Australian petition urges man's release from Guantanamo

7,000 signatures gathered online in about a week

August 28, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SYDNEY, Australia - In a little more than a week, a new grassroots political movement here has gathered more than 7,000 names of supporters on its Web site in a campaign to free David Hicks, an Australian citizen being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The organization, GetUp!, was founded in August by two young Australians. They collected the names for a letter to the Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, demanding that he take action to have Hicks, 30, brought back to Australia to stand trial.

Hicks was taken prisoner in Afghanistan in December 2001 and sent to Guantanamo. In June 2004, American prosecutors charged him with conspiracy to commit war crimes, attempted murder and aiding the enemy.

Australian officials have said repeatedly that he has not violated any Australian laws, so bringing him back would likely be tantamount to giving him his freedom.

"We're blown away," Lachlan Harris, a spokesman for GetUp!, said about the response to the campaign. "Signing a letter for someone accused of serious crimes is not something one does lightly."

A spokesman for Downer dismissed the campaign. "It's another group attacking the Howard government," said the spokesman, Chris Kenny, referring to Prime Minister John Howard. "What's new?"

GetUp! describes itself as a progressive organization - its founders say they were inspired by the left-leaning American advocacy group MoveOn.org, - but its campaign coincides with a growing discomfort among Australians across the political spectrum over the lengthy detention of Hicks and the fact that American officials plan to try him in a secret military tribunal rather than in open court. In closed-door meetings of Howard's center-right Liberal Party, increasing numbers of party members are expressing concern.

In a break from the normal practice of not speaking on political issues, the chief justice of the Supreme Court for the country's most populous state, New South Wales, offered a glancing criticism of the American procedures last week. "Military justice bears the same relationship to justice as military music does to music," the justice, Jim Spigelman, told The Sydney Morning Herald.

The Bush administration has assured the Australian government that it has a strong case against Hicks, several Australian officials said. But many other Australian officials, most of whom asked not to be identified, say they are skeptical.

The Australian Federal Police conducted an extensive investigation into Hicks' activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sending investigators there. One senior law enforcement official said the case against him was "very weak."

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