Crusading lawyer drops a bomb or two

GEOFFREY Robertson thinks he might owe his existence to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. At the time his father, an Australian fighter pilot, was due to be part of the Allied invasion of Japan. “He was due to report to naval headquarters on the very day that news of Hirohito’s surrender crackled over the wireless,” Robertson writes in his new book. “Instead of reporting for duty, he telephoned the women’s air force corporal he had taken out in Townsville, and proposed.”
It was the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima that gave the emperor his excuse to surrender; without it, his father might well have been one of hundreds of thousands more soldiers to die in the conflict, Robertson says.
That knowledge has always tempered his view of nuclear weapons, which he did not regard as an unmitigated evil. But in his new book, Mullahs Without Mercy: Human Rights and Nuclear Weapons, the international human rights lawyer takes a tough stand. He says it is time the world called the construction and use of the bomb a human rights atrocity, and set up systems to prevent it falling into the hands of “malevolent regimes which seek to gird their loins for Armageddon”.
To wit, Iran. And Egypt and Syria and Libya. But mostly Iran, which has a history of “appalling criminality”, including massacres of political prisoners. Its nuclear ambitions are by far and away the biggest threat to world security because they will trigger a new arms race, he says.
Robertson argues that it is Iran’s progress towards N-weapons that has spurred Israel into its latest bombing of Hamas; Israel is clearing out Hamas’ missiles because it wants to bomb Iran in early 2013, “once it achieves ‘nuclear capability’, which [Israel] confuses with nuclear culpability”.
Robertson, a QC and probably the world’s best-known human rights lawyer, is 66. He has lived most of his adult life in London but was born in Australia. He speaks in the rich, plummy tones of an English toff. Private Eye has accused him of having had “a vowel transplant”; a philologist once said he spoke like an Etonian in the age of Queen Victoria.
Robertson says he talked like that long before he studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford: “I didn’t speak at all until I was five and then came out with the inflections of ABC announcers.” Not bad for a graduate of Epping Boys High School in Sydney.
Robertson is popularly known in Australia for his ABC TV series Hypotheticals, in which he hosted debates on topical issues using the barrister’s verbal thrust and parry, often spearing the heart of the question and sometimes panelists.
It was during one of these episodes in 1988 that he met Sydney author Kathy Lette, who won him away from his then-squeeze, the bounteous Nigella Lawson. He and Lette, a lissom, wise-cracking queen of chick-lit, married in 1990. They have two children who are old enough now to be “semi-detached”, as he puts it.
His cufflinks today are a gift from his wife: tiny silver handcuffs. “Only Kylie could get her wrist through those,” muses Lette.
While Lette writes humorously about the personal side of life – froth with a feminist bite – Robertson’s work has been exposing and fighting the worst in human nature, the systematic abuse of the vulnerable.
It began with Aborigines in Australia, a theme continued when he won a landmark 2007 suit to have the remains of Tasmanian Aborigines returned to their people from the British Natural History Museum. He spent five years as president of a special court into war atrocities in Sierra Leone that indicted former president Charles Taylor over crimes against humanity.
He has also acted for high-profile clients including WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange and fatwah-ed author Salman Rushdie, and represents the jailed former president of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Robertson’s books include Crimes Against Humanity – the latest edition required 300 more pages than the one before it, he points out grimly – and The Case Against The Pope, in which he used legal principles to argue the Vatican should be treated as a “rogue state” because of its shielding of paedophile priests. “We must view child abuse as a crime against humanity when it is done on that industrial-scale level,” he says.
So, why a book on nukes now? Hasn’t the nuclear threat been with us since Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Yes, he says, but for decades after that, it was largely a stable two-party threat, with the politics of Mutual Assured Destruction staying the trigger fingers of US and Soviet leaders. Later, the Big Five nations with nukes were all at a level of development where leaders had too much to lose to risk using it: “Wives and children and retirement plans.”
Now unstable nations with aggressive, authoritarian regimes have nuclear ambitions. “We haven’t had an explosion since Nagasaki so everyone is very complacent,” he says. “But we are probably about to fight a war to stop Iran [getting the bomb], and we don’t yet realise that this is Pandora’s Box. There’s nothing to stop any number of countries from reaching for nukes – the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has said it wants some, Saudi Arabia says it will buy some from Pakistan . . .
“We need to spool back the film and look at how dictators have behaved over the past 10 years.”
Robertson points out that Saddam Hussein used Scud missiles against Israel in Kuwait in 1990 even though Israel was not one of the combatants. “If he had had nuclear weapons to shoot at Israel he probably would have done so . . . You can imagine how much more difficult Syria would be if Assad had the bomb, or Libya if Gaddafi had had it. If he had kept building it, he would have had one by 2010, and he would have been quite capable of shooting a missile at Paris or London.”
So Iran’s nuclear program is even more dangerous than North Korea’s simply because it is in the Middle East and will inspire its neighbours to do likewise, he says.
Robertson argues that Iran’s government is particularly unfit to hold nukes because of its appalling history of human rights abuses: international assassinations, mass torture – including women prisoners of conscience given 15 lashes five times a day – and the 1998 slaughter of a suspected 7000 religious and political prisoners.
Robertson likens these murders to the mass graves of Srebrenica and the Japanese death marches of prisoners of war. It is Iran’s theocratic leaders whom he has dubbed “Mullahs without mercy”.
But still, he does not support a pre-emptive attack on Iran by Israel or the US.
He thinks Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is acting precipitately because he fears the millennialist thinking of Iran’s Shia Muslim leaders. They believe that a messianic figure, the 12th imam, will return to the world to reward believers and destroy infidels following a time of great chaos and “screaming from the sky”.
Netanyahu and others, Robertson writes, “discern great danger in this . . . belief, so fervently promoted by [Iranian] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad . . . they fear that an excessively devout Supreme Leader . . . might one day decide to drop a nuclear bomb on Israel in much the same spirit, to create that chaos”.
But he warns that a pre-emptive strike in the absence of a direct threat from Iran would be illegal under international law and would create its own humanitarian disasters, killing thousands of civilians and releasing poisonous clouds into the atmosphere.
He doesn’t think Iran would use the bomb unless it was attacked and “the regime was tottering”.
He thinks the weapon used to fix the problem should be international law and wants laws passed that would criminalise governments that acquire new nukes, and political will to be harnessed to force disarmament by those nations that already have them.
Robertson says nuclear weapons should be banned entirely, as are dumdum bullets and landmines.
And the legal regime needs teeth, not just to gnash but to bite. The International Atomic Energy Agency is a poor monitor and has no power to punish those who breach its guidelines, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty has no enforcement mechanisms either, he says.
But does international law have any force? Wouldn’t this just be another lawyers’ picnic, with duplicitous or defiant states going their own way regardless?
Robertson points out that international law is now gaining great traction over war crimes with the prosecutions of leaders such as Charles Taylor, who copped a 50-year sentence, and Ratko Mladic, on trial over genocide in the Bosnian war.
“Aggressive authoritarian dictators have been given pause by the fact that there is now law. It’s not so much the dictator himself but the generals and the army heads. We saw that in Libya where the prospect of being charged with crimes against humanity . . . led generals to defect during the NATO strikes in 2011 . . . ”
Robertson acted for Human Rights Watch in a British case against the Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet over his record of torture. There was an attempt to extradite Pinochet from Britain so he would face trial in Spain.
Britain found him too ill to stand trial but contrast the existence of that legal action, Robertson says, with the position he was in when he joined Amnesty International in 1979: “One of my first tasks was to write a letter about the torture chambers. ‘Dear General Pinochet . . .’ ”
Mullahs without Mercy by Geoffrey Robertson is published by Vintage Australia. RRP $34.95
Geoffrey Robertson will speak at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne at 6.30pm on December 14 and at the Sydney Opera House at 4pm on December 16.
First published in The Age.

