Saturday, 30 June 2012


William Hienemann, 2010, 456 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

"I was an Australian, the laws protecting prisoners would apply to me, so I would be all right.  My government would make sure of that".  So thought David Hicks when imprisoned by the US military in Guantanamo Bay in 2001 during the 'War on Terror'.  He couldn't have been more wrong, as he records in his book of his six years' imprisonment without trial, his "six years of hell".

A "troubled teen" from the Adelaide suburb of Salisbury, the travel bug got Hicks at the same time as he was fired into indignation by the ethnic cleansing by the Serbian military in Kosovo and by Indian army atrocities in Kashmir.  "Seeing fellow human beings suffer" in Kosovo and Kashmir "infuriated me and was the motivating factor to bear arms and risk my life to help them", writes Hicks, adding, however, that because he was politically untutored, "the way in which I chose to help others may not have been the wisest ... but my motivations were of a good nature". 

He supported the NATO-approved Kosovo Liberation Army (where, in a training camp, he posed for a lads' trophy photograph with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a photo which was later misused by the press to smear Hicks as a terrorist).  He also joined Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Pakistan which was defending Kashmiri civilians, and which was, at the time, not a listed terrorist organisation.

Hicks was sent by LeT for training in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2001, although the allegiance of both LeT and Hicks was not to the Taliban but to another threatened Muslim people.  Hicks was trapped in Afghanistan when the US-led invasion began and he was captured by the Western-supported Northern Alliance of warlords and sold for $5,000 to the US military.

Through all this, Hicks never fired a shot at anyone and all his training, as later verified by Government-commissioned experts from the Australian armed forces, was standard military training with no element of terrorist strategies.  Hicks can best be described as a military-minded adventure tourist with a social conscience, naive in some respects but no terrorist.  Neither did Hicks break any Australian, US or international laws, which is why he was never to be given a fair trial where his innocence would have been easily proven.

None of Hicks' actions warranted the subsequent abuses he was to be subjected to.  Directly experienced or witnessed by himself, Hicks fell into a brutal world of vicious beatings and kickings, hooding and shackling, threats and intimidation, sensory deprivation and forced medical experimentation, dog attacks and electrocution, stress positions and temperature extremes, mock executions and actual murder. His life became one of unrelenting fear, pain and hopelessness.

Hicks notes that the physical and psychological torture was not simply the result of low-ranking, sadistic soldiers getting their kicks but was systematic and ordered from above.  The strategy was to 'soften up' the detainees for interrogation to extract forced confessions - "There is nothing against you ... [but] you will not leave this place innocent", was how one US interrogator cynically explained it to one detainee. Australian Prime Minister Howard delivered the same message to Hicks' lawyer that 'under no circumstances would [Howard] let me return to Australia without my entering a guilty plea'.  Hicks' 'guilt' was concocted from false testimony extracted under torture from, and provided in exchange for privileges to, another detainee.

Legal rights were also denied Hicks and the other detainees.  The Bush administration proposed trial by legally-flawed Military Commissions from which even some prosecutors quit, saying the system was rigged to secure convictions.  The craven support of the Howard government for the Military Commissions, and Howard's obstinate indifference to Hicks' complaints of mistreatment, finally convinced Hicks that "my government did know what was really going on; they just went along with Bush's policies" for political reasons, leaving Hicks to rot in cruel and inhumane conditions.

Abandoned by the Australian Government, "the thought of remaining in the military's hands for years to come, in this place, scared the hell out of me", writes Hicks, who duly made the requisite false confession to 'material support for terrorism' which al last got him out of Guantanamo to serve out a prison term in Adelaide's Yatala jail.

His persecutors had not quite finished with Hicks, however, with outrageous conditions in his plea bargain including a one-year gag order to keep Hicks silent before the 2007 federal election, whilst any proceeds related to his story were to be assigned to the Australian Government even if Hicks were to receive compensation for torture, mistreatment and illegal imprisonment.

All but the torturer, the gaoler, the lazy journalist and the war-whooping politician will be made angry at the physical and human rights abuses documented by Hicks in his compelling book.  Hicks' prison-memoir, a harrowing record of one unlucky man's callous sacrifice to 'anti-terrorist' war hysteria, is a gritty and stark challenge to the whole, sordid 'War on Terror' which destroys human rights even as it claims to defend them.

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