GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba—Australian David Hicks pleaded guilty here Friday to supporting terrorism in exchange for a nine-month prison sentence under a plea deal that forbids him from claiming he was abused in U.S. custody.
In return, Hicks, 31, will be allowed to leave Guantanamo within 60 days to serve out the sentence in his native Australia. And he will be free by New Year's Eve.
It was a startling conclusion to the first U.S. war-crimes tribunal since World War II.
"They told us this was one of the world's worst terrorists, and he got the sentence of a drunken driver," said Ben Wizner, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Bush administration had originally sought life in prison for Hicks. Eight senior U.S. military officers were told they could sentence him to seven years for providing material support to terrorism, which they did.
But moments after they were ushered out of the tribunal chambers at 8:15 p.m., the presiding officer, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, disclosed that a Pentagon official had cut the deal.
Under the deal, Hicks agreed not to talk to reporters for a year, to forever waive any profit from telling his story, to renounce any claims of mistreatment or unlawful detention and to submit voluntarily to U.S. interrogation and testify at future U.S. trials or international tribunals.
The agreement drew criticism from civil liberties and human rights attorneys monitoring the trial. They were especially critical of the order forbidding Hicks from protesting any mistreatment, saying such a requirement would be unconstitutional in a civilian U.S. court.
"If the United States were not ashamed of its conduct, it wouldn't hide behind a gag order," Wizner said. "The agreement says he wasn't mistreated. Why aren't we allowed to judge for ourselves?"
Hicks' Marine defense attorney had sought a 20-month sentence, arguing that Hicks should get credit for his five years and four months in detention at Guantanamo as a so-called enemy combatant.
"His heart wasn't with al-Qaida," said Marine Maj. Dan Mori, Hicks' attorney. He cast Hicks as a "wannabe" soldier who as a high-school dropout was rebuffed by a bid to enlist in the Australian army.
Countered Marine Lt. Col. Kevin Chenail, the case prosecutor, in urging the maximum seven years: "Other confused, lost souls might follow in his footsteps."
Besides, said Chenail, Hicks willingly rejoined Osama bin Laden's forces a day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "He knew America was coming after al-Qaida; he wanted to help them out."
The short, stocky, one-time kangaroo skinner turned soldier of fortune attended Friday's hearings in a charcoal suit and tie, with a styled haircut, a stark contrast to the prison uniform, flip-flops and straggly shoulder-length hair he sported at his first hearing on Monday.
During the morning hearing where he entered his plea, Hicks admitted to a 35-point narrative that he'd taken four training courses with al-Qaida before the Sept. 11 attacks and that he'd asked bin Laden why he offered no training manuals.
He also admitted to standing guard with an AK-47 during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, first at Kandahar Airport and later beside a Taliban tank. He said he was engaged in two hours of combat with U.S. proxy Northern Alliance troops, but didn't admit to ever firing a shot.
Not in his final agreement were some of the most explosive charges that had initially been drawn against him: that he had discussed going on a suicide mission with a senior al-Qaida leader, that he'd met the so-called shoe-bomber Richard Reid and that he fought in the same unit as John Walker Lindh, an American captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and now serving time in a federal prison for his actions.
Asked what evidence he'd been shown to conclude a U.S. military tribunal would find him guilty, Hicks replied: "Notes from interrogations taken from me or other people."
In his plea, Hicks also admitted that he'd conducted surveillance at a former U.S. Embassy in Kabul and expressed approval of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which he learned about while watching TV in Pakistan on a break from al-Qaida training. He returned to Afghanistan on Sept. 12 to volunteer his services with al-Qaida and the Taliban.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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