Iran: Nasrin Sotoudeh Transferred to Notorious Gharchak Prison


Human Rights Lawyer’s Health in Serious Danger

October 20, 2020 — Nasrin Sotoudeh, the imprisoned human rights attorney, has been moved to the notoriously harsh Gharchak Prison (also spelled Qarchak) in the Iranian city of Varamin, south of Tehran, despite grave medical issues that require her hospitalization, her husband, Reza Khandan said today, October 20, 2020.

Sotoudeh, who has serious cardiac and pulmonary complications after being on a hunger strike from August 11 to September 26, 2020 to protest the continued imprisonment of Iran’s political prisoners, will now continue serving her 38-year sentence (12 years of which she must serve before becoming eligible for release) at one of Iran’s most dangerous and inhumane prisons.

In an interview with CHRI on October 20, 2020, Reza Khandan, Sotoudeh’s husband, stated: “When Nasrin’s heart condition became worse, she needed an angiography. We have been waiting these past few days to prepare for her transfer to the hospital [from Evin Prison]. Today the authorities told her to get ready to go to the hospital but then she ended up in Gharchak Prison. The transfer was not announced by the prison authorities but by Nasrin herself who was allowed to make a brief phone call to give the news.”

“By denying Nasrin Sotoudeh critically needed medical care, and instead moving her to Gharchak Prison, known for its horrific conditions, the authorities in Iran are placing Nasrin Sotoudeh’s life in immediate danger,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

“Sending Sotoudeh to sit behind bars alongside common criminals in conditions much more dangerous than Evin Prison is a desperate and transparent attempt to punish her—and to risk her life if they cannot silence her and her family any other way,” Ghaemi added.

CHRI calls for the immediate transfer of Nasrin Sotoudeh to hospital where she can receive full and proper treatment with the consent of her family.

Husband: “The authorities used trickery and deceit to transfer a prisoner”

Khandan told CHRI: “The authorities used trickery and deceit to transfer a prisoner, even though there was no need to do so. Nasrin didn’t have any of her belongings with her since she had only prepared to go to the hospital. She does not have her warm clothes and given her heart condition, we’re very worried for her.

“These kinds of behaviors by the judicial authorities toward Nasrin is the continuation of a policy of pressure and intimidation against our family – from my daughter’s detention and continuing persecution, to stricter restrictions on Nasrin’s basic rights in prison.

“The reason for these harsh acts and pressures is Nasrin’s recent hunger strike and its impact in raising international awareness about Iran’s political prisoners. By resorting to deceit and trickery to transfer a prisoner, the judiciary has only added to its notoriety among the public.”

Prison Doctors “Shocked” at Sotoudeh’s Return to Prison

Sotoudeh was hospitalized on September 19 as her medical condition deteriorated—only to be sent back to Evin prison on September 23, despite her worsening condition.

On September 26, 2020, when Sotoudeh ended her hunger strike, Khandan relayed that the prison doctors were “shocked” that she had been returned to prison in her condition, and “strongly protested,” as during her hospitalization severe cardiac issues were identified.

Khandan also reported that during her hospitalization from September 19 to September 23, Sotoudeh was exposed to multiple guards who later tested positive for COVID-19. He stated that doctors outside the hospital who reviewed her tests consider her transfer back to prison as “a deliberate attempt to put her life in danger.”

Khandan also said on Facebook today, October 20, 2020 that “Three weeks ago, after being hospitalised, she was taken back to the prison before completing her full treatment. According to experts, she had to be transferred once again to the hospital for an urgent heart examination and angiography, but instead the Evin authorities have relocated her to Qarchak prison, where the healthcare and prison detention conditions are even worse than Evin prison.”

Nasrin Sotoudeh is in prison for her peaceful work defending basic civil and political rights in Iran. Among her charges were “encouraging prostitution” for advocating against compulsory hijab and defending citizens’ right to peaceful dissent.


PEN International is alarmed by reports that the health of Iranian writer, lawyer and rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh has deteriorated following her transfer from hospital back to her prison cell. It calls on PEN members to reiterate their calls for her for her immediate release and to be able the receive the medical attention she so urgently needs.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, has been imprisoned since June 2018 and is serving a cruelly long sentence of 38 years in retaliation for her work as legal representative for human rights victims. In August 2020 she went on hunger strike, ending it six weeks later as her health became critical. She was subsequently transferred to hospital on 19 September to receive treatment for heart disease and other medical issues. However, she was returned to Evin Prison just a few days later, against medical advice that she should remain in hospital as her health needs continue to be acute. This decision has been described by UN experts as ‘unfathomable’ and that her imprisonment is clearly in retaliation for her defence of human rights.


Concerns for Nasrin Sotoudeh’s health amidst high prevalence of COVID-19 in Iran’s prisons

PEN International learned on 20 October that Sotoudeh has been transferred again, this time to Qarchak women’s prison, 30 km outside Tehran and notorious for its appalling conditions.

Sotoudeh’s situation becomes more alarming with the news that several of the guards present in the hospital where Sotoudeh was being treated have contracted COVID-19. The poor sanitary conditions in Iran’s prisons has exacerbated an already acute situation for political prisoners, leading the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, to call for temporary release of all rights defenders.

On 22 September 2020 PEN International issued a call to action, demanding that the Iranian authorities release Nasrin Sotoudeh immediately and unconditionally. Today, a month later, it repeats its call, with added urgency in light of her deteriorating health.

To read more about Nasrin Sotoudeh’s case and advice on action you can take, see PEN International alert of 22 September 2020. Learn more about PEN International’s reporting on Iran.

For more information, please contact Sara Whyatt, MENA Programme Coordinator, at PEN International, Koops Mill Mews, Unit A, 162-164 Abbey St, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email:

PEN Melbourne call to RAN Writers for action:

Dear RAN writers ,

As always, I hope this email finds you well and safe. I’m writing tonight to ask you to take further action for Nasrin Sotoudeh in Iran. Her health is worsening and moreover, PEN International has just learned that she has been transferred to the notorious Qarchak women’s prison, in the desert 30 km from Tehran.  The conditions in this prison are appalling, not to mention that several of the guards present in the hospital where Sotoudeh was being treated prior to her removal back to prison have contracted COVID-19. For more information see:

We would be grateful if you could reiterate your appeals from the last RAN sent out on the 22 Sept, calling for her immediate release and for her to be able to receive the medical attention she so urgently needs.

I’ve copied the information from the last RAN below including the addresses of the authorities. Please let us know if you happen to receive any replies (as ever, a long shot!).

