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What they do is not honourable

Freelance journo, novelist, reviewer and on the ground reporter for Webdiary Chris Saliba was in the audience at the Civil Rights Defence public meeting held in Melbourne last week with speakers Mamdouh Habib, Terry Hicks and Brian Walters. (See Brian Walters' Webdiary piece on the anti-terrorism laws: The real threat to the life of the nation ) This is Chris' report.

Chris' last piece for Webdiary, Why do suicide bombers want to kill us?. His The thought crimes of Jennifer Zeng was translated into Chinese on websites here, here and here. Chris blog is here.


But people have a right to demonstrate and I strongly support that right and I respect that right but they have to understand the consequences of what they do…
John Howard, 20 February 2003

A group called Civil Rights Defence organised a public meeting at RMIT in Melbourne last Friday, 25th November. Their group started as the Justice for Jack campaign, a defence of Australian man Jack Thomas who has been accused of terrorism and imprisoned without charge. The meeting was chaired by City of Yarra councillor Steve Jolly, with speakers Brian Walters, the president of Liberty Victoria, Terry Hicks, father of David Hicks, and Mamdouh Habib, former inmate of Guantanamo Bay.

After seeing all the television coverage and sound bites, I wanted to see for myself what Terry Hicks and Mamdouh Habib were like live, without media editing.

The Kaleide RMIT Union Theatre looked pretty full, with many making do by sitting on the floor. Fussing with my pen and paper on a seat by the aisle, my nostrils suddenly received a shock of stale cigarette odour. I looked to my left and there passed Terry Hicks, finding his way to the stage. He was well turned out in slacks and tie. Then I noticed a woman wearing the hijab in the front row. It was Mamdouh Habib's wife, Maha. A few minutes later Mamdouh himself walked up onto the stage.

He was in much better health than when we first saw him arrive back in Australia, looking pale and gaunt. His colour had returned and he'd put on weight. He gave Brian Walters from Liberty Victoria a warm handshake, gently rubbing his upper arm with his spare hand. The two men appeared to be good friends.

Steve Jolly, the City of Yarra Councillor, warmed up the crowd by getting us all to stand up and, in unison, announce our names and urge dissatisfaction on the Commonwealth. Having performed this act of mock civil disobedience, a kind of dissident's group hug, we all relaxed back into our chairs.

Brian Walters was the first to speak. He gave us an idea of just how repressive Guantanamo Bay is. When David Hicks's lawyer had tried to pass on a copy of Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a story about a black man wrongly accused of murder, it was knocked back. It seems that prize winning American literature is now considered a potential threat. Even Stalin didn't ban Tolstoy's War and Peace.

We all knew that ASIO agents must be amongst us. Mamdouh Habib has his every move shadowed by the agency. Indeed, he later said that ASIO had turned his house into "a public toilet." With this fact in mind, Brian Walters sent out a hearty cheerio to all in the audience who were ASIO agents. Barely had our merriment subsided when the Liberty Victoria President thundered, "What you do is not honorable!" and furthermore, he maintained their actions "demean us all".

Having publicly denounced ASIO, Brian Walters then demanded that the Australian Federal Police investigate Mamdouh Habib's claims that he was tortured in Egypt. It's a good point. Mr Habib has committed no crime. None. He's free to walk the streets. A very terrible crime may have been committed against him.

Sure, there will be people who have no sympathy for either Hicks or Habib. Many may find their political outlook on the nose. In the 2004 documentary The President Versus David Hicks, Terry Hicks read out one of his son's letters, in which he writes that his training in Pakistan and Afghanistan is designed to ensure, 'the Western-Jewish domination is finished, so we live under Muslim law again'. Nor is Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, whom Mamdouh Habib is known to admire, my idea of fun. Give me parliamentary democracy and a capitalist economy any day.

The question is, do we consider this a crime worthy of draconian incarceration, no access to the courts and even, if their allegations are true, torture?

When Terry Hicks walked to the lectern he got a standing ovation. First off he said he was "not here for the accolades", but only to "help David". Furthermore, he described his actions as those of a father. Any parent, he said, would understand his predicament. Anyone who has watched the recent Four Corners special on David Hicks will know of his allegations of torture. Terry Hicks went through them again. He was subjected to hours of beating; he was injected with drugs, so heavily that he didn't know what he was saying; he was raped by American soldiers.

