Life after Gutmo

Life after Gutmo - David Hicks - Inside and out - 17th August 2007
(Credit: The Bulletin)

David Hicks is home and struggling to adjust to life after Gitmo. In exclusive interviews, his supporters reveal how he's changed since he took up arms in the name of Islam - and what he wants to fight for now. By Roy Eccleston.
David Hicks is weighing up his future, but it's his past that's on display. Out of a large manila envelope comes a small bracelet, something his lawyer, David McLeod, has kept secret for months in a safe in his Adelaide office.

It's a plastic wristband, the kind they put on babies when they're born, or sick people in hospitals, or swimmers at Wet'n'Wild. Except the wide blue strap, faded in spots perhaps from sweat, came from none of those places.

Until a few months ago, it was on Hicks' wrist. When the convicted supporter of terrorism was bundled onto a jet to take him from that small part of Cuba run by the Americans, no one took it off. So McLeod did, thinking it may be of interest to a collector or museum.

Now it sits on the desk, the only tangible piece of Hicks' years at Guantanamo Bay. And there he is pictured, detainee 002 at GTMO: a pudgy-faced man, in a jumpsuit, wearing blue mittens and holding up an identification card. It looks nothing like the usual shot of the young Hicks holding an RPG launcher.

This is Hicks the inmate, a man imprisoned not just in the top security G Division at Adelaide's Yatala jail, but inside his own mind - heavily institutionalised, wary of accepting even little freedoms like a television, claustrophobic in an exercise enclosure, and still becoming used to the idea of having a light switch after five years without one.

There's another Hicks, though, the one who collected a small library of about 70 books at Guantanamo Bay. This is Hicks the reader and student, who tells friends he is focused on a university education and a job working to improve the environment.

As he prepares to walk free on December 29, the question is which one of these characters will emerge the stronger. The man who met Osama bin Laden and pleaded guilty to materially supporting terrorism now says he's found new men to inspire him. The first is adventurer and businessman Dick Smith; the other is Australian of the Year, Tim Flannery.

Flannery is popular in prisons. When Playboy featured an extract from his climate change bestseller The Weather Makers, the environmental scientist was flooded with fan mail from US inmates. What Flannery didn't know was that his works had also found their way to a prison in Cuba.

Hicks had seen Flannery's name in books he'd been sent from Australia, and wanted to learn more. Back in Adelaide, Bronwyn Mewett made a trip to the South Australian Museum, where Flannery was director.

Mewett had a special interest. She was the first wife of Terry Hicks, and while David had been born long after they separated, the moment she learnt of the young man's capture, she decided to help. Mewett founded the group Fair Go for David, and started sending him books: romances, Dickens, and then Flannery.

Mewett, who gives few interviews, recalls trying to get Flannery's signature on the books, but he was away. "I used to buy books for David every couple of months," she says. She bought The Future Eaters, an ecological history of Australia, and another she can't remember.

When someone who trained with terrorists links himself to a national do-gooder, it might seem a clever bit of spin. But Mewett's story suggests the sometime jackaroo, horse trainer and chicken boner's interest in Flannery seems to have been genuine.

So Hicks is now a greenie? "I suspect he must be," McLeod tells The Bulletin, adding Hicks was looking for The Weather Makers. The lawyer, an Air Force reserve group captain who served in Iraq in 2003, visits his client regularly. Hicks, who turned 32 in jail last week, has agreed to a 12-month gag order that means he can't speak to the media about his conduct or captivity.

But there's no bar on him talking to people about his hopes for the future, and he's told McLeod and his family he'd like to work in the natural world - perhaps in parks and wildlife, or with mining companies to limit environmental damage and restore the landscape if they do.

Flannery was unaware of Hicks' interest in his books, but he is tickled by it. "Wow," he says. "That's fantastic." If Hicks does end up working in a natural environment, it might do him some good, thinks Flannery. "People who've had a hard life often find nature a more easy and forgiving place to engage," he says. "The natural world offers you some solace." And he'd be happy to give advice, should Hicks ask him.

"Of course I would - why wouldn't you? The man's served his time, probably more than served his time. I'm a great believer in Christian forgiveness. I think redemption and people being able to reinvent themselves is something everyone should have the chance of doing. We're all victims of circumstance to some degree. And the idea of redemption is really important."

When he hears of this, Hicks is chuffed. He tells McLeod he'd be "honoured" to meet Flannery. But can he really reinvent himself? It's a question weighing heavily on the minds of his family and advisers. There'll be supporters and detractors whatever he does, but even those who called for a fair trial still believe there are many questions that need answers.

That's not surprising, since the US administration called the Guantanamo inmates the worst of the worst, and terrorists. The Howard government did little to argue otherwise, and Hicks' own letters home set out clearly his ill-chosen path.

And even if he is just the "bullshit artist" some who know him contend, he still trained with the Kosovo Liberation Army, fired hundreds of shots across the border towards Indian forces in Kashmir, railed against Jews, met bin Laden, returned to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, and guarded a tank.

