Kay Danes - January 13, 2005
MAMDOUH Habib will be released from prison soon, but he will never be free.
The former terror suspect, who has long suffered chronic depression, will
forever carry mental scars from almost three years at the notorious
Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.
There will also be physical scars if allegations he was dragged by his leg
irons, beaten, burned by cigars, hung off wall hooks, given electric shocks
and subjected to water torture prove true.
And heb faces ongoing suspicion when he arrives home: He is still seen as a
security person of interest, will be constantly monitored, and, while he
cannot be charged straight away, his case remains open.
Every knock at the door could mean prison.
The Sydney father of four is expected to be released from detention within
days after the US decided against charging him, reportedly to avoid
damaging its relationship with a key ally.
The Pentagon still regards Mr Habib as an enemy combatant but officials
said Australia had accepted responsibility and agreed to work to prevent
him becoming involved in future terrorist activities.
Mr Habib's story begins like that of any migrant to Australia then takes an
The 48-year-old was born in Egypt and moved to Sydney in 1984. He married
Lebanese-born Maha, became an Australian citizen, started a cleaning
business and later ran a coffee shop in the south-western suburb of
He was successful but developed chronic depression, which forced him onto a
disability pension in 1999.
Mr Habib first caught the attention of intelligence services when he met
followers of Egyptian-born cleric and suspected Osama bin Laden associate
Omar Abdul Rahman during a holiday to the US.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation then began questioning
others in Australia's Muslim community about Mr Habib, raising suspicions
that he was a spy or police informant.
In 2001, caught between police who suspected him of terrorist links and a
distrustful, often hostile religious community, Mr Habib travelled to
Pakistan to find a new home for his family.
US authorities believe his trip had a more sinister purpose.
On October 5, Mr Habib was arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of knowing
about the September 11 attacks and aiding the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
He was taken to Egypt, where lawyers allege Mr Habib was subject to water
torture, hung from hooks on the wall of his cell and given electric shocks
while being interrogated.
He said later that he made admissions only because of the torture.
Mr Habib was moved to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in May 2002.
The Australian Government has since been under constant pressure from
lawyers, human rights groups and opposition parties to repatriate Mr Habib
and fellow detainee David Hicks.
Critics argue any system that detains people for years without charge does
not meet the basic standards of Australian justice.
All the while, Mr Habib's children have kissed a photo of their father
every night and prayed for his release.
Contact with his family has been rare, but in one letter Mr Habib wrote:
"I've been blindfolded for eight months, I never see the sun but I see you
(wife Maha) and your kids every minute."
For more than three years, Maha, a housewife-turned freedom fighter, has
been supporting four children on a sole parent's benefit and tirelessly
lobbying for her husband's release.
"She believes strongly in her husband's innocence and got on the front foot
about this and she's done a very good job," Mr Habib's Sydney-based lawyer
Stephen Hopper said.
When her husband arrives home, Maha plans to hug him, tell him she loves
him, cook a seafood feast and reintroduce him to the four-year-old daughter
he hardly knows.
But she knows the homecoming will not be easy.
There will telephone bugs, surveillance, a ban on overseas travel, media
intrusion and the constant threat of new charges.
Incarceration is also likely to have damaged Mr Habib's already fragile
Others who have gone through a similar experience warn of a long road to
"We got home in November 2001 and I've been trying ever since to get
closure to so many issues," Kay Danes, who spent almost a year in a Lao
jail on suspicion she stole sapphires, said.
"For six months I was heavily medicated and just totally out of my head."
Mr Habib's experience will keep haunting the Australian Government, too.
Labor wants more details about the reasons behind the release, saying it
was "a little too coincidental" that it came so soon after allegations that
an Australian official was present while Mr Habib was being tortured.
Mr Habib's first-hand description of his treatment could also embarrass the
Government and raise more questions about the plight of Mr Hicks, who is
His lawyer, Mr Hopper, is looking at suing for compensation.
Prime Minister John Howard admitted this week the US had taken too long to
make a decision about Mr Habib, but defended the legality of his arrest and
said his Government was unrepentant.
"We don't have any apology to offer," he said. "We won't be offering