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Terror detainee will serve his sentence in Australia

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba—Australian David Hicks, the first person to face U.S. war crimes charges since World War II, will be back in his homeland by June after five years of confinement at the American prison camp for suspected terrorists under a plea deal he agreed to Friday.

A panel of military officers was deliberating late Friday on what prison sentence Hicks should receive for one count of providing material support to a terrorist organization, the charge he pleaded guilty to in a morning hearing. The prosecution asked for seven years, the defense 20 months.

The U.S. and Australia already agreed that Hicks would serve whatever prison time he receives in Australia, and under the terms of his plea, Hicks will be allowed to leave Guantanamo within 60 days of his sentencing, meaning he'll be home by June.

Under the plea 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," said Ben Wizner, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The agreement says he wasn't mistreated. Why aren't we allowed to judge for ourselves?"

Eight senior U.S. military officers were brought to this remote U.S. Navy base to pass sentence. They began deliberating at 5:55 p.m. It was unknown how long they would take to reach a decision.

"His heart wasn't with al-Qaida," said Marine Maj. Dan Mori, Hicks' Pentagon-appointed attorney. He pleaded for a sentence of 20 months for a man he cast 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.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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