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The case of Mohamed Kamer Nizamdeen, released after a month in prison when terrorism-related charges were dropped because of mistaken evidence, is the latest in a string of dubious arrests and defamatory accusations in the media against Australian Muslims. By Alex McKinnon.

No apologies after Mohamed Kamer Nizamdeen’s release

Family members of Mohamed Kamer Nizamdeen and activists protest last month in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Credit: AP Photo / Eranga Jayawardena

On August 31, New South Wales Police arrested 25-year-old Mohamed Kamer Nizamdeen, a PhD student working as a systems analyst at the University of NSW, and charged him with making a document connected to the preparation of a terrorist act. Police raided his home in Zetland, in Sydney’s inner east, that night, seizing his laptop and mobile phone.

Nizamdeen’s arrest was precipitated by a notebook a co-worker claimed to have found at a desk Nizamdeen frequented. Based on its contents, police alleged Nizamdeen planned to assassinate former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, former foreign minister Julie Bishop and former speaker Bronwyn Bishop, as well as carry out terror attacks on the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and other “symbolic” locations across the city.

Nizamdeen’s arrest made headlines across Australia. On September 1, The Daily Telegraph reported the raid on its front page with the headline “POSTER BOY FOR TERRORISM”. It included a photo of Nizamdeen wearing a red and white Middle Eastern-style keffiyeh and dark sunglasses. Other news outlets seized on his previous selection as “Hero of the Week” in UNSW’s in-house student development program, painting him as a kind of smiling assassin. The day after his arrest, Detective Acting Superintendent Mick Sheehy said Nizamdeen was planning to act alone but “from documentation, he would affiliate with ISIS [Daesh]”.

Nizamdeen would spend the next month behind bars as police continued their investigation. “He was classified as an AA inmate,” Moustafa Kheir, Nizamdeen’s lawyer, told The Saturday Paper. “This is the highest classification under the corrective services system.”

Nizamdeen’s incarceration triggered protests in Sri Lanka, where his family asserted his innocence. His uncle, Faiszer Musthapha, who is Sri Lanka’s sports and local government minister, told Triple J’s Hack program that Nizamdeen’s family was “shattered and broken” by his arrest.

On September 28, the case took a turn. Nizamdeen was released on bail after prosecutors conceded that the writing in the notebook – their central piece of evidence – was likely not his. On October 19, police dropped all charges against him.

In a statement, the Australian Federal Police said “subsequent expert forensic examination of the notebook indicated irregularities between examples of Mr Nizamdeen’s handwriting and the handwriting in the notebook that specified terrorist threats”. The AFP also noted that the NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team’s investigation “has shifted to focus on the possibility that the content of the notebook has been created by other people”.

While police have refused to comment further on the ongoing investigation, unanswered questions about the notebook’s authorship raise troubling possibilities. There’s the potential that someone used Nizamdeen’s notebook to plan a series of terror attacks and happened to leave it at Nizamdeen’s desk, or that his notebook and workspace were used deliberately in an attempt to frame him for planning an attack.

Speaking outside Sydney Central Local Court after Nizamdeen’s release, NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Mick Willing refused to apologise to Nizamdeen and denied a journalist’s assertion that police had “ruined a young man’s life”.

“Those who were involved in the production and manufacture of these documents are the ones who’ve had an impact on Mr Nizamdeen,” said Willing. “Counterterrorism investigation, by its very nature, means that sometimes you have to act early. You have to put public safety first.”

Kheir says the AFP’s response was more concerned with public relations than with making amends. “The AFP statement was designed to soften the community backlash,” he told The Saturday Paper. “They should have accepted things could have been dealt with better and apologised to this young man and his family. Instead their response was arrogant.” He added that Nizamdeen “is looking into civil action options” against NSW Police.

