Australian Guantanamo detainee David Hicks gets British citizenship

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Outside shower stall, Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay

Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks has won British citizenship, opening the door for a possible bid to have him freed from the US detention facility in Cuba.

Justice Lawrence Collins of the British High Court has overturned the British Government's refusal of citizenship to Hicks, whose mother was born in England. Justice Collins said the Government had "no power to withhold or deprive citizenship".

Justice Collins said: "In my view it would be improper to fail to give assistance which otherwise would have been given, simply because the claimant was believed to be involved in terrorism and has not had any previous connection with this country."

Hicks' lawyer, Stephen Grosz, said the decision was a breakthrough. He said there was now no reason why Hicks should not enjoy the same protection as the nine other British citizens released without charge from Guantanamo Bay on representations of the British Government.

The British Government has repeatedly condemned Guantanamo as an abuse of legal process. Lawyers acting for British Home Secretary Charles Clarke immediately announced that they would take the matter to the Court of Appeal. But Justice Collins refused the British Government a stay of his judgement, meaning that the Government is compelled to proceed with Hicks' citizenship application.

The British Government is anxious not to award Hicks citizenship as it fears that Hicks' reaction would be to immediately renounce his Australian citizenship. This would make Mr Hicks the primary responsibility of the British Government, which could not then strip him of his British citizenship as it would leave him stateless.

Mr Hicks's lawyers argue that the Australian government has refused to plead for his release and has made no attempt to prevent his trial by a US military commission. Whereas the UK government acted to remove its citizens imprisoned at Guantánamo, and would be compelled to call for the release of Mr Hicks.

After today's ruling, his lawyers will now press the British government to make arrangements for him to take the required citizenship oath and pledge. They will then urge the Home Office to seek his release from the detention centre, in Cuba, and bring him to the UK.

Hicks, a former kangaroo skinner and Muslim convert was caught in Afghanistan in December 2001. He faces charges including conspiracy to commit war crimes and aiding and abetting the enemy, all of which he denies.

Australian Responses

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer says David Hicks' citizenship is not a matter for Australia. Mr Downer says the Australian Government is neutral about the decision and that it is a matter between Hicks and the British Government.

"Once he is a British citizen then what the British Government does in relation to him is matter between him and the British Government - it is not a matter that will involve us and we have made that clear all along," he said.

Federal Opposition Leader Kim Beazley says the outcome is embarrassing and that the Government should have taken a stand in favour of a proper judicial process for Hicks. "That's the position not taking a strong stand in favour of a proper judicial process puts us in."

Greens Senator Bob Brown implored the Federal Government not to impede Hicks's progress to Britain. Senator Brown is concerned the Government will lean on the British Government to appeal.

"It's been an affront to the dignity of Australia, not just the rights of Hicks, that for four years the Australian Government has recognised the kangaroo court system, this military commission and recognised that in Australian law, backed by the Labor Party, when the Australian courts were the right place for Hicks to be right from the outset," Senator Brown said.

Federal Liberal MP Peter Slipper has declared, "he's their problem and good riddance". Mr Slipper has since claimed he was joking.

News of the ruling is still to reach Hicks but his lawyers say the Home Office must comply with it or appeal. The British Home Office has 14 days to appeal against a High Court ruling. Hicks's Australian lawyer, David McLeod, says his client will remain an Australian citizen as well.