Death sparks anger at Ireland’s abortion laws


THE Irish government faces worldwide pressure to reform abortion law, with demonstrations planned for Irish embassies around the globe over the death of a young woman in a Galway hospital.
About 2000 demonstrators gathered outside the Irish parliament, the Dail, on Wednesday night to protest against the government’s inaction over abortion after news of the death of Savita Halappanavar, 31.
Mrs Halappanavar died after doctors refused to terminate her 17-week pregnancy, even though they knew her miscarriage was inevitable and there was no chance the foetus would survive.
They left Mrs Halappanavar to labour naturally, despite her pleas to be induced, as long as the foetal heartbeat continued.
Her husband said doctors told him this was because “this is a Catholic country”.
Mrs Halappanavar delivered a dead foetus after three days of agonising pain but later died of septicaemia.
Many distressed protesters outside the Dail held candles in her memory, and there were emotional scenes as speakers condemned the government for having rejected abortion-law reforms tabled by United Left Alliance MP Clare Daly.
“Had that legislation been in place, Savita’s life would have been saved because doctors at University Hospital in Galway would have had a very clear understanding of legal guidelines,” Choice spokeswoman Stephanie Lord later told Fairfax Media.
“People are very angry and upset that this woman had to die before anyone would take notice. There have been women who have been raped and suicidal or who have had horrendous medical conditions and now this young woman has died – why has it got to this stage?
“Savita had a heartbeat, too.”
Abortion is a bitterly divisive issue in Catholic-dominated Ireland, where an effective ban on the procedure results in thousands of women each year flying out of the country to get abortions overseas. More than 4000 go to the UK alone, according to British health statistics.
In 1983 Ireland’s constitution was amended to ban abortion completely.
In 1992, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that it was permitted when the mother’s life was at risk, including at risk of suicide. This related to a case in which the government used the courts to try to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim from leaving the country to have an abortion overseas.
The 1983 ban is effectively still in place because seven successive governments have refused to back the Supreme Court decision by enacting legislation.
In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights demanded that Ireland pass legislation to give effect to the court decision. The government then set up an expert panel to report to the Irish health minister.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the government was due to respond by the end of the month to the demand for reform by the Court of Human Rights.
“This is a tragic case where we have a woman who lost her life, her child is lost and her husband is bereaved,” he said.
Several weeks ago he had said that abortion-law reform was not a priority for his government.
Another abortion-rights demonstration ending in a march on the Dail is planned for the weekend.

