Last week the ABC 702 radio presenter Deborah Cameron referred to the so-called terror trial in Parramatta. On Friday, after deliberating for over a month, a jury at the Supreme Court returned guilty verdicts against five men on terrorism charges. The jurors were unaware that four other men, charged following the same police investigation, had already pleaded guilty and had been sentenced.
Clearly the jury was convinced, beyond reasonable doubt, that the five men acted in the preparation of a terrorist act. Certainly the evidence, albeit circumstantial, was overwhelming. There were numerous intercepted conversations and telephone buggings and some of the men had collected large quantities of weapons and ammunition, along with chemicals that could be used in constructing explosive devices.
What was a so-called terror trial to an ABC presenter in Ultimo was the real thing to the men and women of the jury in Parramatta.
In her initial report of the jury’s decision on The World Today on Friday, Philippa McDonald, even after the guilty findings, was still referring to what had been alleged against the men. She editorialised the case was hugely circumstantial and maintained it had to be said that, for a lot of the Crown case, the defence came back with something else.
There is considerable evidence that members of what is best termed the civil liberties lobby including some journalists, lawyers and academics do not want to accept that a few men in Western societies want to engage in violent jihad. The evident cynicism is not confined to Australia but extends to Britain and the United States, where acts of violence by militant Islamists have occurred.
Writing in The Australian in 2006, Phillip Adams identified with the cynics within the left and the Muslim world concerning the reported attempt to use liquid explosives to bring down seven airliners flying from Heathrow in Britain to the US and Canada. He went so far as to hint all this might have been a distraction to divert attention from the political difficulties of the then British Labour prime minister, Tony Blair.
Antony Loewenstein, a high-profile critic of Israel, supported Adams in the Crikey newsletter. Loewenstein maintained the Heathrow incident might have been a political concoction.
Once again, a jury found otherwise. Last month, three British Muslims were convicted of planning a series of suicide/homicide attacks against trans-Atlantic airlines. The case was documented in the first-class BBC Panorama documentary Terror in the Skies, shown here on Four Corners last month. The program showed the suicide videos recorded by the terrorists before the intended attacks were thwarted by British police and intelligence services.
The evidence suggests the threat to Australia from local citizens and residents is less than in Britain or the US. Even so, it is real enough as several recent cases before last week’s verdict attest.
On September 25, Justice Megan Latham sentenced Bilal Khazal to a non-parole period of nine years. Khazal had been found guilty by a jury of the offence of making a document connected with assistance in a terrorist act. The judge found the prisoner had not demonstrated any remorse or contrition.
On September 2, in the Victorian Supreme Court, Justice Bernard Bongiorno sentenced Shane Kent, who had pleaded guilty to being a member of a terrorist organisation and making a document connected with preparation for a terrorist act, to a non-parole period of three years and nine months. The judge noted that Kent, a convert to Islam, was not contrite for his actions. Moreover, he did not accept that Kent had abandoned the cause of violent jihad.
On February 3, Bongiorno sentenced seven men who had been found guilty in Victoria of knowingly being members of a terrorist organisation. Some of this group were also convicted of other terrorism offences. In handing down his sentences, the judge commented about the unwillingness of the prisoners to renounce violent jihad.
Justice Anthony Whealy made a similar finding when sentencing Faheem Lodhi, in the NSW Supreme Court in 2006, to a non-parole period of 15 years for a terrorism- related offence.
It is not as if those convicted of terrorism offences in Australia in recent years have come up against an unfair system despite complaints reported in the media by some of their family members and supporters. In all the cases cited above, judges have gone out of their way to ensure a fair trial. And juries have exercised considerable caution, including reaching some not guilty findings. Also, Justices Bongiorno and Whealy expressed valid concerns about the extremely harsh conditions experienced by some prisoners.
The fact is that guilty verdicts have been reached, and relatively tough sentences handed out, on account of evidence which led to convictions beyond reasonable doubt. ASIO, the Australian Federal Police and state police forces tend to receive criticism. However, the convictions in the terrorism-related cases in both NSW and Victoria demonstrate that Australia’s intelligence and police services have done a first-rate job in protecting the liberties of all of us.
The same can be said for our politicians. The present terrorism legislation is the product of agreement between the Coalition and Labor in Parliament. Most if not all of the convictions have been assisted by the much derided terrorism help-line set up by the Howard government. Among those providing evidence against terrorism have been Australian Muslims. Clearly, they are not convinced that terrorism deserves the so-called label.