Terry said he had lost all faith in the Australian Government doing anything to help his son. "The Australian government doesn't care", he said. Whenever he petitions the government to do something, they try to console him by saying that the Americans are looking after him well.

As for Alexander Downer, he calls him a liar. When the Minister for Foreign Affairs claimed that Terry Hicks had never tried to contact him, Terry counters that this is false. He was repeatedly trying to contact Alexander Downer, to no avail.

Having lost faith in the Australian Government ever bothering to lift a finger, Terry Hicks is now putting his faith in trying to raise community awareness of the plight of his son. Hopefully, by mobilising public opinion, Terry believes this might put some pressure on the government. He urged 'people like us' to write letters. "The government hates paperwork," he told us. "If you don't get a response from them, just keep writing until you do."

What you see on television of Terry Hicks is not enough. In many ways, he's a remarkable man. To be thrust into this extraordinary situation, he's had to do a lot of quick learning. International political intrigue is obviously not his metier, yet how he throws out details from the latest UN report! His witty musings on what Tony Blair might have to do if David manages to obtain British citizenship showed that, despite all, he hadn't lost his sense of humour. He spoke of Donald Rumsfeld's public utterances like a patient man indulging a wayward family member given to compulsive lying. After hearing him speak, you couldn't help but admire his simple, dogged determination.

Lastly was Mamdouh Habib. He began by thanking God for bringing him home. "I've never been a terrorist," he stated. "I don't even know what terrorism is." He was taken hostage "for information I never knew about".

After his experiences, close to four years a prisoner of the US, he warned that "no one's safe". Any innocent bystander could be caught up and find their life turned upside down. The American Military he referred to as a "bunch of criminals". As he piled up the many injustices he'd suffered his voice boomed with indignation.

"Right up to the highest levels they say they love September 11," Mr Habib stated, perhaps the most shocking revelation of the whole evening. He was here referring to all the military personnel he had come into contact with. "Americans love September 11 because it gives them power," he maintained.

Habib is currently pursuing a legal action against the government, and as a part of this he'd made a short film of his experiences. We were given a viewing of this ghoulish autobiography. Due to its possible legal uses, it was requested that all cameras be turned off during the screening.

The Habib home movie didn't exactly exhibit the highest of production values. Obviously the family hasn't got two cents to rub together. It looked like they'd borrowed a video camera and filmed the entire movie in their family home. It wasn't so much edited as the record button stopped and started. Mamdouh's son played Mamdouh, while Mamdouh himself played torturer and jailer. You've all seen the Abu Ghraib photos, so I don't need to describe the reconstructed scenes in this home horror movie. Rudimentary though it was, the film gave us a good idea of what Mamdouh had been through, right down to how prisoners were treated when going to the toilet. A voice over described on screen events.

Due to time constraints, questions were limited. It was quite obvious that, given the chance, everyone would have stayed on for hours to continue the discussion. This was not possible, and so our three speakers gave brief wrap-ups.

What I recalled most clearly were the straightforward words of Mamdouh Habib and Terry Hicks.  Mamdouh Habib urged, "I ask everyone to stand up for their rights." Whilst Terry Hicks called for the maintenance of free speech. "We have the right to talk, regardless," he said.

Despite the hardships and adversity, despite what seems like an impossible situation, both men seemed pretty resilient. They have no intention of being cowed or defeated by ASIO, negative media coverage, utter disinterest by the Australian government, or US political and military power. Rather, they've resigned themselves for the long haul ahead.

It seems pretty much a fait accompli that the new terror laws will be passed. Unlike the IR Bills, the terror laws have some 75 percent of public support. The broad sweep on the new laws, as described by Brian Walters, scared and depressed me. How to get public opinion on side?

Looking back fifty-four years in Australian history, Dr H V Evatt, deputy leader of the Labor Party, managed to shift public opinion from a 73% approval rating of Menzies' intent to ban the Communist Party, to win a referendum against changing the constitution. Due to Evatt's efforts, Menzies didn't have a hope in hell of banning the Communist Party (the ban had previously been knocked down by the High Court). Are there any libertarian warriors out there in the Labor Party today I wonder, willing to go to similar lengths?