First published in The Age.

Woman dies in Irish hospital after being denied abortion

Karen Kissane in Dublin

A YOUNG woman died of septicaemia in Ireland after Catholic doctors refused to terminate her miscarriage because abortion was against the country’s law and religious beliefs.A YOUNG woman died of septicaemia in Ireland after Catholic doctors refused to terminate her miscarriage because abortion was against the country’s law and religious beliefs.

Savita Halappanavar, 31, died last month in University Hospital Galway after three days of agony, the Irish Times reported on Wednesday.

Doctors told her she was losing her 17-week pregnancy, as her cervix had dilated and the amniotic sac had broken, and that the foetus would not survive.

Her husband told the newspaper she begged for birth to be induced but was told this was not possible because the foetal heartbeat was still present “and this is a Catholic country”.

Praveen Halappanavar said that his wife, a Hindu, said, “I am neither Irish nor Catholic,” but they said there was nothing they could do.”

Mr Halappanavar said his wife was left in extreme pain for another two-and-a-half days until the foetal heartbeat stopped. The dead foetus was then removed but Mrs Halappanavar was soon taken to intensive care where she died on October 28.

An autopsy determined she had developed septicaemia, or blood poisoning, the Irish Times reported.

The hospital and local health service confirmed they were investigating her death but said privacy issues prevented them from commenting on individual cases.

Abortion is a bitterly divisive issue in Catholic-dominated Ireland, where an effective ban on the procedure leaves thousands of women each year flying out of the country to get abortions overseas. More than 4000 go to the UK alone, according to British health statistics.

Stephanie Lord, a spokeswoman for Choice Ireland, said Mrs Halappanavar’s death was a tragedy that would never have happened if Ireland’s politicians had lived up to their responsibilities on the issue.

“There have been raped woman and suicidal woman [who have wanted abortions] and that has not been enough to make the government change the legislation regarding abortion in Ireland,” she told Fairfax Media.

“People would ask if it had to get to the situation where somebody died. It should never have gotten to this stage. [Mrs Halappanavar’s death] is an absolute tragedy, and it should have been prevented.”

In 1983 Ireland’s constitution was amended to ban abortion completely. In 1992, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that it was permitted in cases where the mother’s life was at risk, including at risk of suicide. This related to a case in which the government tried to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim from leaving the country to have an abortion overseas.

The 1983 ban is effectively still in place because successive governments have refused to back the Supreme Court decision with legislation.

In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights demanded that Ireland pass legislation to give effect to the court decision. The government then set up an expert panel to report to the Irish Health Minister, who is due to respond by the end of this month.

A poll for the British newspaper The Sunday Times earlier this year found that four out of five Irish voters would back legal changes to permit abortion in cases where a mother’s life was at risk.

First published on

Chilling testimony turns spotlight on crimes of honour

Shafilea Ahmed’s parents are on trial for her murder, highlighting a vicious trend of hidden violence, writes Karen Kissane in London.

