What a strange few weeks it's been. Firstly, some British sailors and marines get nabbed by the Iranians and used as pawns in the lead up to the Saturday March 24th UN vote on sanctions against Iran. Given that context, the recent seizure of an Iranian diplomat and other Iranians in Iraq and British pressure on the Iranian-backed Badr Brigades' smuggling operations in Basra, this incident had all the clear hallmarks of diplomatic brinkmanship typical of Tehran.
But that kind of sober analysis would require people to actually pay some detailed attention to international affairs. Unfortunately that sort of sober, clear-eyed realism is in short supply these days and much of the blogosphere went into a predictable war frenzy. This action was, apparently, a sign that Iranians were insane and that the only possible solution was WAR and plenty of it.
How this war was going to be fought without therefore engulfing Iraq in flames was not considered, let alone explained. Actual reality on the ground, such as that detailed in strategic analysis by the Cato Institute and the Oxford Research Group was totally ignored. In a chilling replay of the reason-free, military fantasy-fueled frenzy that led up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the reality of the US and UK's untenable military position in the region was swept aside by confident predictions of an aerial-naval bombardment of Iran, as though this idiotic course of action would have no wider consequences and as though Iran isn't fully aware it has "the (crumbling) Coalition" over a painful barrel in the Gulf.
Luckily, sober heads in London were aware of these facts (thankfully it was British troops captured and not Yanks), quiet diplomatic channels were utilised and the 15 were speedily released unharmed.
What followed was even more interesting.
During their detention, the 15 Brits made obviously false admissions of fault and clearly fake apologies for the Iranian media. No-one believed a word they said and - not surprisingly - on their release they revealed that these admissions had been made under duress. Not "stress positions", "water boarding" or weeks of sleep deprivation torture mind you (it takes Bushite Americans to inflict those barbarities), but psychological pressure which, in the circumstances, make their choice pretty reasonable.
So everyone agrees that their "confessions" and "apologies" came as a result of duress and can be reasonably dismissed.
Now let's go back to March 26th. Largely unnoticed outside of Australia and, to a lesser extent, the US, on that day the first of the Guantanamo detainees - Australian man David Hicks - faced one of George Bush's long-delayed, much disputed and legally dubious "Military Commissions" rather than a real court. Let me state clearly from the outset: I regard Hicks to be an idiot. After some "war tourism" in Kosovo and Kashmir between 1999 and 2000, this bumbling "adventurer" and befuddled Muslim convert ended up in Afghanistan at precisely the wrong time - September 11, 2001. Exactly what he did there and what his motives were remain debatable, but since he isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, his taste for "adventure", guns and some of the dumber ends of modern Islamic theology (dimly grasped) found him guarding a Taliban tank around the time the US-backed Northern Alliance rolled into town. Hicks was captured and sold to the US for the princely sum of $2000.
What followed was a confused farce worthy of Kafka. Hicks was "processed" by US intelligence officers at Kandahar, which he says involved him being hooded, beaten and had weapons pointed at his face during interrogations. He was then transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where he claims this intimidation continued, including being injected with unknown substances, having his body shaved and having an object inserted in his anus.
The US has denied all this.
What isn't in dispute is that Hicks was held without trial for over five years, two of which were spent in solitary confinement. The US characterised him as "the worst of the worst" amongst the Guantanamo detainees and tried to charge him a range of serious terrorism offences; all of which were withdrawn when it became clear that none of them would stick. In this five years, meanwhile, the Australian Howard Government did nothing to extract him from a detention of dubious legality. Until, that is, it became clear that its notable inaction was going to hurt it in an election year.
With polls turning sharply against it, the Howard Government finally took the opportunity of a visit by US Vice-President Dick Cheney to lobby for a resolution of the Hicks case well before the federal election due late this year. Suddenly it was announced that Hicks would face a "Military Commission", though on the vastly reduced charge of "material support for terrorism". All other charges and allegations magically disappeared.
On March 25th 2007 Hicks appeared before the first "Military Commission" and refused to enter a plea, though rumours of a plea bargain deal that would save face for the Howard Government were rife. The next day he entered a guilty plea.
The immediate reaction from the right-wing elements in the Australian press was ecstatic. Hicks had pleaded guilty, they crowed, so he was guilty. End of story.
The Murdoch Press in particular could barely contain itself. Piers Akerman, a loathsome toad in human form posing as a "commentator" in Murdoch's Daily Telegraph tabloid, presided over a crowing blog entry on the paper's website. Whenever a comment was posted pointing out that any reasonable person could see that Hicks had pleaded guilty just to finally get home, Akerman leered "Why can’t you believe what Hicks himself said?" For Akerman and the rest of the conservative commentariat, Hick's guilty plea was vindication that everything he'd been accused of was true and any distress over his treatment was instantly illegitimate.
But that was on March 27th. On March 31st he was sentenced to seven years jail, but this was suspended to a mere nine months, to be served in an Australian prison. Additionally, Hicks was legally gagged from speaking to the media for one year - a gag which conveniently meant he could not tell his story until after the next Australian election.
Leaving the politically convenient (and legally dubious) gag aside, here we have the guy that people like the toad Akerman crowed was a wicked terrorist being given a mere nine months jail. Drink drivers get more jail time than that. And these crowing heroes of the conservative press had been claiming that his plea was entirely genuine and that it was not coerced by his years of illegal imprisonment.
Surely, therefore, you'd expect a firestorm of protest by them at the pathetically light-weight sentence. After all, he was a genuine terrorist, wasn't he? He'd admitted as much, hadn't he? He hadn't just accepted the plea bargain to finally get the hell out of the limbo that is Guantanamo Bay, had he? So surely the US should have thrown the book at him, no? So did Akerman and the rest of Howard's media sheep howl in protest.
Nope - complete and utter silence.
So here we have 15 British sailors and marines held for a couple of weeks and put under some pressure to admit to illegally entering Iranian waters, and the whole world accepts those admissions are coerced.
Yet a man (yes, a fool) is held without trial by the US for FIVE YEARS, two of them in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, and we're seriously supposed to believe his admission of guilt is not coerced?
As we say here in Australia, pull the other one son, it plays "Jingle Bells".
Luckily the US "Military Commissions" have zero jurisdiction in Australia so it's possible Hicks will defy the clumsy gag order and tell his side of the story in detail before the next election. It would be as much as that vile rodent John Howard deserves.
More to follow on this one, I suspect ...