Don’t for one second believe the spin of the Howard government over the past few days, when it says that it took a hands off approach to the plea bargain and sentencing of Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks last Friday.

From the Prime Minister down, the Howard government decided long ago that David Hicks had to be returned to Australia well before this year’s election and shunted out of sight and mind. To not do so would be to risk a backlash among its own supporters and backbenchers and face the prospect of dealing with one more political headache in the context of what’s shaping up to be a tight election.

For several months now, Mr Howard and his ministers have lobbied every American official in their sights, including Vice-President Dick Cheney, who said last month while in Australia that Mr Hicks’ case was at the top of the queue.

In short, and in contrast to other cases, the Howard government did whatever it took to ensure that the American quasi-legal process that was trying Mr Hicks delivered the right political outcome.

No doubt, for supporters of the “Bring David Hicks Home” campaign the mission has been completed. They have essentially achieved their aim – Mr Hicks is returning to Australia.

But what about other Australians who languish in foreign jails? Why is it that the Howard government won’t work as assiduously as it has done for Mr Hicks, to “fix” the outcome of their cases? Think of the tragedy of Melbourne man, Van Nguyen, who was executed by the Singaporeans in late 2005, after the Howard government told us there was nothing more that could be done to save him from the gallows.

Or what about the Bali Nine and Schapelle Corby, all high profile cases where the Howard government says that it will not interfere in the legal processes of another country, Indonesia.

On 15 February 2006, in an interview with 2UE’s John Laws, Mr Howard, when asked whether Indonesia’s drug laws are too severe, spelt out his government’s non-interventionist position when it comes to assisting Australian citizens who find themselves in a serious legal pickle in foreign countries:

Well that’s for them to decide, it’s not for me, I have no right to decide the penalties of another country. Whatever they judge, through their processes, to be correct is something we have to live with and in a sense it is immaterial whether I think they are too severe or not, it’s what we have to deal with and this idea that we can sit back and make a judgment and we can pick and choose and that if something goes wrong then the Government will go in and persuade these countries to change their laws, it’s fairyland stuff.

Mr Howard should have added an important rider to these remarks. That is, as Mr Hicks’ case demonstrates, where it is politically expedient to do so, his government will in fact “decide the penalties of another country”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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