Arrest of American reopens criticism of Australian detentions

A Texan teacher and activist had his visa revoked and is in detention in Melbourne. He faces deportation.

Australia's aggressive handling of foreigners has once again erupted into controversy, this time over the case of an American history teacher from Texas who was suddenly arrested halfway through a six-month vacation here.

Six police and security officers arrested Scott Parkin over the weekend as he left a Melbourne cafe on his way to deliver a workshop on nonviolent protesting. Still in detention, with his visa revoked, Mr. Parkin has yet to be formally charged. The attorney general's office indicated that authorities believed the community college teacher posed a threat to national security.

"The reason he's in custody is because his visa has been cancelled. The reason his visa has been cancelled is because he received an adverse security assessment," Attorney General Phillip Ruddock told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "The assessment has to be made upon matters relating to politically motivated violence, including violent protest activity."

The arrest of Mr. Parkin comes at a time when Australians are feeling uneasy after an Al Qaeda video - released on Sept. 11 - named Melbourne as one of two future targets. To confront security threats, the government is preparing to pass controversial antiterror legislation that gives police the right to electronically track terror suspects as well as detain people for up to 48 hours without charge.

However, civil rights activists suggest that the government's handling of Parkin and other foreigners calls for more oversight, not expanded powers. Canberra has come under fire for allowing Chinese agents to interrogate asylum seekers in Australian detention, and for allowing boat people to languish in legal limbo for years within detention camps.

"Our main concern is the confusion about under which laws he [Parkin] has been detained," says Liz Thompson from the National Anti-Deportation Alliance. "If he has been given a negative security assessment, then we want to know why."

Parkin was one of the main organizers of the two massive protests during Halliburton's shareholder meetings in 2004-05. He participated in demonstrations against Halliburton during a recent conference in Sydney, and has also been investigating the company's alleged bids for New Orleans reconstruction accounts.

In Australia, besides hiking and beach-going, Parkin has run workshops and street theater presentations against the Iraq war and those he says are profiteering from it.

Dan Cass, a spokesman for Greenpeace Australia Pacific and one of the few people who have been able to meet Parkin in the Melbourne Custody Center, says he is "under a lot of duress and only wants to go home."

But if he returns home, Mr. Cass says, Parkin may never be able to enter another country under provisions of the Patriot Act and other new security measures.

Greenpeace, which is providing help to Parkin, has instructed his lawyers to appeal to the Migration Review Tribunal to review the basis on which his visa was withdrawn.

"Peace is not terrorism. Peace is not a threat to national security," Cass says.

Under the law, Parkin is required to pay nearly $100 a day for his incarceration.

Parkin had his first inclination that Australian authorities were keeping their eye on him when he got a call from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) last Wednesday requesting an interview.

"He asked ASIO if his visa was under threat if he refused to meet with them or if any action would be taken against him, and they said no - that it was purely voluntary - so he refused," says Cass.

Three days later, he was arrested.

When contacted by the Monitor, the media liaison officer at the US embassy said she had no comment on the particular case and instead referenced a website outlining procedures the embassy undertakes to help Americans overseas.

Opponents of the government, however, suggest that the orders for Parkin's arrest may have come from Washington.

"We would like to know whether the reassessment of Scott Parkin's situation came from our own agencies," says Stewart Jackson, an official with the Australian Greens Party. If not, "then so much for being a sovereign state."

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