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Australia v Hicks

By Bruce Haigh and Kellie Tranter - posted Wednesday, 1 June 2011

At the Sydney Writer's festival on 22 May, David Hicks gave a detailed account of how he was tortured while a prisoner of the United States government at Guantanamo Bay. The audience found his account so compelling they gave him a standing ovation, all 900 of them.

David Hicks was also critical of media reporting of his case. After years of being portrayed and explicitly described as a terrorist in newspapers and on television, it's difficult for him to shake the terrorist label, even though no evidence has been produced warranting the description and he has never been put on trial or broken any law. Nor had UK Guantanamo torture victims Ruhal Ahmed, Shafiq Rasul, Bisher al-Rawi, Omar Deghayes, Moazzam Begg and others, but it's notable that their country secured their release without requiring that they first bow to a quasi-judicial abomination and then agree to being gagged about their mistreatment. They have been compensated by the British government. An investigation is underway into the knowledge and possible involvement of British intelligence agencies in torture. David Hicks is a key witness in these inquiries.

Earlier this year Julia A Hall, Senior Counsel Counter-Terrorism, Amnesty International said:


"…Victims of rendition and secret detention. The other labels that these victims have which has made it so difficult…to advocate on their behalf and that is because of the other labels that have applied to them. Labels like terrorist. Labels like national security threat. Labels like Islamic militant. These labels do not rest easily with their status as victims. If the discourse is they are in fact terrorists or national security threats, we have had a hard time as advocates of also saying that they're victims as well. A by-product of that difficulty has been that we have angled a lot in our advocacy. We've said, well okay, the governments have been very successful in casting victims of human rights violations as terrorists and national security threats first. How can we get around that? How do we have legitimacy as lawyers and human rights activists when that discourse is so powerful and the government are in league in that way. In many instances over the last eight years instead of relying, for example, on the absolute legal prohibition and moral abhorrence of torture and enforced disappearance to advocate on behalf of victims, many of us really resorted to more instrumental arguments. We've avoided the moral argument…these behaviours [torture] were illegal under any circumstances and they were immoral in all circumstances…It has been very difficult to humanise victims of rendition and secret detention…we want better long term results in terms of accountability and we want to have public support for that accountability…."

It's an example of that insightful maxim, what you call something governs the way you perceive it. To paraphrase it for Hicks: what the government, in cahoots with the press, calls someone governs how they are perceived.

Simplistic and inaccurate characterisation is a habit that dies hard for some Australian journalists, shock-jocks and opinion writers who were only too willing to point out that "Hicks ain't no Che Guevara" when hearing of his standing ovation at the Sydney Writers' Festival. It's one thing to say you don't agree with the assembled throng, but to denigrate the judgement of such an audience as, "the eagerness of this naive crowd", is quite another.

Hicks remains under a suspended sentence, part of the plea agreement extracted by an unlawful military commissions system. The original military commissions were struck down by the US Supreme Court but reconstituted before the Alford plea agreement with Hicks. After five and a half years incarceration how could he not sign an agreement that guaranteed he would be out of Guantanamo in sixty days?

There is still a push in some quarters of the press and the parliament to try and keep Hicks dehumanised and on the fringe. They want him to remain demonised and they want to keep him gagged. That he may have popular support worries them. By hounding him with threats of action under the Commonwealth Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 they are attempting to keep the lid on the truth about his torture at the hands of our closest ally without understanding that there is an optimal level of criticism or legal coercion. Go beyond that point with personal criticism, or by bringing the weight of authority down on a single citizen, and the spotlight spreads its light. It comes to illuminate the conduct of all of those involved, including those of Hicks' critics who were and are responsible for leaving him to languish without proper support.

It was always on the cards that when Hicks eventually was able to put his side of the story the official line would disintegrate.


Hicks outlined his allegations of torture to an audience aware of reports detailing the neglect of medical evidence of torture in Guantánamo Bay, reports of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners there and George Bush's torture admission.

The US is aware of the potentially serious personal consequences these actions might have for its government officials: leaked State Department cables already show that the Obama administration has interfered with the judicial process in Spain and engaged in a political campaign to block Spanish courts from securing accountability for torture and other egregious violations of international law that were planned, authorised, and committed by Bush administration officials at Guantánamo and elsewhere.

With his mate Bush's admissions, and with the details provided by Hicks about his torture at Guantanamo Bay, will former Prime Minister, John Howard, repeat his earlier denial of torture?

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About the Authors

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Bruce Haigh
All articles by Kellie Tranter

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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