Senator Janet Rice – spoke of the ongoing ordeal of Mohammed El Halabi and called for his immediate release

photo of Senator Janet Rice
June 15, 2021

The ABC reported a year ago that he had been beaten so severely, he had lost some of his hearing. The state has imposed unprecedented security restrictions which prevent him from properly cross-examining prosecution witnesses, bringing some of his own witnesses out from Gaza to testify and even keeping copies of court transcripts.

Full speech

Senator RICE (VictoriaDeputy Australian Greens Whip) (20:59): I rise tonight to speak about human rights, as is my habit every Tuesday night in sitting weeks. The Australian Greens believe that universal human rights are fundamental and must be respected and protected in all countries and for all people.

I want to start in Myanmar. The tragic deaths and devastating blows to democracy and human rights that have followed the coup are well known. I salute the brave people of Myanmar who continue to advocate for freedom, democracy and human rights, at massive risk to their own lives and freedom.

Given their courage and conviction, it has been appalling to see the Australian government refusing to impose sanctions on the leaders of the coup and the military owned companies who are funnelling money to support them. Countries around the world, including the US, the UK, countries in the EU, and Canada, have imposed sanctions on the leaders of the coup—but not us. We, in contrast, are failing the people of Myanmar. We’ve had 370 civil society organisations in Myanmar calling on our government to urgently impose sanctions. These are the people on the ground that our government should be listening to.

The Australian government argues that it’s following the lead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, but that is a complete cop-out. I recently attended an online meeting of the International Parliamentarians Alliance for Myanmar, where politicians and former politicians from ASEAN nations told us that waiting for ASEAN to lead is not a good idea and that countries like Australia should be pushing ASEAN to act.

The Lowy Institute recently concluded that ASEAN has international support to deal with the crisis in Myanmar, yet has not proved capable of effectively managing the cunning of the generals or the grievances of the Myanmar population, and they noted the continued reluctance among ASEAN members to embrace temporary punitive measures. Our former ambassador to Myanmar, Nicholas Coppel, has called for targeted sanctions, noting that:

… while our neighbours in Asia will not join the chorus they will not be surprised that we speak out … and it will give more leverage to the less confrontational style of ASEAN.

But no—our foreign minister tells us that it’s not in our national interest to impose sanctions. For the life of me, I cannot see how acting to support democracy and human rights in our region, in a country which has such strong personal and business ties to Australia, can be against our national interest. How can it be against our national interest to support our Burmese population here in Australia, who are working so hard to support their communities against the imposition of totalitarian, violent military rule?

The tragedy that’s occurring on the ground in Myanmar is reflected in a statement by the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine and a number of other bodies who have called for the safe and unconditional release of the President of the Myanmar Emergency Medicine Society, Professor Maw Maw Oo, following his arrest and detention on Monday 12 April 2021. It has been nine weeks since that professor was arrested, but he still hasn’t been charged, and his family and friends have been threatened by the military if they advocate on his behalf.

We’re also incredibly concerned about the more recent arrests of other doctors, including Dr Htar Htar Lin, who was the national COVID lead for Myanmar before the coup, as well as surgeon Dr Maung Maung Nyein Tun and physician Swe Zin Oo, both from the Mandalay General Hospital. As the International Federation for Emergency Medicine said in a recent statement:

The principles of international humanitarian and human rights law which safeguard medical neutrality in situations of conflict must be respected and upheld. The UN Security Council Resolution 2286 … strongly condemns attacks against medical facilities and personnel in conflict situations.

I also want to highlight the plight of journalists in Myanmar. A recent Guardian article summarised it, saying: ‘Many Myanmar journalists are in hiding or have managed to flee the country although most continue to cover the junta’s crimes. Since Min Aung Hlaing seized power, Reporters Without Borders has recorded the arrest of 86 journalists and, as of 26 May, 49 of them are still detained.’ One reporter working inside Myanmar spoke anonymously to the Guardian, saying: ‘Everything has been messed up by that crazy, stupid and shameless military coup. Our lives are not safe; we have to worry for each other much more than ever. The junta military is no longer an army; it’s just a gang of thieves and murderers led by their gangster, Min Aung Hlaing.’

Let me reiterate our call for the government to impose targeted sanctions against those generals who have led the coup. For those of you struggling for justice in Myanmar, who face being shot at when you protest, and for the many who are advocating around the world, here in Australia and in other countries, we hear you; we see you. Know that your voice is powerful and heard here in the Australian parliament and elsewhere. We will keep working with you to pressure the Australian government to take action. They must listen to the voices of those on the ground as well as advocate for those who are unfairly detained. They should impose targeted sanctions urgently.

I now want to move on to the situation in Guatemala. Human Rights Watch have summarised what’s going on in a recent letter:

President Giammattei and his coalition in the Guatemalan Congress are working to remove the last few independent judges and replace them with allies in an apparent effort to halt an anti-corruption drive that has implicated many senior politicians.

They went on to say:

Legislators are also attempting to block funding to the country’s human rights ombudsman, whom they have tried to remove from office several times, in reprisal for his promotion of sexual and reproductive rights, including LGBT rights.

Similarly, Amnesty International, in a recent statement, said:

As a result of our work monitoring the human rights situation in the country, we have documented and reported the improper use of criminal law and other legal mechanisms against human rights defenders, prosecutors, former prosecutors, judges, magistrates, former employees of the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG), and defense lawyers, who have been in charge of processes that demonstrate significant advances for justice and the guarantee of human rights.

The Australian Greens also note with particular concern the recent arrest of members of the Ecological Movement of Guatemala. We call on our government to make representations to the Guatemalan government to release these political prisoners, respect human rights and to immediately cease using arrests and undermining the legal system to attack political opponents.

Tonight I also want to speak out in support of Mohammad El Halabi, who was arrested and imprisoned by the Israeli government five years ago today. Mr El Halabi was the manager of operations in Gaza for World Vision, which supported programs for farmers, fishermen and children traumatised by war. In 2014 Mohammad was named a humanitarian hero by the UN humanitarian heroes program, which recognises everyday people doing extraordinary things. In that same year, he visited Australia and spoke at an event here in the federal parliament.

In 2016, Mr El Halabi was arrested by the Israeli government on charges of diverting aid funds, particularly Australian funds, to Hamas. In response to those charges, World Vision commissioned an externally conducted forensic audit. The audit, which was completed in July 2017, found no evidence of diversion of funds and no material evidence that El Halabi was part of, or working for, Hamas. Subsequent investigation by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, independent auditors and more investigations by World Vision have found no evidence that any money was diverted. But for the last five years Mr El Halabi has been cruelly imprisoned by the Israeli government.

The ABC reported a year ago that he had been beaten so severely, he had lost some of his hearing. The state has imposed unprecedented security restrictions which prevent him from properly cross-examining prosecution witnesses, bringing some of his own witnesses out from Gaza to testify and even keeping copies of court transcripts. He has already had 151 court hearings. His most recent case has been postponed at the request of prosecutors. We echo the calls from the UN Special Rapporteurs, who say that Mr El Halabi’s arrest, interrogation and trial is not worthy of a democratic state, and that Israeli authorities must grant him the full rights of a fair trial, or else release him unconditionally.

Israel has a new government as of this week. I call on our government to make immediate representations to them to immediately release Mohammad El Halabi.

Link to parliamentary Hansard