Saturday, March 31, 2007

Human Rights in Australia: justice, US military style - and the winner is....?

This editorial piece in The Age sums it up:

"Supporters of the United States' incarceration of alleged terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay and the judicial process the US established there will see Hicks' guilty plea as evidence of culpability. On the surface it is. If someone pleads guilty, they therefore did it. That conclusion may be sustainable in a recognised court of law in the US, Australia or Britain. But the military commission procedures at Guantanamo Bay have been anything but ordinary. Indeed, the legal foundations on which they were built have been condemned worldwide — although not by the Australian Government — and have been challenged successfully through the court system. The new US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, told US President George Bush recently that the trials that arose from Guantanamo Bay were viewed with great suspicion globally and that the camp itself should be shut down. America's credibility as a defender of justice was being tarnished. Justice was not being seen to be done, or in fact being done.

David Hicks has been at Guantanamo Bay for five years; a substantial amount of that time has been in solitary confinement. This week's appearance was the third time he had faced proceedings, beginning in 2004 when he pleaded not guilty. Legal challenges, including going to the Supreme Court, have delayed procedures. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled against the commissions. The US Government then drafted new laws to circumvent the court's ruling.

Hicks was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001. The US says Hicks attended al-Qaeda training camps and was in Afghanistan to fight coalition forces. Hicks was moved to Cuba in 2002. The then secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, described those picked up in the US sweeps of Afghanistan as the "worst of the worst" terrorists.

The suspension of basic legal rights to the detainees, which was one of the reasons the US categorised them as enemy combatants and packed them away on non-US soil out of reach of the legal system, has been loudly and widely damned from the United Nations, the European Union, human rights groups, politicians of conservative and liberal persuasion, legal organisations and the man and woman in the street. The abuse, not only of the detainees' legal rights but to their physical and mental health, serves neither the interests of justice nor the reputation of the countries that have acquiesced to the quasi-judicial process."

On ABC radio this morning we had Downer doing his usual spin - 'we are strong on terrorism' - thing. The Australian Government will ensure Hicks serves out his sentence in Australia come what may, according to Downer. Alex thinks its all over bar the shouting.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. As George Williams says, "Hicks' detention raises fundamental questions of law and justice. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the silences in our own legal system about human rights have had a major impact. This has been felt not only in the approach of the Australian Government, but also in the years that it took for the case to become a mainstream political issue. Australia does not have a national charter or bill of rights that sets out and protects the freedoms of its citizens. Respect for rights such as that to a fair trial and to freedom of speech may be assumed in the community, but they are frequently not protected by the law. The result can be seen in many areas, such as in the breadth of our anti-terror laws, the detention of children seeking asylum and in the overuse of censorship powers."

What is at stake here are fundamental principles concerning the rule of law and the rights of citizens. Howard & Downer might think that these are minor matters to be dismissed perfunctorily by a hubris soaked government, but many Australians want answers as to how such matters as the 'presumption of innocence' and other basic rights were devalued by our elected representatives.

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