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The politics of Hicks
Herald and Weekly Times (AU)
John Ferguson
April 03, 2007

DAVID Hicks will return to Australia under circumstances best described as unsettling and surprising.

The short sentence and the undemocratic gag order have added further layers of contradiction to a story that is as weird as it is unpredictable.

There are many straightforward questions that need to be answered, starting with who ordered the political fix, why such a short sentence, and why stop a guilty man telling a story of his own wrongdoing?

It has been widely observed that Hicks' incarceration has been neutered as a mainstream political issue in this year's federal election.

But the deeper issue just might be whether a political fix was orchestrated by the Howard Government.

The Government has denied speaking to the Bush Administration about the sentence or the gag, but openly admits it pressured Washington to charge and prosecute Hicks.

The Hicks deal was arrogant in its execution. The best guess, based on the available evidence, is that the core political culprit for the nuts and bolts of the brief sentence and the clumsy gag lies much closer to Washington than to Canberra.

It has been widely reported in the US that the military commission's most senior official was well known to Vice-President Dick Cheney, having worked for Cheney when he was defence secretary.

Cheney was in Australia in February and the official, Susan J. Crawford, is a well-known Republican who also happens to the be the convening authority for the military commissions.

It's important not to make accusations without the evidence. But let's ask some more questions.

Did Cheney, or somebody under his instructions, speak to Crawford? And if so, what was said to her, given that Hicks' counsel went straight to Crawford to cut a deal?

Crawford, according to reports, has the authority to cut deals outside the commission. So, what was articulated to Cheney or the US by the Howard Government in February?

The Prime Minister's office says the Government did not speak to the US about the sentence.

But what was said when Cheney was in Australia, and what diplomatic message was sent to the Bush Administration?

Under the terms of the Hicks deal, Hicks faces a year-long gag whereby he is not allowed to speak to the media. His family has also reportedly been silenced.

These provisions are an outrage, possibly illegal in Australia, and expire just long enough after the federal election not to cause the Government any embarrassment.

That is, if you take the view that Hicks has information that will be bad for Howard. But it may be that Hicks had the potential to be the best weapon Howard ever had, that when exposed to serious questioning, he would be seen for what he was.

The use of the gag was such a blunt instrument it seems hard to imagine that Howard, or anyone around him, would sanction it.

HOWEVER, it is possible the Bush Administration got the message from the Howard Government that the Hicks problem had to be fixed.

And that Bush, or Cheney, or whoever was given the job of doing it, overstepped the mark. The sentence has turned out to be more like one for culpable driving than for aiding al-Qaida.

As to the gag, it might be the US Administration that overstepped the mark.

Hicks is likely to spend his nine months in Adelaide's Yatala prison, in maximum security.

Hicks, we were told, was the worst of the worst, and some of Australia's worst of the worst are at Yatala.

There is the notorious head of the boy-killing gang known as The Family, and the Snowtown killers.

These prisoners and others get few privileges and little access to the outside world.

A spokesman for the SA prison system made it clear yesterday that there was effectively a media blackout for inmates in that division, partly, he said, to keep them "out of the limelight".

Letters are vetted, phone calls recorded, and visits strictly controlled.

There is already a gag without having a gag in what will be Hicks' new world. It seems this piece of information was not passed on to Cheney or whoever decided a Hicks gag was necessary.

The deal might have provided a short-term fix, but it must puzzle those who believed the Government's rhetoric on a man labelled a dangerous terrorist.

Neither those who believe Hicks was railroaded by an unjust military commission or those who believed the Government are satisfied with the process.

After a protracted debate about right and wrong, and much more to come, we may never know the full story.

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