By James Glenday
Updated Tue 4 Feb 2014, 5:34pm AEDT
The Immigration Department had major concerns about the way promising Pakistani cricketer Fawad Ahmed got a permanent visa and then Australian citizenship, confidential documents indicate.
The former asylum seeker was once lauded as the best leg-spinner since Shane Warne.
After Australia’s disastrous tour of India last year, Cricket Australia (CA) lobbyists embarked on a campaign to get him a passport and make him available for the 2013 Ashes series in England.
But Government briefing documents seen by the ABC, and others obtained through Freedom Of Information, show the department thought his case was “borderline” from the beginning and was worried it “may result in an adverse impact” on other asylum seekers “who apply through the normal channels”.
Sources inside the department have since told the ABC that Ahmed received special treatment from both major political parties due to ongoing pressure from the cricket establishment.
They also say Ahmed is fortunate his asylum application coincided with Cricket Australia’s search for a spinner.
Ahmed’s claim for asylum was initially rejected by both the Immigration Department and Refugee Review Tribunal, which often overturns departmental decisions.
Confidential documents show the tribunal member who reviewed Ahmed’s case did not believe many of his claims of persecution.
Ahmed said he was targeted by the Taliban because he was a professional cricket player and coach near the border of Afghanistan, and worked for the Al-Asif Welfare and Women Development Organisation.
“It was coaching and promoting education for women so they just target me,” Ahmed said in an interview with ABC Grandstand in December 2012.
The tribunal accepted that he was threatened in 2009 when people ran onto a cricket oval during a match.
However, it did not think the Al-Asif Welfare and Women Development Organisation “operated in substance as a legitimate welfare organisation”.
It also ruled Ahmed could safely continue playing cricket in other parts of Pakistan and therefore “was not owed protection under the Refugees Convention or complementary protection provisions”.
Ministerial intervention and powerful friends
Ahmed impressed a number of people in Melbourne with his temperament and leg-spin, including Derek Bennett from the Melbourne University Cricket Club.
With Ahmed on the verge of deportation in mid-2012, Mr Bennett began a campaign to get then-immigration minister Chris Bowen to intervene and overturn the Refugee Review Tribunal’s decision.
In a private letter to the minister, Mr Bennett argued the tribunal’s decision was deeply unfair and “failed to comprehend that cricket is synonymous with Western values in the eyes of the Taliban”.
“Fawad is a target regardless of where he settles in Pakistan. Nobody doubts his claims,” Mr Bennett wrote in his letter to Mr Bowen.
Mr Bennett gathered letters of support from powerful figures in the cricket establishment including Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland, the head of Cricket Victoria, Tony Dodemaide, the shadow treasurer of Victoria, Tim Pallas, and the former chairman of the International Cricket Council, Malcolm Grey.
“The motivation was to never to find another Shane Warne”, said Mr Bennett in a statement to the ABC.
“Cricket Australia helped because they wanted to assist a cricketer who had been persecuted for playing the game.”
In late 2012, Ahmed was offered a contract with Big Bash team, the Hobart Hurricanes.
However, the Immigration Department was concerned about the conditions of the job offer.
Profile: Fawad Ahmed
“The offers of engagement/employment that are now emerging appear to be entirely contingent on the grant of a permanent resident visa,” the confidential documents state.
The department thought the “most appropriate” option would be for the minister to grant a six-month tourist visa, instead of a permanent visa, if he decided to intervene in a case.
The department believed a tourist visa would allow Ahmed “the chance to apply for another visa on his own merits”.
“If you decide to intervene, the most appropriate visa to grant is a [tourist visa] … with work rights,” a ministerial briefing document from the Immigration Department said.
But this option would have stopped Ahmed getting a professional cricket contract.
Ultimately, Mr Bowen went for the permanent option.
“The decision for ministerial intervention was the right one,” Mr Bowen said in a statement.
“Fawad is a great addition to Australia; he has already made great contributions to his community and the nation.
“I won’t be making any further comments on this case for privacy reasons”.
Derek Bennett was delighted with the decision.
“The minister had to walk a very fine line with his own department to find a solution,” he said.
“The solution that he arrived at was a very elegant one.”
CA wanted Ahmed’s citizenship application fast-tracked
In early 2013 the Australian Test team had a disastrous tour of India, losing 4-0 on dusty, spin-friendly pitches.
There were calls for an overhaul of the Test team, but Ahmed was not eligible to represent Australia because he had not lived in the country long enough and did not qualify under international cricket guidelines.
Former Gillard government staffer, turned Cricket Australia’s government and community relations manager Grant Poulter was given the job of lobbying for changes to the Citizenship Act.
Cricket Australia wanted Ahmed’s citizenship application fast-tracked, so he could become eligible for selection in the winter Ashes series in England.
But the confidential documents indicate there was confusion in the Immigration Department about Ahmed’s actual age.
The briefing documents state Ahmed was 33 when he applied for ministerial intervention. However, his biography stated that he was 30.
He is now 31.
After months of lobbying, the changes to the Citizenship Act quietly passed both house of Parliament in June.
The 2013 election campaign coincided with much of the winter Ashes series in England.
The ABC has been told some federal politicians felt uncomfortable about the changes to the Citizenship Act, but they did not speak out because they were worried the case could be used as a political weapon during the campaign.
Ahmed plays for Australia but yet to get Test call-up
Ahmed is yet to don the baggy green.
But he has represented Australia at one-day and Twenty20 level, and has played for Australia A.
“It’s a dream come true. It was a great feeling,” he said after taking his first wicket as an Australian in international cricket in September 2013.
“A great moment for me … I will remember this forever.”
Ahmed’s supporters say he loves Australia and does not want to become involved in the domestic politics of asylum seekers.
Over the past five months the ABC has repeatedly asked people connected to the case for an interview including; Fawad Ahmed, Grant Poulter and James Sutherland from Cricket Australia, Labor frontbenchers Chris Bowen and Brendan O’Connor, Derek Bennett from Melbourne University Cricket Club and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. Some declined or didn’t respond. Others offered interviews with strict conditions the ABC could not agree to. The ABC has omitted some personal information contained in the confidential documents for privacy reasons.
*Additional reporting by Chris Uhlmann.
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