Lukman Thalib, an Australian professor who was held without charge in a secret jail in Qatar for five months, says the Qatari authorities tortured him with the full knowledge of the Australians.
It was just another ordinary day, July 27th 2020. I was sitting at home speaking with my fellow professors in one of those Zoom meetings we’ve all become so accustomed to, discussing optimal treatment of gestational diabetes. Except it wasn’t just another day. It was the day my life changed forever.
As an Australian professor of biostatistics and Head of the Department of Public Health at Qatar University, my job revolved around conducting meetings, managing different projects, attending seminars and lectures and engaging with my students. Research has also been a big part of my life, having published over 170 peer-reviewed scientific academic articles. Most recently, I was appointed a member of the Scientific Reference and Research Task Force established as part of the response to Covid-19 in Qatar.
I didn’t know it at the time but as I spoke with my colleagues on my computer, security officers were restraining our guards and disabling the cameras around our home. I heard my wife and daughter screaming for me. Without logging off, I ran downstairs and saw five men in plain clothes demanding my laptop, phones and the location of any money in the house. My son Ismail, 24, had already been detained, blindfolded and placed in a car. I demanded to know who they were and why they were taking my son. They ignored my questions, and carried on ransacking my home, seizing any money and electronics.
Then it was my turn. In front of my terrified wife and daughter, they restrained bundled me into the car with my son. They blindfolded me and then we were driven to an unknown location. I assumed these were government officials, but it felt like we were being kidnapped.
Secret detention centre
Once we arrived at the secret detention centre, they dragged us out of the car and manhandled us into separate cells. But this was no police station. I explained to them I had health problems, that I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. They dismissed my pleas. They even refused to let me use the toilet.
It’s hard to put in words how confused, terrified and disoriented I felt. By this time, I had understood that I was being detained by Qatar’s security officers but was not given any answers as to why. I was treated with contempt and made to feel like a criminal. As a man who dedicated his last 30 years to scientific research in improving the lives of others, this violation of my dignity and property was crushing.
After a night spent in a cold cell with bright lights with a guard by the door, I was exhausted, terrified, confused and weak. As dawn approached and the sun rose, there was a glimmer of hope that I’d find out why I’m here and hopefully they’ll realise they’ve made a terrible mistake. Little did I know that I was to face 5 months in prison, in a harrowing ordeal that would scar me for life.
Over the next few days I would be dragged out of my cell in the middle of the night and taken for questioning. I was interrogated about my finances and why I sent money to my children in Australia. I was asked about my son Ahmed and daughter Maryam. I was asked about my ideology, what Islamic classes I attended, my views on Syria, and what my job was. But they repeated questions regarding sending money to Ahmed.
I learned after my release that my son Ahmed was being threatened and targeted by Australian and American security services while I was detained. Since my son’s participation in the Gaza aid flotilla in 2010 – which was an international humanitarian effort headed by prominent human rights leaders, celebrities and politicians from around the world – he has been subjected to harassment and smear campaigns on numerous occasions.
As a father, when my children, who were both over 18, made the decision that they would participate in humanitarian relief efforts, I did not prevent them, and I never would. In fact, I took pride in their decision. It is clear however the Israeli government have gone on to target many activists on board the Gaza freedom flotilla, my son included.
Moreover, I have since come to understand that numerous violations and accusations against our family in other countries are only an extension of the smear campaigns my children have been subjected to following their innocent involvement in this humanitarian mission. This highly questionable context must be examined.
There is a safety we feel as citizens of Australia, because it prides itself in defending human rights and protecting its citizens – at home and abroad. I knew if the government of Australia learned of my illegal detention, I could rely on their intervention to protect me. But I was wrong.
After the first few blurry nights and days in detention, interrupted only by interrogations, things turned much worse. Strange types of gases including kerosene smelling type vapour began to flood in through the cell ventilation vents. Soon I found myself restless and unable to sleep at night. As the days unfolded, I began to feel very weak physically. I could no longer comprehend the questions I was asked or the replies I gave during interrogation.
In a call to my wife, I complained to her of my deteriorating health – my hands and feet were becoming numb, and my eyesight was deteriorating. In the next few months, I lost over 25 kilos of my weight and suffered permanent visual, neurological and organ damage.
The Australian government was aware of my secret detention as early as July and then later in October when my family formally informed them, I only received one consular visit during my time in secret detention. Despite their late arrival, I had hoped they would end my torture and work to secure my release.
With great risks to myself – my torturers threatened me with more severe consequences should I reveal the details of my treatment – I told the Australian official that my health was at serious risk, that I was being tortured and denied basic medical assistance. It was deflating that it made no difference. My treatment carried on as before. I felt betrayed.
I later learned the Australian consul did not convey anything to my family or my lawyer but instead told them that I looked very well and was “healthy.” It became apparent that certain Australian government officials were keen on denying me access to the protection I would normally otherwise be provided with by my country.
Far from protecting me as its citizen, I came to learn the negligence and possible complicity of Australian government officials in my detention and torture. Before this, both me and my son Ismail, have never been charged or investigated by any country. Things became clearer to me later.
While we were being tortured and abused, my other son Ahmed, 31, in Australia, was designated as a terror financier by the U.S. Treasury – three months into our detention. Soon after our release, Ahmed began the search for a lawyer to open a legal investigation into Australian complicity in our torture. I also came to learn that Ahmed was threatened by the Australian security services to work as an informant for them, otherwise they would make things difficult for him. It was during this time he was arrested and charged. The case is still pending but it haunts me that my own words under coercion and duress may have played a part in the witch-hunt against my son, Ahmed.
Though I am relieved and grateful to be back home, I am left with irreversible damage to our health and our lives. It is my faith alone that gives me hope on my road to recovery and the determination to seek accountability. For that reason, I will make sure that my fight for justice does not end with my freedom.
Lukman Thalib, 58, was acting head of Qatar University’s public health department when he was arrested on July 27, 2020. His son Ismail Thalib, who worked for Al Jazeera, was also arrested at the same time. Three months after the arrests the United States alleged that Ahmed Luqman Talib, another of Professor Thalib’s sons, had “provided financial or material support” to Al Qaida. The pair were released in January 2021. The Australians and Qataris are close allies of the United States but none of the three countries have not commented on the matter.