Guilty Until Proven Innocent

From behind barbed wire at the Gaythorne camp in Brisbane, Giuseppe wrote a letter of appeal against internment, a one-pager covering six points. In brief, he argued that he’d been a law-abiding citizen for eighteen years, was not a member of any political organisation, and needed his freedom to take care of their business. It was dated 13th February 1941. At that time his brother had already been interned for several months, leaving him to run the cane farm, the ‘Italian Boarding House’, and their other properties alone.

The appeal hearing took place on 28th March 1941 in the bankruptcy court in Brisbane. The advisory committee appointed by the Minister consisted of a judge (Justice Philp) and two others, plus the services of an interpreter.

The briefing paper to the committee provided the following summary of evidence:

  • a report from the police that said Giuseppe was ‘a bad class of Italian and a dangerous type’
  • two police searches of his house that produced books and documents in Italian, some of which had been brought back from Italy by his brother in 1939
  • a M.R.O.* report that ‘this man is a Sicilian and prior to the war with Italy was a frequent visitor to this Boarding House where the majority of the boarders were Sicilians and he was the main spokesman at meetings there’.

*M.R.O.s (Military Reporting Officers) were civilians in key positions who reported suspicious activity to the military. They included harbour masters and railway station masters. The boarding house owned by the brothers was situated on the main road, across from the railway station.

During the hearing, Giuseppe was quizzed at length about his family in Italy, the property he owned, and the items confiscated from the house he shared with his brother.

When asked if he had a short wave wireless set (a banned item for enemy aliens), Giuseppe replied, ‘Yes … but the valves are burnt out.’

The interrogation continued. ‘Has he ever worn a black shirt?’ (Black was the colour worn by Mussolini’s fascist organisation.)

The interpreter replied on his behalf. ‘No, only when his father died.’

‘Did he wear a fascist badge when his father died?’ The snide remark, recorded in the court transcript, was duly translated.

‘No, he has never worn that.’

Four days later the committee sent the following recommendation to the Minister:
That objector be kept in internment as he has failed to satisfy us that it is neither necessary nor advisable for the public safety or the defense (sic) of the Commonwealth that he should continue to be detained.

On 13th April 1941, the Minister himself (Percy Spender) signed a one-sentence memo that committed Giuseppe to almost three more years of imprisonment.

Dejected, he wrote to his brother in Hay internment camp. It was intercepted by military security and translated into English.
… I have been told the result of my appeal. It was negative. They put us in for jealousy and nothing else. In spite of our being proud of living here, they had the audacity to intern us after our having been good English citizens …

A comment is written at the bottom of the typed page, possibly by an army administrator at Hay. ‘Brother’s case recently heard and leave refused. The direct evidence of the policeman explodes good citizenship claim.’

For the above content, I am indebted to the National Archives of Australia.

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About Debbie Terranova

Debbie Terranova is an Australian author of contemporary and historical fiction. In 2018 she was awarded a QANZAC 100 Fellowship with the State Library of Queensland to undertake an exciting research project entitled "Queensland Women and War". Debbie has published three novels and several short stories. 'Enemies within these Shores' (2018) is based on a true story about the internment of civilians in Australia during WWII. 'The Scarlet Key' (2016) and 'Baby Farm' (2014) are crime mysteries about ageing disgracefully and forced adoptions respectively.
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