When the news came through that David Hicks had pleaded guilty to a charge of providing material support for terrorists (as well as having many allegations dropped), there was a feeling amongst at least some MPs that this would neutralise the significant political problems which Hicks’ situation had been causing for the Australian government.
Indeed, the new Minister for Justice, Senator David Johnston, gave what seemed to me an extraordinary response to a question in the Senate that “To the extent that Senator Brown raises the question as to what has gone before, it would seem rather redundant in the face of an admission which has been afforded to the court.”
I interpreted this as words to the effect that “he’s pleaded guilty now, so all those allegations and concerns about due process don’t matter any more”. I must say my initial feeling was that a guilty plea wasn’t very informative. After all, a key purpose of show trials is to gain a guilty plea or a conviction. In the absence of a fair trial, such a result in itself doesn’t tell us a lot either way about the guilt of the accused.
Whilst the guilty plea has changed the political dynamic (as well as dramatically improved the situation for David Hicks and his family), if anything the public and media reaction seems to have got even more incredulous.
Both governments will say: Hicks has had his day in court, he pleaded guilty, he has been justly treated. What we really need to concentrate on and to understand is that Hicks did not have a day in a court. He had a day in a fraudulent tribunal, controlled by a special law, which the Americans would never dare to apply their own people.
GetUp! placed a large advertisement in The Australian today (reproduced below), which quotes some scathing assessments from Australian media outlets.
From The Australian: “There is an unmistakable stench of political expediency to the terms of the plea bargain, in particular the extraordinary 12 month gag order”.
From The Age: “Has Hicks’ plea validated the existence of Guantanamo Bay or the process by which its detainees have been treated? No. Has justice been served? No.
From the Sydney Morning Herald: “Yet even Hicks’ most vehement detreactors cannot be satisfied with such a ‘trial’, its outcome determined in high-level backroom deals”.
Even more interesting has been the response in the USA, which of course can’t be accused of being overly parochial or anti-American on this issue. The Age reported that “outcry has erupted in the US over the secret deal struck by a Bush Administration appointee to slash David Hicks’ jail term to just nine more months”.
Here’s a few examples:
From an LA Times correspondent
The first war-crimes trial here drew outrage Saturday from legal experts who de- scribed it as a perversion of the rule of law that may fatally discredit the Pentagon’s already disparaged handling of terror suspects.
If you think this was in any way a legitimate court process, you’re smoking something even George Michael would pay a lot of money for. It was a political deal, revealing the circus that the alleged Gitmo court system really is. For good measure, Hicks has a gag-order imposed so that he will not be able to speak of his alleged torture and abuse until after Howard faces re-election. Yes, we live in a banana republic. It certainly isn’t a country ruled by law. It is ruled by one man and his accomplice.
and The Washington Monthly, which starts with a quote also used by GetUp!
To say that it stinks is to do a disservice to rotten garbage.
Apropos of nothing in particular, this case is a good demonstration of what the Bush administration has cost us. The fact is that the whole issue of enemy combatants in an age of transnational terrorism is a really difficult one. This isn’t a conventional war where we can just release prisoners after it’s over, nor is it like domestic crime, where the state has the power to coercively collect evidence and demand testimony. It’s a helluva hard problem, and under normal circumstances we’d all be well advised to cut the administration some slack as they try to figure out how to deal with it.
And we might, if it weren’t for what this administration has done. But the combination of torture and “coercive interrogation,” including rendition of high-value prisoners; widespread imprisonment based on evidence the Pentagon knows to be blatantly fabricated; and the adminstration’s almost fanatical resistance to even minimal standards of review, has convinced even sympathetic observers that the Bush administration isn’t struggling to find a solution to a hard problem. They just want to keep people locked up forever — unless it happens to be politically inconvenient, of course. Is it any wonder virtually no one trusts us on this subject any longer?