2007-10-14

Detainee 002: the case of David Hicks / Leigh Sales

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by Neil Godfrey

Australian journalist Leigh Sales won the 2007 George Munster Award for Independent Journalism as a result of her book Detainee 002: the case of David Hicks.

In her speech in acknowledging this Award she expressed some bemusement at being accused of being in effect too fair or aggravatingly fair. That piqued my interest enough to fast track this book to the top of my “to read” list. (Leigh Sales speech is available on podcast here.)

Fair it is regarding the facts of the history of David Hicks and the history and nature of the legal issues surrounding his trial. The aggravation to my mind comes from Leigh Sales implication that a “pragmatic” approach, the approach she clearly favours, is the only truly humane and caring position for David Hicks as a person. She positions the pragmatic approach, making whatever agreement it took to get David out of Guantanamo if it was so detrimental to his well-being, against the political and principled human-rights views that she asserts merely used David as a pawn in their ideological warfare.

This position of hers mystifies me. She makes it clear that David confesses to rejecting an invitation to enlist on a suicide terrorist mission to the cost of his own reputation among many of his peers, that he was completely open about all of his activities from the beginning and never at any time engaged in combat in Afghanistan, and that there is every reason to believe he had been brutally treated while in captivity. Yet at the same time she blames his lawyers for not arranging a plea-bargain much earlier that would have seen him released from Guantanamo. This would of course have meant that David would have had to have decided much earlier to face an unknown sentence elsewhere, confess to crimes he had not committed and wear that publicly acknowledged guilt the rest of his life, and renounce all claims of abusive treatment he had received. Unless that were David’s clear wish at the time then I fail to see how such a “pragmatic” approach was more personally caring than the “principled” one that sought to protect his long-term rights and well-being. When his lawyer Major Mori gave up the opportunity for promotion because he felt a personal responsibility to David, Sales is simply being one-eyed when she insists Mori did not really personally care about David as much as he did about pursuing “a principled case” that was to David’s immediate detriment.

Similarly, when Sales equates the two opposing public positions over Hicks she falls into the trap of confusing “balance” with simply reporting what two sides say without any real investigation into the grounds for each side’s claims. Those who hate Hicks do so because they are convinced he is and was a terrorist who supported and trained to assist with massacres of innocents. They are simply wrong on fact and their political manipulators are more than happy to make the most of their ignorance. Those who support Hicks are not uniform in their view of the extent of Hicks’s past responsibility, and are opposed to the treatment of anyone, especially one of their own nationality, being denied natural justice. To equate the two sides as somehow “equally” uncaring about David personally as Sales does is simply wrong.

Leigh Sales’ book suggested to me that the primary reason David entered the plea bargain earlier this year was because of his treatment by fellow inmates at Guantanamo after he had renounced Islam. He was treated as a backslider, a renegade from the true faith, and despised as a collaborator with the infidels. That marked the change in David physically and almost certainly was the final blow that made his time in Guantanamo unbearable one more day than could possibly be avoided.

If the “human-rights principled” side of the public debate did not care about David personally then one cannot explain their ongoing support for David when he did finally buckle and enter the plea-bargain, thus pulling the rug out from their campaign. I was one of those human rights advocates and can assure Leigh Sales that our motives were driven by tearful compassion for both Terry and his son. We empathised with them, spoke with Terry (David’s father) whenever we could, many of us felt for him as a father with a son who could have been ours. Human right campaigns are not some unrealistic pie in the sky philosophical mind-game but are rooted in deep compassion and sense of justice for our fellow beings against the abuses of power. That is why they come to the fore in the public arena when real people’s livelihoods — not some ethereal abstract principles — are at stake.

David is reportedly since having regrets over his plea-bargain. Perhaps he is viewing the pragmatic humanity of Leigh Sales from another perspective now.

One perspective not addressed by Leigh Sales, oddly since it was expressed by Terry himself and thought about by many others, and that was the suggestion that one reason for targeting David was his usefulness as the token white person. There was no discussion in Sale’s book about the pressure the Bush administration was under at the time over the apparent racism underlying his campaign to kill and jail suspected terrorists.

But the good thing about the book is that behind the spin and opinion, enough information is given for readers to be informed enough to have a clearer view of both David and the issues he has been through, and that we as Australians need to face up to and address.


See also Fair Go For DavidAustralian terror victims:

9/11 victims (Al-Qaeda)

Bali victims (JI) and again

Douglas Wood (Iraq)

Noorpolat Abdulla (Kazakhstan)

Cage Prisoners (U.S.)

Fair Go for David(U.S.)

Deaths in custody (Australia)

Stolen generations (Australia)

Genocide (Australia)


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Neil Godfrey

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