Australian politician Matthew Gardiner was detained at Darwin airport after returning from Syria where he claims he fought ISIS militants alongside Kurdish self-defence forces.
The former president of Australia’s Northern Territory Labor Party was questioned by Australian Federal Police (AFP) and subsequently released without any charges being made.
“The AFP can confirm that it spoke to a Darwin man on Sunday following his return to Australia,” an AFP spokesperson said in a statement. “He has been released without charge”.
“Enquiries relating to his activities while overseas are ongoing and as such it is not appropriate to comment further at this time,” the spokesperson added.
— Nine News Australia (@9NewsAUS) April 4, 2015
Gardiner left his family in January, allegedly to join the Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) fighting the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS/ISIL) in Syria. Back in the 1990s, he served with the Australian army in Somalia and gained more than a decade of military experience before becoming a politician. Australian Federal Police were tipped off about the arrival of the volunteer fighter by Keysar Trad, a representative of Australia’s Muslim community and spokesman for the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia
Trad explains he put the AFP on notice to ensure equal treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims under the anti-terrorist legislation tightened in 2014.
“We have to make sure our laws are implemented without fear or favor,” Trad said, as cited by the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH). “We’ve become accustomed in the community to a double-standard in the application of the law.”
Although Australian legislation does not prohibit its citizens from joining foreign armed forces, the Kurds are not internationally recognized, and therefore not a legitimate armed force.
Photo: bijikurdistan: The Kurdish Peshmerga Forces share a 1,050 kilometer border with ISIS Terrorists…. http://t.co/W1gN2ooxiu
— Hannan (@HannanHM) March 28, 2015
Reportedly, Gardiner became one of about 100 foreign fighters helping the Kurds in their battles with IS extremists.
Another Australian citizen fighting for the Kurdish cause, 28-year-old army reservist Ashley Johnston, was killed in action.
Last September, Australia introduced new legislation to combat homegrown terrorism, criminalizing travel to some conflict areas and granting authorities broader access to citizens’ communications.
Australia’s Attorney-General’s department has the right to arrest, prosecute and jail those Australians who leave the country to join any kind of “illegal conflict” and then decide to come back to Australia.
“We know there are some Australians who think they’ve made the right choice in becoming involved in overseas conflicts, but that choice only adds to the suffering in Syria and Iraq and it’s putting those Australians and others in mortal danger,” the Attorney-General department’s spokesman said in January.
Commenting on the situation with Matthew Gardiner to the ABC, Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said: “The message has to be to Australians: We’re not going to fix those issues by becoming a foreign fighter and the law’s going to have to take its process.”
At the same time, there are Australians fighting on the other side of the conflict. In March, the SMH reported that a criminal group was secretly sending would-be fighters to Syria using fake international passports to join Islamic extremists. Theoretically, Australians on both sides could one day end up fighting each other thousands of kilometers away from home.