Her dreams were so ordinary: to be able to wear jeans and T-shirts, to go out with a nice boy, maybe to go to university and do law. But such dreams, for girls like Shafilea Ahmed, can be deadly.
Shafilea (pronounced Shafeela) was pretty and bright and full of spirit but she died at 17, in 2003. She had gone missing from her home in Cheshire, but her Pakistani-born parents did not report her absence to police. Her younger sister Alesha says it was they who killed her – in front of their other children – to save the family honour.
A taxi driver, Iftikhar Ahmed, 52, and his wife, Farzana, 49, are now on trial for their daughter’s murder. They have pleaded not guilty and the jury is still hearing the evidence.
But the case has turned the spotlight on so-called “honour” crimes in some of Britain’s migrant communities. About a dozen women a year die in acts of revenge over breaches of “honour” that might include refusing to wear traditional clothes or accept an arranged marriage, or choosing a man of whom the family disapproves.
UK police recorded more than 2800 honour attacks in 2010, a figure that is understated because only 39 of the country’s 52 police forces revealed their numbers. Among the 12 forces able to provide comparison figures from 2009, there was an overall rise of 47 per cent in such incidents. Five hundred of the attacks were in London.
The figures were released last December by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation following a freedom-of-information request. Due to under-reporting by women, “the reality is far darker” than the numbers suggest, says its director, Diana Nammi.
She says the victims are mainly of Asian or Middle Eastern backgrounds but also include Eastern Europeans. They die, or are abused, because “it’s easier to sacrifice a son or a daughter than it is to sacrifice a society or your extended family, who you are trying to please all the time”, one young woman in a refuge recently told the BBC.
The suicide rate among south Asian women in Britain is three times the national average, thought to be the result of women taking what they see as the only way out of an intolerable situation – or being forced to kill themselves.
For Shafilea, her sister claims, death was preceded by months of abuse, including at times starvation, beatings, and threats with a knife. Alesha told the court her parents had drugged Shafilea to make her compliant about getting on a plane back to Pakistan in 2003. When there, Alesha said, “My mum told Shafilea she would be staying in Pakistan and wouldn’t be going back.”
She drank bleach so that she would not be forced into an arranged marriage, Alesha said. Shafilea was flown back to Britain for treatment and spent three months in hospital. Her parents told her to say she had drunk the bleach because she mistook it for mouthwash in the dark, but she reportedly told another patient that she had taken it to avoid marriage.
A former patient, Foisa Aslam, told the court Shafilea had said her parents had accepted a formal offer for her but “she didn’t even love the guy … she wanted to get out of there but they had taken her passport from her”.
Nammi says Britain needs a detailed strategy to deal with honour-based violence. It is more usual for domestic violence to involve only a husband or father, but honour-based violence can have wider groups of perpetrators. “Sometimes it’s not only the very close family – father, mother, brother – but members of the extended family or the wider community can be involved. Sometimes a contract killer or a bounty hunter is hired. Some families will pay other people to track them down and find where they are living, and some will pay to have them killed. That’s happened in England a few times.”
She says it will take time to help traditional elements in some communities change their thinking, and meanwhile, the government needs to establish special refuges for women fleeing honour revenge attacks. “It’s not just about domestic violence, it’s about the risk of being killed,” she says. “Refuges are crucial but in the UK many refuges have closed” because of funding cuts.
She warns that some welfare organisations make a mistake in trying to mediate between the threatened girls or women and their angry families. But some women who are forced into reconciliation find themselves taken back to their country of origin, she says.
“There are cases of girls under 14 whose families say, ‘We won’t force her into marriage’, and they sign a piece of paper saying that and then the next day the girl disappears. I always advise social services not to negotiate with the family.”
The prosecutor, Andrew Edis, QC, told the Chester Crown Court that this case had taken a long time to come to trial because Alesha, now 23, did not tell her story to police until 2010, when she snapped after being arrested for taking part in a robbery at her parents’ home.
He said the jury must decide whether she was finally freeing herself of a dreadful family secret that had haunted her since she was 15, as she claimed – she told the court she had feared suffering Shafilea’s alleged fate if she spoke out – or making up “a wicked lie”.
But he questioned why she would make up such a story. Alesha claimed Shafilea died after a row that began over the fact she had worn a T-shirt to work. Her parents suffocated her by stuffing a carrier bag into her mouth and holding their hands over her nose and mouth so that she couldn’t breathe, Alesha said. She claimed she later saw her mother with black bin bags and wide brown tape and saw her father carrying a plastic-wrapped burden out to the car.
More than four months later, Shafilea’s badly decomposed remains were discovered near a river in Cumbria.
Alesha told the court her loyalty to her parents began to unravel when she went to university and found herself wanting the same freedoms her sister wanted – but being told the same things by her parents, who wanted her to go back to Pakistan and find a husband.
“That is when I saw that it is not normal and that what happened to my sister was wrong. When it’s your own parents, you don’t see things like that because you love them.”First published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

British soldiers conducted ‘choir of pain’ in Basra


THE British army has suspended several soldiers and more prosecutions are possible following a devastating report into abuse of Iraqi civilians by British soldiers in Basra in 2003.
A young widower, hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, left behind two orphaned children after soldiers beat him to death after mistaking him for an insurgent. His body carried 93 external injuries.
An officer who visited the Basra detention centre told the inquiry, chaired by retired judge Sir William Gage, that Mousa and nine other detainees looked as though they had been “in a car crash”.
The report has been handed to civilian and military prosecutors “to see whether more can be done to bring those responsible to justice”, British defence secretary Liam Fox told Parliament. He said Ministry of Defence inquiries “are revealing evidence of some concern in other cases”.
He promised: “If any serviceman or woman . . . is found to have betrayed the values this country stands for and the standards we hold dear, they will be held to account.”
The report found that the military had allowed all reference to a ban on inhumane techniques to be removed from training programs and practice manuals, and even made some of the techniques standard operating procedure.
Methods used on suspects in Northern Ireland — wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, and deprivation of food and water — were banned by Britain in 1972. They were later declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.
Mr Fox admitted there had been a systemic failure by the army to publicise and enforce the ban. The report concluded that at the time of the Iraq invasion, “there was no proper MoD doctrine on interrogation of prisoners of war that was generally available”.
Mr Mousa, 26, and nine other civilians held in Basra were hooded for most of their 36 hours in British custody and forced to stand with knees bent against a wall with their arms in the air.
They were beaten with metal bars, had their genitals kicked and their eyes gouged, and were subjected to a grotesque parody of a choir in which they were hit in turn, “causing them to emit groans and other noises and thereby playing them like musical instruments”, the report said.
A total of 19 soldiers were named as responsible but only one has so far been punished. Corporal Donald Payne served a year in jail following a court-martial over Mr Mousa’s death.
General Sir Peter Wall, chief of the general staff of the army, said several soldiers had been suspended and the military’s provost martial would investigate whether anyone else should be disciplined.
The report was also scathing about the unit’s doctor, who faces a disciplinary tribunal by the General Medical Council, and its Catholic priest, who will be interviewed by his archbishop.First published in The Age.

