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Hicks may have to wait for one more year
By Michael Gawenda Herald Correspondent in Washington

David Hicks is meeting his lawyers at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba this weekend, to continue preparations for his defence.

Hicks has been held at Guantanamo for more than three years and is the last prisoner there from countries that were part of the coalition that fought in the war in Afghanistan. He faces charges of conspiracy to attack civilians, attempted murder of coalition forces and aiding the enemy in Afghanistan.

The last of seven French prisoners were released in March, and five British prisoners left about the same time. All were freed on their return home.

With the outcome of legal challenges to the military commissions set up by the Bush Administration still to be decided, no one knows when Hicks - one of only four prisoners among 520 or so to be charged with specific offences - will get his day in court.

Since he was charged almost a year ago, Hicks has been removed from the general prison, spending most of his time in his cell, allowed an hour's exercise a day.

No doubt David McLeod, his new Australian lawyer, who is meeting Hicks for the first time, and his military-appointed US lawyer, Major Michael Mori, have told Hicks about the growing debate in the US about whether Guantanamo should be closed.

Presumably they have also told him that whatever happens, the Bush Administration is determined to push ahead with the military commissions set up to try "illegal combatants", which they claim Hicks is.

A decision is due at the end of the month on a federal court appeal by the Bush Administration against a ruling that found that the military commissions were unlawful.

If the appeal fails, the Administration has signalled that it will take the case to the Supreme Court, which means Hicks could spend another 12 months waiting for his commission hearing.

"The debate about Guantanamo is interesting and important but I don't think it will mean much for David," said Major Mori before he left for the prison camp.

But the debate about Guantanamo and the war in Iraq is becoming more heated, creating problems for President George Bush. As his poll numbers started to slide after he was re-elected in November there was one issue on which he continued to have the support of a majority of Americans: the "war on terrorism".

While Americans were lukewarm at best about his proposed social security changes, his handling of the economy and even the war in Iraq, most continued to believe that Mr Bush was doing a good job keeping the US safe from terrorist attacks.

But in the past fortnight a number of polls have shown that not only do most Americans now think the Iraq war was a mistake, but that it has made their country less secure. Crucially, only 50 per cent now believe Mr Bush is doing a good job on security.

There is a feeling in Washington that in terms of public opinion the war in Iraq is close to a "tipping point" where the calls for a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces will become increasingly difficult to resist.

For the first time a cross-party group in Congress has called for an "exit strategy", with Republicans like Walter Jones - the man who called for French fries to be renamed "freedom fries" in protest at the French opposition to the war - part of that group.

And the fight against terrorism has also entered a new phase. Many in Congress, including leading Republicans, are no-longer prepared to allow the Administration a free hand to conduct that fight without serious oversight and scrutiny.

This week more than 50 members of the House of Representatives joined Democrats to vote down parts of the Patriot Act that Mr Bush said gave the FBI and other security agencies the powers needed to track down and apprehend terrorists.

In the past week the future of the Guantanamo Bay prison has become a debate about how the fight against terrorism is being conducted and about whether the prison, as a symbol of the war, is damaging US attempts to win over moderate Muslims.

At an extraordinary meeting of the Senate judiciary committee this week the committee chairman, Arlen Specter, said Congress had been derelict in its duty to set the rules by which prisons like Guantanamo should be run.

"What we have there is a crazy quilt system," he said. "It may be that it's too complex for Congress to handle, but at any rate, Congress hasn't acted."

Army officers called to give evidence before the committee dismissed allegations of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo and insisted that prisoners were treated humanely.

They pointed to changes made after the Supreme Court ruled last year that detainees had the right to appeal against their detention in US courts.

Special review tribunals, at which detainees had legal representation, had reviewed the status of 558 detainees, with 520 "properly classified" as enemy combatants.

But Rear Admiral James McGarrah, who monitors detention for the navy, said he could not say how many prisoners were held at Guantanamo nor did he know their country of origin. Michael Wiggins, deputy associate attorney-general, was asked for how long the detainees at Guantanamo, classified as enemy combatants, but not charged with any specific crimes, could be held. "As long as we are at war," Mr Wiggins said.

Had the Justice Department defined 'when there is the end of conflict?'," the Democrat senator Joseph Biden asked.

"No, sir," Mr Wiggins said.

"If there is no definition as to when the conflict ends, that means forever, forever these folks get held at Guantanamo Bay?" Senator Biden asked.

"It's our position that, legally, they can be held in perpetuity," Mr Wiggins replied.

Some Democrats were shocked by this response. But even the most trenchant critics of the way prisoners have been treated accept the Administration's view that the US is at war, which means that if Guantanamo is closed another prison will need to be found to detain "enemy combatants".

The Attorney-General, Alberto Gonzales, summed up the view of most members of Congress when he said that many US allies, especially in Europe, see tackling terrorism as a law enforcement issue while the US sees the fight against terrorism as a war.

"As a result, different rules apply," he said.

Senator Biden has called for an independent inquiry into Guantanamo and other prisons holding "illegal combatants".

With the Administration committed to spending up to $US100 million ($129 million) to build an extension to the Guantanamo prison, despite Mr Bush saying that alternatives are being examined, it is unlikely to close any time soon.

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All information is Copyright 1997 - 2006 'Foreign Prisoner Support Service' unless stated otherwise - Click here for the legal stuff