Wednesday, November 03, 2010

OPINION: Artful dodger does himself no favours on David Hicks ...

A recent episode of the ABC's Q&A almost became a battle of the memoirs. John Howard was the sole guest, his appearance fitting very neatly in with his publisher's promotion schedule. Howard was buoyed by audience responses to his mantras about the economy and his gentle pokes in the eyes of Peter Costello and Malcolm Fraser.

Then, out of the blue, David Hicks's face appears via webcam. Contrary to the image Howard and others drew of him as a raving terrorist, Hicks calmly and in a dignified manner posed Howard his question.

Hicks wanted to simply understand why his own government showed indifference to his incarceration and torture at Guantanamo. Hicks also wanted to know what Howard thought of military tribunals. Hicks even ended his question with a polite "thank you". Osama bin Laden would have been pulling his beard out at Hicks's demeanour toward Howard.

It was obvious that Howard was rattled by Hicks's very appearance, let alone by questions Howard avoided for so many years in office. At first, Howard played politician by avoiding the question, instead reminding us of how lucky we were to have a free exchange on an ABC that members of his government tried ever so hard to restrict and intimidate.

Howard also reminded us that there was ...

... a lot of criticism of that book from sources unrelated to me and I've read some very severe criticisms of that book.

No doubt a perceived absence of literary merit may justify an appearance before a military tribunal. Either that, or Howard was praying Hicks's memoirs might end up on the remaindered shelves faster than his own.

Unlike Howard, I prefer to not to judge Hicks's memoirs (entitled Guantanamo: My Journey) until I have actually read them. Based on what I've read so far, Hicks' work is certainly more interesting than another book I've read, one Howard would perhaps prefer and one which actually glorifies a terrorist act - Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Sitting opposite Tony Jones, Howard justified his government's position of allowing Hicks to rot at the Guantanamo gulag for years without trial or charge and where he was tortured. Howard reminded us that military commissions ...

... date a long way into American history ...

... and were not ...

... something invented by the Bush administration.

Indeed. Torture also wasn't invented by the Bush administration. As for history, torture has a much longer one not just in America but indeed the history of all nations. One can only wonder whether in Howard's eyes, Hicks's detention, torture and unfair trial was all part of an historically justifiable package.

Howard went on to blame delays in Hicks' charges and trial on the fact that many civil rights lawyers were busy ...

... fighting the legality and the basis on which the military commissions had been established.

So fighting unjust laws delays (and hence denies) justice somehow. Using Howard's logic, one can only assume that constitutions are a source of grave injustice.

Howard also insisted his government urged the Bush administration to bring on the trial quickly. Rubbish. Howard only did this when he saw it was becoming an election issue, when even his own backbenchers like Danna Vale saw this as becoming a vote drainer.

In a column for The Age in November 2005, Vale described Hicks as ...

... the only Western man with 500 others incarcerated in the worst prison known to the Western world that was especially created outside the Geneva Convention, and with all the ramifications of what that means to those who believe in the rule of law
and the humane treatment of prisoners.

Howard artfully dodged the question as to why he allowed an Australian citizen to be tried before a military tribunal when the US and Britain didn't see such procedure as good enough for their citizens.

Indeed, George W.Bush did not allow American citizen John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" fighter, anywhere near the Guantanamo gulag. British authorities also strenuously lobbied for the release of British detainees.

Danna Vale herself asked these questions:

It has been said that if Hicks is returned to Australia, we have no law under which he can be charged and he would walk free. But why should he not walk free if he has not committed an offence against Australian law. He has already been incarcerated for four years, which is more than some get for rape or murder in our country. How long a sentence is considered enough punishment for a misguided fool and prize dill?

John Howard did not agree with Vale's assessment. He said on Q&A:

I took the view that it was better that someone went before a military commission, given the charges and allegations made against him ... then that they be brought back to Australia and not be capable of being charged.

So if someone accused you of committing an act for which no charge existed in any Australian statute book, the prime minister of Australia would prefer to have you brought before a kangaroo commission to be charged and convicted on the basis of evidence extracted as a result of the torture of yourself and God-knows how many others. Howard somehow reasons this can actually be better for the national interest.

Howard's government valued its Guantanamo citizens as much as the Middle Eastern dictatorships whose citizens shared cells with Hicks. Actually, Howard's attitude toward Hicks was worse.

Countries like Saudi Arabia, Libya and Algeria aren't known for having depoliticised criminal justice systems. Their detainees would probably be just as "lawfully" detained and tortured back home.

Howard was happy to see an alien legal regime imposed on an Australian citizen not by some tinpot dictatorship but by an ally in circumstances where that Australian would have walked free in Australia.

Howard was so keen to please Dubya in his so-called war on terror that he was prepared to sacrifice the human rights and liberty of two Australian citizens David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. In Habib's case, no charges were ever laid and he was subjected to torture in numerous countries before reaching Guantanamo.

Howard continues to defend the indefensible. Is it any wonder he lost both the election and his own seat?

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and author of Once Were Radicals. This column was first published in The Canberra Times.