This is a piece I wrote for the Road To Surfdom blog on February 20, 2006, following a nationally televised debate/forum about the five year long detention of Australian terror suspect David Hicks In Guantanamo Bay.
By Darryl Mason - 'The Orstrahyun'
It's not often you get to see a roomful of Australians laughing at the Attorney General, twice, in the space of an hour. And it wasn't a pretty sight.
No doubt Phillip Ruddock was expecting a particularly uncomfortable afternoon when he went along to the taping of SBS's Insight forum show debating the American detention of terrorism suspect, and Australian citizen, David Hicks.
You can only imagine Ruddock never expected it to go as bad as it did. How bad?
Ruddock was given numerous chances to make his case for why the Howard government had not done more, earlier, to pressure the Bush administration into getting the David Hicks military trial underway, or to get him released. But there was nothing new from Ruddock. His talking points were dashed by lawyerly waffle and blame-gaming.
Blame Hick's defence, blame the other Gitmo inmates who appealed against the earlier, discredited, Supreme Court rejected military trial set-up, and yes, even blame the Americans as well.
Ruddock wasn't out to save the credibility of the American military trial system now in place. He wasn't out to save the credibility of the prime minister, or Alexander Downer, or President Bush. Ruddock was there, with his Amnesty International pin in place, to try and rescue the last fading threads of his own credibility. And he failed.
The loudest laugh from the audience, a laugh full of contempt and disbelief, came when Ruddock said the Australian government had never been happy with the time it had taken for Hicks to firstly be charged and then for the military trial rules to be finalised and accepted by the highest court in the United States.
They laughed because they know the Howard government only changed its tune on Hicks once it became clear that his five year long detention, without trial, was the sort of "fair go" issue that could hammer Howard hard at the 2007 federal election. They changed their tune when the polls showing almost 70% of Australians were not happy with Howard on the issue of David Hicks told them they had no choice.
But even worse for Ruddock, his waffly, defensive rhetoric seemed even more cold and empty than usual because David Hick's dad and his shattered step-mother were sitting only a few seats away. The distress on her face alone made Ruddock's words seem all but meaningless.
Ruddock looked close to tears himself, on a number of occasions, even though the case against what has happened to David Hicks was argued reasonably, and calmly, by Terry Hicks, former Guantanamo Bay detainees, audience members and Hick's defence lawyer Major Mori.
It was hardly a gang assault of abuse and shouting aimed at Ruddock, but he still came close to cracking.
He was there to represent the government and his department but he also found himself, as usual, defending the actions of the Bush administration, something he was clearly not happy having to do. But there lies the rub. Ruddock had choice but to try and back up the stance of Bush Co. when it comes to detainees like Hicks. They're our closest ally, after all. And this is supposed to a war against terrorists, suspected and/or confirmed.
Most in the audience didn't look particularly angry, just sad, disappointed, worn out by the apparent pettiness of the evidence against Hicks that was raised by his military prosecutor.
Is that it? Is that all they've got on this guy?
As terrible as it is that a young Australian went to fight for an outfit as odious as the Taliban, the charges still not formally laid against Hicks, and the case made by the prosecutor (who couldn't have asked for a more open forum to say whatever he wanted), still don't add up to enough to make most Australians think Hicks deserves to be held like a rat in a steel box for half a decade. Let alone be tortured and mind-fucked.
There was something historical, instead of hysterical, about the calm, measured tone of the Insight debate. In essence, it encapsulated some of the most important legal and moral issues thrown up by the War On Terror. How many violations of human rights and decency will we accept to win a war of such vague definitions?
Do we ignore the injustice piled on those who we are told are our enemy? Do we accept genital electrocutions and months of sensory deprivation and threats of rape and murder because those we are told are our enemy do even worse?
Or do we seek to impose the laws that contain and maintain our societies against those who may wish to destroy us?
Do we have to become like those we wage war against to ulitmately 'win'? And if we have to accept detention without trial and torture and detainees being beaten to death as necessary parts of thsi war, then what exactly will we have won?
We didn't imitate, nor accept, the behaviour of our enemy during World War 2 or Vietnam, so why must we become like our enemy this time?
In the end, the military prosecutor and Ruddock could do little to counter the chief arguments raised against the five year imprisonment of David Hicks, and those which have been primary in forcing the Howard government to act, if only by the sheer force of public opinion.
Why has this all taken so long?
Why have Taliban leaders been released from Guantanamo Bay years before David Hicks has even been charged? What the hell has been going on over there?
Neither Ruddock nor the American military prosecutor could counter these questions because the answer was so straightforward and they both knew that answer so well.
Howard, like UK prime minister Tony Blair, was offered by Bush the opportunity to take back Hicks, years ago. No charges, no trial, no lengthy detention. Howard has already admitted as much. But the prime minister had insisted the trial must go ahead and that the evidence against Hicks be heard and judged in a military court.
And it's becoming increasingly clea that Phillip Ruddock has pressured Howard for months, if not years, to take up the Bush administration offer to send Hicks back home, but Howard refused, because he would not back down, he could not be seen to have flip-flopped, to have gone back on his word on such a war-vital issue.
But it was Ruddock who had to face the disgust and disbelief of Australians, and Hicks' parents last night, while Howard got to harp on about how he had been the phone to Bush, ramping up the pressure for the David Hicks trial to go ahead, quick smart, lest his beloved Australians be further disappointed.
The case made for the charges now leveled against Hicks - attempted murder, aiding terrorism - was weak, and there were many promises from the US military prosecutor about evidence and witnesses that would be unveiled in an "open court" and how Hicks defenders will be changing their minds when they learn just what he was really doing in Afghanistan all those years ago, after September 11.
He went back to pick up his passport so he could come home, Terry Hicks stated, and the prosecutor said nothing to counter this simple claim.
The mention of an "open court" by the prosecutor was particularly interesting. It was made to sound like the trial of David Hicks might even be televised. Though this seems doubtful.
But even the prosecutor was forced to all but admit that some, if not the majority, of the eyewitness testimony would be hearsay, perhaps even two or three witnesses removed. Ruddock sounded as enthusiastic about the credibility of such hearsay evidence as he did about evidence collected by torture. Not at all.
As Major Mori pointed out, the real evidence, the meaty stuff, if it even exists, is unlikely to even be seen by the jury, let alone heard in court if the trial goes ahead, because it falls in the realm of "classified."
By the end of the Insight debate, something of a stalemate was in place. Would the military prosecutor accept a plea bargain? Would Major Mori get David Hicks to plead out guilty, on the promise of a fast trip back home? Will the charges even be accepted by the judge now looking them over? Will Hicks even be formally charged?
It is clear that Howard and the rest of his government want the David Hicks nightmare to just disappear, well before the federal election. But it's also increasingly clear that this simply isn't going to happen.
The best Howard can now hope for is that the US judge who will decide whether or not the prosecutor's charges should be formally laid against Hicks will instead throw the whole thing out, and this could happen as soon as next week. Hicks could then come home, be deemed a security risk by the federal police, placed on a control order, be banned from talking to the media and disappear back into the suburbs of Adelaide, months before the federal election campaigning officially begins.
But for this to work to Howard's advantage will require Australians to become bored by the Hicks fiasco, and that doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon, despite the near ceaseless daily media coverage.
The nightmare for David Hicks may end soon, but the nightmare of what happened to David Hicks has only really just begun for John Howard.As Posted To 'The Road To Surfdom'