Rights missing in action and still Labor can't stop
By Alan Ramsey
February 26 2003
Derk Swieringa is an old friend and neighbour who likes to rattle people's
cages. Just before Christmas he wrote, for the first time, to his local MP,
Labor's Bob McMullan, one of Simon Crean's small (and, on its record since
the last election, entirely useless) Federal Opposition leadership group.
What Swieringa wrote about was Adelaide's David Hicks and Sydney's Mamdouh
Hicks and Habib, of course, are the two Australian citizens whom the US
military has kept imprisoned, with 600 other al-Qaeda "suspects", at its
Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba for more than a year. Hicks was
"captured" in a "conflict zone" in Afghanistan in early December, 2001,
according to the Americans. Habib was "detained" in Pakistan in October the
same year. The Australian Government calls the two men "detainees". The US
Government calls them "unlawful combatants", a wondrous piece of sophistry
by any standard.
Whatever, the two men have been convicted of nothing, have been charged
with nothing, are allowed to see no one except US (and, at times,
Australian) military and intelligence interrogators, and, ever since their
detention, have been denied legal access and the consular assistance that
is the right of every Australian citizen. Except the US military has
decided Hicks and Habib have no rights, a decision the Howard Government
has accepted, and publicly acknowledged, without question or quibble.
The only contact between the two men and their families in Australia has
been through the International Red Cross. Our Government has not even
bothered itself to facilitate their mail, let alone press Washington to
ensure legal access for both men. When confronted by Hicks's father on
Adelaide talkback radio six months ago, John Howard said lamely: "Our view
is that it is not unreasonable, in the circumstances, that [David Hicks]
stay where he is. I'm not going to make any statement about his legal
position. He has not, in our view, been taken by the Americans unlawfully.
Whether or not, in those circumstances, we have an obligation above every
other consideration to bring him to Australia is arguable."
In the year since Hicks's "capture", officials of the Australian
Police and the departments of Foreign Affairs and the Attorney-General have
been questioned at Senate estimates hearings on four separate occasions.
Each time officials have duckshoved, evaded direct answers and repeated,
almost by rote, that the two men remain "subject of ongoing investigations".
For what? Nobody will say. Howard's Justice Minister, Chris Ellison, told
the Senate two weeks ago: "The Government's view, expressed on several
occasions, is this is a matter for the Americans."
What he meant was we don't want to know. Australia has washed its hands
Hicks and Habib, thank you. Bugger off, all do-gooders.
It was against this background my friend sent his letter to Bob McMullan.
"Dear Bob," he wrote, "I'm concerned about denial of due process for the
two Australians held in Cuba. I do not know whether they were part of bin
Laden's inner circle or just two dickheads who, for their own misguided
reasons, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suspect the latter,
but that is not the point.
"The point is they are locked up in legal limbo. The Americans have
ample time to question them. If they have committed a crime they should be
charged in an appropriate jurisdiction and given access to legal advice.
That is the right of every Australian citizen, at home or abroad, and the
obligation of the Australian Government to provide.
"While Howard continues to grovel to Bush, I do not expect our present
Government will do anything. But I do expect the ALP to take up their
cause. Bob, what has the ALP done in this matter, and what actions have you
personally taken to see these two Australians receive justice?"
Swieringa is still waiting, 11 weeks later, for a reply.
On January 15, Labor's Daryl Melham wrote a lofty comment piece about Hicks
and Habib in The Australian headed, "Principle left to rot in a foreign
cell". Swieringa wrote to congratulate him "on your timely article" and
added: "I hope you and your parliamentary colleagues pursue this matter in
the coming sittings. Please see attached letter to my local member, Bob
McMullan, on December 11. Sadly, he has not responded. I hope his silence
is not indicative of your party's position."
Presumably it is. That was six weeks ago and Melham has not replied either.
Principle is not the only thing that's been left to rot in a foreign cell.
And not only in a foreign cell.