WITH A federal election likely later in the year, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock and his Opposition counterpart Kelvin Thomson are squaring off over David Hicks and compensation to the United States following the AWB scandal.
The ongoing incarceration of David Hicks, now in his fifth year at Guantanamo Bay without trial, is an issue still dogging the Government and Ruddock.
The Attorney-General’s 7 January opinion piece in The Sunday Age (‘Why he can’t return’) was matched by Thomson the following Sunday (‘Hicks case is simply about a fair go’).
The former spoke of US assurances, continuing Australian Government assistance and a deep unhappiness with the delay. The latter concerned itself with independence, impartiality and “justice, not special treatment”.
Ruddock, along with Prime Minister John Howard, said last week they had received assurances from the US Government that Hicks would likely be amongst the first inmates to be charged following the activation of the new military commission legislation.
Yet Thomson said if the decision were his, he would pursue bail for Hicks while telling the US that a military commission does not constitute a fair trial.
Although Ruddock admitted to being unsure of whether the military commission system allows for bail, he said “the idea that [Hicks] should be released to Australia and be placed under a control order and then at some later date return to the United States seems to me to be a little naïve”.
But Thomson disagreed. “It wasn’t so naïve that the British Government was unable to do it. When the British Government said to the United States Government, ‘you either try [British citizens in Guantanamo Bay] in accordance with international standards or return them to Britain’, the US Government didn’t say ‘oh that’s naïve’, they returned them to Britain,” he told Lawyers Weekly.
A spokesman for Ruddock, who had left for India and Pakistan as Lawyers Weekly went to press, said “none of the British were released on bail, to face charges. The whole point about the British, as [Thomson] seems to religiously ignore, is that none of the British, when they were released, were charged or facing charges. And it was exactly the same thing with the British as it was with Mamdouh Habib.”
Naivety aside, Ruddock believes Hicks’ potential for bail is not an Australian concern. “The question of bail is not one for us. He is detained by the Untied States,” he said.
“I have never asked to see the brief of evidence. I have asked the American Attorney whether he has formed a view on that brief that there is a case to answer and he has given me the assurance that he has,” Ruddock said.
Thomson said it was “remarkable” that Ruddock had not seen the evidence, given that he maintains that the Government would have difficulty prosecuting Hicks under Australian law.
“How can the Attorney-General, on the one hand, say [Hicks] could not be charged with any breach of Australian law, but on the other hand say ‘I haven’t seen the evidence’,” Thomson said.
Ruddock’s spokesman replied by asking “why would the Attorney-General of any country, in relation to any citizen, either here or abroad, demand to see a brief of evidence”.
“Our role is to ask, as we have continually asked the United States Attorney-General, whether there is enough evidence to charge [Hicks],” the spokesman said.
More blows were traded over AWB. United States Senator Norm Coleman put forward a Bill late last year to request an investigation into whether American wheat farmers were harmed by AWB’s dealings in Iraq, the second reading of which began last week. When Thomson attacked the Government, Ruddock was swift to reply.
“Labor’s claim that Australians may have to compensate United States farmers for AWB’s conduct during the UN Oil-for-Food program in Iraq was not only wrong but potentially damaging to our national interests,” Ruddock said.
In fact, according to the Attorney-General’s spokesman, Thomson’s comments were merely “providing ammunition for people who are seeking to damage Australia and Australian wheat farmers”.
“I’m sure he’d be very pleased to be called as a witness for the prosecution in the United States,” the spokesman said.
Yet Thomson believes the damage has already been done. “I’ll tell you who has been damaging Australia’s national interest — and that is the Howard Government, which turned a blind eye to dozens of allegations that AWB was paying kickbacks,” he said.
“It was damaging to Australia’s national interest that they instructed our ambassador, [Michael] Thawley, to look [Coleman] in the eye in 2004 and tell him that AWB was not paying any kickbacks.
“Now of course Senator Coleman is angry about that, and it is clear that his Bill in the US parliament — which might have implications for Australian taxpayers — is in part motivated by the fact that he is angry about being deceived, and I use that term advisedly, having been deceived in 2004,” he added.
“What we are essentially getting now with the United States, and the measures they are taking, is the hangover after that drunken orgy of backslapping that the Australian ministers engaged in because they got off scot-free from the Cole Inquiry,” Thomson said.
“But I believe they should be held accountable and I’ll continue to hold that view.”
The spokesman for Ruddock said that the ministers “got off scot-free because there was no wrongdoing, not because of some sort of, as [Thomson] seems to be suggesting, lucky card or something”.