Tue, Jul 17, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: `Terrorism' and Australian fiat

Taiwan's legal system attracts withering criticism from professional and lay quarters, and at times not without reason. Rarely mentioned, however, is the fact that the day-to-day workings of the legal system proceed with little controversy. The need for reform is clear, but for now the fundamentals are attended to and there are mechanisms of appeal in place to protect against error and excess to some degree.

Yesterday saw the start of the release of more than 25,000 prisoners, courtesy of an amnesty lobbied for by acolytes of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and approved by the legislature in a rare bipartisan vote. This selective amnesty -- largely for petty criminals -- is an example of judicial processes being set aside for political, even nationalist, purposes.

Recent and controversial overseas examples of executive privilege overriding judges and juries include US President George W. Bush commuting a jail term for White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby ahead of a possible full pardon. Then, yesterday, we saw an example of this process in our region that was applied to a person not yet convicted.

Australian immigration minister Kevin Andrews has used his discretionary powers to revoke the visa of Mohamed Haneef, an Indian doctor who had been detained without charge under special security legislation over alleged links to terrorists in England. Although he was granted bail over the terrorism probe, Haneef will be detained in an immigration detention center until his trial concludes, when he will be convicted as a terrorist of some nature or, in a Kafkaesque scenario, deported as an undesirable if found not guilty.

The online edition of the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday reported that the minister received information from federal police that prompted the decision. But why wasn't this information -- if there actually was any information -- brought to the attention of the court in the first place?

The conduct of the minister might be legal in the strict sense and a potential vote-winner, but it is also an act of impressive contempt for the Australian legal system, and not just because the minister is threatening Haneef's ability to receive a fair trial. The message is loud and clear: On matters of national security or the perception of such, or on anything else, the government will prevail over the courts by any means necessary, and that evidence, innocence and personal reputation count for nothing where foreigners are involved.

In recent years the Australian government has made a mockery of natural justice by creating and revising, on a needs-be basis, laws excising offshore territory for the purposes of limiting the legal options of asylum seekers. This is merely one example of its exploitation of foreigners for political gain at a time of genuine cause for alarm over global terrorism.

The curious thing is that in so many other ways Australia has been and is a generous and just nation to its new arrivals. How mystifying it is, then, that such horse play should send a message to the region that most Australians surely would rather not hear: "Our legal system is not competent to pronounce guilt, so the government shall do so by fiat."

Taiwanese are fortunate not to have a homegrown terror threat. Thus, it is unlikely that Taiwanese will find themselves at the wrong end of an Australian ministerial order canceling a visa on "character" grounds over terrorism fears.

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