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Quite a trip, quips man in orange

Brisbane Times
By Penelope Debelle and Phillio Coorey
May 21, 2007

HE IS back home, and in the custody of a government intent for now on keeping him a mystery. They would not officially tell us what movie David Hicks watched on his flight to Adelaide - it took a leak for the Herald to learn that he viewed the mobster flick The Departed - but there is every sign that when freedom comes, Hicks himself will be allowed to fill in the blanks unhindered.

As the convicted Taliban fighter faced his first night in Adelaide's Yatala prison last night, the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, indicated the Government would not enforce the one-year gag order imposed by the US as part of the deal that freed him. Hicks, Mr Ruddock said, would be free to tell his story after his release on December 31- just not to profit from it.

"While there were conditions imposed as part of the plea bargain, they were matters between him and the United States; they don't involve us," Mr Ruddock said. "I don't believe there is a basis upon which if he breached those conditions, that is, if he told aspects of his experience, we would be delivering him up because of that."

For now, there are only scraps, delivered second-hand. We know that Hicks cracked a wry joke about the extraordinary journey that took him from Guantanamo Bay to Adelaide, via Tahiti for a refuelling stop. "He did make the rather amusing comment there are not too many prisoners who get a world trip between stretches," Hicks's civilian lawyer for the past two years, David McLeod, said after the plane landed.

Hicks is no ordinary prisoner, and this long trip was no routine inmate exchange. He was in a chartered Gulfstream V jet, and accompanied by two prison officers, two Australian Federal Police officers and a medical officer. The total cost to the Australian Government: about $500,000.

The prisoner wore the vivid orange Yatala prison clothing that had been issued to him in Guantanamo and was in some way "restrained" during the flight, though Mr McLeod would not confirm he was handcuffed.

"He was restrained in his seat. It was quite a flexible arrangement that didn't worry him." The officers had treated him kindly, and the trip was apparently uneventful though remarkable for a man who had spent years in a prison whose conditions have prompted protests around the world.

"In the last 5½ years he hasn't walked in a straight line for more than about 10 metres. Just the actual getting onto a plane and feeling relatively free and being able to talk and enjoy the moment, he has been very grateful for that," his lawyer said.

"He watched a movie for the first time in 5½ years. He was generally very relieved and grateful to the Australian taxpayer for bringing him home and very grateful to the Federal and South Australian governments for allowing him to serve out the rest of his sentence close to family."

When he saw Adelaide from the sky, the elation was visible. "I can only talk about the look on his face and it was a clear look of relief, joy, that he was back in the land of his countrymen, something that should have happened a long time ago. He was happy to see the countryside looked pretty good from the air."

He was greeted by a large media contingent, then driven to jail in the back of a van, part of a convoy that included at least four police patrol cars and five motorcycles.

Hicks's father, Terry - who was in Sydney when the flight arrived - said he did not expect to see his son for several days. "We're going to be patient; it's been 5½ years and we'll just wait and see what happens and see what the protocol is."

There was, as ever, a stark contrast between the man described by the lawyers and relatives who had fought to get him home, and the version of the governments charged with jailing him now he is here. Mr McLeod depicted a repentant prisoner interested in ecology, zoology and the environment - a man "aware of his notoriety" but not proud of it.

But South Australia's Deputy Premier, Kevin Foley, described "a very foolish young man at best, an extremely dangerous man at worst" - and "a cheerleader of al-Qaeda".

Mr Ruddock, whose government had found Hicks a political liability as his detention without trial dragged on, said there had been unrecognised hard work behind the scenes. He regretted that this had not been better publicised. "I might have wanted to make it better known the level of concern that the Government had and the way in which we were continuously making representations to the US."

Now he is back, Hicks will become invisible once more. There will be no court appearances - Mr McLeod said his client had "instructed me to discontinue all current court actions" - and the next chapter will come when the Government has to decide how to deal with Hicks as a free man.

He is likely to be placed on a control order, his movements and communications restricted for a year. Hicks has already pledged to abide by this or any other similar condition. Then he will have to decide whether he wants to tell his story. Mr McLeod indicated this was not an immediate priority.

"He simply wants to get on with his life. He has no intention of selling his story or profiting in any way from his story. He wants to be accepted back in Australia as an ordinary citizen. I think ultimately he may want to tell his story but he doesn't want to in the next year.

Mr McLeod said Hicks was physically better and had been treated well by the American authorities in recent weeks. "But psychologically is the area that needs to be worked on. It is fair to say that after 5½ in the Western world's most notorious prison, he has become institutionalised."

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