An ob­jec­tive voice in Hicks de­bate

Ge­orge Wil­liams Detainee 002 By Leigh Sales Melbourne Univer­sity Pub­lish­ing, 336pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

DETAINEE 002 is, of course, David Hicks, a fig­ure known to many Aus­tralians only from a few well- worn pho­tos. Leigh Sales has done her best to rec­tify this with the help of in­ter­views with fam­ily and friends and those who knew Hicks in Afghanistan and Guan­tanamo Bay. What is of­ten miss­ing is Hicks’s own voice, some­thing that ap­pears only in tran­scripts of in­ter­view and a few, of­ten cen­sored, let­ters.

This is in­escapable in writ­ing about some­one held in­com­mu­ni­cado for more than five years and the sub­ject of a gag or­der. In fact, that there are holes in the story is a strength of this book. Rather than hy­poth­e­sis­ing or fill­ing in the gaps to fit a po­lit­i­cal agenda, Sales has writ­ten an even- handed nar­ra­tive based on the known facts. This gives her work an in­tegrity and cred­i­bil­ity of­ten lack­ing else­where. In any event, the real story is not about detainee 002 but the sys­tem cre­ated to hold and try him.

Sales has writ­ten an ac­ces­si­ble, com­pelling tale of how the de­ten­tion and pros­e­cu­tion of some­one in­volved with ter­ror­ism be­came a le­gal and pub­lic re­la­tions dis­as­ter.

Sales does not load this with too many of her own con­clu­sions. In the main, she lets the facts speak for them­selves. This draws the reader into the story free of the stark ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences that have so po­larised the Hicks de­bate.

Where she does draw con­clu­sions, in a fi­nal chap­ter care­fully ti­tled With Hind­sight, she finds that Guan­tanamo Bay has been a con­spic­u­ous fail­ure in the war on ter­ror. Sales con­cludes that it has eroded the moral stand­ing of the US and its al­lies and, as a sym­bol, has served as a use­ful tool for ter­ror­ist re­cruit­ment.

This is not based on a sym­pa­thetic view of Hicks. Sales finds that ‘‘ David Hicks is guilty of as­so­ci­a­tion with al- Qa’ida. The facts are in­dis­putable.’’ Given this, it says a lot that af­ter five years the process used to try him led to a pro­foundly am­bigu­ous out­come.

On the one hand, Hicks’s guilty plea may be seen as ir­refutable ev­i­dence of his guilt and for

some even jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of his treat­ment. On the other hand, it has been ar­gued that he pleaded guilty sim­ply to es­cape Guan­tanamo Bay and re­turn home.

This demon­strates what was forgotten in the af­ter­math of Septem­ber 11: that is, a fair trial is im­por­tant not just for the ac­cused but also to en­sure pub­lic ac­cep­tance of, and con­fi­dence in, the process.

Hav­ing fol­lowed the Hicks story closely from his Jan­uary 2002 de­ten­tion in Guan­tanamo Bay, I won­dered what else there could be to learn from this book. There was much more than I had ex­pected, with Sales not only cov­er­ing all the twists and turns ( many of them forgotten), but also ex­pos­ing im­por­tant new in­for­ma­tion.

For ex­am­ple, while the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment locked it­self in early in sup­port of Guan­tanamo Bay and the mil­i­tary com­mis­sions, it was not known how hard it pushed for sev­eral years for Hicks to be tried.

This un­der­mines the per­cep­tion that the Gov­ern­ment was pre­pared to al­low Hicks to lan­guish un­tried at Guan­tanamo Bay. Cer­tainly, it had re­peat­edly asked for a trial long be­fore pub­lic con­cern at Hicks’s de­ten­tion reached a crescendo in late 2006.

I had also not re­alised how deep con­cern went within the US armed forces and Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. Within those cir­cles, sup­port for the rule of law, the Geneva Con­ven­tions and the right to a fair trial was of­ten as strongly ex­pressed as it was out­side of gov­ern­ment by hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tions. This is not to say that there was doubt in the mind of the Pres­i­dent. How­ever, the voices of dis­sent did in­clude top uni­formed and civil­ian lawyers from the Pen­tagon, such as the judge ad­vo­cate gen­eral of the Marine Corps, James Walker, and US Navy gen­eral- coun­sel Al­berto Mora, Repub­li­cans such as sen­a­tor John McCain, for­mer sec­re­tary of state Colin Pow­ell, in­cum­bent Sec­re­tary of Defence Robert Gates and even mem­bers of the pros­e­cu­tion.

This dis­sent was par­tic­u­larly strong in res- ponse to the use of co­er­cive in­ter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques at Guan­tanamo Bay, in­clud­ing those that many would re­gard as tor­ture.

The FBI even con­sid­ered some of the tech­niques so be­yond its guide­lines that it or­dered its agents to with­draw from in­ter­ro­ga­tions at Guan­tanamo Bay au­tho­rised by then defence sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld.

The au­thor’s sources are im­pres­sive, her treat­ment of the le­gal is­sues im­pec­ca­ble and her first- hand knowl­edge from cov­er­ing the Hicks case and visit­ing Guan­tanamo Bay in­valu­able. There will be more books about Hicks, most of which will read­ily cast him as a vil­lain or vic­tim. Very few will be as good as this one. Im­por­tantly, this is a book that in the midst of an over­heated de­bate will give peo­ple the facts they need to make up their own mind. Ge­orge Wil­liams is the An­thony Ma­son pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the Gil­bert and Tobin Cen­tre of Pub­lic Law at the Univer­sity of NSW.

Talk­ing point: David Hicks in Guan­tanamo Bay

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