The precision of ritual in the gallows’ shadow

Those who have witnessed a hanging say they are changed for life, writes Karen Kissane.
IN HIS final days, Nguyen Tuong Van will get the best care Changi Prison has to offer. He will also be weighed and measured with clinical precision to help calculate the length for the rope from which he will hang.
If his treatment mirrors that of those who have gone before him, Nguyen is now living in strict isolation in a cell measuring about three metres by three metres. He has a toilet and a mat for sleeping, but no bedding and uses a bucket for washing. He is not permitted to go out for fresh air or exercise.
Next week, his status as a man close to execution should win him special concessions: food of his choice (within the prison’s budget) and extra visits from relatives. And a visit from the hangman, who will check his weight and measure the distance from Nguyen’s neck to the floor before going away to make his calculations according to a bureaucratic manual, the Official Table of Drops, published by the British Home Office in 1913.
Singapore is believed to use “the long drop” method, which is meant to be the most merciful. The correct length of the rope for a particular individual is crucial to the “success” of a hanging – if success is defined as a quick death with little suffering.
Normally, only jail staff and a doctor are present at executions in Singapore, although others, such as a minister of religion, may be admitted at the discretion of the prison superintendent.
Nguyen’s senior lawyer, Lex Lasry QC, has applied to be a witness at the execution, along with fellow defence lawyer Julian McMahon.
“We’ve taken the view that, for our client’s sake, we’ve requested to be present at his execution,” Mr Lasry said yesterday. He has not yet heard from Singaporean authorities whether they will be allowed to attend.
Mr McMahon declined to discuss how he felt about the prospect of witnessing such an event. “Our focus at this stage is on what’s best for our client.”
Mr Lasry said he had been told not to attend by a lot of friends. “I’ve been cautioned about the consequences of it. People just think to be present at something like that would be a horrible thing and that inevitably there’s going to be a consequence – and I think they have Brian Morley in mind.”
Mr Morley, 69, was one of 12 journalists to witness the execution in Melbourne in 1967 of Ronald Ryan, the last man hanged in Australia.
Mr Morley said he had had some “indirect contact” with Mr Lasry. “He’s read all my stuff on Ryan so he’s mentally prepared for it.”
But all the preparation in the world could not insulate a witness from the shock of the moment, Mr Morley said. “He will still be very traumatised by it. I believe that if the premier of the day and his cabinet had witnessed Ryan’s execution, they would have abolished capital punishment on the spot.”
Mr Morley can still remember every detail “in vivid technicolour” and it distresses him to talk about it. He does so because, in the instant that Ryan fell through the trapdoor, Mr Morley became convinced that the death penalty should be abolished everywhere.
The journalists had gathered in D Division of the old Pentridge jail, keyed up by a string of public protests and intense political debate over the hanging. “It was a little bit like being in the press box at the MCG for the grand final – nervous excitement at the big story to be covered,” Mr Morley said.
A manacled Ryan was led by a hangman in welder’s goggles along a catwalk six metres above them. A green canvas sheet hid the area below the gallows’ trapdoors. Ryan turned to face the media before the cap on his head was pulled down into a hood covering his face.
“Then the hangman leapt back and hit the lever and he dropped immediately out of sight. There was an enormous clang as the trapdoors banged and all I could hear was the creaking of the rope, like a rope in a gymnasium,” he said.
Mr Morley had gone in with an open mind about the death penalty, but “for me it was a total emotional shock; so callous, so dreadful, so horrific . . . Everyone was traumatised, everyone who saw it. My wife said I was a real mess for a long time afterwards.”
Journalist Tom Prior was another witness. He was not available yesterday, but his wife said he had gone to Ryan’s hanging believing in the death penalty “because dead men never offend again”. He, too, converted to opposing it “in that instant. It changed him totally. He has spoken to his children and to me a lot about that.”
The Ryan hanging was traumatic for everyone associated with it, despite the dying man being hidden behind a screen. When the mechanics of process have failed, the result is even more gruesome.
“If the rope’s too long, the forces build up as the body falls and the person is decapitated,” said Tim Goodwin, anti-death-penalty co-ordinator with Amnesty International. “If it’s too short, it doesn’t break the neck with sufficient violence and the person chokes to death over a longer period.”
There are other variables, he said, such as the importance of placing the knot of the noose just above the jaw under the left ear “in order to crush the vertebrae in a particular way and snap the neck. If the person moves at the last moment, it can cause the knot to be dislodged and it doesn’t have the desired effect. Then the person can slowly strangle to death.”
If all goes according to plan, the dislocation of the vertebrae and damage to the spinal cord render the person unconscious almost instantly. The broken neck while hanging leads to “comatose asphyxia” – lack of oxygen while unconscious. Brain death follows in about six minutes and whole-body death in about 15 minutes. Some people exhibit muscle spasms while they are hanging.
“There’s nothing about this that’s pretty,” Mr Goodwin said. “It’s a brutal and gruesome death.”
Singapore has people who cannot stomach execution. It has been reported that the current hangman has been difficult to replace, as two prison officers trained to take over each froze when it came to pulling the lever for “the real thing”.
So shortly before dawn tomorrow week – Friday is the day for hangings in Singapore – the hangman who has done the job for 46 years will handcuff Nguyen and lead him on his final short walk to the gallows, a few metres from his cell.
As the rope is put around Nguyen’s neck, the executioner will say what he always says: “I am going to send you to a better place than this. God bless you.”
Nguyen will be hooded. At 6am precisely the hangman will pull the lever, the trapdoor will open and he will fall to his death.
The hangman will be paid $A312 for services rendered to the state of Singapore. — With GARY TIPPET

