Haneef speaks to wife for the first time after detention

By Neena Bhandari, IANS

Sydney : Muhammad Haneef, the Indian doctor detained without charge in a Brisbane watchhouse for the past nine days in connection with the foiled UK bomb attacks, has finally spoken to his wife in Bangalore after the Indian consulate confirmed the family phone number for security purposes Wednesday afternoon.

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The Australian Greens Party has called for Dr Muhammad Haneef to be charged or released. Greens senator Kerry Nettle told reporters: "It's quite an extraordinary period of detention".

Civil liberty groups here are saying Haneef is being denied natural justice even as the authorities argue that the complexity of the case is making it necessary to detain him.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has for third time applied for more time to detain Haneef, who had been working as a registrar in a Gold Coast hospital on 457 work visa, for further interrogation. According to media reports, the AFP is asking to hold the 27-year-old at the Brisbane watchhouse for five more days.

AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty had told media Tuesday that the five-day application was reasonable, given the complexity and size of the investigation, which involved about 230 police officers.

The 48-hour extension granted by the Brisbane magistrate's court on Monday expires at 6 p.m. AEST Wednesday. Haneef's lawyer Peter Russo and barrister Stephen Keim told Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): "Depending on what's in the material we will maintain our opposition to the downtime being extended".

Downtime is the period in which a person can be detained without charge before the 12 hours of questioning begins.

Russo has expressed concern about the manner in which his client has been treated. He told media: "We could challenge it merely on the fact that we've been denied natural justice.

"We haven't been provided any real reasons as to why detention is justified. (We should) be provided with some reasons as to why they need to detain our client further, so that we can make a value judgement call if there's any merit in that application."

Russo said Haneef was unaware of the level of public attention his case had attracted and was upset about not being able to talk to his family in India. If an extension order is granted to the AFP, Haneef's legal team will look at the option of an appeal to the federal court.

Haneef has been held without charge under Australia's new counter terrorism laws. There have been concerns raised from various quarters since the counter terrorism laws were introduced. There is no specified maximum time limit for detention in the legislation. Civil liberty groups are calling on the Australian government to review these laws.

University of New South Wales Professor George Williams told local media: "He [Dr Haneef] doesn't know whether he's going to be charged, he doesn't know whether he's going to be set free.

"Unfortunately what happens during this period is people speculate, they wonder what's happening, they think 'where there's smoke there's fire' and his reputation gets tarnished. Even if it turns out that he's done absolutely nothing then he will find it very hard to go back to his normal life."

However, federal attorney-general Philip Ruddock has maintained that Haneef's detention is essential as the police needs more time to examine the 31,000 documents seized from across Australia.

Defending Haneef's arrest, Ruddock told ABC Radio: "The length of time a person can be held without charge in Australia is determined by a magistrate. It's limited by the reasonableness and the evidence".

Ruddock told media: "This is not a situation in which the police are free agents in relation to holding people. These are the issues that the court has to take into account in deciding whether or not the period is reasonable.

"You would be asking me different types of questions if the inquiries were truncated unnecessarily and we found out later that there were avenues of inquiry that could have been pursued … that would have been or may have been ascertained and weren't, if some terrible event happened in Australia."

The president of the Queensland council for civil liberties Michael Cope has said the judicial process in Haneef's case has been hampered by the fact his lawyer has been denied access to the evidence collected by the police against his client.

Meanwhile, according to an intelligence source quoted in the country's current affairs magazine, The Bulletin, a group of 20-25 Australian men and women are now under constant surveillance as they can pose a potential threat.

The magazine says intelligence officials believe the APEC summit in Sydney, scheduled for early September, will be an appealing target. US President George W. Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Hu Jintao and other world leaders will be attending the summit.

(Neena Bhandari can be contacted at [email protected])