Many thanks again for your support. All best wishes to you,



TAKE ACTION! Share on Facebook, Twitter and other social media

Please send appeals to the authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran:

  • Expressing alarm over Nasrin Sotoudeh’s condition and treatment by the Iranian security services while she is gravely ill;
  • Calling for her immediate pardoning and release from detainment by the Iranian security services;
  • Calling for the immediate cessation of any harassment of her family;
  • Urging for the release of all political prisoners who remain unjustly detained and are at great risk of exposure to COVID-19 while incarcerated.

Send appeals to:

Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Grand Ayatollah Sayed ‘Ali Khamenei

Address: The Office of the Supreme Leader, Islamic Republic Street, End of Shahid Keshvar Doust Street, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran.


Twitter: @khamenei_ir (English), @Khamenei_ar (Arabic), @Khamenei_es (Spanish).

Head of the Judiciary

Mr Ebrahim Raisi

Address: c/o Permanent Mission of Iran to the UN, Chemin du Petit-Saconnex 28, 1209 Geneva, Switzerland


Twitter: @Iran_UN (English)

President of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Hassan Rouhani

Address: The Presidency, Pasteur Street, Pasteur Square Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran


Twitter: @HassanRouhani (English) and @Rouhani_ir (Persian)

Send copies to the Embassy of Iran in your country:

Josephine Scicluna & Jackie Mansourian

Writers in Prison Co-convenors

Melbourne Centre of PEN International


Iran: Call for immediate release of Nasrin Sotoudeh, human rights lawyer and activist, who is gravely ill while on hunger strike

PEN International is gravely concerned over the health and wellbeing of prominent Iranian writer, lawyer and human rights activist, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been on hunger strike in protest against the dire prison conditions that political detainees in Iran continue to face during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, who herself is unjustly incarcerated in Evin prison for 38 years in retaliation for her work as legal representative for human rights victims, has been on hunger strike since 11 August in protest against the disgraceful treatment of political detainees in prison throughout the country. While Iranian authorities have belatedly released some prisoners in recognition of the threat posed by COVID-19 on detainees already enduring harrowing prison conditions, many political prisoners remain incarcerated. Several other detainees, including Rezvaneh Ahmad Khanbeigi, have joined Nasrin on hunger strike.

This is the second hunger strike to have been undertaken by Nasrin Sotoudeh this year in support of the release of political prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to her selfless activism, Iranian authorities have continually harassed her family, arbitrarily arresting Nasrin’s daughter, Mehraveh Khandan, on politically motivated charges on 17 August. In response to the targeting of her daughter by Iranian security services, Nasrin has given up her visitation rights. Despite the bravery Nasrin has shown in the face of repression by Iranian authorities, her health has continued to severely deteriorate while on hunger strike, with her husband reporting that she has been taken to the cardiac unit of Talefani hospital on 19 September due to heart problems and other health issues. PEN International has also received shocking reports that the security team overseeing her treatment in hospital have assaulted her while she was confined to her wheelchair.

PEN International joins our Centres, including PEN America and Swedish PEN, in their call for the immediate and unconditional release of Nasrin Sotoudeh, urging that she receives vital medical care free from intimidation. All acts of harassment against Nasrin and her family must be ceased at once, and the charges against her quashed, bringing an end to the use of the judiciary as a tool of repression and coercion against those seeking to better the lives of Iranian citizens. We also join the Office of the United Nations Office High Commissioner for Human Rights in its call for Iranian authorities to immediately release all political detainees, whom are frequently targeted for expressing critical views and incarcerated without sufficient legal basis.

TAKE ACTION! Share on Facebook, Twitter and other social media

Please send appeals to the authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran:

  • Expressing alarm over Nasrin Sotoudeh’s condition and treatment by the Iranian security services while she is gravely ill;
  • Calling for her immediate pardoning and release from detainment by the Iranian security services;
  • Calling for the immediate cessation of any harassment of her family;
  • Urging for the release of all political prisoners who remain unjustly detained and are at great risk of exposure to COVID-19 while incarcerated.

Send appeals to:

Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Grand Ayatollah Sayed ‘Ali Khamenei

Address: The Office of the Supreme Leader, Islamic Republic Street, End of Shahid Keshvar Doust Street, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran.


Twitter: @khamenei_ir (English), @Khamenei_ar (Arabic), @Khamenei_es (Spanish).

Head of the Judiciary

Mr Ebrahim Raisi

Address: c/o Permanent Mission of Iran to the UN, Chemin du Petit-Saconnex 28, 1209 Geneva, Switzerland


Twitter: @Iran_UN (English)

President of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Hassan Rouhani

Address: The Presidency, Pasteur Street, Pasteur Square Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran


Twitter: @HassanRouhani (English) and @Rouhani_ir (Persian)

Send copies to the Embassy of Iran in your country:

** Please send appeals immediately. Check with PEN International if sending appeals after 31 October 2020 **


PEN members are encouraged to:

  • Publish articles and opinion pieces in your national or local press highlighting the case of Nasrin Sotoudeh and freedom of expression in Iran;
  • Share information about Nasrin Sotoudeh and your campaigning activities via social media calling for the quashing of her sentence and immediate, unconditional release.

** Please keep PEN International informed of any action you take in regard to Nasrin Sotoudeh’s case, including any responses you receive from the authorities **


For previous actions by PEN International on Iran, click here.

PEN International is alarmed about the large number of writers and activists in Iran who have been detained or imprisoned solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Lawyers such as Nasrin Sotoudeh are doing invaluable human rights work by representing suppressed voices in a time of veiled judicial crackdown on civil society in Iran. She is a symbol of civil courage to many around the world. A mother of two, she was previously arrested in 2010 and sentenced to 11 years of in prison 2011 on similar charges. She was released in 2013 after increasing international condemnation. Since the revolution of 1979, Iran’s powerful clergy establishment have remained in control of the state. Arrests, tortures and enforced disappearances of dissidents have become a pattern in Iran in recent years.

PEN International’s 2019 Case List includes a number of writers in prison and on trial in Iran. This is in violation of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s obligations under international human rights law, mainly through restricting the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. PEN International’s concerns for these imprisoned writers is made more acute considering the health threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and reports of violence in prisons.

For more information, please contact Sara Whyatt, MENA Programme Coordinator, at PEN International, Koops Mill Mews, Unit A, 162-164 Abbey St, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email:

Husband Catches Glimpse as She is Wheeled for Tests: “She does not look well at all”

Imprisoned Human Rights Lawyer on Hunger Strike Since August 11 to Free Iran’s Political Prisoners

September 20, 2020—The imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been on a hunger strike since August 11 to free Iran’s political prisoners, has been hospitalized as of September 19, 2020, with her condition worsening, and the family is being denied access to her and any information on her condition, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has learned, after speaking with her husband, Reza Khandan on September 20, 2020.

“The authorities in Iran may try to hide Nasrin’s dangerous deterioration, but the world is watching and will hold the government responsible for her wellbeing,” said Hadi Ghaemi, CHRI executive director.