First published in The Age.

Neglect and abuse in detention

KAREN KISSANE   The nurse whose allegations sparked the furore over the Woomera Detention Centre, Barbara Rogalla, was appalled by conditions there from the day she arrived. Its razor wire and perimeter patrols reminded her of a concentration camp.

What she says she found inside the fence appalled her, too. Ms Rogalla speaks of sexual assault claims covered up, doctors pressured to avoid carrying out expensive tests on sick detainees, and suicidal people dressed in canvas shifts and locked in a bare concrete cell.

Ms Rogalla says she first took her concerns to Woomera management in June. She then complained to Australasian Correctional Management’s head office in Sydney. They referred her back to the local managers to develop a policy for dealing with suspected child abuse.

Ms Rogalla says she then contacted the department that oversees child protection in South Australia, Family and Community Services, but her calls were not returned. She spoke to police in August.

Ms Rogalla also has copies of letters she says she sent to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in September and to Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock in October. She says: “We have got to have a judicial inquiry, it’s as simple as that.”

Ms Rogalla worked at Woomera for two six-week stints this year. From January to mid-February she was a general nurse and from June to July she handled psychiatric issues.

In her second stint, a fellow nurse told her of the day in March when four guards had brought to the medical centre a 12-year-old boy. Ms Rogalla says: “He was hanging on to his bottom and he was crying … The guards said: `This boy’s been f—-d’.”

Ms Rogalla was told guards had suspected for some time the boy was being raped by his father and others men. Their response had been to “monitor” the situation.

“Had this been an Australian child, child protection would have been alerted immediately. What happened at Woomera was that the guards became determined to catch the father out and would barge into the dormitory without knocking.

“But these men knew what the guards were doing and they had their own little look-out and warned each other when the guards were approaching. (The monitoring) was all totally inappropriate. It should have been handed over in the first place to people who are skilled in this kind of investigation.”

Ms Rogalla says the nurse to whom the boy was brought was later pressured by management to water down her written account of the incident. She was discouraged from reporting it to outside authorities, and the boy was never examined.

Ms Rogalla says that, after the incident, the boy’s file disappeared for several weeks. When it reappeared, she saw it made no mention of suspected sexual assault.

Ms Rogalla later initiated an assessment of a 15-year-old boy who had psychiatric symptoms and said he was being woken at night by a man touching him. She says management sent the boy back to the same dormitory but removed the offender to a different compound.

An adult woman also reported that she had been sexually assaulted and initially refused to press charges because she feared being stoned to death by fundamentalists in the camp. “A man was later charged,” Ms Rogalla said.

The Sydney office of Australasian Correctional Management referred requests for comment to the Department of Immigration, which yesterday issued a statement saying the allegations were “just that: only allegations”, and pointed out there were now three inquiries examining different aspects of the claims. It said detainees were not kept in isolation except for health reasons or when their behavior put themselves or others at risk.

First published in The Age.

Homophobia still rampant, survey finds

Eighty-four per cent of Victorian gays and lesbians have experienced discrimination or abuse ranging from insults hurled from a car to severe beatings, according to a new survey.

