Tortured silence on Australia’s part in US rendition policy

The important thing, you would deduce from senate estimates on Thursday, is that the attorney-general is okay. The night before, George Brandis survived through silence questions of his party’s complicity in the torture of Australian citizens.

“You don’t expect to run into a terrorist at a human rights awards event,” he told the senate after former Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks confronted him at an Australian Human Rights Commission dinner.

“I assumed it was a heckler, which of course it was … I had no idea what he was saying. I had no idea who it was, and I didn’t for a moment feel threatened by it.”

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin said officers were there to protect Brandis, and Hicks was cautioned at the event: “Obviously we are always … concerned about the dignity of the individual and the dignity of the office as well.”

Hicks’s heckle was inelegant, but its content was wholly reasonable. “Hey, my name is David Hicks. I was tortured for five-and-a-half years in Guantanamo Bay in the full knowledge of your party. What do you have to say?”

There is now an appalling credibility to claims Australian citizens were tortured while imprisoned by the United States. In addition to Hicks, Australian detainee Mamdouh Habib has detailed mistreatment in which he was threatened with dogs and prostitutes and strung from a ceiling for extended periods.

But what is more appalling is the mounting evidence of Australia’s assistance in the processes that led to this torture.

The long-withheld US senate report on the CIA’s conduct in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks was released this week. Although information in the report is heavily redacted, crosschecking with other references proves Australia’s involvement in enabling rendition of suspects.

Extraordinarily, more than one-quarter of the world’s countries assisted the US with rendition in this period. Among them: Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland and Britain.

Moreover, the report shows a network of secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan, Poland, Lithuania, Romania and Thailand. The CIA was also permitted to torture detainees in the prisons of Egypt, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco, Gambia, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia
and Djibouti.

The list of “enhanced interrogation techniques” is grim: waterboarding; sleep deprivation; confinement in boxes; a series of “facial holds”, “insult slaps”, “attention grasps” and “wallings”; forced insertion of food and liquids into detainees’ rectums; the use of various “stress positions”; and “conditioning” measures including restriction of diet and extended periods of forced nudity.

Unsurprisingly, the report concluded that torture was ineffective in procuring usable information from suspects. It adds to a significant body of evidence already of the same view.

What is surprising is the scale of global support for the US’s practices through this time. What is terrible is Australia’s place among that number. 

Hicks raised a pertinent question for Brandis and for the Howard government in which he was a minister: “What do you have to say?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 13, 2014 as "Tortured silence".

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