Melbourne, May 1 : Witnesses who gave evidence at an inquiry looking into the botched prosecution of Indian-born doctor Mohamed Haneef, now risk being sued for defamation because the inquiry was not given the powers of a royal commission.
Queensland Law Council president Megan Mahon told The Australian that two of the protections commonly given to royal commissions - indemnity against defamation and self-incrimination - had not been given to the inquiry commission headed by retired New South Wales judge John Clarke, and this would expose witnesses to civil action.
In the absence of those protections, Mahon said that many lawyers would advise their clients not to co-operate with the inquiry.
Dr. Haneef's lawyers' have also expressed scepticism over reports suggesting that the federal police kept a key e-mail that pointed to Dr Haneef's innocence from former immigration minister Kevin Andrews.
Judge Clarke said yesterday he would conduct private interviews with witnesses, feeding fears that much of the evidence would not be made public.
Transcripts of interviews would be posted on the inquiry's website after information prejudicial to national security was removed.
Clarke said public hearings might be held "if there is sufficient interest".
One of Dr. Haneef's lawyers, Stephen Keim, requested Judge Clarke to seek powers that would allow witnesses to be compelled to give evidence.
Judge Clarke rejected the request, saying all the agencies involved in the Haneef affair had assured him of their intention to co-operate fully. "I am confident that the inquiry can be effectively conducted in the present form," he said.
Dr Haneef's lawyers also requested - and were refused permission to cross-examine witnesses.
Opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis said he could think of no precedent for the Clarke inquiry not holding public hearings.
Dr Haneef was arrested last July and held without charge for 12 days under tough anti-terror laws. He was charged with providing reckless support to a terror organisation after his SIM card was connected to botched terror attacks in Britain.
His visa was revoked after a Brisbane court granted him bail. The charges against him were later dropped.
All of the main agencies involved in the Haneef affair were represented at yesterday's hearing.
They included the Australian Federal Police, the Immigration Department, the Queensland Police, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, and all of them declared their intention to co-operate.