The incidence of bashings has fallen compared with results of a similar survey five years ago (from 19 per cent to 7 per cent of respondents). But verbal abuse during assaults makes it clear most attacks are motivated by homophobia, says the report, Enough is Enough, published by the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby.

The report, based on a survey of 929 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, is to be launched today by State Attorney-General Rob Hulls. Of those reporting discrimination or abuse, most had experienced it in relation to assault or harassment in a public place (79 per cent), followed by employment (48 per cent), education (31 per cent), provision of goods or services (28 per cent), medical treatment (27 per cent), police/law enforcement (20 per cent) and parenting (16 per cent).

Eleven per cent of men and 6per cent of women said they had been bashed because of their sexual orientation. Sixty-three per cent had been verbally abused in a public place and 25per cent threatened with assault.

By contrast, the report said Australian Bureau of Statistics surveys have found that fewer than 2 per cent of Victorians have been bashed or threatened in public.

One woman reported being attacked by a neighbor who found out she was a lesbian and another was set on outside a gay pub by a group of men who thought she was a gay male; when they found out she was a woman, they continued the assault on the grounds that she was “too butch”.

In the workplace the most common complaint was harassment (38 per cent), followed by being pressured out of a job (16 per cent).

One man said his fellow workers organised a gang bashing after he told them he was gay, while a woman wrote that “A fellow employee attempted to rape me to `change your mind about being a lesbian”‘.

The report found complaints about discrimination from medical providers had risen but complaints about police had fallen nearly 40 per cent, which it attributed to a review of police practices after the controversial 1994 raid on the Tasty nightclub.

Some discrimination related to the fact that same-sex partners are not automatically recognised as next of kin: one woman told the survey she was charged with “impersonating a family member” at the Coroner’s Court after her partner committed suicide.

A co-convenor of the lobby, Kenton Miller, said the report made a mockery of recent claims by the RSL that gay people do not face discrimination.

The lobby called on the government to outlaw discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation, to extend the legal definition of “de facto” to same-sex couples and to legislate against hate language.

A spokeswoman for Mr Hulls said the government was looking at the issues and would discuss proposed changes to the Equal Opportunities Act with the independents over the winter recess. Anti-vilification legislation was also being drawn up.

First published in The Age.

Inside the male `no go’ zone

IN MY early 20s, I moved to an area of work where I was the only woman among a group of senior men: a desk of subeditors. I was uncertain of my welcome in such a male enclave. I was not uncertain for long. A big, stony-faced man I had never met came over and threw a story on my desk, saying in a voice audible to all, “Sub this, moll.”

In genuine disbelief, I asked, “What did you say?” He repeated himself. I stood up and kicked him hard, once, on the shin. “Don’t call me a moll,” I said. And I sat down and took up my pen with trembling fingers.

Luckily for me, he took it like a man. He held no grudge and we later developed a straightforward, easygoing relationship. A boundary had been set and was respected. It seems like an advertisement for Helen Garner’s advice in ‘the first stone’ to girls being harassed: try a stiletto heel on his instep.

But I would never try such a tactic now. Now I know it’s not always that simple. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s not always that simple has been almost obliterated from view by a decade of media hysteria over “the Ormond College affair”.

The case’s notoriety has made “sexual harassment” a household phrase, but for all the wrong reasons. It has created a social atmosphere so fraught that it has in some ways become harder to deal with the problem.

This is because the public debate was conducted mostly around the terms Garner set. Why did the young women go to the police over minor allegations of touching? Why did they let it get to the point where a man’s career was destroyed? What lay behind their “ghastly punitiveness”?

The point Garner failed to get her head around is the same one that remains obscured today, and the one I had no sense of the day I administered that kick. It is the question of institutional power.

The direct-rejection approach is fine with your average drunk at a party. But it could backfire disastrously with a man who controls your work life or university career.

What if he takes it not like a man but like a weasel? He could go on to play “How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways”. In an office, he could confine the woman to low-status or difficult work, block her pay rises or promotions, or post her to the workplace equivalent of Siberia. On a university campus, he might compromise her marks, her scholarship or bursary prospects, or her references.

If a man grabs a woman’s breast at a party, it is indeed, to use Garner’s term, just a “nerdish pass”. But if the man is in a position to punish the woman for her knockback by manipulating her circumstances in a formal organisation to which they both belong, that is sexual harassment. This is particularly so if he goes the grope in the first place partly because he knows he has one over her.

The serial sleazebag with delusions of modern-day droit du seigneur poses the biggest moral dilemma for a young woman. If she stays silent, she knows her passivity will leave him free to harass other women. If he holds a position of trust – doctor, priest, the person overseeing pastoral care at a boarding college – his job offers him a bulk warehouse of potential targets.

But why should she be the sacrificial lamb?
Because that is the main lesson from the Ormond affair: that everyone will be scalded and nothing resolved, with the man’s career destroyed and the woman demonised as vindictive, unnatural and unwomanly.