Much will depend on what Hicks says and does when he comes out. And that's unpredictable. Many of Hicks' problems are in his own head. He still doesn't readily leave his cell, says Mewett, who has visited him.

"He doesn't do his exercise period as yet. Like he said, you go out there and it's the same as Guantanamo; it's wall all the way around," says Terry Hicks. But he says his son told him that for his birthday last week, he planned on taking a big step - going into the exercise area.

Hicks says he does exercise, he just prefers his cell because it's more homely. It's also bigger than the one in Guantanamo where he claims his head went into the toilet during push-ups. He spends much of his time in study, reading or writing. He doesn't pray to Allah. "I think it's best to simply say he's no longer interested in Islam, and he hasn't been for several years," McLeod says.

He reads papers, has the radio piped into the cell - he listens to the football sometimes - and is entitled to a TV. But he has declined the TV for now, even though it would provide a window into the strange world just outside the prison walls.

"Maybe it's because that's how he got into trouble," quips Terry, a half-joking reference to suggestions by Hicks' friends that TV news reports about the killing of Albanian Muslims in Kosovo may have spurred his involvement in the first place.

"He doesn't mind the solitary," his father says. "The worst part is going to be when he's out. It's OK when he's restricted to an area. He copes with that. I think once he moves out and he's got the whole world, he'll be pushing it there."

Dr Jon Jureidini, a psychiatrist at Adelaide's Women's and Children's Hospital, hasn't seen Hicks but has worked with refugees detained for long periods. Jureidini says he expects Hicks to struggle. "Anyone, even from a benign institution faces challenges in coming out," he says.

Prolonged interrogations, like Hicks had at Guantanamo Bay, are aimed at "unminding" the prisoner, so they become compliant. "I'd be surprised if he came out functioning well," Jureidini says.

Still, from all accounts Hicks is improving. He's lost a lot of weight, regained some colour. And McLeod says on a recent visit, he cut Hicks off in mid-sentence. "David, are you listening to yourself?" Hicks asked what he meant. "Mate, you are talking normally!" McLeod says that was the first time it had happened.

At Guantanamo, it was all grunts and short sentences. In 30 meetings and perhaps 100 hours he never saw Hicks smile; his attitude was poor. "He's a different person," he says. "He's reverting to what he used to be like. And what's coming out is positive."

"He's 200% better," says Terry.

Hicks is being advised not to look like a whinger. He won't follow Mamdouh Habib, who claims to have been tortured in Egypt and is suing the government. But Hicks himself is worried he'll say something stupid. And anything he does say will be carefully scrutinised by police. "Jihad" Jack Thomas' interview with Four Corners, in which he admitted taking money from al Qaeda, formed the basis for a new trial. Hicks also has a history of running off at the mouth.

His father says the family will try to prevent any identification of him for the first three months, until he can speak publicly. "You [media] people are all very nice when he's not here," he says, "but when he's there, you'll all want your piece of meat."

The secrecy idea sounds like a recipe for disaster. Given Australians have never heard him speak, some argue he needs to use the first opportunity to say thanks. Sneaking off will send the wrong message. Nor will it get much study done.

"The bottom line is he just wants to get out and disappear into the wilderness somewhere and get on with his life," Terry says. Can he really disappear? "No, I've been through that process for the last three weeks with him. He seems to think he should be able to."

Dick Smith, who campaigned for Hicks to receive a fair trial, says Hicks can't run away, nor can he take any money. "If he accepts one cent for what's happened, or one airfare, he will be destroyed by the people of Australia," says Smith. "So my advice to him would be, you basically mustn't accept anything. There's no way you get any money."

Smith says he never argued Hicks should be released without trial, only that the truth come out. Taking that position produced an avalanche of angry responses. "I got a tremendous amount of abuse from people, you cannot believe it. Emails - I didn't know Australians like that existed. They'd made up their mind he was one of the most terrible people in the world."

So there are many questions. "Many people are undecided about how bad he is; we don't really know," says Smith. "I'd like to know what he did. I must admit the message I seem to be getting is he actually did nothing, which is why he probably didn't have a proper trial.

"The main thing I'm concerned about with David Hicks is he left his kids unsupported, and racked off overseas. If he said I want to support my kids, then I think people would give him a go. And most people would say we're going to watch him and see what he does."

Should he scoot off to the bush? "That would be impossible. He created the bed he's lying in."

Some of Hicks' supporters would like to see him write a book. He's said he's not interested, but that may well change. As for trying to make money from his notoriety, McLeod insists he's also decided that's not the way to go - even if he could get around the law.

That's a big turnaround from the letter he sent to his former flatmate Louise Fletcher, telling her not to write a book about him. "I would have no chance to make any money when I got home otherwise," he wrote to her.