Sotoudeh’s husband told CHRI, “Her heart situation is not good at all, they are banning us from visiting her and I cannot go her see her directly.

“I managed to accidentally see her in the hallway as they brought her out for cardiac tests, she was in a wheelchair and I only got a momentary glance of her and she did not look well at all.”

Reza Khandan told CHRI that none of her doctors will speak to him and that she is under stringent guard by security agents.

CHRI is extraordinarily concerned about Nasrin Sotoudeh’s deteriorating medical situation and the egregious violations ongoing right now regarding the authorities’ refusal to allow family visitation and consultation. We urgently call on the authorities to allow the family to see her immediately, to provide the family with full information on her condition, and to allow the family to decide on and give consent for any medical treatment.

Sotoudeh was rushed to the hospital yesterday from Evin Prison, where she has been imprisoned since 2018 for her work as a human rights attorney in Iran. There has been an international outcry for the release of the human rights attorney, which has gathered urgency as Sotoudeh began her hunger strike.

Nasrin Sotoudeh is currently serving a 38-year sentence at Evin Prison for her peaceful work defending basic civil and political rights in Iran, 12 years of which she must serve before becoming eligible for parole. Among her charges were “encouraging prostitution” for advocating against compulsory hijab and defending citizens’ right to peaceful dissent.

In addition to the unjust imprisonment of scores of political prisoners in Iran, many have fallen ill to COVID-19 in Iran’s overcrowded and unhygienic prisons. Iran’s political prisoners were largely left out of the country’s March 2020 mass release of prisoners, which was aimed at stemming the mounting deaths from COVID-19 in the country.

For interviews, contact our Media Department

1 347-689-7782

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It’s 2016. The time has come.

Yes. The time has come for an amnesty. An act of humanity. This recent Age editorial is eloquent, succinct, and just. The suffering of innocents must end. The detention of people who have committed no crimes, must stop. This torture, driving people to utter despair, must no longer be committed in our name. This injustice must be put right. It is time to set the refugees free.


PEN Melbourne has for many years argued for a more humane and compassionate policy for asylum seekers and has advocated for refugees in detention here. Both PEN Melbourne and PEN Sydney have called for the protection of asylum seekers making their way to our shores, those seeking refuge from persecution, war, famine and devastation taking place in their own communities. PEN has been involved with the broader issue of refugees and asylum seekers, regularly publishing articles in the PEN Quarterly, sharing writing by asylum seekers, and joining advocates Australia-wide in endorsing rallies and providing statements of support. The plight of asylum seekers and refugees is an issue that concerns PEN as a human rights organisation, with a special understanding of the effects of detention and imprisonment, and of the plight of displaced peoples. We will continue to argue the plight of asylum seekers incarcerated in brutal conditions on Manus Island and Nauru, and on Christmas Island and a range of onshore detention centres. 

In late 2015 PEN International launched a campaign on behalf of Kurdish Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, who fled the threat of arrest and interrogation in Iran in May 2013. After attempts to reach Australia seeking asylum, he ended up on Christmas Island where he was detained and later transferred to Manus Island Immigration Detention Centre where he has been held since August 2013. During his time on Manus Island Mr Boochani has continued to write about the human rights abuses he and hundreds of other men experience daily. He passes much of this information to Australian and international journalists.  He also continues to write about Kurdistan, its culture, politics and language.  Mr Boochani’s articles are published in Kurdish newspapers and online journals.  Mr Boochani is an Honorary Member of PEN Melbourne.

In 2016, we will continue our campaign on his behalf and on behalf of all incarcerated asylum seekers, wrongly deprived of their freedom. We will continue to press the authorities, write letters, petition local politicians. We will continue to fight alongside other international advocates, such as Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. There are some signs that a gap is opening, talk of behind the scenes talk regarding how to solve the ‘problem.’ We will continue to apply pressure to widen the gap, and encourage media such as the Fairfax press, to continue the fight. 

Indonesia: End interference with literary festival over ‘year of living dangerously’ sessions

London, 26 October 2015 – The decision of Indonesian authorities to interfere with the programme of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, starting on Wednesday in Ubud is deeply shocking and should be overturned immediately, PEN International said today.

The Indonesian authorities have forced the organisers to drop three sessions related to the 50th anniversary of what is known as ‘the year of living dangerously’ when anti-communist massacres followed the mysterious killing of six army officers in a failed coup in 1965. In the instability that followed, countless people were killed or arrested.
To remember the repression and offer a space for dialogue that could lead to reconciliation, the festival had dedicated three panel discussions on the topic, which they have now been forced to drop. The screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, an art exhibition, and the launch of the book The Act of Living have also been cancelled, to ensure that the operating permit of the festival is not revoked.
Now in its 12th year, the Ubud Festival was set up in the aftermath of the Bali bombings of 2002 to assert the principles of reconciliation and as a way to heal the wounds. In a statement, the festival founder and director Janet DeNeefe said:
‘As a Festival, our mission is to create an open platform where people can come together to discuss the issues that affect us. 1965 is an event that has and continues to influence many Indonesians and as such, we chose to dedicate a proportion of the program to enriching our understanding about this, through themes of reconciliation and remembrance.
We hoped that these panel sessions would enable conversations to take place that continueIndonesia on its journey of healing, particularly for those whose lives were so severely affected. Unfortunately, whilst we pride ourselves in bringing topical issues to the forefront of national and International dialogue, we had to consider the Festival’s program in its entirety and the many other important issues which will be explored through it, including human rights, activism, and censorship.’

Festivals are forums where difficult conversations are meant to take place, and by preventing these conversations, local authorities have undermined freedom of expression and kept old wounds buried. It also weakens the central premise of the Ubud Festival, which was conceived as a response to a terrorist attack on the island of Bali.
‘The Indonesian massacres of 1965 were exceptional in their scale and have had a lasting impact on ethnic relations within Indonesia,’ said Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers-in-Prison Committee.
‘During the 32-year rule of General Suharto, it was impossible for many conversations to take place, and 1965 was one of them. It was only after his removal from power that the film, The Year of Living Dangerously, could be shown, and political prisoners were released. Oppenheimer’s films, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, are major contributions to our understanding of 1965.
By clamping down on the Ubud Festival and refusing permission for 1965 to be memorialized or discussed, Indonesian authorities have tightened the lid on the country’s past and taken a huge step backward. PEN International condemns the authorities’ decision.’
For more information, contact Holly Strauss at PEN International, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK, Tel.: +44 (0) 20 7405 0338, Fax: +44 (0) 20 7405 0339,

Join PEN’s campaign on behalf of Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani

 Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, detained in Manus Island Immigration Detention Centre, PNG. 
Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, detained in Manus Island Immigration Detention Centre, PNG. 

