ALEX McK­IN­NON

The case of Mo­hamed Kamer Niza­mdeen, re­leased af­ter a month in pri­son when ter­ror­ism-re­lated charges were dropped be­cause of mis­taken ev­i­dence, is the lat­est in a string of du­bi­ous ar­rests and defam­a­tory ac­cu­sa­tions in the me­dia against Aus­tralian Mus­lims

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

On Au­gust 31, New South Wales Po­lice ar­rested 25-year-old Mo­hamed Kamer Niza­mdeen, a PhD stu­dent work­ing as a sys­tems an­a­lyst at the Univer­sity of NSW, and charged him with mak­ing a doc­u­ment con­nected to the prepa­ra­tion of a ter­ror­ist act. Po­lice raided his home in Zet­land, in Syd­ney’s in­ner east, that night, seiz­ing his lap­top and mo­bile phone.

Niza­mdeen’s ar­rest was pre­cip­i­tated by a note­book a co­worker claimed to have found at a desk Niza­mdeen fre­quented. Based on its con­tents, po­lice al­leged Niza­mdeen planned to as­sas­si­nate for­mer prime min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull, for­mer for­eign min­is­ter Julie Bishop and for­mer speaker Bron­wyn Bishop, as well as carry out ter­ror at­tacks on the Syd­ney Opera House, the Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge and other “sym­bolic” lo­ca­tions across the city.

Niza­mdeen’s ar­rest made head­lines across Aus­tralia. On Septem­ber 1, The

Daily Tele­graph re­ported the raid on its front page with the head­line “POSTER

BOY FOR TER­ROR­ISM”. It in­cluded a photo of Niza­mdeen wear­ing a red and white Mid­dle East­ern-style kef­fiyeh and dark sun­glasses. Other news out­lets seized on his pre­vi­ous se­lec­tion as “Hero of the Week” in UNSW’s in-house stu­dent de­vel­op­ment pro­gram, paint­ing him as a kind of smil­ing as­sas­sin. The day af­ter his ar­rest, De­tec­tive Act­ing Su­per­in­ten­dent Mick Sheehy said Niza­mdeen was plan­ning to act alone but “from doc­u­men­ta­tion, he would af­fil­i­ate with ISIS [Daesh]”.

Niza­mdeen would spend the next month be­hind bars as po­lice con­tin­ued their in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “He was clas­si­fied as an AA in­mate,” Moustafa Kheir, Niza­mdeen’s lawyer, told The Sat­ur­day Pa­per. “This is the high­est clas­si­fi­ca­tion un­der the cor­rec­tive ser­vices sys­tem.”

Niza­mdeen’s incarceration trig­gered protests in Sri Lanka, where his fam­ily as­serted his in­no­cence. His un­cle, Faiszer Musthapha, who is Sri Lanka’s sports and lo­cal gov­ern­ment min­is­ter, told Triple J’s Hack pro­gram that Niza­mdeen’s fam­ily was “shat­tered and bro­ken” by his ar­rest.

On Septem­ber 28, the case took a turn. Niza­mdeen was re­leased on bail af­ter pros­e­cu­tors con­ceded that the writ­ing in the note­book – their cen­tral piece of ev­i­dence – was likely not his. On Oc­to­ber 19, po­lice dropped all charges against him.

In a state­ment, the Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice said “sub­se­quent ex­pert foren­sic ex­am­i­na­tion of the note­book in­di­cated ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties be­tween ex­am­ples of Mr Niza­mdeen’s hand­writ­ing and the hand­writ­ing in the note­book that spec­i­fied ter­ror­ist threats”. The AFP also noted that the NSW Joint Counter Ter­ror­ism Team’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion “has shifted to fo­cus on the pos­si­bil­ity that the con­tent of the note­book has been cre­ated by other peo­ple”.

While po­lice have re­fused to com­ment fur­ther on the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion, unan­swered ques­tions about the note­book’s au­thor­ship raise trou­bling pos­si­bil­i­ties. There’s the po­ten­tial that some­one used Niza­mdeen’s note­book to plan a se­ries of ter­ror at­tacks and hap­pened to leave it at Niza­mdeen’s desk, or that his note­book and workspace were used de­lib­er­ately in an at­tempt to frame him for plan­ning an at­tack.

Speak­ing out­side Syd­ney Cen­tral Lo­cal Court af­ter Niza­mdeen’s re­lease, NSW Po­lice As­sis­tant Com­mis­sioner Mick Will­ing re­fused to apol­o­gise to Niza­mdeen and de­nied a jour­nal­ist’s as­ser­tion that po­lice had “ru­ined a young man’s life”.

“Those who were in­volved in the pro­duc­tion and man­u­fac­ture of these doc­u­ments are the ones who’ve had an im­pact on Mr Niza­mdeen,” said Will­ing. “Coun­tert­er­ror­ism in­ves­ti­ga­tion, by its very na­ture, means that some­times you have to act early. You have to put pub­lic safety first.”

Kheir says the AFP’s re­sponse was more con­cerned with pub­lic re­la­tions than with mak­ing amends.

“The AFP state­ment was de­signed to soften the com­mu­nity back­lash,” he told The Sat­ur­day Pa­per. “They should have ac­cepted things could have been dealt with bet­ter and apol­o­gised to this young man and his fam­ily. In­stead their re­sponse was ar­ro­gant.” He added that Niza­mdeen “is look­ing into civil ac­tion op­tions” against NSW Po­lice.

Niza­mdeen’s case has raised some dis­turb­ing ques­tions re­gard­ing how po­lice, the me­dia and the pub­lic re­spond to the pos­si­bil­ity of ter­ror­ism. Un­der laws passed in May 2016, NSW Po­lice can hold and ques­tion a ter­ror sus­pect aged 14 and over for up to 14 days with­out charge. In Oc­to­ber 2017, then prime min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull urged all states and ter­ri­to­ries to adopt the same stan­dards. These pow­ers have not been paired with any in­creased checks to en­sure they are not mis­used.

