Author who tried to help mystery prisoner publish memoir hits out at secret trials

Christopher Knaus
Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

An author who triggered a stunning police crackdown by attempting to help a mystery prisoner publish his memoir has hit out at the total secrecy surrounding the man’s imprisonment.

An Australian citizen was prosecuted, convicted, and jailed in the ACT last year in a process completely hidden from public scrutiny.

It is understood the prisoner, given a pseudonym of Alan Johns, was a military intelligence officer, but details about his crime and background have been kept secret.

Related: Mystery prisoner held in Canberra jail after secret conviction was raided by AFP over memoir

The very existence of his case remained hidden until earlier this month, when a dispute between him and prison authorities about a draft memoir he had written found its way into the ACT supreme court.

The inmate’s memoir concerned his experiences in the Alexander Maconochie Centre, the ACT’s jail, and he had asked that Canberra-based author, Robert Macklin, be allowed to visit to help him with publishing. Upon learning of the memoir and Macklin’s potential visit, federal police raided the inmate’s cell and his brother’s home, before freezing his email and phone communications.

Macklin, formerly a journalist, told the Guardian he was shocked that Australia had allowed a case to be so shrouded in secrecy.

“I didn’t think we had secret trials in Australia,” he said. “It worries me that we do.”

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Macklin has experience in writing about sensitive military and national security areas. He has written a history of Australia’s special forces, authored a biography of an SAS sniper, and wrote for the Courier Mail, the Age, the Bulletin in Sydney, and the Canberra Times.

The former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope echoed that sentiment. Stanhope and Macklin are both columnists at a local magazine in Canberra.

Stanhope said he was stunned when Macklin told him of the case.

“I just didn’t think it was credible. I had a moment of doubt that he was actually pulling my leg,” Stanhope told the Guardian.

“The trial itself was held in such secrecy that not even the media was aware that this trial had occurred and that an Australian citizen had been sentenced to imprisonment.”

The secrecy around the case appears to have been imposed by orders from the commonwealth. The inmate was jailed some time in 2018 and was released earlier this year. He said his memoir contained no sensitive details about his offending or background, only of his experiences in prison.

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Federal police had asked the prison to notify them if the inmate requested any “unusual visitors”, and the prison’s general manager, Corinne Justason, promptly advised them of Macklin’s possible visit.

Stanhope said the case was the kind prosecuted under totalitarian regimes.

“Secret trials, changing names, raiding residents’ homes because you’ve sent through a manuscript of your experiences as a prisoner in an Australian jail, having your own cell raided and all the documents removed, being refused the right to visit people,” he said.

Revelations about the case follows the Right to Know campaign by Australia’s media outlets, which called for greater transparency in government, including in the courts.