PEN International joins PEN Melbourne, Sydney PEN and other human rights organisations in launching an international campaign on behalf of asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani who is currently detained on Manus Island where he has spent the past two years. 

“Behrouz Boochani was was born in Ilam city in west Iran on July 23, 1983. He graduated from Tarbiat Madares University in Tehran with a masters degree in political geography and geopolitics. He worked as a freelance journalist and for several Iranian newspapers –Kasbokar WeeklyQanoonEtemaad – and the Iranian Sports Agency. He published articles on Middle East politics and interviews with the Kurdish elite in Tehran.

Boochani’s passions are human rights and the survival of Kurdish culture. With several colleagues, he founded, edited, published and wrote for the Kurdish magazine Werya, documenting Kurdish aspirations for cultural freedom. He wrote a paper advocating a federal system for Iran, protecting minority rights. The paper was delivered at a conference in France on his behalf after he was denied a passport to attend.

On February 17, 2013, officials from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps ransacked the Werya offices in Ilam and arrested 11 of Boochani’s colleagues. Six were imprisoned. Boochani was in Tehran that day and avoided arrest. On hearing of the arrests he published the information on the website Iranian Reporters, and the report was widely circulated. Boochani feared for his safety and went into hiding.

During his three months in hiding, colleagues advised Boochani he was at risk of arrest and interrogation. As a member of the Kurdish minority in Iran, and of both the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the National Union of Kurdish Students, he had experienced threats and was under surveillance. Having been interrogated and warned previously about his work promoting Kurdish culture and having signed an undertaking he would not continue this activity, he was in grave danger.

Boochani fled Iran on May 23, 2013. In July of that year he was among 75 asylum seekers intercepted by the Australian Navy en route to Australia. It was his second attempt at the crossing from Indonesia. On the first, the boat sank. He was rescued by Indonesian fishermen, and jailed on his return.

He immediately asked for asylum in Australia. He was detained on Christmas Island where he developed a deep bond with Reza Barati, a Kurdish-Iranian, also from Ilam. He was transferred to the Manus Island Immigration Detention Centre in late August 2013.

Boochani’s predicament is both unique and emblematic of the horrors facing the men detained on Manus Island. There are currently about 900. Behrouz is among a group of about 100 who are refusing to be processed by PNG immigration officials, claiming the right to be processed for asylum in Australia.

He maintains his sanity between descents into depression with his continuing work as a writer and journalist, and his lifeline via various channels with a few advocates in Australia, including Castlemaine resident and refugee advocate Janet Galbraith. She is in touch with him daily, and has arranged for his writings to be translated from Farsi to English. His accounts of his incarceration on Manus Island read like a Kafka nightmare.

He continues to write articles for Kurdish publications from detention. He remains active as a human rights defender, and is recognised as such by the UN. He collaborates with Australian journalists and human rights agencies, reporting on human rights abuses occurring in the centre. He was torn apart by the murder of Reza Barati, and has reported on the death, through medical neglect, of Manus island detainee Hamid Khazaie. Boochani was one of several asylum seekers arrested and jailed without charge in Lorangau prison during a hunger strike early this year. He remained peaceful during this action.

He says his communications are monitored by Transfield, the company that operates the detention centre, and that, as a result of his reportage and his human rights activity on behalf of fellow detainees, he has been threatened, regularly searched and is subject to surveillance.

The men detained on Manus Island have not been convicted of any crime. Yet they are imprisoned. Isolated. Kept out of sight and out of mind. Those who have been found to be refugees remain in the Lorangau transit centre. They have not been resettled. The men know they are the fall guys, punished as a means of deterring other would-be asylum seekers, as are the men, women and children detained on Nauru. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They have been palmed off, abandoned and all but forgotten. They are being driven mad.

The fate of Behrouz Boochani and his fellow detainees is Australia’s responsibility. Instead of being imprisoned and harassed, he should be welcomed for his courageous stand for democracy and granted asylum in Australia. It is a profound irony that he is now experiencing levels of surveillance and harassment that have some parallels with his treatment by Iranian authorities.

In recent conversations with writer and trauma worker Janet Galbraith, he has said that when he sailed for Australia, he was happy because, “I knew Australia as a modern and democratic country. I thought that when I arrived in Australia they would accept me as a journalist. When I arrived at Christmas Island I said: ‘I am a journalist’, but I did not get any respectful response. I was wondering why it is not important for them that I am a writer. When they transferred me to Manus, I said to immigration: ‘Don’t exile me. Don’t send me to Manus, I am a writer.’ They did not care.”

From: ‘Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani tells of the horrors of Manus Island: out of sight, out of mind’ (Arnold Zable, The Age, 22 September 2015)

For media enquiries, please contact:
Arnold Zable: 0400 080 548
Janet Galbraith: 0418 399 646

Write to the following MPs to request, as a matter of urgency that, Mr Boochani’s request for asylum in Australia be determined by Australian immigration officials as soon as possible, and that the asylum process is fair.
Read the letter PEN sent to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton here.


Minister for Immigration
Hon. Peter Dutton, MP
Minister for Immigration and Border Protection
Suite MG-46
Ministerial Wing, Ground Floor,
Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600
Phone Number: (02) 6277 7860
Email: ; 
Twitter: @PeterDutton_MP

Prime Minister the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Twitter: @TurnbullMalcolm

Leader of the Opposition, 
Hon. Bill Shorten
PO Box 214
Moonee Ponds
VIC 3039

Shadow Minister for Immigration for Border Protection,
Hon. Richard Marles
17a Yarra Street, 

Victoria 3220


The Greens spokesperson on Immigration
Senator Sarah Hanson Young

Senate suite S1-43, 
Parliament House, 
ACT, 2600
Twitter: @sarahinthesen8

Contribute to our next Quarterly

PEN Melbourne welcomes contributions to our final Quarterly for 2015.

The PEN Melbourne Quarterly is sent out to members of PEN Melbourne four times a year by email as a pdf file. The Quarterly includes news from our committees, updates on PEN concerns and contributions of writing and poetry from members along with invitations to forthcoming PEN Melbourne events.

These may include articles, reviews, reports, poems, or photo essays. Pitches can be submitted to Stephanie Holt, editor, prior to 30 September. Copy deadline is October 30. 

PEN Melbourne @ Melbourne Writer’s Festival 2015

PEN Melbourne will be hosting a series of events at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. 

Each year at the Melbourne Writers Festival PEN Melbourne nominates The Empty Chair at various events for PEN International ‘cases’, that is writers who have been killed, imprisoned, persecuted and in other ways silenced for the peaceful practice of their professions. In 2014 there were 904 such cases of writers around the world. 

