June 3, 2013, Tracker Magazine.
NATIONAL: A month ago, news that an Aboriginal man had been locked up in a Saudi Arabian prison, and his brother forced into hiding, hit the headlines. Last month he was sentenced to four and a half years in jail. AMY MCQUIRE* reports on their family’s desperate struggle to get them back to the homelands of their ancestors.
It is a sunny Sunday afternoon in a park within Perth’s sprawling suburbs and Nyoongar man Graham Thorne is sitting on the grass surrounded by his family, eating marinated kangaroo.
Whilst he now resides in the west, he has been all over the country for work, and once lived in Sydney where he was once considered a future boxing champion.
But if you tell him he has led a fascinating life, he flatly rejects it. Other people have done more interesting things than him, he says.
But then who else can recite stories of the time he nearly met Tony Mundine and Wally Carr, just missing them by seconds whilst on his way to the gym.
His uncle later tells Tracker of his renowned reputation as a boxer and how he could have gone far if he was interested in pursuing it.
But Graham is still a fighter.
Only it’s now a different boxing ring, and he’s not using his fists.
Today, despite the sunshine, shadows loom over his family.
Two of Graham’s sons are caught up in a situation he would never have imagined when they left Australia over a decade ago.
One – 25-year-old Shayden Thorne – sat for more than two years in a notorious Saudi Arabian jail – the Al Ha’ir political prison. He was in May given a sentence of four and a half years after being convicted on terrorism-related charges.
Graham’s other son 23-year-old Muhammad Junaid Thorne is in hiding in the same country after his passport was confiscated. He has previously been jailed for protesting his brother’s incarceration.
“Ever since they were over there I was dreading this day,” Graham tells Tracker in a soft voice, “that they might get caught up in something like this.”
Graham Thorne hasn’t had custody of Shayden or Junaid since they were small, and he hasn’t seen them for more than a decade.
“Never a day went by when I didn’t think about them,” he told Tracker. “Or any minute. When you have children you worry about them all the time I suppose. They never get too old.”
So how did two Nyoongar boys end up in a country that most Aboriginal people would never even step foot in?
Shayden and Junaid have grown up all their lives in Saudi Arabia – the oil rich Islamic monarchy that borders countries like Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
They left when Shayden was 8 and Junaid was 7, following their stepfather who had a job in the country. Their mother is Malaysian-Australian and both boys were born into and fostered under the Islamic faith.
They speak and read Arabic fluently and are popular in the country’s capital city of Riyadh where they are well-known and liked, their family says.
Their mother – a quietly spoken and elegant woman – told Tracker that Saudi Arabia was a good place to raise her children, contrary to media portrayals within Australia.
“It was a very peaceful place,” she told Tracker from Perth. “I lived in Australia prior to going to Saudi Arabia. I feel more scared over here.”
The boys’ mother and the rest of the family left Saudi Arabia in February last year, and spent six months in Singapore before finally returning to Perth.
Junaid wanted to stay in the country to finish his finance degree – he was only a few weeks away from completing a five-year course. Shayden had previously wanted to return, but had opted to wait until the rest of his family was in Australia.
That may have proven too late. Before his family returned, he was placed under arrest on terrorism-related charges.
Muhammad Junaid Thorne is an intelligent Nyoongar man who, although studying finance, as a child dreamt of becoming a lawyer.
Today he aspires to work in a human rights organisation where “he can help people all around the world”.
“What I’ve seen here… it’s something you can’t keep quiet about. Many people here are suffering for nothing,” he told Tracker from Saudi Arabia.
“They have the power to deprive people of freedom.”
At only 23, Junaid has seen the inside of a criminal jail and witnessed his brother Shayden snatched by secret police – the Mabahith.
“I can’t forget that day,” Junaid tells Tracker in a hollow voice.
Two years ago, Junaid returned to the sharehouse he was living in with his brother. They had both played soccer together, and whilst Junaid was getting dinner, Shayden had stopped at the gym.
When Junaid returned he “could hear voices” coming from his room in the attic, which surprised him because Shayden had come home early.
“So I went to the door of my room, and I opened the curtain and these guys jumped on me. They pinned me to the wall and they started searching me, seeing if I had anything,” Junaid says.
“I thought they were criminals. I thought they were going to steal us. I put up a fight but there were about seven guys.”
The police started questioning Muhammad, asking him for the key to his room, which he refused to give because they couldn’t produce ID.
After resisting their threats, he gave in, and they “turned the room upside down”.
“They took our laptops. I asked them maybe three or four times if they had any ID and they didn’t show any.
“And just like that they took my brother, and they said good bye and they left.”
Junaid continued to follow the men as they left his house, where they told him they had a warrant to arrest Shayden.
“I told them show me the warrant, show me the order, show me your ID, anything that proves you guys are any sort of authority,” Junaid says.
“They didn’t have anything.
“… From that day I couldn’t sleep for a week thinking he was kidnapped.”
It took six months for Junaid to find out what had happened to his brother – that he had been arrested and placed in Al-Ha’ir jail.