Nizamdeen’s case has raised some disturbing questions regarding how police, the media and the public respond to the possibility of terrorism. Under laws passed in May 2016, NSW Police can hold and question a terror suspect aged 14 and over for up to 14 days without charge. In October 2017, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull urged all states and territories to adopt the same standards. These powers have not been paired with any increased checks to ensure they are not misused.

Nizamdeen is not the first to be caught in the anti-terror dragnet. Kheir also represented Khaled Merhi, a 40-year-old man from Sydney’s Surry Hills who was arrested in July 2017 on charges of possessing or using a prohibited weapon without a permit. Merhi was held for eight days before being released, during which time he sustained a gash above his right eye and a back injury.

Police dropped all charges against him in May this year, after the “weapon” he was charged with possessing turned out to be a modified fly swatter he used to light his barbecue. Police asserted the fly swatter constituted a “homemade taser”, before admitting in court the device had roughly 300 times less power than the tasers used by NSW Police.

Kheir is the principal solicitor at Birchgrove Legal, a Sydney law firm that has represented a number of Australian Muslims in high-profile media defamation cases. He points to the case of three men who were charged with planning to blow up a plane using an explosive device hidden inside a meat grinder. The Daily Telegraph’s front-page report of the meat grinder raids carried the headline “BULLDOG AND A ‘BOMB’ ” and showed one of the men arrested, Khaled Khayat, wearing a Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs rugby league jersey.

He was described as “a Canterbury Bulldogs fan”, an inference that drew a furious response from the National Rugby League and the club, which is based in an area of Sydney with a large Muslim community. Then Bulldogs chief executive Raelene Castle said the front page was “an unjust and unfair reflection on our club”, and that the NRL had expressed its “extreme disappointment” to the Telegraph about “how they reported the incident and the strong link they made with the Bulldogs”.

Birchgrove Legal also represented the Grand Mufti of Australia, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, when he successfully sued News Corp for defamation over two articles published in November 2015. The Daily Telegraph falsely accused the mufti of a “stubborn refusal to condemn the Paris terror attacks”, and of “snubbing” a memorial for the victims. One front-page report included Photoshopped images of the mufti covering his eyes, ears and mouth, along with the headline “THE UNWISE MONKEY: Sees no problem, hears no concerns, speaks no English”.

Around the same time, the firm represented the president of the Australian National Imams Council, Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman, in his successful defamation claim against News Corp. In February, Federal Court justice Geoffrey Flick ordered the Telegraph to take down several articles that implied Sheikh Alsuleiman “preached hate towards others”. In June 2016, Alsuleiman attended a multifaith dinner at Kirribilli House hosted by then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. News Corp seized on his attendance, calling him a “hate preacher”. Flick said the way News Corp conducted itself throughout the case “will be a model of how not to conduct litigation”.

Kheir says the string of controversies are indicative of a media that loses sight of its professional ethics when the spectre of Islamist terror is raised. “Particularly with News Corp, there is a maliciousness there,” he said. “It’s not a question of publishing the truth but publishing what they can get away with without being sued.

“Community awareness and willingness to seek justice through the courts has significantly improved,” Kheir said, pointing out that Australian Muslims have become increasingly aware of their rights in cases of possible media defamation. He says they are more willing than ever to pursue outlets they believe have misrepresented them.

While he is no longer a terrorism suspect, Nizamdeen’s life and future remain in turmoil. His student visa expired in September while he was in jail. He was arrested in his place of employment – where it’s likely the person who reported him to police still works. Shortly after his arrest, he was scrubbed from the UNSW Hero Program website.

It is also unlikely his name will ever be entirely free of the stain of association with terrorism. Articles describing him as a “terrorist” on Islamophobic websites pop up on the first page of several Google search results that include his name. The day of his arrest, former Labor leader Mark Latham wrote on Twitter that Nizamdeen “was plotting to kill senior Federal MPs and blow up Sydney Opera House and police/train stations”. The tweet remains live.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 27, 2018 as "Blunder arrest". Subscribe here.

Alex McKinnon
is Schwartz Media’s morning editor, and a former editor of Junkee.