Australian Terror Suspect Faces New Round Of Guantanamo Trials

Sunday, March 25th 2007, 8:59 pm
By: News On 6

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) _ After a nomadic decade that carried him from the Australian outback to the battlefields of Afghanistan, David Hicks ended up locked away at this remote U.S. base in Cuba, accused of training with al-Qaida and fighting for the Taliban.

Now, more than five years since he was hauled to Guantanamo Bay, the former kangaroo skinner is expected to get a chance to contest allegations that he took up arms against the United States in the chaotic aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Hicks is scheduled to be arraigned Monday on a charge of providing material support for terrorism. He is the first Guantanamo detainee charged under new rules for military trials, or commissions, adopted after the Supreme Court cast aside the previous system in June.

Lawyers for Hicks, 31, say he plans to plead innocent.

One of his attorneys, Joshua Dratel, dismissed as U.S. ``mythology'' that the Australian is a terrorist who threatened the United States or its allies.

The U.S. military had originally charged Hicks with attempted murder, aiding the enemy and conspiracy to attack civilians, commit terrorism and destroy property.

But those charges were dropped, suggesting that even the United States no longer considers Hicks to be a significant catch in its global war on terror.

``His support for the al-Qaida organization is what we intend to prove,'' said Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor for the tribunals. Davis said prosecutors and defense attorneys have been discussing a possible plea deal since January, but have not reached an agreement.

Military charging documents depict Hicks as somewhat of a hapless holy warrior. A high school dropout, he converted to Islam in 1999 after returning from Kosovo, where he fought on behalf of Muslim Albanians seeking independence from Serbia.

Armed with grenades and an assault rifle, Hicks spent weeks trying to join the fight in Afghanistan following the 2001 U.S. invasion but apparently failed to win the confidence of his al-Qaida associates, according to the documents.

He finally reached the front lines in Afghanistan two hours before they collapsed. His menial assignments along the way included guarding a tank.

His father, Terry Hicks, has said that his wayward son went to Afghanistan in early 2001 as part of a religious pilgrimage. But the U.S. military alleges he traveled with support from a militant Pakistani group, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, and attended al-Qaida terrorist training camps.

When the U.S. invaded in late 2001 _ to oust al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts following the Sept. 11 attacks _ Hicks remained on the margins.

In Kandahar, where he was assigned to watch a tank outside the airport, he tried unsuccessfully to share his knowledge of al-Qaida tactics, the United States alleges.

``After apparent resistance to his training, and no enemy in sight at the time in Kandahar, Hicks decided to look for another opportunity,'' the Pentagon said.

Three weeks later, he arrived at the front lines near Konduz, where he briefly fought coalition forces before he was forced to flee. He was later captured by the Northern Alliance and handed over to U.S. forces.

In the years since, he has become a cause celebre in his native country. Prime Minister John Howard pushed U.S. officials to deal with Hicks' case more quickly. The charge against Hicks carries a maximum sentence of lifetime imprisonment, but U.S. and Australian officials said he may be able to serve his time in Australia.

Officials have said they plan to charge 60 to 80 of the detainees at Guantanamo, where the United States now holds about 385 men on suspicion of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban.

The only Australian detainee at Guantanamo, Hicks was supposed to be tried in 2005, but a judge placed a hold on his case while the Supreme Court considered whether the Bush administration overstepped its authority with its plans for military trials.

On Friday, a federal judge rejected a bid to delay his case again until the Supreme Court considers a challenge to a law stripping Guantanamo detainees of their right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts.

Hicks' Pentagon-appointed attorney, Marine Corps Maj. Michael Mori, said he does not believe his client can receive a fair trial because the commissions allow coerced and hearsay evidence.

``He's having a day but it's not in court. It's a misconception people have that this is a court proceeding,'' Terry Hicks told reporters in Washington en route to Guantanamo. ``He's just got so much going against him.''

Hicks, who is held alone in a small cell and is only allowed out for a maximum of two hours a day of recreation, shows signs of severe depression and is too fragile emotionally to aid his defense team, his attorneys said.

``He has to focus on ordinary things, day to day living, and he can't look beyond that to the broader issue of the case,'' Dratel said.

Terry Hicks, who last saw his son in August 2004, is traveling to Guantanamo from Australia with his daughter, Stephanie. The family will be allowed to meet with him briefly in a secure area of the courthouse before and after the arraignment, said Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand, a Guantanamo spokesman.

``They will be allowed physical contact and to hug each other,'' Durand said.