George Orwell's glum realism came to mind:

This business of making people conscious of what is happening outside their own small circle is one of the major problems of our time, and a new literary technique will have to be evolved to meet it. Considering that the people of this country are not having a very comfortable time, you can't, perhaps, blame them for being somewhat callous about suffering elsewhere, but the remarkable thing is the extent to which they manage to remain unaware of it. Tales of starvation, ruined cities, concentration camps, mass deportations, homeless refugees, persecuted Jews - all this is received with a sort of incurious surprise, as though such things had never been heard of before but at the same time were not particularly interesting. The now-familiar photographs of skeleton-like children make very little impression. As time goes on and the horrors pile up, the mind seems to secrete a sort of self-protecting ignorance which needs a harder and harder shock to pierce it, just as the body will become immunised to a drug and require bigger and bigger doses.

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They know not what they do

In an effort to appease the Muslims in both countries, and premised on the fact that the Dwarf doesn't think most Australians think or recognise his national apostacy (much as was done by that newspaper person that moved to New York for the stock eExchange benefit inherent in the move), Hicks stays in Guantanamo for no other reason than to prevent the US from being charged for their racism, over having only Muslims locked up without judicial oversight.

Being an Australian has two advantages; locking up a white American in this way would cause a riot among the few Americans who vote, and locking up an Australian is not a problem because as The Dwarf is well aware, Australians are generally too stupid to react against such an abuse of process, whether here at home or elsewhere in the world.

As I have said before, it would never happen to a white Australian businessman or professional, however young people with drugs and supposed terrorists and perhaps Indian Doctors are all fair game.

What most people forget is that Hicks is the mere tip of an iceberg, the bulk of which is in Asia.

Why can't David Hicks come home?

Can someone please explain to me the case for keeping David in Guantanomo Bay?

Thank you.

re: What they do is not honourable

However repugnant and reactionary someone's individual views are, he or she has the right to express those views in a democracy. That is, they did until Howard's anti-dissident laws went through.

C Parsons, along with the repulsive views of Pauline Hanson, those of the cavalcade of closet misogynists like Tony Abbott, the brain-dead meat-heads who demonise both Jews and Muslim women, even your expression of your inexplicable worship of Howard should be protected by law. That is why we have forums like this.

re: What they do is not honourable

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing

Edmund Burke.

re: What they do is not honourable

Chris Saliba: "When Terry Hicks walked to the lectern he got a standing ovation."

Mumdou Habib recently received a similar rapturous welcome at a meeting of "peace activists" on Sydney's North Shore, I hear.

I'm sure Terry only wants what's best for his son. But David is a self acknowledged racist and mercenary.

Moazzam Begg, one of David Hicks fellow inmates at Guantanamo Bay, described David as a "Southern redneck".

"He is not even a practising Muslim, says Moazzam Begg, who occupied a neighbouring cell before his release in January."

Now, if David had been a Jew-baiting redneck working as a mercenary for, say, white South Africans instead of the Taliban, I somehow doubt anyone connected with him would be much getting standing ovations.

Mr Begg however corroborated reports that Hicks had complained of sexual abuse at the hands of his captors.

"Yeah, he told me at the beginning that he was subjected to sexual abuse - that they had violated some of his private parts and offered him prostitutes," he said.

"One of the things (Hicks is) doing in there is learning how to write - I mean, write books - and he's trying to write some sort of novel, an Australian fishing novel, which is completely in tune because that's Hicks; that's right up his alley."

Apparently David is quite an eloquent writer.

In his letters to his family, David tells them his training in Pakistan and Afghanistan is designed to ensure "the Western-Jewish domination is finished, so we live under Muslim law again". He denounces the plots of the Jews to divide Muslims and make them think poorly of Osama bin Laden.

I don't know if I'd be giving him a standing ovation though.