Mass media that had been largely uninterested in sexual harassment issues gave splatter coverage to the first book on the subject that affirmed male anxieties. Commentators seized upon the story in ‘the first stone’ to call the Ormond women bitches, monsters, femi-nazis and man-hating harpies. Garnerism became a magnet for misogyny the way Hansonism became a magnet for racism.

Yes, everyone is more conscious of sexual harassment now. Observation of the gender niceties in many workplaces is the best it has ever been, although this is probably due as much to women’s increasing numbers as to raised awareness. But serious abuse is still not uncommon, according to the Equal Opportunity Commission, and harassment complaints have been steadily rising in the decade since Ormond.

Complaints that reach the commission are complaints that have not been resolved by employers. They are management failures.

I suspect the most profound lesson taken from Ormond has been “Cover thine arse”. A lawyer I spoke to last week told me that while many companies have terrific written policies, their complaints procedures often collapse quickly because managers’ first instinct is still to quash an allegation rather than investigate and resolve it.

The number of women reporting that they were victimised in the workplace because they dared to lodge a formal complaint has skyrocketed in the past couple of years, from 209 in 1997-98 to 346 in 1998-99.

Analyses of the Ormond affair trawled the women’s psyches and motives. But where was the analysis of the male-dominated group dynamic that dictates an organisation’s response to harassment complaints? This was, after all, the reason the Ormond affair was taken to so many arenas: the women believed they did not get a fair hearing.

The real question is not: Why can’t women just let it go? The real question is: Why can’t bosses deal with this without either party being shamed or losing their jobs?
Until that changes, there will continue to be women who limit discussion of dirty deeds to urgent undertones in the ladies’ room; who cop it sweet or handle it one on one, despite the risks of retaliation; who resign from workplaces where they were otherwise happy because they couldn’t bear to make a fuss. There will be women who shield male misbehavior from view and bear its consequences themselves, as women have done for centuries.

This means public spaces such as work and university are still dotted with “no-go” signs for women. Because that’s what harassment does; it tells women that this is a male place where they are interlopers. The unwanted touch and the sexual epithet amount to the same message: You’ll be judged here not on what’s inside your head, but on what’s inside your undies.

Is that what we want for our daughters?

First published in The Age.

Gay women call for IVF law reform

Haley Atkinson hadn’t planned on becoming a figurehead for gay rights. All she wanted was a baby. When she and a gay friend failed to conceive conventionally, they turned to IVF, which in Victoria is forbidden to gays.

They achieved the baby, notoriety and a court hearing. Ms Atkinson and Haydn’s father, Sergeant Mark Keen, then both police officers, were charged with having provided false information or failing to provide relevant information when applying for IVF treatment.

On Tuesday, they sat holding hands as the charges were dismissed by Mr John Hardy in the Melbourne Magistrates Court. He found there was no evidence against Ms Atkinson and insufficient evidence against Mr Keen. He awarded costs in their favor.

The media could not report the case until a suppression order on the proceedings was lifted yesterday.

Ms Atkinson, who has since resigned from the force, said she was relieved to have the ordeal over: “I have no regrets that I have a beautiful baby, but I wish it hadn’t had to have been such a big event.”
She said it was time the law was changed. “Every single person I have come across in shops or whatever has said (the charges) were a load of nonsense. People who know us say, `You’re good people; you deserve to bring up a child because you have a lot of love to give’.”

Ms Atkinson lives with her partner, Ms Joy Murphy, but Mr Keen is also involved in raising six-month-old Haydn. Both women regret that Ms Murphy has no legal rights over the child. She cannot adopt him without Ms Atkinson giving up her rights as a mother.

Ms Murphy said, “Legally, I don’t exist. But I see the look in Haydn’s eyes when I walk in the room. He loves me, and Haley knows it and Mark knows it.

“I may have no legal rights but Mark is the most decent man I have ever met. He wanted to buy a high chair when Haydn was born and he checked with Haley first about whether it would offend me. We are all good friends.”

Both women said that the Infertility Treatment Act contradicted the Equal Opportunity Act, which forbids discrimination in provision of services on the grounds of marital status or sexual orientation.

Dr Ruth McNair, convenor of the Fertility Access Rights Lobby, called on the State Government to make artificial insemination and IVF available to lesbians and single women.

She said New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania did not confine such treatments to married or de facto heterosexuals. International human rights covenants signed by Australia obliged governments to provide equal access to fertility services.

But the secretary of the Australian Family Association, Mr Bill Muehlenberg, said the rights of the child should also be considered, and the traditional family unit was the best way to raise children.

Mr Muehlenberg said the risk of child sexual abuse doubled in families where the child was not living with its biological father, and that in a homosexual relationship, only one partner could be a biological parent to the child.

The Minister for Health, Mr John Thwaites, was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Ms Atkinson would like more children, but she will probably travel to NSW for treatment.

First published in The Age.