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Prime Minister is sceptical about latest claims of torture of David Hicks.

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Thursday 20 May 2004

Prime Minister is sceptical about latest claims of torture of David Hicks


MARK COLVIN: Australia's political leaders in Government and Opposition are sceptical about new claims that the Australian alleged to be a Taliban fighter and al-Qaeda terrorist, David Hicks, was tortured by American soldiers when he was detained in Afghanistan. 


A former inmate at the notorious prison at Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan says he saw American soldiers beating Hicks when the two were held together after the war in 2001. 


As new claims emerge about the treatment of the Australians being held by the US military, it's starting to grapple with the implications of the torture meted out to prisoners in its custody in Iraq. 


And a government-funded defence think-tank has backed the Prime Minister's insistence that Australia must now stay in Iraq because the country is at a crucial turning point which will determine whether it becomes a stable nation or slips into anarchy and terror. 


Matt Brown reports from Canberra. 


MATT BROWN: Inside the prison at Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan two-and-a-half years ago, Taliban supporter, Shah Mohammed, found himself locked up with a young man from the suburbs of Adelaide. 


SHAH MOHAMMED (translated): When they were doing the interrogations, they used to beat David Hicks up a lot. 


MATT BROWN: Speaking through an interpreter, Shah Mohammed, told Sky News that he could see American soldiers bashing David Hicks in sessions that went on for several hours. 


TRANSLATOR FOR SHAH MOHAMMED: He's seen it, he's witnessed himself, and he also used to tell…they had a window, where these guys were sitting in the interrogation was taking place that they could look through. 


MATT BROWN: The Prime Minister is sceptical and questions the timing of the new allegations. 


JOHN HOWARD: I do initially take them with a grain of salt. These allegations that Hicks and Habib have been ill treated have only come since the stories of American prisoner abuse have surfaced. 


MATT BROWN: Mr Howard also doubts the source of the new claims. 


JOHN HOWARD: It is coming from somebody who's described in the press reports as a Taliban supporter. Now having said all of that, of course we will take these reports to the Americans and we'll say what is your answer to this? Is this true or is it not? 


MATT BROWN: Stephen Kenny, the Australian-based lawyer for David Hicks, notes the claim from Shah Mohammed that the alleged beatings meted out at Mazar-e-Sharif were videoed. 


STEPHEN KENNY: I think the Australian Government now need to demand from the Americans copies of all Red Cross reports, and copies of any videos of David so that they can see for themselves. 


We understand from the newspaper reports there are videos. If Mr Howard doesn't believe the account of an eyewitness, then perhaps he'll believe the video. 


MATT BROWN: But Stephen Kenny says he's also concerned that any video evidence will have been destroyed by now. 


And support for some sort of independent investigation of these allegations by the Australian Government would require significant political pressure from the Federal Opposition. 


But like John Howard, the Opposition leader Mark Latham is also sceptical because of the source of the new claims. 


MARK LATHAM: These reports are concerning but I think we've also got to be cautious. The source of the report is a Taliban supporter, so that wouldn't be normally regarded as a reliable source, 100 per cent accurate source, so I would flag a concern, but also the caution of needing more information and more detail about what has actually gone on. 


MATT BROWN: Stephen Kenny says that in light of the revelations of the torture and abuse in Iraq, the Australian Government must go much further than just asking US authorities for their assurances about the treatment of David Hicks and fellow Australian Guantanamo detainee, Mamdouh Habib. 


STEPHEN KENNY: It is now clear, not only in relation to David Hicks, but in relation to many other prisoners of the US authorities, that abuse has been widespread within our prison systems. It is now appropriate for the Australian Government to take some action. 


For Mr Howard to say that the claim should be taken with a grain of salt, is not acceptable. If only he'd taken the allegations of weapons of mass destruction with a grain of salt, we may have all been better off. 


MATT BROWN: But John Howard has almost left behind the controversy over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, focussing now on the role that Iraq plays in the war on terror and the risk that it could become a failed state. 


Mr Howard maintains that the reasons for invading Iraq where valid, but he says he underestimated one of the keys factors influencing Iraq's future. 


JOHN HOWARD: The level of post-war opposition, that's self evidently the case. I think everybody a year ago may have hoped for, with good reason, that that would be less difficult. 


MATT BROWN: The authors of a new report on Australia's strategic challenges, at the government-funded Strategic Policy Institute, say that Australia has little choice now but to see its engagement in Iraq through. 


Peter Jennings says the future character of American foreign policy will be decided by what happens in Iraq over the rest of this year. 


PETER JENNINGS: Is this simply the last gasps of resistance in a country which is actually getting ready to move to some sort of more peaceful state, or is it the start of a longer-term popular resistance to the Coalition? 


MARK COLVIN: Peter Jennings from the Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra with Matt Brown.