McLeod says Hicks thinks differently now. "He accepts it would be inappropriate to commercialise his experience and he accepts he owes a debt of gratitude to the Australian people," says McLeod. "He wants to repay society in a way that brings credit. He doesn't want to cause ripples or bring any attention to himself."

Hicks sees education as a way to tackle his problems, says McLeod. While he left school in Grade 9, he's now passed Grade 11 thanks to studies in prison, and special entry to university is possible. "He's very keen to obtain entry to a university to pursue his interest in ecology and zoology, basically an interest in the environment," he says.

McLeod says he's surprised by some of the things Hicks knows about. He'll start talking about explorers like John Eyre and Matthew Flinders. "He can hold a conversation about them," he says. "He'd do well as a student. He's a prolific reader. The sort of material he was permitted at Guantanamo Bay was limited. If there was any aspect of content that was of a benign educational nature, it was permitted. But if it was To Kill a Mockingbird or Breaker Morant or anything with a rebellious aspect, it wasn't permitted. So he's been reading about the environment. There seems to be plenty of work for skilled people in that area."

Hicks has had at least three visits from his kids, Bonnie, 14, and Terry, 12. Their mother, Jodie Sparrow, declined to be interviewed. But if Hicks wants to help provide for his children, whom he last saw when they were toddlers, he has to make some money.

While Smith says he shouldn't make money, there's a lot on offer if he had the inclination and could find a way around state and federal laws designed to stop him profiting from his crime. Some lawyers think it's possible.

Louise Adler, publisher at Melbourne University Press, has been talking to Terry Hicks, and she's not alone. Adler, who published ABC reporter Leigh Sales' book on Hicks, Detainee 002, says there's a long history of people profiting from their experience, including the likes of Mark "Chopper" Read.

"So why shouldn't David Hicks be allowed to do that?" she asks. "I do think a book ... on what takes a young man from Adelaide all the way to Guantanamo Bay would be a fascinating story and I don't think there'd be a publisher in the country who wouldn't be interested."

Stephen Kenny, the Adelaide lawyer who represented Hicks before being sacked by his American representative, Major Michael Mori, thinks there may be a way around the ban, but only through a big court battle. But if Hicks won, he'd get a double--barrel advantage. First, he might make some money. "And the second one is, he could clear his name, in a sense. He could show he'd never committed any crime at any time. This could be an avenue for doing it."

A commercial deal is the best way to make sure the story is heard, Kenny argues. "I think the stories of what happened at Guantanamo Bay should be told, and told in some detail, as a lesson on how not to treat prisoners of war."

Hicks, however, doesn't want to write about his story, or sell it. At least that's what he says at the moment. "We explained the situation: if he writes a book, he can get round the situation by donating the money to charity," Terry says. "He doesn't want to rock the boat. If he does he's worried he'll disappear and end up back where he came from. So what he said was, 'I'm not writing any books, I'm not doing anything with film'."

Still, apparently he likes to write to the people, many of them women, who send him mail. Mewett says she saw Hicks a couple of months ago in jail, the first time since he was a little kid who'd play with her daughter - and his half-sister - Stephanie. She says he wrote stories in Guantanamo. "Would you believe while he was there one of the things he did do, he wrote a book he called a romance?" she says. "David wrote a book in the romance genre. I would say along the lines of a Mills and Boon. On another occasion he told me he'd written a horror story. I'm not surprised - that's more what you might expect."

Celebrity publicist Max Markson thinks Hicks has a story worth a million dollars and could probably keep half of it, if he could get around the law. Markson says he wouldn't represent Hicks since he's spouted anti-Semitic bile and been convicted of supporting terrorism. But he thinks he can redeem himself and build a life, "if he comes out and says he's sorry, and apologises for his actions, and tries to give something back to the community - which may or may not accept it".

As for money, Markson thinks he could accept some benefit if he gave some away to charity. "If someone wanted to give him 100 grand and he said, 'look, I'll keep half of it' and the other half he's going to give to the children's hospital in Adelaide, he may well get away with some money."

With all the ifs and buts, the only safe bet is that Hicks will look up his old fishing mate, Carl Cripps. Cripps and wife Kerry, who has known Hicks since primary school, have kept in touch and visited him in Yatala.

"To me, appearance-wise he seems the same old Hicksy," says Cripps. "He doesn't look like he's changed at all. But I'm sure in himself he has changed a bit."

Cripps says fishing is on the agenda. "We mainly used to do a lot of shark fishing," he says. "Probably won't get back into that. Pretty expensive tackle we had to buy - say around $500 for a fishing rod and a bit more for a reel." It didn't help them, though. "No. It was very rare we ever bloody caught anything."

When Hicks does get out, "there's no doubt we'll wet a line somewhere". Whether Hicks can wander freely is another matter. As someone who trained with terrorists, he may be subject to a police-monitored control order to ensure he is no threat to the community. The fish, however, look to be safe.


David Hicks

Dick Smith

Max Markson