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Last Updated: Friday, 27 July 2007, 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK
Why the Haneef case disintegrated
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

I was sitting in the magistrate's court in Brisbane, when a lawyer acting on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions outlined the case against Dr Mohamed Haneef.

Activists campaign for Dr Haneef
Activists have campaigned for Dr Haneef's release

Sometimes court proceedings can be mind-numbingly dull. But this was one of those occasional moments when the atmosphere was highly-charged.

It came when Clive Porritt, the prosecuting lawyer, delivered his most compelling nugget of evidence: that the mobile phone SIM card which Dr Haneef was alleged to have given to his second cousin in Britain was found in the burning Jeep rammed into Glasgow airport.

As Dr Haneef sat impassively behind a glass screen, dressed neatly in grey slacks and a brown sweater, Mr Porritt ventured further and said that the SIM card should have been obliterated in the explosion.

The case against Dr Haneef disintegrated because that proved to be false information. The SIM card was discovered not in Glasgow but in Liverpool.

Maybe I'm cynical, but John Howard is always trying to capitalise on terrorism
Bethan Lewis, student

There were other problems and inconsistencies. The police claimed he offered no explanation of why he tried to leave Brisbane on a one-way ticket to India.

A transcript of his first police interview, leaked to the press by his defence team, showed he did: he wanted to see his wife, who had just given birth to their child.

No wonder the state premier of Queensland, the Labour politician Peter Beattie, likened the performance of the Australian Federal Police to that of the Keystone Cops.

When the magistrate at that hearing in Brisbane, Jacqui Payne, decided to grant the 27-year-old Indian doctor conditional bail, the government controversially intervened.

Election pressures

Kevin Andrews, the immigration minister, decided to cancel his visa and keep him detained under immigration laws.

That immediately gave the case a political edge, with critics of the government claiming Dr Haneef had been caught up in the turbulent undertow of an election year.

With the John Howard government lagging way behind in the polls, as it has done for the past six months, Mr Andrews was accused of political opportunism: of trying to burnish the government's anti-terror credentials and focusing attention on national security, an issue which polls repeatedly show favours Mr Howard.

John Howard
Mr Howard has called on the police to explain what happened

Critics drew parallels with the Tampa incident ahead of the 2001 election, when the Australian prime minister controversially blocked a boatload of mainly Afghan asylum seekers from landing on Christmas Island, an Australian territory.

Back then, his handling of the incident, which came soon after 9/11, gave the government a bounce in the polls.

On a visit to Bali, where Australians have twice been the victims of attacks, Mr Howard sought to distance himself from the debacle at home.

He said: "Bearing in mind that the detention of the man was undertaken by the police and not at the request or direction or encouragement of the government, and that the case was prepared by the director of [public] prosecutions, I think that the right thing now is for those two men to explain the process and explain the reasons."

In other words, the buck quite definitely does not stop here.

Fiery debate

What Mr Howard failed to explain was why his own minister, Kevin Andrews, decided to keep Dr Haneef under the detention of immigration officials (technically that remains the case, although the doctor will be allowed to move freely about the community) after studying the same police evidence as the director of public prosecutions who pulled the plug.

Certainly, it is the subject of fiery debate among members of the Australian public.

"You could argue that anything that happens in election year is because of the election," said Adam Ridley, who works in insurance.

"And surely if the government knew he was innocent then they would have known it could backfire."

Student Bethan Lewis disagreed. "Maybe I'm cynical, but John Howard is always trying to capitalise on terrorism," she said.

Haneef terrorism charges dropped
27 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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