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Australian Government Settles Habib Claim arising out of Rendition and Torture and Orders Inquiry

Published on January 18, 2011        Author: 

Ben Batros is Legal Officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative and a former Senior Legal Officer, International Crime Branch, Australian Attorney-General’s Department. Philippa Webb is Visiting Assistant Professor at Leiden University and former Special Assistant to President of the International Court of Justice.

It was reported late last week that the Australian government has settled a claim brought against it by one of its citizens, Mahmoud Habib, arising out of his detention, rendition and torture by US and other foreign authorities (link).  The government will not disclose how much it paid Mr. Habib. Over a three-and-a-half year period, Mr. Habib had been detained by Pakistani authorities, then transferred by the US to Egypt, to a military base in Afghanistan, and finally on to Guantanamo Bay where he was detained until his release (without charge) in January 2005.  Mr Habib alleges that he suffered a range of mistreatments amounting to torture and inhumane treatment.  Instead of suing the foreign agents directly responsible for the alleged abuses or pursuing a criminal prosecution, Mr. Habib brought a civil action against the Australian government for the acts of Australian officials who he claims knew of and aided in his mistreatment.  On 25 February 2010, the Full Court of the Australian Federal Court ruled that Mr. Habib’s claim could proceed, as it was not barred by the act of state doctrine (see our previous post and article on the case and that ruling)

The Australian’s government’s settlement of the case follows the British government’s decision to settle similar cases brought by 16 British citizens or residents claiming that MI5 and MI6 had colluded with the CIA in their rendition and detention at Guantanamo Bay (links here, here and here).  It’s tempting in a case like this to assume that the case was settled because the government recognised that the allegations were true, and because it did not want damaging facts to be proven in Court regarding the conduct of its officials.  And that may well be the case – before the ink was dry on the settlement deal, the Australian Prime Minister requested the  Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security to open an inquiry into the Habib case (link) in the light of witness statements that Australian authorities knew of Mr. Habib’s rendition to Egypt and were even present during interrogations there. This new evidence apparently precipitated the settlement deal (link). Read the rest of this entry…

 

Habib v Commonwealth of Australia: A Twist on Actions Against State Officials for Torture

Published on March 4, 2010        Author: 

 Ben Batros is Appeals Counsel at the International Criminal Court and a former Senior Legal Officer, International Crime Branch, Australian Attorney-General’s Department. Philippa Webb, is Visiting Assistant Professor at Leiden University and former Special Assistant to President of the International Court of Justice

Last week (on 25 February), the Australian Federal Court handed down its decision in Habib v. Commonwealth of Australia ([2010] FCAFC 12).  In some respects, this case is part of several emerging trends relating to immunities and human rights. First, it concerns allegations of torture by foreign State officials, including in Guantanamo Bay (see previous EJIL:Talk! posts here and here)   and  Second, it involves an alleged victim claiming damages against a Government, which resonates with the practice in US courts under the Alien Torts Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act (including the Samantar case being heard by the US Supreme Court this week – see post by Julian Ku over on Opinio Juris). Third, a Government has asked the court to throw out the case, arguing that the courts of one country cannot sit in judgment on the acts of the government of another – echoes of Al-Adsani v. United Kingdom at the ECtHR, Jones v. Saudi Arabia in the UK House of Lords, and the pending Germany v. Italy case at the ICJ.

But even though Mr Habib’s claim lies at the intersection of these trends, it does not follow the “typical” model of a civil claim against the agents directly responsible for the alleged abuses; nor does it pursue a criminal prosecution, where questions of immunity have recently formed a less imposing barrier.  Rather, Mr Habib’s lawyers appear to have considered the experience of similar claims abroad, and to have crafted a case which takes into account both the particular opportunities and obstacles presented by Australia’s legislative regime. As a result, the heart of dispute is the scope of the act of state doctrine, not the applicability of state immunity.

Mr. Habib, an Australian citizen, was detained by Pakistani authorities in early October 2001, and transferred to Egypt in November 2001, to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan in April or May 2002, and then to Guantanamo Bay where he was detained until his release (without charge) in January 2005.  During these periods, Mr Habib alleged a range of mistreatments amounting to torture and inhumane treatment which Australian federal criminal law criminalises with extraterritorial (and in most cases universal) jurisdiction (paras. 3, 15-21, 57-65 of the decision).  The Criminal Code also makes it an offence to aid, abet or counsel the commission of a crime.  Mr Habib’s allegations included that Australian police, intelligence and diplomatic officials had visited him during his detention (which was not disputed), been present during questioning, and may even have provided information used in the interrogation (paras. 17-18, 66-67), and the facts if proved might thus found criminal cases against both the foreign agents who conducted the interrogations and the Australian officials who assisted them.

To circumvent certain procedural requirements for prosecution of these particular crimes, Mr Habib’s lawyers brought a civil action.  However, with the exception of claims under the Alien Torts Claims Act in the US, civil claims for alleged torture at the hands of foreign state officials have previously been held to be barred by state immunity (notably in the UK in Jones v Saudi Arabia), as Mr Habib’s counsel expressly conceded.  So Mr Habib sued the Australian Government for the torts of misfeasance in public office and of intentional infliction of indirect harm by its officials when they aided and abetted his alleged torture. Read the rest of this entry…