Saturday, January 29, 2005

Australia Day (and a quick look at 21st century penal colonies)

It was Australia day this week. Australia day commemorates the "first fleet's" arrival in Australia a few hundred years ago. The first fleet was a convict transportation. The first of many. Australia was considered largely inhospitable desert by other new continent standards and didn't seem to have much going for it apart form being far away. Far away being a good place to locate a penal colony.

Colonisation was a pretty big thing at the time and although Australia wasn't exactly considered high-brow destination material, it did seem like a good place to off-load lower-class citizens. European prisons were overcrowded cesspitts, reflecting to some degree overcrowded city life, and social architects of the time were on the look out for alternative prison "solutions". It was quite an idealistic time, empirically, so the idea was sort of to "cleanse" Europe by exporting undesirables and then once the surviving thieves and thugs had served their sentences they could go forth and "colonise" their new location. Which they did. Much to the local indigenous population's dismay .

I was reading transportation records this Wednesday. The handwritten records show name, crime and sentence. Crimes consist of four to five words and run along these lines ~ "stealing a bolt of cloth" (remarkable number of bolts of stolen cloth thieves, the same charge appeared several times on just one page) "stealing a silk handkerchief" (seriously, that was a charge, a crime worthy of deportation) "stealing a loaf of bread" etc etc. Most crimes seem fairly mundane and at times one wonders if they even occurred at all, the intriguing "receiving a bundle of papers" for instance. I saw one "highway robbery" and one "pickpocketing", almost a welcome change from the repetitively dull fabric thefts. I guess seamstresses were a shifty lot back then. Sewing notes into hems and stealing cheesecloth. I used to sew myself. Where was I. Oh yes. Sentence terms ~ seven years, fourteen years, twenty-one years, life. Fairly standard, if allocated on whim. One bolt-of-linen stealer was sentenced to seven years while a cheesecloth thief got life.

Anyway. Every Australia day our current prime minister avoids Australia's penal colony history and talks about soldiers instead. This year was no exception. As usual, the prime minister named an "Australian Of The Year" and made a speech that managed to include something about "diggers" (what Australians call ANZAC soldiers) and something about Iraq/East Timor/Indonesia/wherever else Australia is meddling with guns and bombs and things. He usually forgets to talk about Australian detention centres and Aboriginal non-emancipation and Australian involvement in off-shore torture camps. The same week that Mamdouh Habib arrives back in Australia and our prime minister misses the opportunity to talk about the draconian conditions of 18th century prisons in the context of 21st century ones. So I will instead.

Much as imprisonment was outsourced in 17 to 18th century Western Empires, so it is in 21st century Western Empires. In October 2001 Mr Habib, an Australian coffee shop owner who lived in Australia for 21 years, was detained while traveling in Pakistan. He was tortured and transported from location to location before arriving at a US off-shore camp in Cuba's Guantanamo Bay in 2002. Where his torture continued with the Australian Governments full knowledge. Mr Habib was released this week and arrived in Sydney today. Mr Habib was held for four years with no charge. This is inexcusable in itself. Our law system is based on the principle "innocent until proven guilty". Torture is in contravention of human rights at all times. And yet these two fundamental principles of 20th century law were dismissed within 10 months of the 21st century.

Surely Mr Habibs release, coinciding with Australia day, is worthy of mention in an Australia day speech by an Australian prime minister who considers himself globally aware. Nope. Don't count on it. Our (Australian) prime minister pretends not to know while his foreign minister issues such statements as ~

"Al-Qaeda is the world's most evil terrorist organisation."


"We've told the Americans we will provide appropriate security for Australian people."

Right. Because the last thing we need is for Americans to get the idea that Howard and Downer can't secure Australian people. We all know what happens to unsecured peoples in the 21st century. Don't we. Bit bloody late Downer.

Current security rating ~ I would feel much more safe if Howard and Downer had stood up for Mr Habib's human rights and denounced torture camps.

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