- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

SYDNEY, Australia Peter Shacker is more concerned with the war against bush fires that recently raged near his home than the war on terrorism in distant Afghanistan.
Asked his opinion about a 26-year-old Australian arrested in Afghanistan for purported links with the Taliban and the al Qaeda terrorist group, the 60-something printing press owner and Sydney native furrowed his brow.
"Yes, I read something about that guy and I think that he has every right to his beliefs. That's what I think," he said, referring to David Hicks, who has been held by U.S. forces along with more than 300 fighters from Afghanistan.
"If he wanted to fight with the Taliban, he had every right to. There are so many people fighting with the IRA how come they go free?"
Australians' passive tolerance for Mr. Hicks' actions is mixed with a strong criticism of plans to try him under U.S. laws.
"I do think that Hicks is a nut, but he has every right to be a nut Australia has hundreds of them," said Ted Smith, a retired factory worker. "However, the boy should be brought home if he is going to be tried for anything. Why should the Americans sit in judgment over him?"
Their opinion is echoed in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, which thundered in a recent editorial: "In the absence of the clearest reason for the U.S. authorities to hold them such as evidence of direct involvement in terrorist attacks on America any Australian caught in the Afghanistan conflict should have been handed over to the Australian authorities by now."
Mr. Hicks, a native of Adelaide, has been variously described as a former gold prospector and chicken factory worker.
He dropped out of high school at 14, after a period in which Australian press accounts say he drank heavily, used drugs and was interested in Satanism, the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently.
His tale is reminiscent of a 1979 iconic Australian film called "Breaker Morant," which tells the true story of three Australian soldiers during the Boer War who became enmeshed in a court martial to serve British political ends.
The Australians didn't approve then, and they don't approve now, even if Mr. Hicks is nowhere near the noble soldiers represented in the movie.
But Mr. Hicks, who is held on board the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea along with American John Walker Lindh, is unlikely to be expatriated to Australia until the Australian government has decided what charges will be brought against him.
And this is going to prove difficult. "I do not see a law in Australia under which Hicks can be prosecuted. There is no evidence that he fought for the terrorists, and there is a good chance that if he does come back here he will get off," said Sam Blay, law director at the University of Technology in Sydney.
"And there is no law in Australia that prevents Hicks from fighting for a foreign government's army, such as the Taliban."
Australian analysts are dismayed that the U.S. government is denying Mr. Hicks prisoner-of-war status.
The Muslim community in Sydney views the current hands-off treatment by the Australian government toward him with concern.
"Australia is behaving like a puppet of the United States: If a person goes to fight with the Israelis, nobody cares, but if they go off to fight for the Muslims, they get a bad name and the U.S. can do what they like with the person. That's the reality today," said Mohammed Dahlan, the head of the Islamic Society of Manly.
"My sympathies lie with David Hicks because I believe that he is being used for political gains, both by the U.S. as well as the government here," Mr. Dahlan said.
Another Muslim leader in Australia who had close interactions with Mr. Hicks while he was converting to Islam said he was shocked and disturbed to hear that Mr. Hicks had been arrested in Afghanistan.

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