Last year the Australian government amended the Foreign Fighters Act 2014 to make it illegal for any Australian to fight in Iraq or Syria, even if they're against the Islamic State. This hasn't stopped a trickle of incensed young men traveling to the war zone, including Queensland's Reece Harding and Ashley Johnston, who were both killed earlier this year. While it's unknown whether these men sought legal advice before leaving, many have.
Ralph Bleechmore is an Adelaide criminal lawyer who quietly advises Australians on the intricacies of fighting with the Kurdish Army, as well as the the grim practicalities of joining a civil war. We spoke to him about the ethical considerations of offering such advice.
VICE: Can tell us a bit about yourself?
Ralph Bleechmore: Sure. I'm a veteran of the Vietnam War and am now a traditional barrister in criminal and international law. I've been giving pro bono advice for 35 years to serving war members and veterans.
And offering pro bono advice is how you got into this position?
Yes. This is to let people know where they stand. All these people are good people and they need much more support from the federal government. They don't need to be made criminals for what they are doing.
What is the government's position on people wanting to fight the Islamic State?
Under the Foreign Fighters Act, entering certain foreign countries with the intention of engaging in hostile activities results in life imprisonment. The act is aimed at Australians who volunteer to fight for ISIS, but it also captures those who fight against ISIS, with the same penalty.
So you think the law is wrong?
It is out-of-touch governing. Why are Australian volunteers liable to prosecution and criminality for doing the same thing as our service people that get a campaign medal? This is bad law and it needs to be brought to the attention of the community.
Why do you personally care so much?
It's a matter of conscience. Australia sent fighters in the Spanish Civil War and supported the French Resistance during the Second World War. It has always been a case in the past.
What do you tell people to expect when they ask you about fighting in the Middle East?
I tell them it's not the same as fighting with the Australian army. There are a range of differences. You need to get your own weapon once you get there, which can be faulty and expensive (usually around $900 AU). Then the Peshmerga [Kurdish Army] don't have heavy weapons like ISIS, which they stole off the Iraqi army. Also Medevac services are limited—there's no helicopter coming if you get shot. Also you might get caught in an airstrike as the international alliance won't know that you're there.
Is there a pattern to the type of people who want to fight?
No there's a variety. Some are army vets who have never adjusted to civilian life, others are doctors or nurses who want to go over and help the Kurds by being medics. They're people just utilizing their skills, l but if I think they're unsuitable I'll tell them. Same with if they're untrained. I noticed that one of the Australians killed—Reece Harding—had no military training. He was clearing mines and stepped on a mine when he walked off the clear track. This is why if you don't have the training, I'd caution against going.
Have you spoken to anyone who has traveled to their death?
Not that I know of but I'm heading there next month so I'm sure I will meet a few Aussies, Europeans, Americans, and British. I want to see what is actually happening over there so I can offer better advice.
Would you consider fighting yourself?
Well I'm 67 years of age. I'd be a liability. For most field units I think about a maximum of 45 would be the oldest. But I think you have a range of skills when you get older.
Some Australians have died fighting against the Islamic State. What's your moral position on advising others on going?
Going is a personal choice but I think if people go, they should do that on proper information. I don't think some of the people have all of the information they need. and I hope that some of the real risks that are involved are made clear. Again, it's not like fighting with the Australian army.
Do you advise potential fighters to tell their family and friends, or just take off?
I think they should provide some basic information, but you have to be careful of what way that information gets used. Most prosecutions happen because of stuff that gets on social media.
Do you encourage people to go?
No. I have to be very careful to not recruit people because that's an offense. I am saying people should make an informed decision, not a romantic one.