Relations between the US and one of its staunchest allies face a formidable test Monday when Australia’s only Guantánamo Bay prisoner faces an American military commission after more than five years of imprisonment.
David Hicks is a former kangaroo shooter and jackaroo (cowboy) who was captured by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in December 2001 and handed over to American forces.
The Muslim convert and one-time militiaman for the Kosovo Liberation Front in Albania during the 1990s is expected to plead not guilty to a charge of providing support for terrorism.
In Australia, half a world away from Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay, the issue of Mr. Hicks has grown from a cause célèbre for a few left-wing pressure groups to a mainstream chorus of concern. In recent weeks, Hicks’s continued detention has been criticized by members of Parliament, judges, the head of the Australian Federal Police, and the defense force’s chief military prosecutor, who branded his treatment “abominable.”
Washington alleges that Hicks trained with Al Qaeda and was fighting with the Taliban when US and coalition forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. Dubbed the “Aussie Taliban” in his home country, the 31-year-old from Adelaide, in South Australia, has been imprisoned without trial since January 2002.
When he was captured, the national consensus was that Hicks was a troublemaker – a full-fledged recruit of Islamic terrorism who deserved everything he got. But the interminable delays in bringing him to trial have cultivated an image of Hicks as a victim of American bullying.
The issue touches both sides of politics, says Brett Solomon, executive director of Get Up, an independent political movement that has been campaigning for Hicks’s release.
“For the right, it’s a question of nationalism – here is an Australian citizen who has been left to languish in a foreign prison and let down by his government,” says Mr. Solomon. “For the left, the intelligentsia, and the legal community, it’s a matter of basic human rights. All the principles that Australians and Americans hold dear – democracy, the right to a fair trial, the right not to suffer arbitrary detention – are being chucked away.”
Solomon says the “glue” uniting both ends of the spectrum is a recent poll which found that 91 percent of Australians think that, regardless of his alleged crimes, Hicks deserves a fair trial. Less than a quarter believed he is likely to receive one.
“I think Australians are fed up with the fact that an Australian citizen has had his rights denied in order to support a diplomatic relationship with a key ally,” Solomon says.
Hicks’s outspoken American military lawyer, Maj. Michael Mori of the Marines, has made so many visits to Australia that he has become something of a celebrity.
Major Mori says that Hicks has already been through one “illegal” trial procedure. After being originally charged with attempted murder, conspiracy to commit war crimes, and aiding the enemy, he was set to face a military tribunal in November 2005.
But the US Supreme Court intervened and in June last year ruled that the military commission system was illegal because it contravenes the Geneva Conventions.
Mori says his client fears he has no chance of a fair trial. “[Hicks] will be in the same room where the illegal trial was held. What hope does that offer him?” he said this week.
The lawyer representing Hicks in Australia, David McLeod, says the years of delay and months in solitary confinement in a tiny cell have driven the former kangaroo skinner to the brink of mental collapse.
“Everything is as bad as it can be for David Hicks. He’s the longest-serving prisoner of war in Australian history. His treatment has been shameful and lamentable,” says Mr. McLeod.
“Who arrested him? The Department of Defense. Who interned him? The Department of Defense. Who charged him? The Department of Defense. Where’s the separation of powers? There is none,” says McLeod.
There was little sympathy for Hicks among the Australian public when he was first captured. A drifter with a background of petty crime, he managed to avoid prison and was instead sent on a rehabilitation project teaching rural skills to troublesome youths. He then worked as a jackaroo, as a kangaroo hunter, and later got a job in a chicken processing factory.
A growing interest in Islam led him to the Balkans, where, in 1999, he fought for the Kosovo Liberation Front. He was photographed cradling a bazooka.
After Kosovo, Hicks converted to Islam in 2000, and a year later, he turned up in Pakistan and then Afghanistan, where he allegedly joined the Taliban. The Australian government believes that during his time in Afghanistan he attended Al Qaeda training camps.
The president of the Law Council of Australia, Tim Bugg, believes the Hicks case has become a matter of great embarrassment for the Australian government.
“Our concern is that political considerations have overwhelmed issues of essential principle, which form the cradle of the justice system in this country,” Mr. Bugg says. “We have argued that he should be put before a regular American court or a court martial. But the president won’t allow non-US citizens to go through that process. Canberra should insist that he be released and returned to Australia.”
Prime Minister John Howard has argued that, were Hicks to be repatriated, he would get off scot-free, because Australia’s antiterrorism legislation was introduced after the offenses he is alleged to have committed.
But even Mr. Howard and his ministers, sensing a change in the public mood, have voiced concerns that the Hicks case has dragged on far too long.
“The acceptability of him being kept in custody diminishes by the day,” Howard said recently.