Terry Hicks no longer tears up when he speaks of the time his son David told him he was beaten and sexually abused by guards.

Terry's toughened up a lot since the day he saw David hunched over in a chair, his legs shackled to an eye bolt in a massive steel plate on the floor of a Guantanamo Bay interview room, his manacled hands connected to the same plate.

Witnessing David's torture

It was the first time Terry Hicks had seen his son in about four years and it is a picture he still carries around in his head. "We were in the hearing room, the court room at Guantanamo Bay, and they said, 'We'll take you down to see David', and I thought 'great'. So we went down this long passage and it was wall-to-wall marines, fully armed; and then they took us into this room and there was David shackled and hunched forward because he couldn't stand or even sit straight. David's lawyer managed to persuade them to at least free his hands so that he could stand up and we could hug him and that sort of thing. We had 10 minutes."

That was bad enough, but it was the few minutes after the hearing, when they were taken back to David's cell, that was worse for Terry Hicks.

"David was shackled to the floor again. And he pulled us in close and said, 'I don't want you to say anything, I just want to tell you'. And that's when he told us about that abuse. He tried to impart as much as he could so we could understand and it was just absolutely bloody terrible. I felt like strangling the first bloody guard."

But the sight of the tears streaming down the face of the US marine who was in the interview room with them stopped Terry from reacting. "I just turned around and there was this marine guard, and he was crying. I think that's what took the pressure off me because straight away I thought 'aw s..., somebody else cares what's happened'. Poor #######, he had these bloody tears running out of his eyes and then I felt better. But when I reported what David had said to the press and it went through the [Australian] consulate they denied it because the Americans had told them they investigated it and it wasn't true."

What David Hicks told his father allegedly happened to him after he was arrested by Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and 'sold' to the Americans for a figure that his father has variously been told was US$1,000, US$5,000 and US$15,000. David was held on the USS Peleliubut told his father he was twice taken back to the mainland (he didn't know whether it was Pakistan or Afghanistan), injected with unknown substances, severely beaten and abused. That and the long-term violation of his human rights while in custody in Guantanamo Bay, the interrogations and the months and months of solitary confinement in a tiny cell has taken its toll on David, says his father, to the point where his son will no longer take a phone call from his family and is distrustful of everyone, even his own lawyer, and especially the Australian consulate.

Stress on the family

Terry Hicks wouldn't wish on anyone what has happened to his son and says it has put enormous stresses on his family. "But we're lucky in a way too. We and a few other families of those detained have lawyers who can tell us what's happening. There are over 400 people still in Guantanamo and many of their families don't know where they are or what's happened to them. Many think their sons are dead."

What little communication Terry can have with David is fraught with worry. He's written to him about every three weeks and has spoken to him on the phone four times since he was detained. "The last time was back in July last year and it wasn't good at all. It took us about 20 minutes to half an hour to get him into a reasonable conversation. He was inarticulate, wandering in his speech, emotional and angry. He just didn't know who to trust. But we finally got him to talk about fishing and that was okay. We couldn't talk about Guantanamo or anything happening to him or we would have lost him. This wasn't the David we knew. Previous phone calls were very chatty, he still had a sense of humour. After that phone call we knew that he wasn't good and was suffering emotional stress."

Heartache and confusion

In December last year, when the Australian Government arranged another call, David refused to speak to his family. "We'd been forewarned by Major Mori [Major Michael Mori, David's American-appointed lawyer] that David seemed to be losing trust in everybody and he didn't really know whether he wanted to talk to his family. He didn't know if he could cope with speaking to us again, because it was in David's mind that we could go away and talk about it and get rid of all our emotions, but David is taken back to the cell straight from that phone call. He's shackled and taken into solitary confinement and has to deal with that mentally.

"It was pretty hard to take when he wouldn't talk to us and they asked us to wait 15 minutes and I couldn't help thinking, 'I wonder whether they'll beat him and make him talk to us', but they came back and said, 'David won't talk' and that's still bloody hard, even if you knew it might happen."

Even when writing letters and sending family photographs, Terry treads a thin line, not knowing whether what he's saying or sending will help his son or help destroy him. He sent a big greeting card of family photos to Guantanamo with Major Mori recently but doesn't know whether David received it. "We don't know what he receives or what to send him. We don't know how anything will affect his emotional state. I mean, do you send photos of everyone having a great time at the beach? When I write to David I just generalise. He's always interested in the footy, the cricket, what's happening in the family, that sort of thing. I tell him we've just been for a week's holiday but I don't elaborate because that would be too cruel.

"I've told him not to write back. When he wrote to us he may as well have had a standard letter printed. He had nothing to write about because nothing happens in solitary confinement. And every time he wrote you couldn't understand it because they'd just blot out bits and wipe out bits. When we write letters to David we put at the end things like, 'We all love you David, stay strong,' and things like that, but we know for a fact that they're all taken out before he gets them. You can't even tell your own son that you love him." Terry Hicks, 62, may have had to learn in a hurry about international politics and law, and how to front the media, but he is very much your average Aussie bloke and still works as a machine operator at an Adelaide printery, devoting every spare moment to the cause of getting a fair go for his son.

He is not in touch with David's mother but relies on his own family (he is one of seven children) for support in the campaign to get a fair go for David and particularly his brother Chris, who "does all the hard yards", picking him up from the airport and helping in many other ways. Where Terry has forced himself to toughen up (at first he'd find his eyes filling with tears within the first five minutes of a media interview about David), Chris readily admits to now being the softie in the family and unashamedly tears up when his brother talks about what's happening to David.

How he's coping

So how does Terry Hicks cope? "I go to work every day. Without my football and my work I'd be lost. The people I work for have been incredible. Perhaps I could do a lot more for David if I didn't work, but I do what I can and just keep going." Terry has been working with young players at the Central Districts Football Club for the past 35 years and takes strength from the mateship he finds there as well as the offers of help that have come pouring in from organisations and individuals around the country.

"On 7 August, David's birthday, we get the lawyers together with family and friends, and we go down to the footy club and celebrate David's birthday. He went through the specialised squads there, the under nines through to the under 13s. We get everyone together and have a few drinks and wish him the best. In the phone call before the last one he said, 'If I ever get back to Australia book out the football club' and one day that's what we'll do."

Does Terry feel a weight of responsibility carrying the torch for David? "It's not a responsibility really, it's something you have to do. As a parent I say to people I just hope to hell you would do the same for your kids. People come up to me and say, 'I've got kids and I would not know what to do in your circumstances', and I say to them, you'd be surprised how you get that resonance out of yourself. You just pull it out from somewhere and you just keep going because they're your kids and you stand by them. If your kid commits murder, or runs drugs or whatever, you stand by them. If you don't you're not a parent."

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