The Guardian 28 February, 2007

Howard desperate for "fix" to Hicks dilemma

US Vice-President Dick Cheney’s visit to Australia last week had the unintended effect of concentrating public attention on what is wrong with the very unequal Australia-US relationship. The predicament of David Hicks — detained for five years without trial in hellish conditions at the US military prison at Guantánamo — says it all. Strong community protest and the looming Federal Elections are the only reasons the Howard Government has stirred itself to do anything about the brutal and illegal treatment of an Australian citizen being held by the authorities of our "great and powerful friend". And concessions Howard, Ruddock & Co are claiming to have secured from the US administration are yet to advance the cause of justice in Hicks’ case by even one millimetre.

Cheney used various media opportunities to reiterate President Bush’s supposed undertaking to Howard that Hicks will be given first-cab-off-the-rank treatment when US Judge Susan Crawford recommends charges and the dubious military commissions start hearing cases. Lawyers on Hicks’ defence team do not think his "trial" can begin before September and are still convinced that a fair hearing is not possible.

The Howard Government is more concerned with allaying the public’s worries about justice delayed than the equally pressing ones about the fairness of the court process. In fact, Howard seems to be playing up to the more reactionary sections of his electorate by saying that he is "no supporter of David Hicks". The PM does not care if his comments betray the fact that he has a closed mind about the guilt or innocence of David Hicks.

"When Government ministers care less about fairness than they do about speed, it definitely gives the impression of a political fix", Hicks’ lawyer Major Michael Mori told The Sunday Age. "He should be home tomorrow, but until I see it in writing that Hicks can go home, I will not believe it", he added.

"I think it’s just another political ploy from Howard to try to try to have this process speeded up before the elections, it’s an election issue at the moment, and John Howard’s admitted it’s hurting him", Hicks’ father Terry told the ABC.

Cheney did say that if Hicks is judged guilty of either of the new charges against him, he would serve out his sentence in Australia. He would have the sentence reduced for the amount of time he has already spent in detention but there is no undertaking on whether it would be a day-for-day reduction or not.

More bad news was delivered by US military prosecutor Colonel Moe Davis when he appeared via satellite on the SBS Dateline program. Evidence obtained by "coercion" (or torture to give it its proper name) is admissible. Hearsay evidence — unsubstantiated, second-hand statements inadmissible in virtually any other court — will be considered.

The dangers presented by this sort of evidence were on display again last week. Discredited claims from Feroz Abbasi, a British former-detainee at Guantánamo, that Hicks was al-Qaida’s "24-carat golden boy"; that he wanted to fly a plane into a civilian building and "go back to Australia, and rob and kill Jews", reappeared in the media. "I hope a statement where somebody admitted they made it up is not what has kept David in Guantánamo for the past five years", Major Mori told a public forum in Adelaide last Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Howard Gov­ernment persists in supporting the US military against the interests of one of its own citizens. Opposition leader Kevin Rudd has said Hicks will not receive a fair trial before the military commission. According to a recent Morgan poll, 62 per cent of voters in Howard’s own blue-ribbon seat of Bennelong believe the PM should ask for Hicks’ immediate return to Australia.

Cheney concluded one of his last speeches down under with a bit of a pat on the back for the US’s embattled regional deputy sheriff. "These have been crowded and decisive years, during which all of the world has come to know John Howard as a man of wisdom and character." The words could not have rung hollower. They were being uttered at the same time Britain was announcing the start of its staged withdrawal from Iraq — the beginning of the end of the UK’s participation in the illegal occupation of that country. And while Britain secured the release of its five citizens from Guantánamo in 2005, a very dark cloud still hangs over the future of Australian David Hicks.

More and more Australians are coming to see just how unwise and subservient Howard and his government have been.

Back to index page