Wednesday, September 21, 2005

David Hicks - Defending the Indefensible

Poor Philip Ruddock has an unenviable job. This small “l” liberal lawyer is being forced to defend what has to be one of the most outrageous show-trials in modern legal history. And what makes things worse is that the accused is an Australian citizen.

The Howard Government cannot claim the most spotless record when it comes to protecting the interests of Australian citizens caught in a spot of legal bother overseas. There are numerous scandals involving Australians wrongfully detained and/or deported.

But the Hicks trial is particularly significant for a number of reasons. We have some details of the conditions at the Guantanamo Bay facility from former detainee Mamdouh Habib. Through his then lawyer, Stephen Hopper, Mr Habib was able to paint a coherent picture of conditions at the facility.

Those conditions included the regular and systematic use of torture, beatings other forms of physical and mental deprivation. The United States Military denies the allegations, as does the Australian government.

Yet both countries implicitly admit the charges by strenuously insisting that the Geneva Conventions against the torture of prisoners of war do not apply to Guantanamo detainees. Such insistence should be unnecessary if in fact no torture or mistreatment was taking place.

And it seems that a US military officer appointed to represent David Hicks is more concerned about the welfare of this Australian citizen than our Attorney General.

Major Michael Mori believes that the Hicks trial should be adjourned to allow the defence more time to prepare. Further, the entire process of military commissions is again the subject of appeal in the US Supreme Court.

But Mr Ruddock is insisting that the trial proceed and supports the lifting of the stay. Despite his legal background and training, Mr Ruddock sees no injustice in the process continuing.

Mr Ruddock is a former President of the NSW Young Liberal Movement, an organisation which until recently known for its small “l” liberal credentials. He also proudly wears an Amnesty International badge on his lapel when appearing in public functions.

How a lawyer and member of a respectable mainstream human rights organisation could support such show trials being used to try (and most likely convict) an Australian citizen is certainly beyond my understanding.

But Mr Ruddock is not the only Member of the Commonwealth Parliament to support the trials. Former lawyers John Howard and Peter Costello are also known to support the position of the United States Government.

The Federal Opposition has also been somewhat reluctant to be seen to be too supportive of the Hicks family. It seems that, at least in Labor and Liberal circles, Mr Hicks has already been pronounced guilty.

How a Parliament full of lawyers and law graduates cannot come together to defend an Australian citizen against being tried in such circumstances says a lot for the quality of lawyers that sit in our Parliaments. Perhaps there is some truth to the common joke amongst practitioners that all the failed lawyers seem to end up either in gaol or in Parliament.

Australian citizens and their families deserve better than to be treated like political guinea pigs. But in the current environment of near-hysteria, it seems all you have to do to deprive someone of rights is to label them a terror suspect.

The author is a Sydney lawyer who is completing his Masters in International Law at the Australian National University. iyusuf@sydneylawyers.com.au

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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