You’re reminded that history repeats itself when hearing Omar Mehri speak about his brother’s case. In 2005, Omar’s brother, Abdullah Mehri, was one of a group of 12 Muslim men (known as “the Barwon 12”) who were prosecuted for thought crimes.

Omar recently spoke as part of a panel discussion with Kath Larkin, Rail, Tram and Bus Union delegate, at Socialist Alternative’s union conference. At a time of escalating racism towards Muslim Australians, the special session was organised to discuss the responsibility that union militants have to take up the issue.

An organiser in the Electrical Trades Union, Omar is uniquely placed to discuss the topic, having personally witnessed the devastating effects of institutionalised racism towards Muslims. His describes his brother as being “broken” by nearly five years in a high security prison.

Of the 12, Abdullah was one of seven found guilty of belonging to a terrorist organisation. Omar points out that the so-called organisation had “no name, no structure” and was in fact only the men themselves. The evidence offered for the charge was the contents of a few conversations between the young men and their spiritual adviser.      

The Barwon 12 were arrested in theatrical midnight raids that were a precursor to the larger raids carried out at the homes of Muslim families recently. Omar recalled the scene when he got to Abdullah’s home on 8 November 2005: “There was a helicopter … and that many cars … it was just like a movie.”

Then, as now, the raids triggered a wave of racist attacks. “It gave a licence to those people who were racists … to spit on sisters wearing the veil. It was bad then”, he says. “Today it is worse.”

The similarities don’t end there.  Both sets of raids coincided with the government of the day contending with rising opposition to unpopular new laws. “We had WorkChoices back then, and that’s when they did the raid on my brother and others”, Omar argues. “Now we’ve got the budget and that’s backfired in Tony Abbott’s face big time.” He says the government is using Islamophobia and national security fear-mongering as “camouflage to cover [its] dirty work behind the scenes”.

Both Omar and Kath Larkin highlighted the importance of speaking out and publicly opposing racism. Crucially, workers should be able to take a stand through their unions. “They have the numbers”, Omar says, along with a duty to improve human rights, not just workplace rights.