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THE DANES STORY
Rocky road ahead for Habib
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 extraordinary twist.

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 Lakemba.

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 mental state.

Others who have gone through a similar experience warn of a long road to recovery.

"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 awaiting trial.

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 compensation."

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