I'd certainly give Mumdou a cheer, however. It's hard to go past a performance like this:

"The Department of Foreign Affairs will investigate claims that former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib saw a Sydney man, who disappeared more than six years ago, in an Egyptian jail.
"Mr Habib, who was held in an Egyptian prison from late 2001 until at least February 2002 before being taken to the US military prison for terrorism suspects in Cuba, contacted the Sydney family of Egyptian-born Australian citizen Mohamed Abbass after returning home early this year.

"A departmental official yesterday denied Mr Abbass was in Egypt and said the efforts of Foreign Affairs, the Australian Federal Police, consular officials and Interpol National Central Bureaus had failed to locate him."
"Egyptian authorities deny the man is in Egypt," the spokeswoman said. Records indicated he entered Turkey from Egypt in 1999, but did not show he returned to Egypt or left Turkey.

The official view of Mr Abbass's disappearance, which was the subject of an SBS Dateline program last night, has been contradicted by Mr Habib, and by Seham Abbass, who claims to have visited her husband in a jail near Cairo 18 months after he went missing.

"Mrs Abbass said she was taken blindfolded to a prison near Cairo after paying a $2000 bribe. She said her husband begged for help, telling her he did not know why he was being held.

"After the meeting, she was told to pay $200,000 to secure his release. Frightened, she returned to Australia and reported the events to Foreign Affairs.

"The spokeswoman said she had no knowledge of the wife's visit, but the department would follow up advice from lawyer Stephen Kenny that Mr Habib had seen Mr Abbass detained in Egypt."

re: What they do is not honourable

C Parsons, I can’t speak for the people at the public meeting (and I wasn’t there), but it is possible to be appalled at the way Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks have been treated without also being a cheerleader for the Taliban. America’s treatment of them is more reminiscent of your bete noire, Stalin’s Soviet Union, than a liberal democracy.

And on performances, my favourite is Mr Ruddock’s principled explanation of why the Australian Government hasn’t followed up allegations that Habib was secreted to Egypt for torture (‘extroardinary rendition’):

REPORTER: Given what is known now about the practice of extraordinary rendition, do you think it is time now to ask the United States about Mamdouh Habib and if indeed that was what happened to him?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I mean, what would be the value of it? To make it public? I don't think anyone is going to answer any questions that we might put that is going to deal with those issues in a more transparent way.

REPORTER: But you've said as the Attorney-General that you are opposed to the process of extraordinary rendition. Is that correct

PHILIP RUDDOCK: I've made it clear I don't believe people should be tortured.

REPORTER: So why not ask the United States if this happened to an Australian citizen?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I ask questions to which I realistically expect to get an answer and I don't think I'd get an answer.

re: What they do is not honourable

David Curry: "I can’t speak for the people at the public meeting (and I wasn’t there), but it is possible to be appalled at the way Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks have been treated without also being a cheerleader for the Taliban."

Yeah, sure. Couple of things.

Moazzam Begg, David's cell mate, gives a somewhat different account of David's time in detention. And he was there.

Mamdouh Habib's differing accounts of how he was treated are pretty elastic, too, by the way.

Don't get me wrong. I don't disbelieve Mamdouh's differing versions of what happened to him in captivity, and you have to admire any person who overcomes a crippling disability, plus the trauma of torture in Camp X Ray, to still be able to compete in the Sydney City to Surf Marathon.

That's some guy.

And, sure, his account of running into Mohamed Abbass was a rather bizarre bolt from the blue. But that doesn't mean all this is untrue, either.

I don't even dispute that "it is possible to be appalled at the way Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks have been treated without also being a cheerleader for the Taliban."

My point is this - and I was quite clear about it - if David Hicks had been an avowed racist mercenary for White South Africans instead of the Taliban, nobody would be giving anyone associated with him a standing ovation.

Would they? And I doubt they'd be too worried if White South African anti-Semitic mercenaries were locked away in Guantanamo Bay.

So, what is it about his time with the Taliban that is such a mitigating virtue in these people's eyes, I wonder?

Dee Bayliss: "...your expression of your inexplicable worship of Howard should be protected by law. That is why we have forums like this."

Hello, Dee.

Could you please refer me to any instance where I have expressed even mild admiration for John Howard, let alone diplayed anything remotely approximating worship?

Take your time.