  A portrait of imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo hangs near the empty chair placed in his honour during the ceremony in Oslo, Norway in which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia on Dec. 10, 2010. Photo: AFP
A portrait of imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo hangs near the empty chair placed in his honour during the ceremony in Oslo, Norway in which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia on Dec. 10, 2010. Photo: AFP

The Empty Chair on stage is for a writer who cannot share the platform with colleagues because of these circumstances. Several of the events PEN Melbourne and the MWF honours with The Empty Chair are free, but require bookings. Visit our Events page to find out more.

PEN Melbourne needs a new Writers in Prison Officer

About the role
Are you passionate about freedom of expression and human rights? PEN Melbourne is looking for a Writer In Prison Officer whose role is to support and advocate for writers in many countries whose voices have been silenced,and who have been imprisoned or are persecuted.

You will be working with the PEN International community to advocate for the better treatment of writers globally. You will be responsible for sending out letters to government officials and embassies to let them know the wider community will not tolerate censorship and injustice directed towards those writers who are simply doing their jobs.

This position with PEN Melbourne is an exciting and fulfilling one for writers and social advocates who feel strongly about freedom of information and our right to have a voice. You will be heading up a small but dedicated team of PEN Melbourne members who have offered to volunteer to assist with sending out these letters. The writing and distribution of letters in response to information sent from PEN International usually takes about 2- 3 hours a week and is carried out electronically.

The position is also a member of the PEN Melbourne Committee which meets bimonthly. This position is the heart of PEN work both locally and globally.

Please contact Jackie Mansourian, Secretary if you are interested.

PEN Melbourne Essay 2015: ‘Terror At Home’, by Ben Eltham

Over the past year, PEN Melbourne has produced two essays that examine deep concerns around recent legislative challenges to freedom of expression in Australia. In the first essay, Freedom of speech and Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner, explored the issues around the proposed changes to Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act in 2014. These amendments were later dropped by the government.

In this second essay, Dr Ben Eltham interrogates and responds to the Australian government’s recently introduced ‘anti-terror legislation’ and the ‘metadata bill’.

These two important contributions to the wider discussion about freedom of expression and press freedoms in Australia have been commissioned with the generous support of the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. 

‘Terror at Home’, by Ben Eltham

‘I think it would also be fair to say that we should have made more of a fuss at the time.’

It was April 2015. In a brightly lit Australian National University lecture theatre, Seven West Media’s Bridget Fair was lamenting the passage of a terrorism law. Depending on how you count such things, it was either the sixty-fifth or sixty-sixth anti-terror law passed by Australia’s parliament since 2001. This one had far-reaching implications. Among other things, it criminalised the conduct of journalism.

Fair was speaking at public hearings held by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, the public officer charged with ‘monitoring’ Australia’s increasingly restrictive and punitive counter-terror laws.

The inquiry is ongoing. Officially, it is charged with probing ‘section 35P of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979, concerning offences for the disclosure of information relating to a “special intelligence operation”.’ The bureaucratic tone of the inquiry’s job description is par for the course in the Kakfaesque domain of Australian national security law, where it is now illegal to report on the activities of Australia’s spy agencies.

Under Section 35P, recently amended by the National Security Legislation Amendment Act (No. 1) 2014, anyone who discloses information about a special intelligence operation can go to jail for five years. There are no protections for journalists, and the law applies even to someone who inadvertently discloses information about something they hadn’t realised was a special intelligence operation. Don’t stumble upon a spy mission, or you could go to jail.

What is a ‘special intelligence operation’? It’s quite an important question. If you happened to know enough about an operation to realise it was special, you might well find yourself in a lot of trouble.

A special intelligence operation is defined by Australian law as:

an operation:

(a) in relation to which a special intelligence operation authority has been granted; and
(b) that is carried out for a purpose relevant to the performance of one or more special intelligence functions; and
(c) that may involve an ASIO employee or an ASIO affiliate in special intelligence conduct.

Does that clear everything up? In the Helleresque jargon of the Act, a special intelligence operation is just about anything involved with intelligence. There is no further definition of what’s so ‘special’ about a special operation. There is no limit on the number of special intelligence operations ASIO can declare. ASIO agents on a special operation are immune from essentially all civil and criminal liability. ‘Special intelligence’ is pretty well anything ASIO says it is.

What would a journalist who suspects she might have stumbled onto a special intelligence operation do? According to the government, the answer is to call ASIO’s media department. Almost unbelievably, the onus is now on investigative journalists to ask the spooks whether the thing they’re investigating might be special spy business. Actually, the onus is on anyonewho encounters an unfolding event: journalist, blogger, or simply your mate with a Twitter account. As Griffith University’s Mark Pearson notes wryly, ‘one can imagine that ASIO media hotline getting considerable traffic in coming months and years.’

According to News Corporation’s veteran managing editor Campbell Reid, the laws are now so restrictive that it may be that journalists simply can’t report on an intelligence operation, even one that was completely successful in apprehending terrorists. Reid was also giving evidence to the independent monitor’s inquiry in April. ‘The fear that I have is that important information that could help parents understand the threat that their children could be placed under is now shut down, and potentially shut down for ever,’ he told the inquiry. ‘So this extraordinarily dangerous episode in Australian society could effectively be censored for all time.’

The media executives were particularly worried about the future for whistleblowers, the rare and courageous people inside the military and government who disclose information to journalists about wrongdoing. ‘If you are a whistleblower or a member of the public,’ Reid continued, ‘or, as in most stories of any kind of an investigative nature, a series of people with pieces of information, the situation we’re in now is that every piece of this information simply makes it too dangerous to talk to a journalist.’

How has it come to this?

For much of the last decade, George Williams has been one of Australia’s leading legal scholars. His specialty is Australia’s growing thicket of laws dealing with counter-terrorism and surveillance. Needless to say, he’s been a busy fellow.

In 2012, Williams wrote a review of the counter-terror laws enacted in the decade after the September 11 attacks. He concluded that ‘powers and sanctions once thought to lie outside the rules of a liberal democracy except during wartime have now become part of the Australian legal system.’ Williams’ latest book, co-written with Andrew Lynch and Nicola McGarrity, is entitled Inside Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Laws and Trials. For those of us who care about basic freedoms of speech and association, it makes for uncomfortable reading.

For instance, let us examine the Counter-Terrorism Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Act 2014. This omnibus amendment to many existing terror and security laws included an amendment to the criminal code that created a new offence: advocating terrorism. As Williams and his co-authors write, ‘advocacy, for the purposes of the offence, means counselling, promoting, encouraging or urging terrorism.’

