Gabe Watson is an American citizen who today was released from a Queensland prison, having served an 18-month sentence for the manslaughter of his wife on a diving trip in 2003.
Mr Watson has "done his time", as we say. If he were an Australian citizen he would now be allowed to get on with the rest of his life. But the zealous prosecutors of Alabama from where Mr Watson and his wife came, have other ideas. They think it's OK for Mr Watson to be tried again for the crime he has committed. And the Australian Government is more than happy to facilitate this outrageous breach of a fundamental principle of law.
That a person should not be tried again for an offence in respect of which he or she can been convicted or acquitted is a fundamental human right. The Article 14 (7) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is unambiguous. "No-one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country," it says. Australia is a signatory to the ICCPR.
There is a debate in this country at the moment about whether or not the principle of double jeopardy should apply in cases where a person is acquitted. But Mr Watson's case does not fall into that category. He was investigated, tried, convicted and sentenced under a trial process that was robust and fair. His case was the subject of an appeal to Queensland's highest court, which added an extra six months to his sentence. What is it then about the principle of double jeopardy that the Alabama authorities and the Australian and Queensland governments do not understand?
Alabama's law and order driven politicians and prosecutors were outraged by lack of a murder conviction and the sentence handed down by the Queensland courts and on this basis decided they wanted their man back where they could see if they could put him behind bars forever or kill him through a state-sanctioned execution.
The answer to this request from the Queensland Government and the Federal Government should have been to tell the Alabama authorities and the US federal government to go to hell. But instead of defending the integrity of the Queensland justice system they meekly succumbed to the American demands by handing over evidence. No doubt Mr Dick and the Gillard Government will argue that they have stood up to the Americans by seeking assurances, before they began cooperating, that Mr Watson would not face the death penalty if he were found guilty of the murder of his wife. That's all well and good but why not say "no", period.
Mr Dick's flawed reasoning in this matter is evident in a letter he sent to his Alabama counterpart in August this year. "My interest in this matter is to ensure that Australia's bipartisan opposition to the death penalty is maintained," Mr Dick wrote. What he should have said is that Australia will have no part of an effort to undermine a fundamental human right.
If Gabe Watson is handed over to the US by Australian immigration authorities and Mr Dick it will say much about how little we value an ancient principle of fairness which protects individuals against a capricious or vengeful state. And it will also demonstrate that Australian politicians will buckle to powerful nations like the US and be prepared to undermine the human rights of individuals.
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