Niza­mdeen is not the first to be caught in the anti-ter­ror drag­net. Kheir also rep­re­sented Khaled Merhi, a 40-year-old man from Syd­ney’s Surry Hills who was ar­rested in July 2017 on charges of pos­sess­ing or us­ing a pro­hib­ited weapon with­out a per­mit. Merhi was held for eight days be­fore be­ing re­leased, dur­ing which time he sus­tained a gash above his right eye and a back in­jury.

Po­lice dropped all charges against him in May this year, af­ter the “weapon” he was charged with pos­sess­ing turned out to be a mod­i­fied fly swat­ter he used to light his bar­be­cue. Po­lice as­serted the fly swat­ter con­sti­tuted a “home­made taser”, be­fore ad­mit­ting in court the de­vice had roughly 300 times less power than the tasers used by NSW Po­lice.

Kheir is the prin­ci­pal so­lic­i­tor at Birch­grove Le­gal, a Syd­ney law firm that has rep­re­sented a num­ber of Aus­tralian Mus­lims in high-pro­file me­dia defama­tion cases. He points to the case of three men who were charged with plan­ning to blow up a plane us­ing an ex­plo­sive de­vice hid­den in­side a meat grinder. The Daily Tele­graph’s front-page re­port of the meat grinder raids car­ried the head­line “BULL­DOG AND A ‘BOMB’ ” and showed one of the men ar­rested, Khaled Khayat, wear­ing a Can­ter­buryBankstown Bull­dogs rugby league jer­sey.

He was de­scribed as “a Can­ter­bury Bull­dogs fan”, an in­fer­ence that drew a fu­ri­ous re­sponse from the Na­tional Rugby League and the club, which is based in an area of Syd­ney with a large Mus­lim com­mu­nity. Then Bull­dogs chief ex­ec­u­tive Rae­lene Cas­tle said the front page was “an un­just and un­fair re­flec­tion on our club”, and that the NRL had ex­pressed its “ex­treme dis­ap­point­ment” to the Tele­graph about “how they re­ported the in­ci­dent and the strong link they made with the Bull­dogs”.

Birch­grove Le­gal also rep­re­sented the Grand Mufti of Aus­tralia, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mo­hamed, when he suc­cess­fully sued News Corp for defama­tion over two ar­ti­cles pub­lished in Novem­ber 2015. The Daily Tele­graph falsely ac­cused the mufti of a “stub­born re­fusal to con­demn the Paris ter­ror at­tacks”, and of “snub­bing” a memo­rial for the vic­tims. One front-page re­port in­cluded Pho­to­shopped im­ages of the mufti cov­er­ing his eyes, ears and mouth, along with the head­line “THE UN­WISE MONKEY: Sees no prob­lem, hears no con­cerns, speaks no English”.

Around the same time, the firm rep­re­sented the pres­i­dent of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Imams Coun­cil, Sheikh Shady Al­suleiman, in his suc­cess­ful defama­tion claim against

News Corp. In Feb­ru­ary, Fed­eral

Court jus­tice Ge­of­frey Flick or­dered the Tele­graph to take down sev­eral ar­ti­cles that im­plied Sheikh Al­suleiman “preached hate to­wards oth­ers”. In June 2016, Al­suleiman at­tended a mul­ti­faith din­ner at Kir­ri­billi House hosted by then prime min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull. News Corp seized on his at­ten­dance, call­ing him a “hate preacher”. Flick said the way News Corp con­ducted it­self through­out the case “will be a model of how not to con­duct lit­i­ga­tion”.

Kheir says the string of con­tro­ver­sies are in­dica­tive of a me­dia that loses sight of its pro­fes­sional ethics when the spec­tre of Is­lamist ter­ror is raised. “Par­tic­u­larly with News Corp, there is a ma­li­cious­ness there,” he said. “It’s not a ques­tion of pub­lish­ing the truth but pub­lish­ing what they can get away with with­out be­ing sued.

“Com­mu­nity aware­ness and will­ing­ness to seek jus­tice through the courts has sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved,”

Kheir said, point­ing out that Aus­tralian Mus­lims have be­come in­creas­ingly aware of their rights in cases of pos­si­ble me­dia defama­tion. He says they are more will­ing than ever to pur­sue out­lets they be­lieve have mis­rep­re­sented them.

While he is no longer a ter­ror­ism sus­pect, Niza­mdeen’s life and fu­ture re­main in tur­moil. His stu­dent visa ex­pired in Septem­ber while he was in jail. He was ar­rested in his place of em­ploy­ment – where it’s likely the per­son who re­ported him to po­lice still works. Shortly af­ter his ar­rest, he was scrubbed from the UNSW Hero Pro­gram web­site.

It is also un­likely his name will ever be en­tirely free of the stain of as­so­ci­a­tion with ter­ror­ism. Ar­ti­cles de­scrib­ing him as a “ter­ror­ist” on Is­lam­o­pho­bic web­sites pop up on the first page of sev­eral Google search re­sults that in­clude his name. The day of his ar­rest, for­mer La­bor leader Mark Latham wrote on Twit­ter that Niza­mdeen “was plot­ting to kill se­nior Fed­eral MPs and blow up Syd­ney Opera House and po­lice/train sta­tions”. The tweet re­mains live.

Fam­ily mem­bers of Mo­hamed Kamer Niza­mdeen and ac­tivists protest last month in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

ALEX McK­IN­NON is Schwartz Me­dia’s morn­ing ed­i­tor, and a for­mer ed­i­tor of Jun­kee.

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