It shouldn’t take more than a moment’s consideration to envisage the rather significant restrictions this new law places on certain types of speech. Unlike existing definitions of ‘incitement’ in the Criminal Code, the new offence does not require the prosecutors to prove that a defendant intended for his or her speech to incite a specific terrorist act. Instead, the ‘advocacy’ provision now applies to a much broader range of speech, requiring prosecutors to prove simply that the defendant was reckless in their urging of a terrorist act or offence. Considering the perennially controversial definition of what constitutes ‘terrorism’, and the blurred and confused nature of irregular warfare in conflict zones such as Syria, it is obvious that the new law could be very restrictive indeed. Williams, Lynch and McGarrity argue that it could apply to those writing in favour of rebel groups opposing the brutal Assad regime. The new offence, they observe, inevitably spirals uncontrollably outwards to a ‘larger, unresolvable debate about the legitimate use of violence.’

For those not intimately acquainted with the legal details, one of the mot remarkable aspects of Australia’s new terror laws is the before-the-fact criminality they establish. Williams, Lynch and McGarrity call it ‘pre-inchoate liability.’ Such liability extends well beyond the existing definitions of conspiracy, into the realms of vague premeditation. You could also, if you were uncharitable, call it ‘thought crime.’

Take, for instance, Faheem Lodhi. In 2006, Lodhi became the first Australian convicted of a terrorist offence. He had made the grievous mistake of associating with Willy Brigitte, a French national who had trained with Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan. He had also gathered some highly suspicious documents together, such as maps of electricity grids, aerial photographs of Holsworthy Barracks, handwritten notes on how to make home-made explosives, and a CD-ROM of jihadist material. He had then made some injudicious attempts to acquire some chemicals, particularly nitrates, which could have been used to make a fertiliser bomb.

While a jury found Lodhi guilty, the conduct of Lodhi’s trial was hardly open and transparent. Much of the evidence was given in secret – a full six days of closed testimony. As the Sydney Morning Herald’s Natasha Wallace reported in 2006, ‘of the first day of the transcript provided yesterday, the first eight pages and the last eight are entirely blacked out. It is not possible to tell who all the witnesses are and what parts are just legal argument in between evidence.’ The judge in the trial, Anthony Whealy, admitted in his judgment that ‘there is no evidence to indicate precisely what Brigitte’s role was to be in relation to any terrorist activity.’ However, he quickly added, ‘I am satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the relationship was not an innocent one.’

As Jeff Sparrow pointed out in a fine essay on the topic this year, Lodhi had no bomb, no target and no concrete plan. He had some maps, some recipes, and he’d tried to acquire some chemicals. The judge freely admitted that ‘it is clear that the planning was at a very preliminary stage.’ Indeed, he added that ‘I am not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the offender intended that he himself would necessarily assemble the bomb or that he would be the bomb carrier when it came time to place it at or near the ultimate target.’ Nonetheless, Justice Whealy decided that ‘I am satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the offender’s intentions in obtaining the list of chemicals was in contemplation for an action that he intended would be carried out to advance the cause of violent jihad.’

‘Contemplation for an action’ – those were the judge’s own words. And the appeal made clear that this was guilt enough: as no lesser legal mind than Chief Justice Spigelman of the New South Wales Supreme Court wrote in his appeal judgment, ‘what has been made an offence includes conduct where an offender has not decided precisely what he or she intends to do.’

In 2014, in one of his few substantive attempts to justify the raft of new terror laws his government was enacting, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament that ‘regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift.’

He continued:

There may be more restrictions on some so that there can be more protections for others. After all, the most basic freedom of all is the freedom to walk the streets unharmed and to sleep safe in our beds at night. Creating new offences that are harder to beat on a technicality may be a small price to pay for saving lives and for maintaining the social fabric of an open, free and multicultural nation.

The problem with this argument, as Williams, McGarrity and Lynch point out, is that is it by no means certain that less freedom adds up to more security. It may well be, as they write, that ‘a dimunition of liberty may even be counterproductive.’ The authors argue that while Australia needs counter-terror laws, the ones we’ve ended up enacting are poorly drafted, poorly monitored, lack checks and balances, and are disproportionate to the threat they counter. ‘Elements of the national security legislative framework require urgent repair or even repeal,’ they conclude.

Of course, no such redress is on offer. The major parties are busy passing new laws, rather than curbing the overreach of old ones.

The fate of the immediate past independent monitor, Bret Walker SC, is instructive. Walker spent three years in the role and authored four fat reports on Australia’s terror laws. They were given short shift by both the Labor and Coalition governments. Almost all of his recommendations were ignored – even those that would have strengthened some aspects of the legislative framework. In the end, Walker was left to lament that ‘when there is no apparent response to recommendations that would increase powers and authority to counter terrorism, some skepticism may start to take root about the political imperative to have the most effective and appropriate counter-terrorism laws.’

Walker left his post as independent monitor in April 2014. It took the Abbott government a full eight months to appoint his replacement, Roger Gyles QC. In that time, the government drafted and passed two new counter-terror bills, including the one that outlawed reporting on special intelligence operations.

Consider some of the following facts.

The United States government’s National Security Agency has a program called XKeyscore. This program ‘collects nearly anything a user does on the internet’, according to top secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Back in 2008, XKeyscore had over 500 dedicated data centres globally, networked in a ‘massive distributed Linux cluster.’ By 2012, the NSA was aiming at 10 million HTTP intercepts a day. The NSA’s overarching objective, as directed by General Keith Alexander, the Strangelovian eminence at the top of the NSA hierarchy, is simply to ‘collect it all.’ A multi-billion dollar operation with tens of thousands of employees (how many is still classified, along with the agency’s budget) the NSA may be the most far-reaching internal security body in world history, putting such notorious historical rivals as the Stasi, the Gestapo and the Okhrana to shame. In his famous interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in a Hong Kong hotel room, Snowden claimed that ‘I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.’

You can see why the spooks love such tools. One of the presentations leaked by Snowden shows a hypothetical search enquiry by an NSA operative. ‘For this example, I’m looking for everyone in Sweden that visits a particular extremist web forum,’ the slide helpfully explains. XKeyscore can provide the answers. A separate program called DNI Presenter can watch Facebook chats in real-time.

In 2013, the Guardian published details of a presentation Snowden leaked that discussed PRISM – the NSA’s program for accessing the messages, emails and phone calls of some of the largest tech companies in the world. Subtitled ‘The SIGAD used most in NSA reporting’, the document has the logos of Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Skype arrayed jauntily across the top of every page. It’s hard not to spot the resemblance to a set of lab notes. There are case studies and methodology primers. In one slide, showing a diagram of ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ intelligence sources, the slide annotates: ‘you should use both.’

