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RIGHTS-AUSTRALIA: Parliament Tightens Protest Ban at Spy Base

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Apr 13 2009 (IPS) - Despite ongoing community concerns over the highly secretive Pine Gap spy station in central Australia, the nation’s parliament has moved to effectively ban protest at the joint Australia-United States base.

"The right to protest is a political act which is directly linked to freedom of association and freedom of expression. It allows citizens to take democratic action without the threat of sanctions," said Dr Hannah Middleton of the Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition in a submission to a senate inquiry into changes in legislation related to Pine Gap.

Despite concerns expressed by Middleton and other Australian citizens, in addition to a dissenting report submitted to the senate committee by the Australian Greens Party, the defence legislation (miscellaneous amendments) bill 2008 was passed by parliament in mid-March.

It amends a 1952 defence act by defining the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap – the spy station’s official title – located 20 km south of the central Australian town of Alice Springs as a "special defence undertaking" and a "prohibited area" necessary for Australia’s defence.

This effectively closes a loophole in the legislation which was exploited by a group of four Christian peace activists in successfully appealing their convictions over a protest at Pine Gap in 2005.

The so-called Pine Gap Four had been facing up to seven years imprisonment for what they called a "citizens’ inspection" of the secretive base – the four had evaded security patrols to enter the facility and take photographs before being arrested – but were acquitted in 2008 after an appeals court ruled that a "miscarriage of justice" had occurred.

The four had been prevented from presenting evidence regarding the operations conducted at Pine Gap in a ruling prior to their 2007 trial. The appeals court upheld the group’s claim that they should have been entitled to challenge whether the area designated as "prohibited" was necessary for the defence of Australia.

One of the Pine Gap Four, Donna Mulhearn, says that the recently-enacted legislation is aimed at silencing further criticism of the facility.

"Now that the loophole has been closed it is a concern that any activist who decides to go to Pine Gap to make a protest may face court and seven years in prison without having the opportunity to put their case thoroughly and in its entirety," says Mulhearn, a former journalist and political adviser who volunteered as a "human shield" during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The controversial facility was established with the signing of the 1967 Pine Gap Treaty between the U.S. and Australia. Along with a similar site at the United Kingdom’s Menwith Hill air force base, Pine Gap is believed to play a key role in gathering signals intelligence for the United States, Britain and other allied nations.

But while Pine Gap’s eight radomes – the large, ball-like domes that protect the facility’s radar antennae – may be instantly recognisable to many Australians, the functions of the base remain highly secretive.

"Pine Gap is a ground receiving station for space-based intelligence gathering," said Greens senator Scott Ludlam just days before the legislation was passed.

"Its monitoring of radar, cell phone, radio and long-distance telecommunication enables it to provide targeting information for U.S. air and ground forces," added Ludlam.

But with official information regarding the spy station’s activities in short supply, Ludlam and others have relied heavily on accounts provided by professors Des Ball and Paul Dibb, renowned experts in Australian strategic and defence issues, to a 1999 parliamentary committee established to consider a further extension of the Pine Gap Treaty.

Although the base was built during the Cold War, it is believed to have played pivotal roles in targeted missile strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. According to Ludlam, information collected at Pine Gap enables U.S. forces to identify, monitor and attack targets.

"Many thousands of civilians continue to be killed as collateral damage in these campaigns," alleged the senator.

And while the facility is also suspected of being part of the United States’ proposed missile defence shield, very little of what goes on at Pine Gap has been confirmed by either of the two governments controlling its operations.

The 1999 parliamentary committee was not even allowed to visit the base, with several requests to tour the facility being rejected.

"Such access is tightly controlled for both U.S. and Australian citizens and limited strictly to personnel with a ‘need to know’," said then-defence minister Ian McLachlan in 1998.

To Donna Mulhearn, protests stem from the "need to act by our conscience." "We need to reveal the truth and draw a spotlight to what’s going on at Pine Gap", Mulhearn told IPS. She regards the protests staged at the facility, which has been widely reported in the media, as part of a "very long tradition". "Symbolic, non-violent actions have always been very powerful," she says.

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