What else could Jason Leopold say to David Hicks? When balanced against at least four years of brutal torture and over five years of confinement, it doesn't seem like much. If we hope to keep our humanity, it is at least a start.
"I'm sorry my government tortured you, David," I said.
"Thanks, mate," Hicks said, his voice cracking.
Writing on Truthout, Leopold describes his personal reactions to David Hicks book, Guantanamo: My Journey , as well to interviews he conducted with Hicks. Although Leopold has been "obsessed with the torture and rendition program since details of it first surfaced nearly a decade ago", the interview with Hicks was his first experience speaking with a Guantanamo detainee. Leopold had intended to report the story straight, but his emotional reactions caused him to re-evaluate, especially as he considered that he had "written so many of those reports and all of them end with a shrug here, some outrage there and no one being held accountable."
So here is another diary. Is there a way to make a few people care as much as if their own brother had been tortured? I mean, literally, because many of our human brothers were tortured, some to death. How many diaries about torture since the United States Government began openly torturing during the administration of George W. Bush? What can I say? There is the law, or rather the utter disregard for the law. Hicks' case is a particularly egregious example, which is saying a mouthful. There is the politics--yes, to politicians, we are all pawns, as Hicks story demonstrates in vivid detail. There are the stories of the guards. Please don't call the ones who salvaged some humanity, committed some acts of kindness, heroes. But they do provide one of the few promising aspects to this era of barbarity. There is Hicks' personal story. There is the torture itself, which pains us so to contemplate that many of us, understandably, avoid thinking about it altogether.
I had a knot in my stomach. I had a hard time sleeping for the next few nights. I could not focus on anything, but the images in my mind of a helpless Hicks being tormented. It made me realize that one can never comprehend the extent of someone's pain and suffering until we hear about it first hand.
So says Leopold after his interview with Hicks. In the end, Leopold chose to examine why the article was so difficult for him to write, what in his life gave him such resonance with the on-going suffering of Hicks. I'll let interested readers learn about this in Leopold's own honest words as they read his article.
Most of us will never speak with a Guantanamo detainee, so perhaps we'll never comprehend the extent of the pain and suffering inflicted in our name. Can enough of us comprehend enough to take up the cause of justice? Do we need to hear this from his own mouth first:
He was injected in the back of his neck with unknown drugs. He was sodomized with a foreign object. He spent nearly a year in solitary confinement. He was beaten once for ten hours. He was threatened with death. He was placed in painful stress positions. He was exposed to extremely cold temperatures, loud music and strobe lights designed to disorient his senses.
I expect some who do understand the significance of this issue have decided, for reasons which are not political, that it is best to move forward without prosecuting the war criminals who approved torture from the highest levels of our government. Can we at least care enough to support Hicks in something he cares about?
...what he really wants is the Australian government "to formally recognize that the 2006 Military Commissions Act was unfair" and designed simply to obtain guilty pleas.
"The Australian government has acknowledged that I have never hurt anyone or committed a crime under Australian law, so the least they can do is formally recognize my conviction as null and void," Hicks said.
Was his conviction "unfair"? No, it wasn't even unfair. It was 100% extra-legal, utterly lacking in criteria by which to judge the concept of fairness. Hicks was found guilty of a crime which did not exist by a commission which had not yet been created. Let me repeat that literally factual statement: Hicks was found guilty of a crime which did not exist by a commission which had not yet been created. This would be a travesty if it had cost him one afternoon in court. He was tortured for over four years.
A crime which did not exist
According to Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, the only reason Hicks was even charged was that he had become a danger to the 2007 reelection of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who took advantage of Cheney's visit in February 2007 to demand that, after five years in Guantanamo, "there must be a trial 'with no further delay'". Five days later, Hicks was indicted and the serious charges were all dropped, as were the demands for a twenty year sentence, making it palatable enough for Hicks to plead guilty to "material support" for terrorism, all in the nick of time to give Howard a shot a re-election.
"We looked at Australian law, international law and Afghani law and we were unable to identify any breach of those laws, [Stephen] Kenny [a former Hicks attorney] said. The law that he eventually pleaded guilty to [material support for terrorism] was not actually an international war crime at all. In fact it was a crime that didn't exist."
A commission not yet established
Was Hicks tortured because the "war on terror" demands such ruthless action? Was Hicks one of the worst of the worst? If so, uncharged war criminal and former Defense Department General Counsel William Haynes was guilty of serious dereliction of duty when he asked chief prosecutor Col. Morris Davis, "How quickly can you charge David Hicks?" even though at the time Davis had no regulations for trial by military commissions.
