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Dec 16, 2010

David Hicks: responding to the critics

On Sunday, December 12, the Sun Herald printed an article that falsely claims that i have broken my silence "for the first time". At no time did I agree to an interview with the Sun Herald. At this time I have still never given an interview to any media, writes former Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks.

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On Sunday, December 12, the Sun Herald printed an article that falsely claims that I have broken my silence “for the first time.” At no time did I agree to an interview with the Sun Herald. At this time I have still never given an interview to any media.

I provided the Sun Herald with an opinion piece that I had written independently a few weeks previously, which I understood they would print as I had submitted, apart from agreed upon standard editing. The opinion piece comprehensively addresses the criticisms of my recently released book, Guantanamo: My journey.

However, the final article that went to print was edited to resemble a question-and-answer interview that I did not take part in or agree to. It was also edited out of context and contained additional material that replaced my own. Below is my original opinion piece. A comparison between my article and the Herald’s will show the differences.

The original article:

Before my book was released, and since its publication, there has been a lot of interest from various media sources for me to do a televised interview. I have received some criticism for not accepting these offers, and been accused of cowardice, fear or having something to hide.

The straight forward answer to these unreasonable accusations is that after spending six years in isolation with little human contact, contact often hostile and abnormal, the most comfortable way for me to communicate is by writing in the privacy of my home. I have attempted with some effort to speak on TV but I cannot control the interfering emotions. The lights, cameras, and being the focus of an interview is reminiscent of a Guantanamo interrogation.

Two exceptions to this rule have been appearing on the GetUp! website and recently on Q and A. These segments were filmed in quiet and privacy, and yet I struggled to get through them. As a result of my reaction to being interrogated, I have chosen not to do an interview for now. This is why I chose to write a book, and address any criticisms as an opinion piece.

In the days and weeks of my book being published I watched the response and reviews with interest. A number of authors of reviews that trickled out after some initial criticisms admitted they had not  read my book but just relied on those first few opinions. These critics are a small group that do not reflect the personal feedback I have received or the response from the public at large who have actually taken the time to read my book. I have had people approach me in tears and thanking me for sharing my life with them.

I have written this article to address some of the points raised in the reviews that have been critical of my book.

Near the end of 1999, I had never met a Muslim person before and knew nothing about the religion, so is it really that surprising that I would use the yellow pages to find a local mosque? Adopting Islam on that first day that I entered a mosque was a young person searching for a place to belong. To become a Muslim, or to be accepted as one, takes no more time or effort than saying a few words. It is not a difficult or daunting task.

My motivation was not a religious search for spirituality; it was more a search for somewhere to belong and to be with people who shared my interest in world affairs. In my youth I was impulsive and unfortunately many of my decisions of that time are a reflection of that trait, which I reflect upon in the book.

Appallingly, an early article suggested I was implicated in some way in the deaths of two children. Even a casual reading of my book clearly explains that it was in fact Indian military personnel that shot and killed those innocent children. The book details how I actually risked my life to attend one of these victims and carried them to safety. No reasonable reading of my book could give the impression that I was remotely responsible for the death of these children.

I have never been responsible for the death or physical harm of any human being. Civilians being targeted by Indian security forces along the border was a common occurrence during my time in Pakistan, and is an example of why they were being protected and defended. Unfortunately the situation has still not changed and today some of the biggest protests by the Kashmir people in years against state violence and the right to determine their future have been occurring in the Indian administered parts of Kashmir.

It has also been suggested that I visited Osama Bin Laden camps. There were three or four camps under the name of ‘Camp Farouk’ at that time in Afghanistan. This has been explained by independent journalists, such as Jason Burke, not just me. As I explain in the book, I attended the open mainstream camp, not terrorist camps. I would not have been there if there was any suggestion of terrorist activity or the targeting of civilians.

How would a white boy new to Islam, who didn’t understand local customs or languages, largely uneducated in the ways of the world, get access to such supposedly secret camps planning acts of terror? If someone like me could so easily gain the trust needed to access such places it begs many questions about intelligence agencies that spend a fortune training people to infiltrate them and gain information about them.

If it was so easy for me to infiltrate these secretive groups, how much did our governments know about terrorist operations before they occurred? I think terrorists would have been much too security conscious to let an amateur, uneducated and naïve boy bluff and blunder his way into their inner terrorist circles.

The camps I attended were not Al-Qaeda, and I did not learn or hear about such an organisation until my arrival in Guantanamo Bay. Firstly, how can anyone make such an assumption when they were not in Afghanistan at the time that I was? Most importantly, it has never been proven that they were al-Qaeda camps because I was never given a trial. The journalists who allege I was associated with Al Qaeda are relying on the same politicians who claimed all GTMO detainees were the world’s ‘worst of the worst’ and the same people who said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

There is also an accusation that I was offered a suicide mission. That never happened. In 2004 Major Mori came to visit me in GTMO and showed me a TV interview of an interrogator who claimed I was a high value asset because I was a literal ‘treasure trove’ of information about Al-Qaeda, no torture was necessary to get me to cooperate, and in the same interview he mentioned for the first and only time this suicide story. This US soldier claimed he learned such information by personally interviewing me.