“The police didn’t confirm until after six months, after they finished interrogating him, after they got everything they wanted from him.”
During this time, Shayden and Junaid’s mother – who doesn’t want to be named – desperately tried to contact her oldest son.
“Shayden either calls me every day or I call him… so when he didn’t call I thought ‘something’s wrong’,” she told Tracker from Perth.
She constantly tried to contact Junaid, to ask him where Shayden was.
“I had to hide it from my mum,” Junaid says.
“I knew she’d freak out if she knew. It was very very hard. Every time she asked about him I said he was travelling, or his phone was off or stolen. I had to make up something until I got confirmation from the police.”
Their mother has visited Shayden several times whilst she was in Saudi Arabia.
During this time, Nyoongar woman Stephanie Riley, daughter of Clem Riley, a veteran in Aboriginal affairs and Graeme Thorne’s uncle, came across a person on Facebook who reminded her of her brother.
It was Junaid – her nephew. Ms Riley quickly developed a friendship – she had long had an interest in the Middle East, and was learning Arabic.
“That’s how I made contact with Junaid,” Ms Riley told Tracker.
“And I thought. He must be related. We formed a friendship nearly two years ago. I gained his trust and he began telling me about Shayden’s imprisonment in a political prison.
When Ms Riley told her father about Shayden’s situation, he suggested a group of Nyoongar Elders go across and plead Shayden’s case to the Royal Family.
Last month this was echoed by Helen Corbett, a board member of Amnesty International. Ms Riley wishes she would have acted upon her father’s suggestion sooner.
Nevertheless, she stayed in regular contact with Junaid, save for a short period where she was studying. During this time, Junaid had been desperately trying to find her for two weeks.
With Shayden’s case going nowhere in Saudi Arabia, he was frustrated and wanted to look to Australia to see if there were any avenues to push for justice.
Ms Riley immediately made contact with her nephew.
“Something inside me said we have to do something,” Ms Riley told Tracker.
“And I think that was only a couple of days after I spoke to Junaid –after he told me he was in hiding and his passport was confiscated. That’s when I knew I had to go to the media.”
Ms Riley contacted NITV, with other stations quickly picking up the family’s plight.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr was grilled at a press conference about his department’s advocacy.
He claimed at the time DFAT had made over 50 “representations” on Shayden’s behalf, but that ultimately “Shayden Thorne has chosen to live in Saudi Arabia, he lived there for 12 years, and the laws of Saudi Arabia apply to him or anyone else in his position. We do what we can”.
His family doesn’t believe DFAT has done all it can.
Junaid says even though they have made representations, he hasn’t seen an outcome from his brother.
He cites the case of a Canadian who was convicted for murder, and due to be beheaded. Last month, he was quietly released from a Saudi prison Canadian foreign officials spent years on the case.
Just before Tracker went to press, Shayden was convicted on several terrorism related charges, and was sentenced to over four years in prison.
He was sentenced in less than 15 minutes, in a group with 12 other detainees – six of whom were deemed not guilty.
Mr Thorne told DFAT consulate officials that he was before the judge for less than a minute.
The family found out about the conviction from a journalist, and was forced to contact DFAT to ask about the case.
Shayden’s charges were vague, including for “deviating from the right Islamic path” and “talking low about the considered scholars in Saudi Arabia”.
He was also convicted of supporting Al Qaeda in its terrorist activists inside the country through:
Supporting the idea of Jihad inside the Kingdom, possessing a memory card that has video clips of battles, copying what was contained in that memory card and distributing it among his friends and storing – via the internet – material on his personal computer that disrupts public law.
That latter charge is supposed to relate to a borrowed laptop Shayden possessed, which has not been put forth as evidence in court. The family say the laptop, and the images on it, were not his.
These charges, Junaid says, are general charges often placed on political dissidents and anti-government activists.
“We have 30,000 detainees and they all have the same charge,” Junaid says.
“… It’s a vague charge. Anyone who is anti-government here, they give him this charge so they can drive people away from him.”
He says that just because a charge is labeled a terrorism charge, it didn’t mean his brother was engaged in terrorist activities. He was anti-government, Junaid said.
Shayden’s mother says the confession obtained from Shayden in prison followed what can only be described as “mental torture”.
“To get a confession they put bright lights on him. They wouldn’t let him sleep. He was in solitary confinement for a month. They would take him from his cell in the evening and he’d have to stand up and he was under the light when they bombarded him with questions. In the morning they’d take him to his cell and repeat it again. It happened for a long time.”
Shayden’s legal reply, obtained by the West Australian newspaper contained allegations of physical abuse.
“All the approved accusations were taken by force and I didn’t have any choice but admitting these accusations,” Thorne told the judge at one of his earlier hearings.
“When I refused to admit, I was beaten on sensitive parts from my face and body, I was handcuffed and until I was about to faint from being beaten and the torture lasted for a long period of time.”
Ms Riley told media the torture allegations will play a key part in his appeal.
“We don’t think he got a fair trial,” she says.
