David Hicks: The 'Aussie Taliban'

A supporter of former Guantanamo Bay inmate Australian David Hicks protests outside the Supreme Court in Sydney Image copyright Reuters
Image caption To some, Hicks is a totem for the injustice and excess of the Bush administration's "war on terror"

Should David Hicks be allowed to profit from his memoir, Guantanamo: My Journey?

The book, published in October last year, provides an account of the five years that the "Aussie Taliban" spent as a detainee at America's controversial detention centre in Cuba, and details allegations of torture against his American captors.

Hicks, who famously wore the wristband Detainee 002, claims he was subjected to stress positions, sensory deprivation and music played at extremely high volume - ear-blasting tunes which reportedly included the theme from Bob the Builder.

The book has sold about 30,000 copies, and Hicks would have received a significant advance.

For the Australian government, the issue is clear-cut: David Hicks pleaded guilty before a US military commission of providing material support for terrorism and the book therefore comes under the Commonwealth Proceeds of Crime Act, which prevents convicted criminals of profiting from their crimes.

For the Hicks family, the issue is also uncomplicated. They are arguing that his conviction should not be recognised by the Australian courts because the US military commission at Guantanamo Bay should not be recognised as a valid legal body. On this point, the entire case might ultimately turn.

Put simply: is the military commission legal, and, thus, is David Hicks a criminal in the strictly legal sense of that term?

The Australian Greens, which have labelled the prosecution a "political show trial," have argued that the US Supreme Court has already ruled that the military commission, are unconstitutional. End of story. But this ignores the crucial fact that the US Congress passed the Military Commissions Act in December 2006, which gave the commissions a statutory basis.

Hicks appeared in June 2007, after the legislation had come into effect, which, presumably, strengthens the Australian government's case. The Greens have also argued against the futility of an expensive legal process that will recoup a relatively small amount of money. They've also claimed that the prosecution smacks of censorship by another means: that it is designed to deter authors from publishing politically sensitive material.

Free publicity

What people think about the prosecution obviously will be determined to a large extent by what they think about David Hicks. To many on the left in Australia, he became a totem for the injustices and excesses of the Bush administration's "war on terror". His detention without trial at Guantanamo also violated a very elemental sense of Australian fair play. Controversially, the former jackaroo received a standing ovation when he made a rare public appearance at the Sydney Writers Festival in May.

For the right, meanwhile, the support he continues to receive offers more proof of the left's credulousness and instinctive anti-Americanism. How could it be, they ask, that a man accused of joining the Islamic militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba and who allegedly received weapons training at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan could become a poster boy for progressives?

For some journalists and experts who have covered the post-9/11 beat, a central problem with the Hicks book is editorial rather than legal. It has been called a tell-all memoir, but the criticism is that the 35-year-old failed to deliver a more thorough account of his time in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As I have noted before, I share a publisher with David Hicks, Random House Australia, though I have never met him nor read his book. Like quite a few old Afghan hands, I was disappointed to hear that his time in Pakistan and Afghanistan did not receive more attention within its 450-plus pages.

The journalist, Sally Neighbour, who is an expert both on South Asia and militant Islam, gave it a scathing review. She called it "a self-serving, sanitised and disingenuous account".

Guantanamo was only part of the story, she argues.

"The other parts include how he got there in the first place, what he was doing in Pakistan and Afghanistan, why he was regarded as such an important catch and why he was held for more than five years while others were freed."

The government's prosecution has provided terrific free publicity for a book which has sold less copies than its publisher would have hoped. But should David Hicks reap any financial harvest?