Sat, Aug 19, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Australian court quashes Thomas' terror conviction

AP , MELBOURNE

An appeals court quashed the conviction of an Australian man accused of receiving funds from al-Qaeda yesterday, ruling that some of the evidence against him was not admissible at his trial.

Joseph Thomas, a British-born Muslim convert nicknamed "Jihad Jack" by Australian media, was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 and was charged under tough Australian anti-terrorism laws passed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US.

Previously, a jury had found Thomas, 33, guilty on charges that he accepted US$3,500 and a plane ticket to Australia from an al-Qaeda agent in Pakistan and that he held a false passport. The jury rejected prosecutors' claims that Thomas volunteered to set up a terror cell in Australia.

The crimes carried a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison; he was sentenced to five years, and immediately launched an appeal.

Three Victorian Court of Appeal judges yesterday ruled in favor of the defendant, quashing the convictions.

The appeal argued that the record of Thomas' interview with Australian Federal Police in Pakistan should not have been allowed because of the circumstances under which it was conducted.

Thomas was arrested in Pakistan in January 2003 but was not interviewed by Australian police until March.

Defense lawyers claimed Thomas was subjected to "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" while in Pakistan, and that his confession was coerced by Pakistani interrogators who suggested he would be sent to the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, if he did not cooperate.

"The interview was not voluntary because the applicant was not answering questions on the basis of free choice," Thomas' lawyer, Lex Lasry, told the court.

Government lawyers argued during the appeal that Thomas should not be freed, and sought instead for his sentence to be lengthened.

The judges agreed to consider the government's request for the case to be reopened to hear new evidence, a move that leaves open the possibility of a new trial. The judges said they could hear further arguments later.

Thomas is one of a handful of Australians who have been tried under tough counterterrorism laws, which critics say have a lower standard of proof than the country's other criminal laws and reduce suspects' chances of a fair trial.

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