Hicks home, but Lady Justice sails off

May 18, 2007

As Green Left Weekly goes to print David Hicks is on his way back to Australia — to Yalata prison in South Australia. But Lady Justice is sailing off in the other direction.

Hicks's plea bargain, while understandable, is a set-back to the battle for justice. That a man has been held for five years without trial, in conditions designed to break him psychologically and forced to plead guilty to escape those conditions, is a travesty of justice.

The Howard government has been forced by public pressure to remove another potential election problem, and is trying to turn the human rights disaster to its political advantage by demonising Hicks as a "self-confessed terrorist" and, ludicrously, taking the credit for bringing him home.

Meanwhile, Kevin Rudd and Labor lapse into their customary silence, unwilling to challenge Howard's "tough on security" stance because they want to use the same policy. It is left to the Greens, the Socialist Alliance and the Democrats to speak up for human rights.

ABC journalist Leigh Sales's new book, Detainee 002 — the case of David Hicks (published by Melbourne University Press), which attempts to steer a course between right and left, makes clear that the Hicks saga was driven by politics, not justice or fighting "terrorism". She comes to the inescapable conclusion that Guantanamo Bay and the imprisonment and trial of Hicks have not made the world safer from terrorism and have not served justice.

Sales also finds the Labor Party complicit in the five-year abandonment of Hicks. "In Australia, [former Labor leader Kim] Beazley's opposition barely tackled the Prime Minister on the issue, much less members of his own backbench", Sales writes. Now, "Rudd has nothing to gain politically by raising questions about whether Hicks has received justice. It is in his interests to let the matter disappear", she concludes.

Sales also sheds some light on the accusations against Australia's other Guantanamo Bay survivor — Mamdouh Habib. She writes that the US authorities intended to charge and convict Habib with being a member of al Queda's inner circle — training the September 11, 2001, hijackers in martial arts and even being slated to be on one of the September 11 planes.

It all came undone when the CIA program of extraordinary rendition was revealed. The charges were based on confessions extracted from Habib under torture in Egypt. Habib was hastily released without charge to prevent the embarrassing revelation of his treatment in court. The outrageous accusations against Habib calls into question the charges against many other captives in the US "war on terror".

Sales blames ASIO and its then director, Dennis Richardson, for assessing Hicks as a serious threat and "playing a central role in shaping the government's opinion". She reveals that in the US the central consideration became justifying Guantanamo Bay and the military commissions. For this, the Bush administration wanted an uncontested case with a guilty plea to be the first through the system. Sales quotes a source closely involved: "We were going to offer such a sweet deal for this guy to plead guilty."

Contrary to ASIO's assessment of Hicks, and his demonisation within Australia, John Altenburg, the senior official in the Office of Military Commissions from 2004 to 2006, is quoted by Sales as saying: "I think he read Soldier of Fortune magazine too many times … for people wanting to see the worst of the worst, this was not going to be it.".

As for a former prosecutor in the military commissions, Sales quotes him as saying: "As best I can tell from the notes, Hicks was a ne'er-do-well who jumps in on these causes. Certainly he' a big talker, but as far as I can tell, he never killed an American and never planned to … he doesn't have the capacity to plot anything major."

Derek Tucker, the Australian consul-general who visited Hicks seven times, "formed the impression that Hicks was a knockabout kid who had gone off the rails. He did not see Hicks as a major threat according to several sources familiar with Tucker's views." Of the witness statements against Hicks, Sales writes that "none of them described him plotting anything major or showing any real intent to harm anybody".

Even leaving aside the way Hicks's guilty confession was extracted, he is far from a "self-confessed terrorist". He has pleaded guilty to Specification 1 of the charge against him — that he associated with terrorists, trained in military and surveillance skills, and took up arms in a military battle. He pleaded not guilty to Specification 2 — that he provided support for the preparation, or carrying out, of an act of terrorism. What he was saying was that he was not a terrorist.

As the "war on terror" needs terrorists to achieve its political goals, so the definition of terrorism has been stretched. In Melbourne, 13 Muslim men have been in virtual solitary confinement in Barwon prison for more than a year and a half awaiting trial. They are assumed to be terrorists because of their expressed views. There was no planned terrorist act. Like Hicks, they are, in effect, being punished before trial in Australia's version of Guantanamo Bay.

The "war on terror" and the "anti-terror" laws are undoubtedly being used for political purposes: the latest victims in Australia are the Tamil community, many of whom have fled a bloody chauvinist war in their country.

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