GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba - An Australian accused of helping the Taliban fight the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan pleaded guilty Monday to providing material support for terrorism, a step lawyers said would assure his transfer from Guantanamo to a prison in Australia.
David Hicks, 31, was the first of hundreds of Guantanamo detainees to make such a plea at this U.S. Navy base since the first terror suspects were brought here in 2002. On Monday, he also became the first detainee to face prosecution under revised military tribunals set up after the Supreme Court found the Pentagon’s previous system for trying Guantanamo prisoners unconstitutional.
He could be sentenced by the end of the week, military officials said. 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.
“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.
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.
The heavyset Hicks appeared at his hearing wearing a khaki prison jumpsuit. The Muslim convert shaved his beard before his arraignment but kept the long hair that his attorney says he uses to block the constant light in his cell.
His father 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 pleas.
Hicks’ military attorney, Marine Corps Maj. Michael Mori, told the judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, that his client was pleading guilty to one of two counts of providing material support for terrorism and not guilty to the other. Asked by Kohlmann if this was correct, Hicks said solemnly: “Yes, sir.”
According to the charge sheet, Hicks spent weeks trying to join the fight in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban against invading U.S. forces and their Northern Alliance allies, the charge sheet says, but the Taliban’s lines collapsed barely two hours after he reached the front. He was armed with grenades and an assault rifle and his menial assignments along the way included guarding a tank.
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 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.
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.
Kohlmann, wearing a black robe over his uniform, ordered attorneys to attend a closed session Tuesday in a hilltop courthouse on the base in southeast Cuba to specify the acts to which Hicks is pleading guilty. The judge will also make sure Hicks understands the consequences of the plea, officials said.
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.
“We’re anticipating in the next few days bringing this to a conclusion,” Davis said.
Outcry in Australia
In Australia, 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.
The plea announcement marked a dramatic conclusion to the first hearing under revised military tribunals.
Defense lawyers and human rights groups say the new system, approved by the U.S. Congress last year, is also flawed because it does not offer the same protections as U.S. courts.
“In a narrow sense, David Hicks was not legally coerced today to issue a plea, but he was operating in the background of a highly coercive system that has held him for five years and did little today to restore his faith ... in the legitimacy of the system,” said Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch.
At the first session in Monday’s hearing, Hicks asked for more lawyers to help defend him, but Kohlmann instead ordered two civilian attorneys to leave the defense table, leaving the defendant with one attorney.
Kohlmann said the two civilian lawyers, including a Defense Department attorney, were not authorized to represent Hicks.
One of the 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.
Scolded by judge
“I’m shocked because I just lost another lawyer,” Hicks said after Dratel’s departure, drawing a scolding from the judge for interrupting as he explained the reasoning for removing the lawyers.
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 have also questioned the detainees’ lack of access to U.S. courts.