Free David Hicks now! (And send Howard to Yatala)

Friday, April 13, 2007

While the Howard government has succeeded in partially defusing David Hicks's unjust imprisonment as an election issue, it has still not convinced most people that Hicks's guilty plea means he is a terrorist.

It's important not to forget PM John Howard's role in demonising Hicks, supporting the unjust US military commissions and abandoning basic principles of justice and human rights. Just as importantly, we have to speak out against the Labor Party's decision to support control orders and the raft of so-called "anti-terror" laws.

The retrial of Jack Thomas will help raise awareness that there are victims of the government's "war on terror" here in Australia. Thomas's case goes beyond the legal battle being fought in the Supreme Court. The real issue is the "anti-terror" laws themselves and how they are being misused to criminalise a harmless non-terrorist.

Hicks has been silenced by the Howard government, in collusion with the Bush administration, until after the federal elections. He will be placed in maximum security in Yatala Labour Prison in South Australia, beyond the reach of the media. It is unlikely that the clumsy "gag orders" placed on Hicks as a condition of his plea bargain will remain effective after the election.

However, Hicks's father, Terry, and civil rights activists, cannot be silenced. We will loudly remind the government of David Hicks's earlier allegations of mistreatment at the hands of the US military, and condemn the on-going injustice of the military commissions system, Guantanamo Bay prison and secret CIA prisons around the world.

Protests around Australia on April 21 will call for Hicks to be freed immediately, for the gag order be lifted and for him to not be forced to serve another prison term in South Australia. The demonstrations will also demand the closure of Guantanamo Bay.

We will also be condemning Australia's version of Guantanamo Bay prison — Barwon Prison in Victoria, where 13 men have been locked up in conditions that mimic those at Guantanamo Bay. Nine men, arrested in Sydney, are being held in similar conditions. Although they are supposed to be held on remand awaiting trial they are, in effect, being punished before trial, assumed to be guilty.

The message the government is pushing is that these men are so dangerous they need to be held in conditions more punitive than for those of convicted murderers and hardened criminals. Yet their trials have not yet been held!

The evidence that the "Barwon 13" are dangerous is very weak: there is no concrete evidence that the men were preparing for a terrorist act. The "evidence" consists mostly of recorded conversations where the men discussed radical Islamic ideology and made macho comments. The case rests on what the men might have done in the future, not on what they were preparing to do in the present. It also rests on authorities' "interpretation" of their comments. A love letter from a wife to her husband has even been interpreted as sinister.

On April 21, protesters will argue that, like Hicks, Thomas is being used as a political scapegoat for the "war on terror". The widespread concern for justice and human rights for Hicks must be extended to Thomas, the "Barwon 13" and the "Sydney 9". We must now demand that our most basic human rights be respected in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Our voices must remain loud because we are speaking for those whose voices have been unjustly silenced.

[Colin Mitchell is an activist in the Melbourne-based group Civil Rights Defence. Lauren Trengove is a peace activist.]

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