The US-run concentration camp at Guantánamo Bay turned 13 on 11 January 2015. 127 prisoners remain at the facility, almost all held without charge or trial. Guantánamo is perhaps the most potent symbol of injustice this century. Its continued existence, wherein a hunger strike and the daily abuse of prisoners go on, could not have been possible without the close collusion of the US’s allies, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, also responsible for their role in crimes against humanity and their own citizens.
To mark this sombre anniversary, I put some questions to Dr Aloysia Brooks from the Justice Campaign in Sydney, Australia, about Australia’s ongoing complicity with the US in its torture of Australian citizens at Guantánamo Bay and the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme and how this currently reflects in Australia’s policy on refugees and counter-terrorism. Dr Aloysia Brooks has worked as a human rights and social justice advocate for over 10 years.
1 – Two Australian nationals – David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib – were held in Guantánamo Bay. They’ve both made claims that Australian intelligence officers were present when they were tortured. In Habib’s case, the claim was settled through an out-of-court settlement with the Australian government. Can you outline some of the claims?
It is clear from documents released under Freedom of Information legislation that Australian officials were aware that Australian citizens and others held in US custody were being subjected to conditions and treatment that contravenes the Convention against Torture – a Convention that Australia is a party to. Three Australian citizens were subjected to torture as part of the CIA torture program, and at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. The Australian government has failed to hold an independent and open investigation into its involvement in the US torture program. In Mamdouh Habib’s case, the public was prevented from seeing the full report by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. There has never been a judicially compellable investigation into the Australian government’s complicity in the US torture program, nor the torture of David Hicks. Not one politician has been put on a stand to answer questions about their knowledge of what was happening to Australian citizens, and other involvement in the US torture program. It is time that they adhered to their obligations under international law and held those involved to account as outlined in the Convention against Torture.
2 – David Hicks was the first person to be convicted by a Guantánamo Bay military commission. His return to Australia was largely secured through a plea bargain in which he entered an Alford Plea, whereby he pleaded guilty but did not admit to the act and maintains his innocence. Following recent successful appeals against convictions through the discredited commissions, Hicks is currently appealing his own conviction. Why did he agree to the plea bargain in the first place and how is his appeal faring?
David Hicks didn’t have any choice but to enter a plea deal, and it was orchestrated by politicians – it had nothing to do with the law. After five and a half years at Guantánamo Bay, David was suicidal and was told by his legal team that there was no way he would come back to Australia without pleading guilty to ‘something’ because of former Prime Minister John Howard’s public stance. This was recently confirmed by some US State Department documents that were released to me under Freedom of Information laws, where it was clear in the cables that Dick Cheney did a political favour for Howard to charge David in the internationally discredited military commissions process. All David and his legal team ever asked for, was to have his day in a regularly constituted court in order to defend himself against accusations made against him. Instead it became trial by politicians and media. David’s appeal is currently before the military commission. David’s legal team is confident that justice will finally be served – even though it has been a long seven years after David’s release. When politics gets in the way of long held principles of due-process and justice, it places all of us at risk. It is time this was remedied.
3 – Hicks returned to Australia in 2007 where he had to serve the remainder of his sentence, 9 months, and then was placed under a control order until the end of 2008. The Justice Campaign works closely with him. How has his readjustment to normal life been after five years at Guantánamo? Has he faced further harassment from the authorities since then?
David suffers with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to his ordeal. He also has some significant physical injuries that he sustained due to beatings and other treatment at Guantánamo – such as his back injury from being chained to the floor for prolonged periods of time in stress positions. Guantánamo haunts David every day, whether that be in a physical or psychological way. It is appalling that the Australian government left him there when they knew about the treatment he was enduring. David will never lead a normal life, although that is something that he wants desperately. He has been used as a political football by the Australian government in order for them to score political points.
4 – The Australian government has restricted your own efforts to access documents related to its actions over Guantánamo Bay. How deep does the cover up go?
This endeavour has been a big eye-opener for me. I have been in the process of seeking files relating to the Australian government’s knowledge and involvement in detentions at Guantánamo, the CIA rendition program and other US torture programs for years now. I have been blocked by the Australian government (particularly the Prime Minister’s office) at every turn. So much so, that I had to take legal action for documents in the US. I now have several lawsuits pending against the US government, including the CIA, Department of Defence and Department of Justice. If everything was done above-board as they have publicly claimed, there should be no reason to hide documents from the public.
