After five years imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay without trial, David Hicks has agreed to a plea-bargain deal at his military commission trial to hasten his return to Australia. "I think most of you would be pleading guilty to something to get out of the place", Hicks's father Terry told the assembled media after returning to Adelaide from Guantanamo Bay on March 29.
"David's plea represents nothing more than the strain of five years of torture and imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay", said Marlene Obeid, an activist with the Sydney Stop the War Coalition. "This plea made after such ill-treatment is not a real admission of guilt. Other Guantanamo prisoners have been tortured into giving false confessions."
By contrast, the corporate media and government MPs are now describing Hicks as a "confessed terrorist". But nothing could be further from the truth. According to the March 28 Melbourne Herald Sun, "Hicks pleaded guilty to the first specification of providing material support to a terrorist organisation, al-Qaida". The Australian of March 28 described this as pleading guilty to "association with al-Qaida".
But, as the Herald Sun went on to explain, Hicks pleaded not guilty to the second specification that he "acted in furtherance or aid of a terror act or conspiracy". This means, it continued, that "Hicks has confessed to associating with terrorists, but denies he ever supported the planning or carrying out of deadly acts". So Hicks has not confessed to being a terrorist at all. All he has confessed to is associating with terrorists.
It is fairly clear that Hicks is not a terrorist. Like Jack Thomas, and other Australians, he attended one of the Muslim training camps of that period. Attending these camps does not mean that you become a terrorist. Thomas, who attended the same camp as Hicks, was cleared of having any terrorist intentions by the jury at his trial. Thomas is no threat to Australia, the jury said. Why should Hicks be considered a threat?
According to Moazzem Begg, a British inmate of Guantanamo Bay who was released without charge, Hicks is bewildered about his treatment. Begg said Hicks cannot understand what he is supposed to have done, or who he is supposed to have hurt, that justifies his five-year incarceration at Guantanamo Bay.
Hicks has committed no crime under Australian or international law. But the Bush administration and the Howard government cannot afford to let Hicks go free without conviction. To do so would be to expose their complicity in a terrible crime against justice and human rights, carried out under the sham "war on terror".
The Labor party, which says it opposes the unjust military commission process and the inhumane conditions at Guantanamo Bay, should therefore reject Hicks's imprisonment in Australia. Most recognise that imprisoning Hicks on his return to Australia will be completely unjust.
After five years without trial, it is not now possible for Hicks to get a fair trial, even if someone could find something to charge him with. It is time to recognise that Hicks, like others in Australia, is a political pawn in the so-called "war on terror" — a war that serves the interests of politicians and security agencies but does not protect us from terrorism.
Hicks should be set free and compensated for the injustice that the Howard government has helped mete out.
"The Howard government is guilty of supporting torture in Guantanamo Bay", continued Obeid. "The Howard government's support for Bush's 'war on terror' has meant Canberra has abandoned the notion of the rule of law. The prisons and military commissions have no legitimacy; the system is constructed to 'encourage' guilty pleas and obtain guilty verdicts", said Obeid.
"Howard is hoping that Hicks's plea will absolve it of its dirty role in David's ordeal. But the campaign to free David will continue", said Shannon Price, also of Stop the War Coalition. "Every day that Hicks spends in prison is a reminder that Howard and Bush are the real terrorists. Real justice will be done when Hicks is out of prison, paid compensation for his unnecessary suffering, and a free man not subject to a control order."
National protests for David Hicks on April 21 will now proceed with a new focus — free David Hicks, close Guantanamo Bay — and demand that the Australian government uphold the basic principles of justice and human rights for everybody, including those who are being unjustly criminalised by our dangerous and flawed "anti-terror" laws.
[Colin Mitchell is an activist in the Melbourne-based group Civil Rights Defence.]