Hearsay ... the Journal of the Bar Association of Queensland
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Issue 54
Book Review: Guantanamo: My Journey Print E-mail

book_guantanamo.jpgAuthor: David Hicks

Publisher: William Heinemann

Reviewed by Stephen Keim

Guantanamo is a beautifully written narrative. David Hicks spent two years after being released from Yatala Prison in Adelaide writing his story. Writing the book has been part of his healing, a process that may have many years to run. Writing Guantanamo was a slow process at first but the time has proved well spent in the end. David has found a style that is direct, personal and unfussy. Just as the minor part of the title refers to “My Journey”, reading Guantanamo does indeed feel that one is reading (or mentally listening to) David’s story.

While the text is one man’s recollections, the footnotes provide documentation from other sources not only of much of David’s story but also of more general use of torture and other inhumane practices as part of the “War on Terror” still being conducted by the United States and its allies including Australia. One of the reports cited is a 2008 report by Physicians for Human Rights whose web address is http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/. The report, called Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by US Personnel and its impact is available as a PDF file at this address: http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/library/reports/broken-laws-torture-report-2008.html.

In this way, David’s story is uncluttered but supported in many of its key respects by hard data gathered by independent sources.

David Hicks was indeed an unusual young man. He became alienated from his family at a young age. He found comfort in solitary pursuits of which fishing was more than a pursuit, indeed, a great passion. He managed to survive, in his mid teens, working on some of the most remote cattle stations in Australia. This was despite his haphazard approach both to finding work and getting to the place where the job was being offered. Later, he held down a job working with horses in Japan.

It is not that surprising then that David was attracted to Islam or that he became passionate about wanting to help suffering Muslims around the world. David served under NATO command in Kosovo although he faced no actual military action.

When David first went to Pakistan, he appears to have come under the wing of an Islamic revivalist organisation, the Tabligh, and went on proselytising journeys a little like Mormons in Australia. It was while he was with people that he met through Tabligh that David made contact with and met with representatives of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an organisation now gazetted as a terrorist organisation in Australia. David’s interest with Laskar-e-Taiba was with their armed struggle in Kashmir which coincided with his own desire to do something for the Kashmiri people.

David ended up going on two missions with Laskar-e-Taiba. One took him to the line of control between Pakistan and Indian controlled Kashmir. David declined to join the volunteers crossing the border. As he notes in the text, this almost certainly saved his life as those who did cross at the appointed time perished.1

The second jaunt with and on behalf of Laskar-e-Taiba, certainly, changed David’s life. It led to his time in Guantanamo. David’s impression that Laskar-e-Taiba wanted David and another more experienced recruit to travel to Kandahar in Afghanistan to train with the Taliban and report back on the results was never really tested. This was because the attacks on the World Trade Centre occurred; the United States invaded Afghanistan; and any semblance of organisation among units with whom David had become associated resolved into individuals and small groups fleeing through town and frozen country.

David had completed a basic training and an urban training course when he returned to Quetta in Pakistan to catch up with a friend. It was during this interval that the New York and Washington attacks occurred and came as an extraordinary surprise to David and his acquaintances in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since his passport had been taken off him in Kandahar, he made the decision to return. He did retrieve his passport. However, the engagement by the US of proxy ground troops in the form of the Northern Alliance and a Pashtun militia organised in the south led to a routing of forces associated with the government of Taliban. David did what fugitives do under invasion and occupation. Eventually, he was arrested by a Northern Alliance soldier trying to travel by taxi from Kunduz to Kabul. His “six years of hell” had begun.

I have read An Evil Cradling, the account by Irish English teacher, Brian Keenan, kidnapped in 1986 from Beirut and held captive by extremist Palestinian groups for over four years. As with Guantanamo, the accounts are harrowing. No book or other medium can, however, communicate the reality of being a captive and being beaten and mistreated in a multiplicity of ways. There are many reasons why the communication of another’s experience falls short.

First, a book that truly communicated the experiences of a year, a month, even an hour of suffering would run out of words and be unreadable for excessive length. A book must skip over.

Second, the suffering of the prisoner is experienced without a break. We, on the other hand, have inbuilt safeguards which cause, indeed, force us to get on with our life. When we put down a book, we leave the action behind and we think of other things. The sufferer remains.

And we grow numbed. As the descriptions proceed, our defence mechanisms set in and, in numerous ways, we convince ourselves that it must have been, somehow, bearable, somehow, not as bad as it reads.