Serious questions need to be asked about why they have gone to such great lengths to obfuscate the process. There is more info about this on my website https://www.aloysiabrooks.com/foi-lawsuit/
5 – David Hicks holds the record for shortest British citizenship ever of just a few hours in 2007 which he applied for on the basis of his mother’s birthplace being in England. How far would you say the international complicity in human rights violations at Guantánamo Bay goes, and not just in Hicks’ case?
The politics surrounding the cancellation of David’s British citizenship has also recently come to light with the release of State Department documents late last year. They demonstrate that the UK government was seeking information from the Australian government in order to deny his citizenship. The case was again left to politics, and the result was the protection of those involved in torture, and Guantánamo prisoners (in this case David), were made into political scapegoats so the respective governments could save face. A recent report named 154 countries as being involved in the CIA Extraordinary Rendition program, and this is just the tip of the ice-berg. It is extremely important that there is an international effort to reveal the truth about state complicity in torture to ensure justice for the victims, and to prevent this situation from occurring again. International law mechanisms were created for a reason – not so states can comply only when they feel like it. There must be an international approach, and there must be full and transparent investigations. This includes an investigation into the Australian government.
6 – Australia has recently come under fire for its treatment of asylum seekers, with the UN calling the off-shore detention and processing centre on Manus Island akin to Guantánamo Bay. How has the Australian government and public’s attitude to human rights violations at Guantánamo Bay reflected on the current situation?
This is a really important issue. There is a concerted effort on the part of the Australian government to hide crimes committed by its allies and protect itself from accountability in lieu of its human rights obligations. Whilst states protect each other from scrutiny and accountability, international law will be circumvented for political purposes. This is why holding investigations and accountability is so important. Governments only engage in conduct that they can get away with, and the public have a right to know what is done in their name.
The Australian government has behaved shamefully in relation to its human rights obligations, and its disregard for its obligations under the Convention against Torture has been particularly embarrassing. It is time this was remedied.
7 – Australia has also recently introduced a raft of non-transparent anti-terrorism laws that restrict civil liberties. Is this a continuation of the kind of policy the government adopted on Guantánamo Bay or is this a further hardening of its stance?
The recent laws are just a continuation of the War on Terror policies that commenced under the Bush/Howard administrations. Unfortunately, Australia has lacked independence when it comes to terrorism and foreign policy related issues, and the passing of this legislation in Australia has largely followed in the footsteps of US law. The crackdown on whistle-blowers and the ability for the government to engage in covert activities without accountability is a concerning development in Australia and the US. All who are concerned with human rights, transparency and accountability should be worried about the stance of the Australian government in relation to these issues. Australia has now embarked into dangerous territory. The fact that I had to seek documents from the US in relation to the Australian government’s knowledge and involvement in the US torture program is indicative of the seriousness of the situation and the lengths they have gone to in order to prevent the public from seeing the truth.
8 – A redacted version of the introduction to the US Senate report on CIA torture was recently published. How does that reflect on the Australian government and what impact do you believe that will have in the longer term?
It’s important to remember that the CIA report was only a summary of the full report, and that the Obama administration handed the redaction pen to the CIA so they could censor their own unlawful activities. In all, President Obama’s handling of US torture has been extremely disappointing – there has been no accountability for those who were responsible higher up the chain of command, and the medical personnel involved. This has set a very dangerous precedent. The Australian government also has a great deal to answer for. Three Australians were detained and interrogated by the CIA, Mamdouh Habib, David Hicks and Jack Thomas. Not one step has been taken by the Australian government to investigate the torture of its own citizens, and they effectively allowed it to occur for political purposes. Torture is a crime against humanity – it is non-derogable and unconscionable. The lack of accountability has extremely problematic long-term consequences in relation to global respect for human rights, the effectiveness of international law, and torture prevention strategies. The Australian government’s failure to act on the revelations of the CIA report demonstrates the lengths they go to in order to protect itself and its allies from scrutiny. It is important that the Australian government acknowledge their involvement in torture, and ensure accountability for those involved. We need to join together as a community to prevent this from happening again.