“There was no evidence provided in court. They’ve just gone on his guilty plea under duress.”
Shayden’s lawyer Abdaljalil Alkhalidy – who was threatened with arrest if he returned to Saudi Arabia for defending Shayden and Junaid, believes his client is innocent and will launch an appeal if he is able to return from Dubai.
He said in a translated letter obtained by Tracker that “nearly all of the charges pressed against detainees in the prisons of the Intelligence Police are not considered to be charges in many parts of the world”.
“All these charges – even if proved – are not considered to be crimes, let alone extracting confession of them by force. That’s why, we see that it is very necessary for the Australian government to exert pressure on the Saudi government to release Shayden and bring him back home.
Junaid says his brother’s allegations are easy to believe.
Junaid himself was incarcerated in a criminal jail in December last year, for protesting his brother’s situation.
He was taken to court and convicted, given a 40 day sentence, and was forced to serve more than 20 days over that sentence.
“I have heard many stories… I have many friends in a political prison. They’ve told brutal stories,” he says.
He’s seen other people being tortured during his own incarceration.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if my brother has been tortured,” he says.
That is one reason why he is scared to leave hiding. He does not know why the authorities still have his passport. And he dreads being locked up again.
Adam Coogle is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. Speaking to Tracker prior to Shayden’s conviction, he said that it was unlikely he would get a fair trial.
Mr Coogle said while he couldn’t generalize, there are many cases in Saudi Arabia where anti-government activists have been arrested on terrorism related charges.
“The thing you have to keep in mind about the Saudi criminal justice system is that it’s extremely flawed on almost every level. There is no actual penal code, so basically in trials in front of Saudi judges, it’s the judges who decide what charges are, based on their readings of the case and their understanding of Sharia law.”
In Saudi Arabia there are only four acts the government has announced as criminal acts – embezzlement, impersonating an official, possession of weapons and drug charges.
While there are separate terror laws, “in any case it wouldn’t really matter because the prosecutors and the judges can decide what the charges are anyway.”
“Saudi judges are not bound by precedent, they are only bound by their own reading of Islamic law and they issue their decisions based on that.”
For acts that are not clearly defined in Islamic law, there is no real way of knowing whether that act is criminalized.
There are also cases where judges change charges, or where defense lawyers do not even learn of the charges until the trial.
Mr Coogle says he knew one case of a human rights activist.
“The judge mentioned at the beginning of the trial what the charges were and then he received the charge sheet several months after and the charges were actually different. And the judge can actually change the charges in the middle of trial.”
But he says Shayden’s situation – where he has been charged, even after a year, and his case his gone to trial with a lawyer was sadly one of the best situations you could get.
“I think his being an Australian citizen is a good thing in many ways, but especially because of this – a lot of people who are brought in on terrorism charges, who are Saudi citizens, and they are just arbitrarily detained for years and years and don’t get a trial. So there’s an estimated figure of 10 000 – 11 000 people, mostly citizens who are sort of languishing away in Mabahith (secret police) prisons like Al Ha’ir, without charge or without trial.”
That gives little hope to the family members of Shayden and Junaid.
Their mother told media shortly after that the verdict had left her in shock.
“My sons need help,” she told reporters.
“I’d like to call upon the government again. It needs to be at a high level. Other cases have shown when there are ministerial level talks, they go and approach the king directly, it has helped and the king has the power to pardon. That’s what I’m asking for now.”
Right now the family are fundraising to try and get enough money to send family members as well as a group of Nyoongar Tribal Council representatives over to Saudi Arabia to appeal to the king.
Ms Riley says it is better to go about matters in a “cultural way”. In the same way Saudi Arabia has tribes, so do Nyoongar people, she says.
“The king has the ultimate power to overturn a decision,” she says.
“The lawyer representing my nephew is of the opinion that this direct person-to-person tribal appeal would hold more weight culturally than a government-to-government appeal.
“Senior elders in the Nyoongar community are prepared to talk with the Saudi prince and negotiate to discipline my nephew in a culturally appropriate way according to his charges.
“They believe a direct appeal from one tribal nation to another tribal nation with an offer to administer punishment under Nyoongar tribal law might be successful.
“In order to do this, we may need to fly Nyoongar elders to Saudi Arabia to make his appeal.”
Both sides of the family have raised enough money to fly Junaid home, as soon as he secures his passport.
Meanwhile, Graeme Thorne wants to raise his own money to get to Saudi Arabia.
He adamantly tells Tracker that he doesn’t like fighting. He’s not a boxer anymore.
But he has to do it for his children.
“Just imagine you’re a parent and you haven’t seen your children for 17 years,” he tells Tracker on the phone following Shayden’s conviction.
“And then you find out you are in big trouble in a different country, and you don’t know if they’re going to help them out or not.
“We are all fighters. Doesn’t matter who you are or what you are or where you come from.
“If you have a reason to fight, you fight for it.”
*If you would like to help the families of Shayden and Junaid Thorne with their fundraising drive, please contact Tracker at firstname.lastname@example.org or by ringing 0466 882 502.