And so the experience of reading falls short, thankfully, of the experience that has been entrusted to the written word.

For me at least, there is one part of the reading experience that makes me cry “pause”. It is that feeling that so much has been endured and yet it is not finished with. And this was the case with Guantanamo, the effect heightened by the reader’s sharing of David’s belief that it was all a big mistake which was always on the point of being sorted out. Each time David was moved from location to another, the hopes were unfulfilled and a new regime of mistreatment had to be endured. The reader shares that dashing of hope and, eventually, wonders how much more despair can be humanly borne.

The first place of detention was part of a human chain joined by rusty ankle claps with the smell of one prisoner’s maggoty serious arm wound as part of the atmosphere. This was interspersed with interrogations punctuated by violent blows to the back of the head conducted by US special forces soldiers. Various other interrogations followed with varying forms of psychological pressure used.

After a series of helicopter and plane journeys, David was detained on board the USS Peleliu where he was visited and observed (but given no assistance) by an Australian navy officer. On the next day, he was visited by two ASIO officers. This was the start of a long history of Australian officials declining all opportunities to act in the interest of an Australian who was being illegally detained; beaten and often tortured. As on later occasions, no help was provided. On one occasion, David’s visitor was Ramzi Jabbour, the AFP senior officer who, on 14 July 2007, had the bad judgment to charge Dr. Mohamed Haneef at a time when the arresting officers and most other people associated with the case knew that there was no evidence against Dr. Haneef.

Both before he reached the ship; on the ship; on special outings from the ship and after his transfer to Cuba, David suffered and witnessed sustained beatings in which repeated blows were received by men who were restrained and unable to defend themselves. He experienced having his head beaten repeatedly into a concrete airport tarmac and being helplessly flung by airplane turbulence (while bound) so that he repeatedly crashed back down helplessly on to his face with all his weight.

Guantanamo contains diagrams and close descriptions of the various tiny cells in which David was housed. As described above, his move from one block to another was often accompanied by hope some times supported by promises. The promises were not fulfilled and the hopes were disintegrated on each occasion.

The one visitor whose advocacy managed to improve David’s conditions and who gave a sense of contact with the outside world was David’s assigned military lawyer, Major Michael Mori. Major Mori also, of course, engaged in an extraordinarily successful round of public advocacy undoing the propaganda that the Australian government had deployed to blacken David’s name in the minds of his countrymen. It was also Mori’s advocacy that earned the plea bargain that ensured David’s freedom but remains a bitter sweet acceptance of wrong doing on his part where, in fact, no crime known to law had been committed. Guantanamo succeeds in portraying the strong factors operating on David to admit to actions which he had not carried out and to accept guilt in a travesty of a legal proceeding.

Ten years after the attacks in New York and Washington, a large number of detainees remain in detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Despite the availability of habeas corpus proceedings in American civil courts, indefinite detention remains the foreseeable future for these detainees. This is because the courts hearing the habeas applications provide a weak standard of proof: the preponderance of the evidence, but, more importantly, accept the terms of the Congressional resolution authorising military force as the basis for lawful detention. Thus, association with the Taliban without knowledge or participation in any hostile action against the United States or any other country is enough to continue the hell for these prisoners. The result is that David Hicks’ plea bargain, despite its injustice and unfairness, was a good bargain. Otherwise, he would continue to be detained in Guantanamo and continue to be subject to the arbitrary actions of his jailors.

Despite all that David suffered, it seems that the present Australian government is still thirsty to impose yet more injustice on him. A proceeding has been commenced under the Proceeds of Crime legislation to garner in any profits received by David from writing Guantanamo. One wonders how the courts will apply the legislation to a conviction on a guilty plea obtained after six years of duress for actions that were not a crime pursuant to Australian law and not a crime pursuant to US or international law when the crime was allegedly committed.

Stephen Keim


24 December 2011



  1. David tells a narrative, part witnessed and part related to him, of refugees cleared from a militarised zone on the Indian side refusing to move further from their land than absolutely necessary, thereby, risking gunfire from bored Indian soldiers. The point has been made that refugees generally are reluctant to move far from their home such that asylum seekers who come to Australia have suffered much or had cause to despair of improvement at home. The vision of Kashmiri refugees dying unnecessarily for unwillingness to move and live over the neck couple of ridges provides a poignant emphasis to this view of the world of displaced peoples.

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