Author ROBERT MACKLIN finds himself drawn into murky, security intrigue as Canberra’s “secret prisoner”, an Australian soldier stripped by the government of his real name, takes on the Alexander Maconochie Centre in court. Who is this man and what is his story?
THERE is no end to the cost of war. The battlefield casualties grab the headlines, but so many of its crises take place behind the darkened shutters of our hospitals and, occasionally, our courtrooms.
One occurred in Canberra’s Supreme Court 4 last Friday (November 8). The final blow to a human tragedy was dealt there shortly after 4pm. It was timed, I suspect, to avoid the prying eyes of the public and the media.
I was there when a fellow Canberran (who for legal reasons I’ll call “Witness J”), a graduate of Duntroon, a former captain in Army Intelligence who fought with his unit in Afghanistan in 2011-2012, heard a judgement passed against him.
His is a well-respected Yarralumla family. Members have occupied high office in Treasury and other public service posts. He was schooled in Canberra before graduating to Duntroon. He and his Indonesian fiancée plan to marry shortly after Christmas.
The court was a clinical operation. Justice John Burns had heard the case in July when Witness J – at the time a secret prisoner in the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) – brought a civil action against the AMC’s general manager, Ms Corinne Justason.
It was triggered by his request to me – made through his brother – to visit him in the jail to advise him about the process of getting the book he had written published commercially.
The request came out of the blue, but it was not unusual. As the author of some 29 books, I often get asked for such advice, and I was certainly intrigued by this one.
It was a memoir of his time in the AMC. It came with a synopsis and a first chapter, both of which were very engaging and well written. So I agreed and applied for permission from the jail authorities. This was granted but then, the day before the appointment, I was told it was revoked. When I asked why, the answer was silence.
What I didn’t realise was that following my request, Ms Justason had alerted the AFP who then raided his brother’s Melbourne house and seized all copies of the manuscript he had sent him. In the prison, Witness J’s cell was also raided and his writings seized. His email access was also restricted.
He was outraged and though he had no formal legal training he conducted the case himself. An observer reported that he reminded her of Atticus Finch.
I knew almost nothing of this. I was bemused by the silence, the more so when I learned that the earlier case that resulted in his incarceration had been conducted in secret as had his 15-month sentence in AMC.
I raised the matter with friends whom I believed were well placed by their former and current positions in the Defence community to throw light on the matter. But they, too, were surprised.
“This is not Nazi Germany,” they said. “We don’t have secret trials in Australia.” That’s what I thought, too. That’s what differentiates us from Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and all the other tyrannies.
But I saw anomalies that I found deeply disturbing. For example, the government had expunged Witness J’s real name from the public record and replaced it with the random alias “Alan Johns”.
Even in last Friday’s judgement when he had served his 15-month sentence and was again a free man, Justice Burns addressed him as Mr Johns. And the case was anonymously listed as simply, “In the Matter of an Application”. To the courts, Witness J was and remains a non-person.
So, what lay at the base of this mystery? Is Australia really as open and just as we have been brought up to believe? Or has some combination of the war on terror, the provisions in the recent “security” legislation, coupled with a government’s endemic desire for secrecy taken us to the fringe of autocracy?
Ask our own Bernard Collaery or Witness K and I suspect they would be in little doubt. Witness J’s case is both different and similar. Like Witness K, when charged with his offence under the Intelligence Services Act 2001, he pleaded guilty. But unlike “K”, his actions were triggered by what he perceived as a personal affront to someone he loved.
However, had it not been for the 10 stressful years he had spent fighting for his country and seeing his fellow soldiers killed in the bloodied dust of Uruzgan Province, nor the next five after joining DFAT and postings to Iraq and other places, then I could easily guess that he would not have offended as apparently he did.
I have written three biographies of SAS operatives in “SAS Sniper”, “SAS Insider” and “Redback One” and the comprehensive history of our Special Forces and Intelligence Services in “Warrior Elite”, so I did not have to be told the real story behind his guilty plea. It is not part of the manuscript – “Here, There Are Dragons” – that he sent me and which I have now passed to my regular publisher on his behalf.
That is an amazing story of a good man thrown into the company of the depraved. It’s an insight into the dark heart of humanity and a miracle of adaptation.
But the real story behind it is one that demands to be told because it’s about a world that those of us who have not served in the front lines of our defences know nothing about, and where the stress of war and conflict become too hard to bear.
I hope he tells it. It’s one that we all deserve to know as we count the cost.