Terror Suspect At Guantanamo Pleads Guilty

Tuesday, March 27th 2007, 7:07 am
By: News On 6

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) _ An Australian detainee who pleaded guilty to helping al-Qaida fight the United States could be sentenced this week and will likely be returned to his native country to serve his sentence by the end of the year, the U.S. military said.

David Hicks, a 31-year-old former kangaroo skinner, entered the surprise plea Monday at the first session of new military tribunals that the Pentagon set up after the U.S. Supreme Court found its previous efforts to try Guantanamo prisoners unconstitutional.

Hicks appeared focused as his Pentagon-appointed attorney told the judge that his client was pleading guilty to one of two counts of providing material support for terrorism. Asked by the judge if this was correct, Hicks said solemnly, ``Yes, sir.''

Defense attorneys said a gag order by the military judge prevented them from discussing details of the plea until a sentence is announced and it could not be immediately determined whether there was a formal plea bargain.

A panel of military tribunal members convened for the Hicks case must travel to Guantanamo to approve any sentence, a development that could come this week.

``If I was a betting man, I'd say the odds are good'' that Hicks will be home by the end of the year, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo tribunals, told reporters after Hicks entered his plea.

The charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, but Davis has said he would seek a sentence of about 20 years. He said the five years Hicks has spent at Guantanamo could be considered in the ultimate sentence.

In the days leading up to the hearing, defense attorneys said Hicks did not expect a fair trial and was severely depressed and considering a plea deal to end his five-year imprisonment at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

The United States has agreed to let Hicks serve any sentence in Australia.

``This is the first step toward David returning to Australia,'' said David McLeod, an Australian attorney for Hicks.

Hicks, a Muslim convert, allegedly attended al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, conducting surveillance on the British and American embassies as part of his training. But he remained on the margins once the U.S. invaded to oust the Taliban following the Sept. 11 attacks. He eventually joined al-Qaida fighters hours before the front lines collapsed and was captured as he tried to flee, according to the U.S. military.

The count he pleaded guilty to says he intentionally provided support to a terror organization involved in hostilities against the United States. He denied the charge that he supported for preparation, or in carrying out, an act of terrorism.

The United States is holding about 385 prisoners at Guantanamo. Among them is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an al-Qaida member who during a so-called Combatant Status Review Tribunal earlier this month confessed to planning the Sept. 11 attacks and other terror acts. That military panel determined he was an enemy combatant who could later face charges.

Unlike the alleged terrorist mastermind, Hicks has been depicted by the U.S. military in its charge sheet as a minor figure.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he expected Hicks would return soon to Australia, where an outcry over his continued detention has cost Prime Minister John Howard support ahead of elections due this year.

``I am pleased for everybody's sake that this saga ... has come to a conclusion,'' Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

But Sen. Bob Brown, leader of the minor opposition Greens party, said Hicks made the plea so he could get out of Guantanamo Bay and his guilt would remain in doubt.

``He's pleaded guilty but under circumstances that wouldn't hold up in an Australian court and that debate will fly home with Hicks,'' Brown said.

Hicks entered the plea at an unscheduled, evening court session after initially reserving his plea at a dramatic daytime hearing.

Hicks asked for more lawyers to help defend him, but the judge, Marine Corps. Col. Ralph Kohlmann, instead ordered two civilian attorneys to leave the defense table, leaving the defendant with one attorney.

One of the civilian lawyers, Joshua Dratel, said he refused to sign an agreement to abide by tribunal rules because he was concerned the provisions did not allow him to meet with his client in private.

Hicks' military attorney, Marine Corps Maj. Michael Mori, challenged Kohlmann's impartiality, arguing that his participation in the previous round of military trials that the Supreme Court last year found to be illegal created the appearance of bias.

A challenge of the reconstituted tribunal system is pending before the Supreme Court. Lawyers for detainees have asked the high court to step in again and guarantee that the prisoners can challenge their confinement in U.S. courts.

Lawmakers also have questioned the detainees' lack of access to U.S. courts.

Kohlmann ordered attorneys to attend a closed session Tuesday in a hilltop courthouse at Guantanamo to specify the acts to which Hicks is pleading guilty. The judge also will make sure Hicks understands the consequences of the plea, officials said.

Terry Hicks had an emotional reunion with his son before the arraignment Monday. But he already had boarded a plane to leave Guantanamo when he was told an evening session would be held and was not in the courtroom when his son entered his plea.