Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pine Gap Four trial starts today

A group of protesters demonstrated outside the Queensland Supreme Court today as four people face serious court charges in the Northern Territory. The Brisbane protesters held a vigil beside the scales of justice statue and handed out leaflets on behalf of the four defendants charged for allegedly trespassing at the Pine Gap military facility. The four are Jim Dowling, 50 and Adele Goldie, 29 from Brisbane, Donna Mulhearn, 37 from Sydney, and Bryan Law, 51 from Adelaide. They were due to appear today in the NT Supreme Court in Alice Springs, charged with breaking into the Pine Gap base on 9 December 2005.

The four are Christian activists who belong to a group called Christians Against All Terrorism (CAAT). They say they went to the base to carry out a Citizen’s Inspection in an effort to highlight its role in the Iraq War. The group believes it was the members' duty as citizens to protest against the US-Australian base, which is a key satellite intelligence facility for the Iraq war, because their Government was involved in "crimes against humanity". There, they cut through a fence, climbed onto the roof of a building, unfurled banners and took photographs of the facility.

The four now face a possible seven years in prison after breaking into the top-secret satellite tracking base. They are being charged with an obscure 1952 law after the Attorney General, Philip Ruddock, consented to charges under the Cold War era Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952 to be used for the first time. Under this law, the Attorney-General can declare any area a prohibited zone. The law was designed to keep people out of the then-nuclear test sites in remote Australia but has never been tested in the courts. High profile Melbourne lawyer Ron Merkel will lead the defence team.

Meanwhile his opposite number has made the extraordinary request to place the four defendants under house arrest for the duration of the trial. Crown prosecutor Hilton Dembo applied for a change in the bail conditions of the defendants so that they: “remain in the court 45 minutes after the court adjourns, and then go to their residences by the shortest available route and remain there”. He has also requested that they be prohibited from being within two kilometres of Pine Gap. Dembo made the application after receiving ‘intelligence’ about events the defendants had planned during the trial such as a daily procession to court with supporters and a demonstration at Pine Gap.

Pine Gap is the common name for a satellite tracking station located 20kms south-west of Alice Springs in central Australia. The station employs nearly 1,000 American service personnel, mainly from two intelligence agencies; the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office. It is a sophisticated ground station for a satellite network that intercepts telephone, radio, data links, and other communications around the world. The station contains a 5,600 square meter computer room, and about 20 service and support buildings. Two of the station’s ground antennas are part of the U.S. Defence Satellite Communications System.

The chief distinguishing architectural component of the facility are its dozen radomes. Radomes are oversized golf-ball shaped weatherproof enclosures used to protect antennas. The word itself is a portmanteau of radar and dome. Radomes protect the surface of antenna from the elements and allow a relatively unattenuated electromagnetic signal between the antenna inside the radome and outside equipment.

Pine Gap’s origins date back to 1966. In October that year Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt invited President Lyndon Johnson to Australia for a three-day state visit. It was the first ever visit to Australia by a US President. Within two months, Holt increased Australia's military force in Vietnam and signed a secret agreement that would eventually become known as the Pine Gap treaty. According to federal ALP minister Clyde Cameron, it wasn’t until the Whitlam administration of the early 1970s that it was revealed that Pine Gap was a American installation led by CIA agent Richard Stallings.

The base started with two antennas and by the time the eighth radome was built in the late 70s, the base was one of the largest satellite ground facilities in the world. Despite the end of the Cold War in 1989, the facility expanded further. In 2001, John Howard offered Washington the renewal of the Pine Gap lease agreement in exchange for a bilateral free trade agreement which was eventually signed in 2004. Pine Gap remains an extremely sensitive military resource and is planned to be the nerve centre for the US’s “Son of Star Wars” National Missile Defence capability. It is also integral to American military intelligence and weapons delivery systems within the Asia, Pacific and Middle East regions.

Today’s court case is not the first time the Pine Gap activists have faced the law for their actions. In October last year the four had a Darwin court suppression order placed on them during the pre-trial hearings in relation to ASIO’s involvement in the arrest. Donna Mulhearn, one of the accused, said the charges are political and reflect the Government's persecution of citizens who oppose their war agenda. "We put an alternative view to the Australian people...secret American spy bases do not hold the key to Australia's security,” she said. "Our security lies in building better relationships."

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