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PM - Australian 'terrorist' case under scrutiny

PM - Monday, 15 November , 2004  18:18:23

Reporter: Michael Vincent

MARK COLVIN: The name of David Hicks is known to most Australians after his two years at Guantanamo Bay, but few would have heard of another Adelaide resident, Noorpolat Abdulla. Yet Mr Abdulla is the first Australian to be convicted of terrorism after September 11th.

Noorpolat Abdulla was living in the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, next door to China, at the time of his arrest and he now languishes in a prison described as a former Stalinist labour camp.

But Mr Abdulla's family strongly protests their eldest son's innocence. They say he is a political activist who was jailed for helping people who had escaped from China.

But the Australian Government, which did protest against the closed court process, and is supporting Mr Abdulla's appeal for clemency, says it's done all it can for him.

Michael Vincent reports.

MICHAEL VINCENT: Noorpolat Abdulla is an Australian citizen of almost 20 years. But he was living in Kazakhstan in Central Asia when trouble came calling.

Noorpolat Abdulla's wife remembers the knock on the door from men saying they were KGB.

RABIYA ABDULLA: One morning, we're having our breakfast and two policemen came to our house and they say they are from KGB and they took my husband. They say they would like to ask a few questions from him.

MICHAEL VINCENT: That was just over four years ago. Rabiya Abdulla has returned to Australia. Her husband remains in a Kazak prison a convicted terrorist.

It's been a tortured road for the Abdulla family. The Abdullas are from an ethnic minority called the Uighurs Muslims whose land lies in the west of China, over the border from Kazakhstan.

The Uighurs accuse Beijing of massive human rights abuses. In return, the Chinese accuse the Uighurs of terrorism.

Noorpolat Abdulla grew up in Adelaide, studying at school, then TAFE. He would hear about the plight of his people every night around the dinner table.

His father, Mohammed Abdulla.

MOHAMMED ABDULLA (translated): It's just like you, eating a meal three times a day. In every family there's always talking about our history, our background, our movement for freedom.

MICHAEL VINCENT: So in 1998, Noorpolat Abdulla went back to Central Asia not to his homeland, but neighbouring Kazakhstan. There, with his wife and their young son, he built a business trading wool. His family says he also helped fellow Uighurs who had escaped from China.

Rabiya Abdulla.

RABIYA ABDULLA: He just working like a translator, yes. That's all he did.

MICHAEL VINCENT: Kazak authorities were under pressure from China to crack down on Uighur activists. After two Kazak police were shot dead in September 2000, Noorpolat Abdulla and about 100 other people were rounded up for questioning.

The Abdulla family maintain that the Kazak authorities fabricated evidence which was used to place him on trial.

Police even claimed they had a witness who could link Noopolat Abdulla with Osama bin Laden a claim that gets short thrift from the family.

RABIYA ABDULLA: No, never. (Laughing). Never.

MICHAEL VINCENT: The witness making the bin Laden claim disappeared before the trials. The judge was unimpressed by the evidence and returned the case to the police for re-examination. And it seems the case did improve. At a second trial in October 2001, Noorpolat Abdulla was convicted and sentenced to 15 years jail.

Australian officials were denied access to both trials, and their protests about the process were rejected.

Meanwhile Noorpolat Abdulla's family, some of whom visited him in prison soon after his conviction, were shocked by his treatment.

His sister-in-law, Isabiyra Shamsedin (phonetic)

ISABIYRA SHAMSEDIN: They torturing him. After that, they just looked at the Australian passport and just spit on it and they said, "oh, we can do whatever we want, because you are in our custody. Your Australian citizenship passport is nothing to us".

MICHAEL VINCENT: Noorpolat Abdulla's prison was in remote location and was once part of Stalin's gulag. Two years ago, Australian consular officials noted the appalling conditions.

EXTRACT FROM CONSULAR NOTE: There was an incident a few months ago in which 10 prisoners had cut their stomachs open in protest at the harshness of the conditions.

MICHAEL VINCENT: Noorpolat Abdulla has told Australian officials who've visited him, that he's been beaten, held in cage in the cold and made to stand still for 14 hours. But Bruce Billson, the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for Australians in prisons overseas, sees no grounds to intervene.

BRUCE BILLSON: The last most recent visit to Mr Abdulla, there was no concerns expressed about his treatment. He seemed well given the circumstance.

KAY DANES: It's a case of deja vu for me.

MICHAEL VINCENT: Kay Danes can empathise with Noorpolat Abdulla's plight. Four years ago, she and her husband spent 11 months in a jail in Laos, before being released and pardoned after intense lobbying by Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer. They too had been convicted in a closed court.

Kay Danes says this about the Australian Government's position on Noorpolat Abdulla.

KAY DANES: He's got like the trifecta. He's been labelled a terrorist, he's a Muslim and he's non-Anglo Saxon.

MICHAEL VINCENT: The Australian Government says it treats all of its cases equally.

Bruce Billson.

BRUCE BILLSON: There's about 200 Australian citizens in jails overseas at this time. We take every one of those individuals' cases very seriously.

MICHAEL VINCENT: The Australian Government also says it's supporting a family appeal for clemency.

BRUCE BILLSON: They've sought clemency. We've supported that clemency application. That's yet to be determined by the Kazakhstan authorities and we are following through, encouraging a favourable consideration.

MICHAEL VINCENT: But this is news to the Abdulla family, as the Government has failed to tell them, or his lawyer about this development.

Meanwhile, it's been a lonely wait for Rabiya Abdulla and her children. She had a second son not long after her husband was arrested.

RABIYA ABDULLA: I can't say to them that their father is in prison because they are not old enough to understand the political situation.

MICHAEL VINCENT: You can't bring yourself to tell them?

RABIYA ABDULLA: No I can't. I can't.

MARK COLVIN: Rabiya Abdulla, the wife of Noorpolat Abdulla, an Australian convicted of terrorism in Kazakhstan. Michael Vincent was the reporter there.

[This is the print version of story http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2004/s1244172.htm]
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