The NSA has some able allies, too, including the domestic spy agencies of the four English-speaking democracies that together make up the ‘Five Eyes’ network of international surveillance. The other four chords of this pentagonal web are the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Originally formed in the Second World War to listen into enemy radio transmissions, the agreement is still in operation and is the legal basis underlying the vast intelligence flows shared between the various spy agencies of the five countries. It’s a revealing quirk of twenty-first century geopolitics that the five democracies with the worst records for spying on their citizens are all settler nations that have explicit commitments to individual liberties enshrined in their constitutions and laws. The trouble is, all these nations also have wide-ranging legislative approval of spying. Indeed, laws might even be said to be a significant part the problem.

The widespread imposition of routine, total surveillance by these five democracies is not the result of a powerful military acting without sanction, or a rogue network of spies. It is entirely legal, and is the formal policy of the various national governments. The spy system has been set up at the behest of the legislatures of those nation-states. The USA has its PATRIOT Act, passed in the fevered days after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Canada has a range of laws pertaining to surveillance. And so, of course, does Australia.

Australia’s Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2015, recently passed with the overwhelming support of both the major parties, certainly gives one pause to consider the relevance of the adjective ‘Orwellian.’ Here is a law that requirestelecommunications providers to collect and store vast amounts of data about their customers – that is to say, you and I – for a period of at least two years. No fewer than 19 separate law enforcement agencies can access the data without a warrant, or judicial oversight of any kind, and the Attorney-General can give other agencies access with the stroke of a pen. Section 187AA, which sets out bluntly the ‘information to be kept’, runs to two and a half closely typed pages, and looks like this:

 Kinds of information to be kept

TopicThe subscriber of, and accounts, services, telecommunications devices and other relevant services relating to, the relevant serviceDescription of informationThe following:(a) any information that is one or both of the following:


(i) any name or address information;

(ii) any other information for identification purposes; relating to the relevant service, being information used by the service provider for the purposes of identifying the subscriber of the relevant service;

(b) any information relating to any contract, agreement or arrangement relating to the relevant service, or to any related account, service or device;

(c) any information that is one or both of the following:

(i) billing or payment information;

(ii) contact information; relating to the relevant service, being information used by the service provider in relation to the relevant service;

(d) any identifiers relating to the relevant service or any related account, service or device, being information used by the service provider in relation to the relevant service or any related account, service or device;

(e) the status of the relevant service, or any related account, service or device.

That’s just one sub-clause of the law; other ‘topics’ include the date, time and location of a communication, its source and destination, and what type of message it was (‘Examples: Voice, SMS, email, chat, forum, social media.’) When faced with such newly legislated state powers of control and surveillance, it’s understandable that civil libertarians, journalists and ordinary citizens get concerned.

How bad is it? It’s pretty bad, actually. The level of surveillance that the Australian state can now legally conduct on its citizens is certainly as total as anything that pertained in the first and second world wars, or at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. What this means for the future of individual liberty within our democracy is anyone’s guess, but it’s hard to find an informed observer who is comforted. The ill-informed, on the other hand, remain blissfully ignorant.

And that’s perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Australian debate. In what is either a reassuring indicator of the stability of Australian society, or a remarkable demonstration of the way surveillance organisations can hoodwink legislatures and the general public, the metadata debate has been characterised by a surprising lack of interest from the mainstream media and the general public, most of whom did not find out about the laws until they had been passed. The Liberal-National Coalition has shown itself to be an enthusiastic supporter of tougher terrorism laws, notwithstanding their occasional homilies to freedom in front of party faithful. But so has the Australian Labor Party. While the metadata bill clearly worried many on the left of the ALP, in the end it was too complex, too technical and too abstruse to incite a backbench uprising. That left only the Greens and other minor parties and independents to oppose the bill, which they did, to negligible effect. It’s interesting that the only committed opposition to the bill came from the far left and far right of the political spectrum, a development which might be taken for broad consensus, but may also represent the narrowing of the electoral base of the major parties.

Early in his remarkable book, The File, Timothy Garton-Ash describes an uncanny moment examining the file kept about him by the Stasi:

Person-description of connection ‘Beret’
SEX: female
AGE: 30-35 years
HEIGHT: 1.75m-1.78m
BUILD: slim
HAIR: medium-blonde, curly
DRESS: dark blue cloth coat, red beret, blue jeans, black boots
ACCESSORIES: dark brown handbag

Garton-Ash is transfixed: suddenly he is transported back to East Berlin in 1979.

I remember the slovenly gilt-and-red Ganymed, the plush Operncafe and the blue-shirted, pimpled youths in the thirtieth anniversary march-past, their paraffin-soaked torches trailing sparks in the misty night air. I smell again that East Berlin smell, a compound of the smoke from old-fashioned domestic boilers burning compressed coal-dust briquettes, exhaust fumes from the two-stroke engines of the little Trabant cars, cheap East European cigarettes, damp boots and sweat. But on thing I simply can’t remember: who was she, my little red riding-hood?

After re-reading his diaries, Garton-Ash realises he has forgotten a love affair. There is even a letter, enclosing a photograph. ‘Touseled hair, high cheekbones, a rather tense smile. How could I have forgotten?’ Years later, in our own country, readers of ASIO’s files from the 1950s and 1960s have described similar reactions: the realisation that the state knew their past lives better than they did. The bittersweet play of forgetfulness, overlaid with the uncanny discomfort of the state-sponsored aid to memory, asks us difficult questions about the relationship of the citizen to the state.

Any discussion of mass state surveillance inevitably defaults to the example of the Stasi. The scale of the Ministry for State Security’s operations remains astounding. At the fall of the German Democratic Republic in 1989, the Stasi was East Germany’s largest employer. An estimated 173,000 informants were on the Ministry’s books: one for every fifty adults. Thousands of officers were devoted just to monitoring phones; thousands of letters a day were routinely opened; 20,000 phone calls were logged in East Berlin alone in 1989. When the Gauck Agency released the Stasi files it had seized, the archive was said to feature 180 kilometres of files. Several politicians were forced to resign, including Josef Duchac, Premier of the state of Thuringia.

Such power certainly allowed for savage repression of individuals, including the execution of many innocent people after their denunciation of informants. The intrusiveness of the Stasi was legendary. Surveillance teams would regularly break into suspects’ houses to plant bugs and photograph files, and would often leave subtle markers of their presence in a deliberate attempt to intimidate their targets. Stasi agents operated with essentially no legal checks, and with complete freedom to monitor all aspects of the their subjects’ lives. The Stasi also interfered, ending careers and ruining lives with a secret file and a discreet chat. A close reading of the Stasi’s actions in the 1970s and 80s suggests that it played a sophisticated game, trying to calibrate its repression so as to maintain party control, but without provoking greater resistance Even where charges were laid for crimes such as ‘illicit contact’ and ‘public degradation of state officials’, two of the favourite charges against dissidents and would-be emigrants, sentences were often light.

