Police intimidation and media scapegoating behind the Brisbane killing

21 December 2020
Priya De

On 17 December, the Queensland Police shot 22-year-old Raghe Abdi five times and killed him on the side of Brisbane’s Logan Motorway.

The events are contested. It will be some time before the truth behind the killing is revealed. But the already established facts paint a clear picture of state intimidation and media complicity with the police, in the context of long years of racist scapegoating of Muslims.

Cops claim Raghe was holding a knife and lunged at officers. Deputy Police Commissioner Tracy Linford told the media the police were forced by circumstances to employ lethal force. But social media accounts belonging to some of Raghe’s friends dispute these claims, and the entire police narrative around the shooting. “There was no weapon involved in this scene other than the guns [that] killed the innocent man,” reads one post on the Justice for Raghe Abdi account. “He had a bottle of water in his hand to make whudu [ritual cleaning] later on."

Shortly after the killing, the Queensland Police Service went further, telling the press that Raghe may have been involved in a double murder in a neighbouring Brisbane suburb, and that they were treating the entire sequence of events as a “terrorist incident”.

But the police admit that officers on the scene did not know Raghe before they opened fire. "They wouldn't have known who he was at that time," Linford told the Guardian. "It was simply a welfare call for an unknown male walking along the Logan Motorway." So that means Raghe’s character, background and recent activity had no relation to the police officer’s decision to kill him, and no bearing on whether officers had to shoot a young man five times on the side of a road. Why, then, were the police so quick, and the media so compliant, in broadcasting Raghe’s background to the public?

Raghe Abdi’s lawyer and the president of the Australian Council of Civil Liberties, Terry O’Gorman, told the ABC that the police were “setting out to paint a person they’ve shot and killed in the worst possible light”. And the media were happy to play along. Covering the police killing of a young man, the Daily Telegraph reported that Raghe was a “known extremist”. The Whitsunday Times called him a “lone wolf terrorist”. The Daily Mail called Raghe a "wannabee ISIS terrorist".

The precise events leading up to the police shooting are still unclear, but the facts beneath the descriptions of Abdi as a “lone wolf terrorist” don’t tell the story of an ideologically hardened Islamic militant, but a young man who had been locked up and persecuted despite never having been convicted of any serious crime.

In 2019, Raghe was arrested on suspicion of terrorism at Brisbane Airport while boarding a one-way flight to Somalia. Charges against him were later dropped for lack of evidence. Despite that, Raghe spent an incredible 414 days in prison on remand, for refusing to give his mobile PIN number to the police investigators or speak in court. When he was released on 3 September 2020, Raghe was ordered to wear a GPS tracking device, despite never being convicted of anything to do with terrorism.

When the police and security services declare you a suspect, even if they don’t have enough evidence to gather a conviction, your refusal to cooperate can warrant imprisonment and constant tracking. That’s a weapon of a legal system that grants enormous, invasive powers to the security services and the police, who are happy to use those powers to humiliate, intimidate, terrify and scapegoat Muslims. Such laws are familiar to young Muslims: they have ruined many lives and stolen many futures.

Kamer Nizamdeen was one victim of the travesty of justice meted out at the behest of “fighting terrorism”. He was imprisoned in 2018 on terrorism charges. The Daily Telegraph ran a front-page photograph of him with the headline: "Poster Boy for Terror". After one year, much of which he spent in solitary confinement, Kamer was released with all charges dropped. The only evidence holding Kamer in prison was handwriting in a book that was later proven to be forged.

And it’s similar to the 13 Muslim men imprisoned in 2005 in Victoria’s maximum-security Barwon prison. Despite not being convicted of one single crime, these young men were held for three years, during which time they were strip searched every day. Four were later found not guilty of any charges. Four were convicted on grounds that Michael Pearce from Liberty Victory described as “an affront to the most basic principle of the rule of law”.

The laws which allow such travesties of justice to occur are justified by a well-worn narrative; that Muslims comprise a real and ever-present threat to Australian peace that is the key security issue of our time; that one can never be too complacent about Muslims, because even private-school educated students like Raghe Abdi, once praised in Parliament by Jim Chalmers for promoting multiculturalism, can become a “lone wolf terrorist”; that Muslims should be deprived of the assumption of innocence and civil liberties in order for the police to keep our society safe.

As Raghe Abdi’s father told 9 News, “When our children, our young people are going through a mental crisis, an identity crisis… they actually are easily labelled 'radicalism'".

In 2014, police launched “Operation Hammerhead”, a series of coordinated raids on the homes of Muslims in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. The media had cameras at the ready, broadcasting nationally supposedly terrifying scenes, like swords being excavated from the homes of Muslims--swords that later turned out to be plastic toys. But the act of the police raiding homes and the incessant media coverage planted a seed: are Muslims an enemy in our midst?

Operation Hammerhead was the biggest counter-terrorism raid operation in Australian history. There has been no equivalent set of coordinated raids on the gyms and clubhouses run by Melbourne’s networks of organised fascists, despite the fact that one man who was heavily involved in that scene was found to be planning to blow up leftist organising centres, and another member of Australia’s fascist networks went on to perpetrate the massacre of Muslims in Christchurch.

“Counter-terrorism” measures render the Muslim community victims of terrorism: both the terrorism of constant police intimidation, and the terrorism of anti-Muslim vigilantes like the Christchurch killer. At anti-racist protests following the 2019 Christchurch massacre, a common slogan was: “racist politicians loaded the gun”.

Indeed, on 20 December, spokesman for the Islamic Council of Queensland Ali Kadri called off a press conference about racism against Muslims, responding to Raghe Abdi’s murder. A racist community member had arrived at the Holland Park mosque demanding to speak to Kadri, sending him messages that read: “I wonder what the Sharia punishment is for murder… You will burn in hell with the evil terrorist that was radicalized by your mosque.”

In the aftermath of Raghe’s death, rage is palpable among Brisbane’s Muslim and African communities. Thousands have followed an Instagram account demanding justice for Raghe Abdi and discussing the possibility of a community protest. Raghe’s story may never be known in full. Regardless of his exact actions, what he did or did not do, the horrific events show us a tragic outcome of state violence, vilification and harassment.

It’s right for the Muslim community to be outraged. Instead of carrying the police’s water by uncritically talking about a “lone wolf terrorist”, the media should ask why this young man could be locked up for more than a year without any serious conviction. Raghe Abdi’s murder shows the need for solidarity in the face of racism, and a fightback against the national security state that thrives on the scapegoating of Muslims.

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