Greens denounce secret prisoner case as evidence Australia is an 'authoritarian state'

Christopher Knaus
Photograph: Sam Mooy/AAP

The federal government’s failure to provide any meaningful explanation of the secret imprisonment of a mystery prisoner in the ACT has prompted accusations it has engaged in an “abuse of state power”.

On Thursday the Greens senator Nick McKim asked the government to tell the Senate why the inmate – given the court pseudonym Alan Johns – was charged and imprisoned in near-total secrecy due to commonwealth orders.

The foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, speaking on behalf of attorney general Christian Porter, gave only a brief response to McKim’s questions, saying simply that the orders were imposed by the courts with the consent of the parties.

“The attorney general’s department is assisting in the management of the information that is subject to the court orders,” Payne told the Senate.

The lack of detail prompted criticism from McKim. He said it was clear that “we are living in an authoritarian state”.

Related: 'Are we now a totalitarian state?': case of Canberra's mystery prisoner alarms judge

“What we know now is in the 21st century there is a person who has been secretly charged, secretly sentenced and secretly imprisoned in Australia,” McKim said.

“And when asked in the Senate to provide further information, the attorney general’s representative in the Senate has either refused or been unable to provide any further meaningful information.

“This is a shocking example of secrecy and abuse of state power and our descent into a police state, and yet another argument for a charter of rights in Australia.”

Little is known about Johns, also referred to as Witness J, other than that he was formerly a military intelligence officer. He was imprisoned in the Alexander Maconochie Centre in the ACT at some point last year and has since been released.

Commonwealth orders prevent the publication of his identity or any detail about the charges he faced.

The inmate’s communications with family and friends while behind bars were limited. Federal police asked the prison to tip it off if he attempted to receive “unusual visitors”.

When police learned he had written a memoir about his time in prison, they raided his cell and his brother’s home, and the inmate’s email and phone communications were temporarily frozen.

The case became public only when a dispute between the prisoner and prison authorities reached the ACT supreme court. The inmate had challenged the prison’s decision to tip off the Australian federal police and the restriction of his communications.

Canberra-based author Robert Macklin had attempted to visit the inmate in jail to help him publish the book. Both Macklin and former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope have hit out at the extraordinary secrecy surrounding the case.

The ACT’s current justice minister, Shane Rattenbury, said not even he knew of the case until after the fact.

“I am deeply disturbed by the extraordinary levels of secrecy surrounding the ‘Witness J’ case: secrecy that is a direct result of the commonwealth government’s apparent growing disregard for the principles of open justice and a robust democracy,” Rattenbury said.