The irony is, of course, that the Stasi was utterly ineffective at its primary task: preventing the fall of the German Democratic Republic. Like the edifice of Communism itself, the Ministry disintegrated in just a few weeks in late 1989. Not only did it not predict the collapse, it made no meaningful effort to arrest the revolution when the critical moment arrived.

No-one quite knows why. As even the Stasi’s best-known historian, Jens Gieske admits, ‘it almost seems a mystery that the GDR’s internal armed forces gave in to defeat without a fight, a reaction that fundamentally contradicted their interests in the narrow sense.’ The Stasi, the most feared and effective internal surveillance agency of the Eastern Bloc, crumbled away in the general confusion of the 1989 revolution. In the end, the Stasi’s fatal weakness may have been exactly its faultless loyalty: as East Germany’s rulers lost their nerve, the Stasi followed orders and stood down. No counter-coup was mounted. By the time state prosecutors and even police moved against the Stasi to stop it from burning files, it was clear that the revolution would sweep the agency away. The occupation of the Stasi headquarters on 15 January 1990 was both inevitable and, like so much that is miraculous about the fall of Communism, remarkably peaceful.

Ultimately, though, perhaps the real effect of the new surveillance regime may be what it does to online culture, and how it effects public discourse. If East Germany has taught us anything, it is that the sustained and total surveillance of an entire population is not without consequences: political, cultural and especially moral. What will the consequences be in our own society? We are just at the beginning of the new surveillance era, and it is impossible to determine just how it may play out.

There is a sense in which broad surveillance powers are a potential harm, rather than an actual one. If the state merely monitors but doesn’t detain, limit or repress, are our liberties truly at threat? After all, as the saying goes, the innocent have nothing to fear. At this moment the nation-states of the Five Eyes have not jailed large numbers of internal dissidents, moved to break up political associations, or repressed large swathes of civil society. No media organisations have been shut down, even if certain websites have been proscribed and mosques and chatrooms are routinely monitored.

So the question becomes: would governments and their domestic intelligence agencies use such powers for repression? Even if collectively the answer is no, in a disconcerting number of individual instances, the answer is yes. The US, the UK and Australia have all seen journalists and whistle-blowers prosecuted and even jailed after falling into the tentacles of the security state. Edward Snowden would certainly be prosecuted were he to return to the United States; Chelsea Manning languishes in a military jail in Fort Leavenworth. It is true that such outrages are nothing compared to what goes on in Russia, in Sri Lanka or in Iran. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that power is being abused, and that liberties are being limited.

There have already been plenty of individual abuses of terror laws here in Australia, from Mohammed Haneef to Izhar ul-Haque. Haneef was detained without charge for twelve days. His legal rights were denied. But his eventual charge – of providing resources to a terrorist organisation – was without substance. He had given his SIM card to a second cousin, later implicated in the 2007 Glasgow airport attack. That SIM card was said to have been found at the scene of the attack. In fact, it wasn’t. Haneef was found to have done nothing wrong. A subsequent inquiry found that ‘it appears that Dr Haneef spent three weeks in custody as a consequence of very ordinary, unremarkable familial interaction.’

Perhaps the more concerning cases are those where there is no obvious miscarriage of justice, and yet individual liberties have been trampled on. The case of Alan Kessing, a whistleblower in Customs, is instructive. In 2005, The Australian published a secret report about airport security obtained from Kessing. He was charged and convicted under section 70 of the Crimes Act and received a nine-month suspended sentence. According to the ABC’s Media Watch, metadata showed he had called The Australian from a payphone near his house. It’s hard to see how prosecutions such as this are a good thing for Australian democracy. Whistle-blowers remain critical to exposing corruption and malfeasance in public life.

In the First and Second World Wars, the belligerent powers all censored, repressed and jailed internal critics and enemies. The justification at the time was war, and it remains war. That tells us something about the way our rulers approach the world, because there is no resemblance between the diffuse and largely proxy wars now being fought against Islamic terrorists, and the total wars of the first half of the twentieth century. Terrorists have the ability to strike lethally and without warning in western democracies. But the uncomfortable truth is that they kill very few western citizens, and pose precisely zero ability to defeat or depose a modern state.

Whether you think the US and Australia are substantially unfree might therefore depend on your view of power. If, like Michel Foucault, you see power as more than merely the application of force to achieve political and social compulsion, then you might be inclined to question just how free our much-prized modern democracies really are. Could it be that the vast apparatus of surveillance constructed at such expense could also be exerting subtle effects on our everyday political activities? Or is it rather more metaphysical? Is surveillance helping to construct power itself through the constituent action of its moving parts? In other words, is surveillance a ‘microphysics of power,’ in Foucault’s muscular phrase?

The nagging concern must therefore be that, in contrast to the terrorism they are meant to combat, society-wide surveillance networks may well pose a greater threat to the contemporary conditions for liberty and democracy. By surveilling the private sphere, they also harm the public sphere – assisting the corrupt and hollowing out the basis for trust in communication. The slow erosion of such freedoms thus assists broader inequalities in our polity, insidiously crimping long-established freedoms of speech, association and assembly, and callously ruining innocent lives.

Ben Eltham is a Melbourne-based writer and journalist. He writes about Australian culture and politics. He is national affairs correspondent for New Matilda, a research fellow at Deakin University and an industry columnist for artsHub. 





PEN Melbourne joins coalition calling for restored internet services in Nauru

  Nauru. Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images
Nauru. Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

The tiny island of Nauru has shut down services on the internet.

The island nation of Nauru may be tiny — it’s only 21 square kilometers (8.5 square miles) — but what is happening there matters to people around the world. This month, the Nauru government officially announced it would block Facebook and internet services until it could pass measures to protect its residents from “abusive” content online.

But here’s the thing: Governments should NEVER shut off any part of the internet. Period.

The Nauru government has made it a criminal offense for anyone to make a statement that “coerces, intimidates, harasses, or causes emotional distress to a person” if the statement is “likely to threaten national defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health.” This wide standard could send people to jail for what they say on- or offline. It’s bad for journalism, for free expression, and for the ability to enjoy basic rights.

Nauru operates an immigration detention center (funded by the Australian government) for people seeking asylum in Australia. Men, women, and children are held there — often in abusive conditions — while authorities decide whether to grant them full refugee protection and resettlement on Nauru, Papua New Guinea, or Cambodia, but not Australia, the country they are seeking asylum in. The detention center is located in the steaming hot center of the island, as far from other people as it is possible to get in Nauru. Without the internet, asylum seekers in Nauru are losing vital connections to loved ones, colleagues, and family that internet services can provide, something that could make a difference in their efforts to get asylum. This needs to stop.


Sign the petition to tell the government of Nauru to turn the internet back on!

Read the coalition’s letter to His Excellency President Baron Waqa here.