Lindsay Tanner - posted Tuesday, 10 January 2006
This has been the year of living dangerously for young Australians overseas. First Schapelle Corby, then the Bali Nine. Then Michelle Leslie and finally Tuong Van Nguyen.
The inevitable media circus inflated their stories into national soap operas, almost like real-life episodes of Law and Order. Sadly, once the story ends the circus moves on. Apart from a brief burst of publicity about a photograph, weíve heard very little about Schapelle Corby recently.
Unfortunately, the day-to-day grind of serving a lengthy prison sentence isnít very newsworthy. Van Nguyen also will fade from media attention fairly quickly.
The powerful emotions swirling around these cases have clouded a few realities. Other countries in our region have very different laws and judicial processes from ours. They donít like giving special treatment to foreign offenders, particularly those from Western countries.
It isnít that long ago that Singapore and Indonesia were colonies, with their people treated as second class citizens by Europeans. Itís hardly surprising that they resent being heavied by Australia about their punishment of convicted offenders.
The message from all these cases is very clear. Donít expect Australian laws and judicial processes in other countries. In some situations, like Schapelle Corby and Van Nguyen, the punishment may be out of all proportion to the crime.
The fact that alleged offenders are Australian does not mean they are innocent, or entitled to lenient treatment. And no Australian government can easily change the outcomes of other countriesí judicial processes.
Some Australians find it hard to accept that other countries have a right to run their legal systems as they think fit.
Iíve received some pretty wacky emails about these cases. One bloke suggested that Australia should just send in the SAS and pull Schapelle out of there. Maybe we could get Sylvester Stallone to play the lead role in the ensuing war with Indonesia.
There is another Australian rotting away in a foreign prison, who has received far less public sympathy than Schapelle Corby. His name is David Hicks. Heís been locked up without trial for four years by the Americans and is going to be tried by a kangaroo court.
Hicks has some public support, but because heís accused of associating with terrorists, the Howard Government has made little effort to defend his rights. Schapelle Corby and Van Nguyen werenít treated fairly, but at least they got a trial.
David Hicks has been locked up for four years and has still not been tried. He could be a dangerous terrorist, but itís now becoming clear that some innocent people have been wrongly caught up in the American crackdown on terrorist suspects. Some have even been tortured.
Without a proper trial, weíll never know for sure what David Hicks is guilty of, if anything. He sits rotting in a foreign prison without the most basic legal rights that even mass murderers such as Martin Bryant are accorded.
When people become involved in debate about controversial legal cases they often lose sight of basic principles.
Some see alleged drug smugglers and terrorists and look no further. Others assume that an Australian charged with crimes by foreigners must be innocent. Too often, people allow their prejudices to govern their opinions.
For me, there are some simple principles which should apply in all these cases. Everyone deserves a fair trial. The punishment should fit the crime. Capital punishment is wrong, no matter what the crime. Whether the accused is a beautiful model caught up with drugs, a Vietnamese-Australian smuggling heroin, or a young misfit involved with Islamic terrorists, the same principles should apply.
When Australians are charged with offences in other countries, we should stick to our principles, do everything to ensure they get genuine justice, and recognise that those countries are entitled to run their legal systems as they see fit, just as we are. Like many Australians, Iím appalled by the fate suffered by Schapelle Corby and Van Nguyen, but I recognise that we determine what goes on in our country, not in others.
First published in the Herald Sun on December 19, 2005.