way security services deal with “high-risk” asylum seekers. The furore over the case has plagued the prime minister over the past week in Canberra, with opposition politicians scathing about the fact that the immigration minister, Brendan O’Connor, was not told that Abdellatif had been housed in low-security detention up until August, when he was transferred to Villawood, a higher security detention centre in Sydney.
On Wednesday, Abbott said in question time: “Given that a convicted jihadist terrorist was held at a family facility in the Adelaide hills for almost a year through what officials call a clerical error, will the prime minister now concede that Labor’s policies have made Australia less safe than it was under the former government?” He reiterated his criticism in parliament on Thursday.
But court documents seen by Guardian Australia, which appear to detail the convictions used to issue Interpol’s red notice, make no record of a murder case or of any possession of explosives. The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), an independent human rights body in Cairo, has verified the documents. Abdellatif’s actual convictions, of being party to a criminal agreement and being a member of an illegal extremist group – under the rule of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt – were part of the “returnees from Albania” trial in Cairo in 1999, heavily criticised by Amnesty International at the time for using evidence allegedly obtained under torture.
Speaking to Guardian Australia, Abdellatif’s Cairo lawyer, Muntassir al-Zayyat, said that his client was not accused or convicted of murder or bomb charges at the 1999 trial. Asked if Abdellatif had ever been accused or convicted of these offences Zayyat, who was speaking from Kuwait, said: “Not at all. The accusations were only joining a secret organisation and being party to a criminal agreement to topple the regime [of Mubarak, who was later overthrown in the 2011 Egyptian uprising]. There was no killing mentioned at all.”
Zayyat’s office were unaware of any other charges against Abdellatif.
A second lawyer, Majdi Salem, who also worked on the case, said that the 1999 charges against Abdellatif had been misreported.
He told Guardian Australia: “There were no bomb-making charges. This detail emerged because at the time of the case, the local media often took their information from the Egyptian security services, and the sources were intentionally orienting the details to suit their own interests.”
The developments follow comments from the foreign minister, Bob Carr, that the judicial system under Mubarak should be treated with “suspicion”.
He added that he would be “interested in further information that throws light on the nature of the prosecution”.
“Certainly the judicial system that President Morsi’s government has inherited from the Mubarak regime has got to be treated with a great deal of caution, even suspicion,” he said.
The court documents, translated independently for Guardian Australia, show that Abdellatif was charged in May 1999 for “joining a group that was established against the rules of law [and] held leadership in it”, and “participating in a criminal agreement”. Further documents appear to show that Abdellatif successfully overturned the charges of “criminal agreement” years later. Abdellatif is understood to be challenging his conviction for being a member of an extremist group, and Guardian Australia has also seen correspondence from Abdellatif to the EOHR, which details an application for amnesty made to the current Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, three months ago.
Zayyat claimed that Abdellatif’s 1999 trial, in which he was convicted in absentia while exiled in the UK, was a farce. Mubarak jailed thousands of Islamists in the 30 years of his presidency. “This case was a set-up,” Zayyat said. “During the Mubarak era, the Egyptian authorities wanted to charge all of the exiled Islamist opposition so they can justify requests to have them handed back to Egypt. The charges are vague, like joining an organisation that was formed illegally, or criminal agreement to topple the regime. Therefore, Mubarak had the case transferred to a military court to guarantee verdicts against them. My client Mr Sayed Abdullatif is innocent.”
The “returnees from Albania” trial, which saw 107 people, including the current head of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri (in absentia), stand accused of a variety of offences in Egypt in 1999, relied heavily on evidence supplied by Ahmed Ibrahim Sayed el-Naggar, who was allegedly rendered to Egypt after being arrested for involvement in a Tirana-based network of militants. This evidence is alleged to have been obtained through torture.
Abdellatif was convicted as a member of “Jihad Tanzim” or Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an Egyptian terror group. On Friday Fairfax media revealed Abdellatif had worked as an accountant for the Kuwait-based Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage, an organisation that was blacklisted in 2002 by the US for its links to al-Qaida. Ian Rintoul, an advocate working for Abdellatif in Sydney told Fairfax that Abdellatif had been working for the group years before it was deemed a threat.
Abdellatif came to Australia by boat from Indonesia on 11 May 2012. He was accompanied by his wife and six children. In an interview with IRIN, a humanitarian news website funded by the United Nations, conducted in February 2012, as Abdellatif arrived in Australia, he is quoted as saying: “Since leaving Egypt, I have taken my family from Albania to the UK and then onward to Iran. For years I languished in an Iraqi refugee camp there – pretending to be Palestinian lest I be found out and returned to Egypt. Later we travelled to Malaysia via India on fake passports and onward to Indonesia, again illegally. Throughout this journey, I faced repeated arrest and detention, as have members of my family.
“I arrived in Malaysia from Iran in 2010 before making my way to Indonesia in the hope of taking my family to the UK. After boarding the plane in Jakarta, we were again arrested in Singapore and sent back to Indonesia on 3 June 2010. I applied for refugee status on 30 August 2010, but almost two years on have no idea what is happening with my case.
“As a result, I have no choice but to make my way to Australia on my own.”
Guardian Australia also understands that the Australian Human Rights Commission had already intervened in Abdellatif’s asylum case, concerned about allegations that the continued detention of him and his family in Australia was arbitrary, and therefore in breach of article nine of the international covenant on civil and political rights.
Amnesty International Australia’s refugee spokesperson, Graeme McGregor, said in a statement: “We welcome the federal government’s announcement of an independent review into the legitimacy of terror charges against a man identified as Sayed Abdellatif.
“However, it is vital that the review take into account the serious flaws in Mr Abdellatif’s original trial by an Egyptian military court in 1999, on which the charges are apparently based.
“The trial violated some of the most fundamental requirements of international law, including the right to be tried before independent and competent judges. What’s more, Amnesty representatives attended several of the mass trials of civilians before military courts, where they heard defence lawyers complain consistently that they were denied enough time to prepare their cases.
“It is vital that the case against Sayed be resolved as soon as possible so that the accusations can be addressed and so that he is not separated from his wife and children for any longer than necessary.”
Red notices are issued by Interpol following a request from a member country that is passed to the Interpol secretariat for assessment and approval. They are not binding arrest warrants but are the most severe warning Interpol can issue.
Guardian Australia has contacted Interpol for clarity on the circumstances of the red notice served on Abdellatif and is awaiting a response. A public search of the Interpol wanted persons list showed no results for Abdellatif. Under Interpol’s rules the country issuing the red notice is allowed to keep its listing private.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told Guardian Australia she was “dismayed at how this matter has been handled, with the Oppostion so desperate to whip fear and hysteria in the community. That approach has made it near impossible to have all the facts of the case calmly and reasonably considered.”
“The Opposition are exploiting the government’s failures in this case to continue their fear mingering campaign.”
A spokesperson from the Australian federal police said they stood by the evidence delivered at Senate estimates last Thursday.
A spokesman for the minister of home affairs declined to comment.
A spokesman for Tony Abbott’s office said: “I refer you to the statements from the Australian federal police.””
Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
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