Mori asked if I recognised this man and I didn’t. Mori did some investigating and discovered that this individual was in fact the head of an interrogation team, but had never personally met with any detainees, let alone me. It turned out this interview was just a propaganda piece on behalf of the US to demonize me, which they did to all detainees at one point or another to try and justify holding us without charge. The accusation is false and was resolved a long time ago along with many other ‘stories’ that are still occasionally cast as factual, though not as often now. I was never even accused, let alone charged, tried or convicted, of being involved in a proposed suicide mission.

The critics like to confuse the intentions of my return to Afghanistan after September 11th. When I left Afghanistan for Quetta in Pakistan in early September I planned to stay in Pakistan for only three or four days so as to begin the process of organizing a visa and airfare to get back to Australia. The plan was to return to Afghanistan where I planned to spend the approaching month of Ramadan.

This is why I left my passport and everything behind in Afghanistan; I had every intention of returning. My plans were to return to Pakistan once Ramadan was over, this time with all my belongings, leaving Afghanistan behind for good, and hoping that everything was ready on arrival in Quetta so I could continue on to Australia as soon as possible. Needless to say those plans were unexpectedly interrupted.

Travelling to Kandahar from Quetta is like driving from Sydney to Wollongong, and remember, border crossings were not monitored. Had I travelled directly into the main centres of Pakistan without returning to Afghanistan first it would have been equivalent to driving from Sydney to Adelaide. Had I made that journey I would never have seen my passport or belongings again. It made sense at the time in that environment to make the two to three hour journey to Kandahar to collect my documents while I was still so close and because of the confusion following the September 11 attacks.

It was never my intention to return to Afghanistan to fight US or Australian troops, and I never did. US and Australian troops did not deploy on the ground in Afghanistan till long after I had gone.

Another section of my book for which I have been criticised is where I say, ‘Any and all inconvenience … brought about … was at the hands of others’. That is not an attempt to dismiss myself of any responsibility. I take full responsibility for naively travelling to dangerous locations and understand the US wishing to talk with me for a day or two.

But were it not for my rendition, my illegal imprisonment, the years of detention without a fair trial and the fact that I was used as a political scapegoat, no one would have ever heard my name. There would be no book, and you would not be reading this now. I would have ended up back in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, with a 9-5 job, just one of many unknown faces in a crowd.

I have also been criticized for not explaining the training I received in Afghanistan in enough detail. Such description was in earlier drafts, along with Kosovo and Kashmir as well, but I ended up editing it out and decided the eventual manuscript was sufficient. I could not imagine the public wanting to wade through pages of descriptions such as how I learnt to smear mud on my face and to camouflage a uniform, or basic map reading, using compasses, taking back bearings etc.

I didn’t think the audience wanted to be bored with the way in which we all had to build up strength, stamina, and endurance day after day by marching with increasing weight in a back pack, marching further and further accompanied with less rest stops, less sleep, and less food and water. One critic even doubted I did any sport orientated training in Kashmir, whereas in reality fitness was the main focus everywhere I went. If someone is really that interested in what basic military training consists of, the outline can be found in any country’s military training manuals or on the internet.

In my case, the training always centred around the conditions in Kashmir, Chechnya and other conflicts of that nature, where soldiers engage soldiers in guerrilla or conventional warfare; situations very far removed from acts of terrorism such as bomb making or high jacking or targeting civilians. If that was the training one was looking to receive they would have to have been in places other than where I was.

I wonder whether the critics who spent eight years painting a particular picture of me have been exposed to scrutiny and challenge now that I have given them a painting different to their own. They want my book to contain stories and information which just does not exist; they want me to claim something that just never happened. I don’t reflect their images or fit their long created fictional character.

Discrediting me and my book seems to be their solution. I just have to accept that some people will respond in this way. There are so many good books and reports out there that explain what was happening on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan while I was there; all I can do is suggest that anyone who wishes to write upon the subject or have an educated opinion is to take the time to do the research and some serious reading. I have tackled this subject in some detail in my book.

I have observed an interesting blanket of silence around the part of my book describing my treatment in Guantanamo. My story from a journalistic viewpoint must be a boring, un-s-xy truth. After five and a half years of interrogation in a lawless world, if I had actually injured someone, attempted to, even just being taught bomb making with no target in mind, don’t you think I would have been charged, shipped off to court, prosecuted and made an example of? It never happened.

New retrospective laws and commissions had to be created. And when the Australian government repeatedly said I had never broken any Australian law, are we to assume that Australian law is so inadequate that Australian citizens can travel the world being involved in terrorism and or murdering people? Of course not. Australians are responsible for their activities overseas and crimes as heinous as terrorism are covered by Australian legislation.

I did not break any Australian laws, which should be seen as bizarre considering the seriousness of the allegations against me, and all the more so because I also did not contravene any US or international law. Anyone who thinks the laws of the world are so inadequate that terrorists can run free and murder should ponder what they are saying. There are many courts and international tribunals that deal swiftly with terrorists, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Thank you for your time and I hope you find the opportunity to read my book because it is not just about me: there are still more people illegally imprisoned in Guantanamo without charge or trial. My book also has an important message that boils down to this: an aim to prevent an Australian citizen being held indefinitely again in the future, being treated inhumanely, tortured, and being subjected to ‘second class justice’, in the words of the US.

This is why no US citizen was exposed to military commissions, combatant status review tribunals, or even sent to Guantanamo. If nothing is done and we don’t learn from the experience Australian citizenship will remain cheap abroad and be disrespected, and it will certainly happen again. Maybe to someone you love.

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