That is why we have forums like this.

re: What they do is not honourable

C Parsons - "If David Hicks had been an avowed racist mercenary for white South Africa" - and if he had then been imprisoned for years without trial, without charges, silenced, possibly the victim of torture,...yes, I believe that we would have applauded anyone defending him.

The person, his ideology and causes, are unimportant. The process matters.

It's our processes that support, defend and protect us., or, when it has come to a legitimate trial, convict us.

re: What they do is not honourable

Dee Bayliss doesn't seem to understand that even in a democracy you cannot express some views. This is why we already have laws about inciting violence, defamation and libel, sexual harassment etc etc etc. It is a fact that the expression of some views has a direct relationship to the killing of innocent people.

It cannot be ignored that some positions go against the integrity of a free society. The only threat to the real freedom of speech that we enjoy is from the political correctness police who will not let people call a spade a spade. The tolerance, however for Jew haters and baiters is disproportionately enormous.

Sedition is a real crime and I fully endorse the government's attempts at bolstering the provisions. Dee will still be able to whinge ad nauseum without a knock on the door, so I really wouldn't worry too much. Given her expertise on every imaginable subject, one could hardly imagine the police locking up a veritable national treasure.

re: What they do is not honourable

John Smith does not seem to realise that in principle someone is supposedly able to express views in a democracy founded on common law on anything they wish, subject of course to the laws of defamation, and that speech which in effect constitutes such offences as sexual harrassment, among other things, is actionable.

So tell me what legitimate dissenting views publicly expressed have led to the death of any innocent people in this country?

Your trust in your Prime Minister would be touching if it was not simultaneously so puerile and founded on such very shaky foundations.

And how is the quaint and ancient offence of sedition a "real crime", given that its origins lie in times when the monarchy was an autocracy and given that potentially, according to the Howard-Ruddock definition of "sedition", it is likely that anyone here who posts views contrary to uncritically cringing servile adoration of those two extremely unattractive individuals can potentially expect a visit from Keelty's Robocops.

C Parsons, you support the war in Iraq. You as a private citizen do not have to do so. Your support for Bush's war has always puzzled me given your sensible views on other topics like religion. Your comments on Mamdouh Habib are in a like vein.

Do not expect that people whose views and lifestyle differ from yours have to necessarily be your best buddies before you dispassionately accord them the right to the same freedoms you yourself enjoy.

F Kendall, you are totally correct.

re: What they do is not honourable

C Parsons: “What is it about his time with the Taliban that is such a mitigating virtue in these people's eyes”.

Boy CP, there's a whopper of an assumption in there. Not to mention a serious and unsubstantiated slur on the people who clapped in support of Terry Hicks. You’re saying their sympathy for Terry and David Hicks is due, in part at least, to the fact that David was involved with the Taliban. Sympathy for the devil. Just as, no doubt, my opposition to the invasion of Iraq means I condoned the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein.

Your position seems to be similar to the one adopted by that most reputable and impartial of current affairs shows, 60 Minutes, when they interviewed Mamdouh Habib. That is, either you believe Habib is completely innocent or all charges and a wonderful human being, or a terrorist who deserves whatever happens to him.

There can’t possibly be a third position, can there? I mean, what are the odds that somebody might be concerned about a process that sees a person – any person - held for years without being charged, without access to lawyers or family, outside of the Geneva Convention, probably tortured, and then subject to a kangaroo court where evidence obtained under torture is admissible? Regardless of the guilt or innocence of the people subject to the process. Nobody thinks along those lines, surely?

For the record, I have no idea whether Mambouh Habib and David Hicks are among “the worst of the worst”, or guilty or innocent of any crime related to terrorism. Again, that’s not the point here. (It is interesting, though, that Habib was eventually released and that, despite public statements by the Howard Government alleging links with terrorists, no charges have been laid).

And to address your scenario, I for one would be just as concerned if “white South African anti-Semitic mercenaries” were treated the same way. I may not like them, I may even despise them, but see, that’s how principles work.

And I’m interested, CP, what do you think happened to Mambouh Habib in Egypt during the six months he was there, given that country's reputation for torture and what we now know about extraordinary rendition?

Perhaps his hosts had a nice daily chat with him over tea and scones, with pleasant music playing in the background?

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