We stood up for Hicks because Australia failed to when it mattered
Sydney Morning Herald Opinion, May 25, 2011
Sitting in the last row of the dress circle, I had a bird’s eye view of the Sydney Writers’ Festival event where David Hicks spoke publicly about his experiences for the first time. The session sold out shortly after tickets went on sale. The public clearly wanted to hear what Hicks had to say from the man himself.
The mood was not one of jubilation or adulation, but of attentiveness and reflection. No one leapt up at the end of his talk, swept up by a moment. People rose to their feet gradually and with a sense of purpose and obligation.
They applauded because they felt we as a nation had let him down then, but it wasn’t too late to stand up for him now.
Hicks still cannot cope with answering media questions. Given his circumstances and what he has been through, it is no wonder. He left school in year 9. He has been brutalised and tortured for years. He began nervously, almost mumbling and speaking too rapidly. There were 800 people listening intently and media were also present.
Throughout the time he was in Guantanamo Bay, he said, he believed the Australian government would put a stop to his torture and help him.
Donna Mulhearn, who was also on stage, said she and Hicks were motivated by the same thing: they went over to help people who were being persecuted; they were driven to act by injustice. But she is educated, articulate and confident.
David Hicks is not. But he deserves to know that what happened to him matters, even though we did not demand in sufficient numbers that our government support him when he needed it most. He is an Australian who was let down. He remains under attack for writing a book about his experiences, even as he is simultaneously attacked for not being open enough.
In the Herald yesterday, Ted Lapkin from the Institute of Public Affairs, persisted with the Howard government’s demonisation of Hicks with no regard for history, facts or the rule of law.
He mentioned Hicks’s letters, which were written more than 10 years ago. Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group with whom he travelled to Kashmir, was years away from being declared a terrorist organisation. It was supported by the Pakistani military, which provided standard military training, using facilities once used to train the mujahideen (whom the West supported). It also was responsible for dealing with the needs of refugees from the conflict with India, running orphanages and schools.
The plight of the Kashmiri people in that conflict was such that a NATO representative called for the West to help in whatever way we could. You and I may not respond to that call but Hicks naively did, embarking on a course of events with which he was completely unequipped to deal.
Lapkin and others also quote selectively from Hicks’s letters. In them Hicks refers to the Taliban as bloodthirsty idiots. There is no reference to terrorist training or any training aimed at hurting civilians. There is not one mention of al-Qaeda. Hicks was present in a crowd listening to Osama bin Laden speak, but he does not understand Arabic and took his information from the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. Its editorial line was that bin Laden had become a scapegoat – he was seen as a hero.
He continues to be seen as a hero by many millions around the world, but not by Hicks.
Hicks did not understand what bin Laden was implicated in nor was he able to anticipate how events would unfold. Did he break any law? No. Even John Howard admits that much.
Did he harm a single person? No.
Yet we allowed an Australian citizen to be held, tortured and convicted by a tribunal known to be unfair at the time and discredited by the US President himself. Britain did not stand for that sort of treatment of its citizens.
It is disingenuous to maintain Hicks is guilty of terrorist activity – the evidence would not stack up in a proper court and the likes of Lapkin know that. Hicks’s conviction should be set aside.
What is to be gained by continuing to demonise him? Simply, he is a soft target. Casting him as a villain who should be hounded for the proceeds of his book will fool some into thinking our politicians are on the case, getting the bad guys.
We have to be wary of taking as fact what spy agencies and politicians choose to tell us. As the Pentagon Papers showed, they have their own agendas. And as the Guantanamo Bay dossiers – riddled with errors – show, they can get it very wrong.
Alexander Downer, the foreign minister who oversaw the sorry saga, was recently asked whether he had read Hicks’s dossier. He said no, he could not be bothered, it’s all just history now. We deserve better than that. Downer’s arrogance is matched by his contempt for truth and justice.
The former prime minister John Howard, who led us into war under false pretences – a war in which many Australians were killed – also appeared at the writers’ festival, funded by taxpayers.
Governments fund these festivals because they promote greater understanding and debate, as the Hicks session certainly did.
Senator George Brandis has been calling for action to ensure Hicks does not profit from the proceeds of his ”crime”. The federal police have investigated, but the Attorney-General’s office can’t say who initiated the investigation. The police brief has now gone to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, where the new director, Chris Craigie, is deciding whether to prosecute.
If Brandis has nothing better to do with his time, hopefully the new DPP has. If he directs already scarce resources to hounding Hicks, it will once again be rolling out the big guns to humiliate an individual who has not been dealt with justly.
Mary Kostakidis is a journalist and member of the advisory panel to the Sydney Peace Foundation.
First appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Opinion, May 25 2011