Saturday, January 19, 2008

Detainee 002: The Case of David Hicks, by Leigh Sales

Wow. Louise Adler at Melbourne University Publishing certainly knows how to commission a nifty book or two. She approached Sales to write up this comprehensive account of the Hicks case. Adler has published quite a few important political titles over the last few years, my favourites being the Latham Diaries and John Hyde Page’s book on the Young Liberals.

Leigh Sales is of course the ABC’s National Security Correspondent. She frequently sits in the chair on Lateline when filling in for Tony Jones. During her ABC posting as Washington correspondent she twice visited Guantanamo Bay prison.

In this book on Hicks Leigh Sales tries to move the argument away from the so-called pro and anti Hicks sides. The human rights do-gooders lauding Hicks as a ‘hero’ against those who feel him a rotten terrorist who deserves to rot in prison for his training in al-Qaeda camps.

As Sales says in the introduction, this is a highly polarised way of looking at Hicks, and that the facts of the case call for a more nuanced interpretation.

Detainee 002 in essence shows an utterly shambolic, ad hoc legal process that tried to deal with ‘enemy combatants’ that were rounded up in the highly emotional post-September 11 environment. In Afghanistan, the US’s new allies the Northern Alliance (serial human rights abusers themselves) were given bundles of cash to turn over American enemies. This resulted in all manner of people being handed over as enemy combatants – poor farmers, children, genuine innocents. Of course Hicks did not fit into this category, although the Northern Alliance were paid some US $10,000 for turning him over to the US.

Guantanamo itself immediately became a legal black hole. The whole process for trying its detainees was immediately challenged through US courts, a process that took years. It was Americans themselves who really spearheaded these challenges. American journalists covering the Hicks and Guantanamo Bay story were gobsmacked that Australia did not kick up a stink over Hicks being subjected to these obviously dodgy trials. (US citizens could not be tried by the military commissions that were later set up to try Guantanamo detainees.)

What’s the take away from Leigh Sales’ impressively researched book? The whole Guantanamo system was a complete disaster from the get-go. What’s worse, it had absolutely no credibility. And that means America’s so called War On Terror is turning on its head the West’s democratic values. It was of utmost importance that the West play by the rules. At Guantanamo the rules were made up as the players went along. Many a conscience could barely deal with the compromised legal process made up for Guantanamo detainees.

The way the US treated David Hicks made the Australian government look like a bunch of dills. There needed to be a better way to deal with Hicks, someone who admitted to training with al-Qaeda. Alas, the Australian government’s answer to that tricky question was to just believe whatever the American’s told us.

The result was the farce now known as the David Hicks case. (Hicks is yet to speak himself. It will be interesting to see what he has to say on the whole matter.)

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