Davis, who later resigned in protest of the government's handling of terrorism cases, was left out of the plea bargaining, which was presided over by Cheney toady Susan J. Crawford.
The proceedings began in a tumult as the military judge ruled that two of Hicks' three defense counsel could not appear on his behalf.... Motions made by the defense were rejected without any apparent deliberation.
In the kabuki theater that surrounded the plea bargain, a sort of mock trial was convened. The opening argument of the prosecution seemed to be something out of Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations. Hicks was described as an “enemy who wanted to kill Americans” (whereas the convening authority had, prudently, denied the prosecution permission to bring exactly that charge for want of evidence).
The only evidence available against Hicks consisted of his own testimony and that of other Guantánamo inmates, all of which would have been subject to challenge on the grounds that it was coerced.
American soldiers with conscience
If the U.S. enjoyed an objective press, I believe the testimony of soldiers who served at Guantanamo would have created a stir that the Obama DOJ could not ignore. Just as in Australia, where Hicks has been vilified, in America only those who seek alternative sources of information will be aware of the extent of the criminal activity, including torture and murder, which has been described by more than one serviceman who served in Cuba. For those of us who do educate ourselves, there are some rewards in the end:
"David Hicks was tortured, no doubt," said Albert Melise, who has never spoken publicly before, in several video chats we had via Skype.
"That's torture," Melise said.
But I wanted Melise to tell me what happened in those rooms after the interrogators started questioning the detainees.
"Please don't ask me about those things," Melise said. "I saw a lot and I still have nightmares over it. I've seen these guys cry."
I wondered if Melise bore witness to any of the horrific pictures my mind created during that split-second gap in our conversation.
"O.K. I understand," I told Albert. "I won't go there. I'm so sorry."
"I'm a good soul and I was put in a horrible place," Albert said.
"I know you are," I told him. "Well, how about this. Can you tell me what you saw in the detainees' eyes?
"Sadness," Melise said. "Like they could not believe the Americans are putting them through that. It was an emotional look. I'll never forget it."
He said detainees were also bribed with prostitutes as incentive to get them to work as agents for the US government. He said there was a camp at Guantanamo that just housed children, some of who were as "young as 12 and over 8" years old, called Camp Iguana.
"One of my buddies worked there," Melise said. "Sick."
Eventually, Melise's pleas for a change of assignment were heeded. Before leaving Guantanamo, he was assigned to Camp Echo, which is where he met Hicks. It is also where he says he "redeemed" himself.
"I let [the detainees] out of their cells and just let them talk and hang out," he said. "I knew it would help them mentally. I knew it would help them cope with many things they had gone through. I also gave up what I had. I gave them normal food from my lunch to eat, cigarettes, protein bars, whatever was mine was theirs. I could have gone to prison myself for doing that, believe me. But I know I did the right thing."
"Why did you do that?" I asked.
"For sympathetic reasons," he said. "Because I sat in on interrogations. I wanted to give them a sense of humanity. Nobody deserves to be treated like that. They were not the 'worst of the worst,'" a description placed upon the detainees by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "I'm an ex-cop and I can tell whose a criminal and who isn't and a lot of these detainees I met were not terrorists."
Melise wanted Hicks to feel like he was back home in Australia, so he would sneak his DVD player into Hicks' cell and watch movies with him,...
"I figured if he heard Mel Gibson's accent he would feel like he was back in Australia," Melise said.
I sent an email to Hicks asking if he remembers Melise.
"I remember him well because he did what he could in that controlled high security environment to help slow the deterioration of my sanity for the few months I spent with him," Hicks said. "I hope to gather enough funds so I can fly [Melise and Brandon Neely, both guards who were supportive] to Australia to thank them personally and show my gratitude for their friendship and trust. I would like to show them my hospitality and my country and to show them how much I appreciate their past kindness and current bravery."
Melise, who is married with a wife and son, is now studying to be a nurse "so I can really help people in the future." He recently re-enlisted in the Army reserves for another three years.
Spc. Brandon Neely, now a police officer in Houston, has stepped forward to testify about abuses he saw at Guantanamo. He did so because he believes that insufficient attention had been paid to "the hell that went on at Camp X-Ray."
Will we each need to speak directly with a Guantanamo detainee before we pay sufficient attention to the recent war crimes of our government? It is not for lack of information that we have seen no movement toward justice, that much is clear.