David Hicks and 'anti-terror' laws

February 23, 2007

Coalition leaders have had a rush of blood to the head over David Hicks. After five years of inaction, PM John Howard and foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer are trumpeting what a hard line they are taking with the George Bush administration to get Hicks back to Australia — after he is found guilty at a military commission of course!

To cap it all off, Treasurer Peter Costello has now declared Hicks to be guilty, pre-empting the military commission kangaroo court. In a new low in crass commentary, Costello was quoted in the February 19 Age newspaper saying that Hicks's case was "pretty straightforward" — he was in Afghanistan and as long as there are witnesses who will say he was there and training with al Qaeda, he's guilty.

Hicks was at a Taliban training camp, not a camp for al Qaeda. Attending these camps does not mean you have become a terrorist.

There were a number of Australians at these camps at the time, but two have been singled out as political scapegoats, Hicks and Jack Thomas. A jury has already found that Thomas had no terrorist intentions following his stint at the camp.
Hicks's supposed crime was being on the wrong side in a combat zone.

Taking up arms in a war is not a crime, despite what Costello seems to think. In any event, Hicks did not fire a shot. He was captured by the Northern Alliance and sold for ransom to US personnel, who are now making good use of him to justify the Guantanamo Bay prison and their "war on terror". Howard is ready to sacrifice Hicks for the purposes of the Bush administration.

The concern for basic principles of justice and human rights in the Hicks case needs to focus also on other scapegoats in the "war on terror" in Australia, including Thomas and the Barwon 13. It is hypocritical of the ALP to be concerned over Hicks but say nothing about Thomas, who is a non-terrorist being railroaded under anti-terror laws supported by Labor.

Labor also supports control orders, which allow house-arrest of individuals not convicted of any criminal offence — the requirement for a police state. Labor has actively supported a control order for Thomas and suggests Hicks should be placed on one here.

A principled stand for Hicks's rights should make us aware of the violation of those rights in Australia's anti-terrorist legislation. Retired High Court judge Michael McHugh says the anti-terror laws breach constitutional rights, including the right to freedom of political speech. In the December 18 Sydney Morning Herald he criticises the detention of people who have not been convicted or even suspected of offences, the prohibition on praising acts of terrorism and control orders imposed on people not convicted of any offence.

It is difficult to "fix up" these laws and Civil Rights Defence calls for them to be repealed altogether. Yet a Kevin Rudd Labor government is unlikely to do either. Instead, Rudd is likely to try to outdo Howard in "tough on security" rhetoric and to follow in the footsteps of Britain's Labor government.

People power has forced the politicians to listen on Hicks. People power can do the same for Thomas and the Barwon 13. We must alert the public to the contradiction in pursuing a non-terrorist under anti-terror laws and to the Guantanamo Bay-like conditions under which the Barwon 13 are being held.

Before his conviction, Sydney architect Faheem Khalid Lodhi was held for two and a half years in solitary confinement without trial, right here in Australia. At the trial he was brought in each day shackled hand and foot in an orange jumpsuit.

Now there are serious doubts about his conviction under Australia's terror laws; the evidence that he might have been preparing for a terrorist act falls far below what is normally considered beyond a reasonable doubt. Have we jailed an innocent man for 20 years under the "precautionary principle?"

People power can force politicians to respect basic human rights. We want the anti-terror laws repealed. We want David Hicks returned immediately as a free man. We want control orders abolished.

[Colin Mitchell is an activist with Civil Rights Defence in Melbourne.]

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