A Common Thread


David Hicks’s recent plea bargain before the US Military Commissions has not resolved the issues of justice surrounding his trial and his treatment during his confinement. Hicks may have pleaded guilty but he didn’t receive a fair trial.

Abundant credible evidence is available on Guantánamo Bay from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, US military investigators, the FBI,  Hicks’s lawyers, and multiple scholarly sources to raise real concerns about Hicks’s treatment there.

The Australian Government has not emerged from this episode with credit. Without the support of family, friends and concerned Australians, it would have abandoned Hicks.

There is a similarity here between the fate of Hicks and that of asylum seekers in Australia. In both cases, there are serious mental health consequences and common links in Australian Government policy.

Detained for over five years (many of them without being charged), Hicks has spent 22 hours per day for many months in solitary confinement. His cell is small and receives no natural light. He has been chained and has had to use the toilet in full view of his guards.

Despite the prospect of repatriation, we cannot assume that Hicks’s mental health problems are over. Indefinite detention and cruel, degrading procedures such as beating, nakedness, prolonged hooding, extremes of noise, temperature, light and constraint, sexual assault, cultural humiliation, sleep deprivation and intimidating images are known to induce mental disorders. Evidence to be used in Hicks’s trial was allegedly obtained using such methods.

In view of such treatment and because Guantánamo Bay doctors and psychologists have dual loyalties allegedly advising on and participating in coercive interrogations Hicks deserves an independent psychiatric review. This has been consistently denied him.

Comprehensive evidence indicates that Australia’s detention and isolation of asylum-seekers, including children, for extended periods particularly in remote settings also induces mental illnesses, high rates of suicidal behaviour and violates our Human Rights treaty commitments. Exposure to ‘security’ measures, violence and suicidal behaviour and the use of solitary confinement for those presenting behavioural challenges in Australian detention centres have been commonplace.

In 2005, community outrage over two Australian citizens being wrongfully detained and deported culminated in the Government changing some of its practices although not the demonstrably harmful policy of indefinite detention itself. The longer detention lasts, the worse the mental state of the detainee. And remember that the only alternative many long-term detainees were offered was being deported to face danger or even death.

The willingness to use asylum seekers for political ends was never more evident than in the unsuccessful attempt by the Howard Government to re-introduce a toughened version of the Pacific Solution when 43 West Papua asylum seekers arrived in Australia in January 2006.

Billions of dollars are reportedly being spent on a planned Guantánamo Bay-style, maximum security prison for 800 inmates on remote Christmas Island complete, in one plan, with an eight-bed nursery for infants, separated from other areas by electric doors, airlocks, cameras and security systems. The detention of children and families is clearly anticipated, contravening Parliament’s 2005 commitment to hold children only as a last resort. Detainee safety and freedom from abuse, access to adequate health treatment, legal support and independent scrutiny are virtually impossible in this remote facility.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

The common thread in all of this is Australian Government policy. As a US ally in the ‘War on Terror,’ our leaders have pursued inhumane policies, and have collaborated in human rights abuses despite evidence of the high human costs.

Philip Ruddock, principal Australian law officer, has stated that he endorses sleep deprivation for coercive interrogation. As Immigration Minister, he previously stated that detainees’ depression was not mental illness and that suicide is a form of manipulation (agreeing with Hicks’s US jailers).

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer reported that Hicks’s mental health was good after interviews with Australian consular officials and Guantánamo Bay psychiatrists, denied Hicks was chained despite Hicks’s lawyers seeing this, and has never bothered to ask which interrogation techniques were used on him.

Prime Minister John Howard, who linked asylum seekers to terrorists, said previously that he could get Hicks home anytime but wouldn’t, and that the US Military Commissions meet Australian law requirements despite US Supreme Court rulings that they were illegal under the US Constitution.  

In the case of Hicks, Australia’s Government has betrayed a citizen’s civil rights, and in the case of asylum-seekers, it has dishonoured its treaty obligations.

But what of the Labor Party?

Kevin Rudd stated that he would support Hicks’s fair trial in a US or Australian civilian court, and that he agrees with closing Guantánamo Bay. While Labor authored Australia’s mandatory detention policy in the 1980s and remains committed to it now, it has specified a limit of 90 days detention.

At the recent ALP National Conference, Shadow Immigration Minister Tony Burke successfully lobbied to abolish ALP support for the oppressive regime of temporary protection visas (TPVs), on the grounds that when people flee persecution and reach Australia their persecution should then end. Burke has also argued that permanency
allows asylum-seeking families to reunite.

However, Labor is also committed to the Coalition’s offshore processing policy and legislation that excised Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) islands and Ashmore Reef from Australia’s migration zone. The offshore policy has had enormous economic and human costs, and continues to be attacked for its contravention of human rights and our treaty obligations.

While Hicks’s homecoming would represent a triumph of democratic will, Rudd as the alternative Prime Minister must address this shameful legacy.

Detention must not be indefinite, legislation and policies that abuse asylum seekers’ human rights and contravene our treaty obligations must be repealed, the needs of tortured, traumatised and mentally ill refugees should be addressed rather than being exacerbated, and deportations to danger with disregard for the consequences must stop.

In short, Rudd as someone who aspires to be Prime Minister of Australia must proclaim a vision and a practical strategy on this issue; that signals that Australia will finally treat asylum-seekers with respect and dignity.

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