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Australian detainee agrees to plead guilty

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba—David Hicks, the 31-year-old Australian who became the first person to face a U.S. war crimes trial since World War II, unexpectedly agreed to plead guilty to a single count of lending material support to terrorism in an extraordinary court proceeding here Monday night.

Hicks looked calm, in a beige prison camp uniform, with long straggly hair running down his back, as his Pentagon-appointed counsel, Marine Maj. Dan Mori, declared Hicks would plead guilty to one of two specifications in the charge—participating in a string of paramilitary training exercises at al-Qaida camps and of meeting with Osama bin Laden.

Hicks wasn't charged with actually engaging in combat with American forces or their allies.

Hicks is likely to be sentenced later this week, said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman at Guantanamo, if prosecutors accept the guilty plea. The chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, told reporters that Australian and U.S. attorneys had met in January to discuss a plea.

Hicks would serve any sentence in Australia under a previous diplomatic deal.

His decision was a fittingly unexpected development in a process that was born in controversy when the Bush administration decided in early 2002 to open the prison camp here for terrorist suspects and to hold them indefinitely without access to civilian courts.

Hicks' conviction, even on a relatively minor charge, would be the Bush administration's first solid legal victory after a string of defeats that last year forced the administration to agree to let Congress set the terms for trying terrorist suspects at Guantanamo.

Hicks is the only person charged so far under the new system, which Congress authorized last year, but charges have been prepared against two others. The White House also has said it intends to use the system to try at least some of the 14 so-called high-value detainees who were transferred to Guantanamo in September after years in secret CIA custody. Among those is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Hicks entered the plea decision at about 8:30 p.m. at a specially called nighttime session of the court, hours after Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, who's presiding over Hicks' so-called military commission, had dismissed two long-serving civilian defense attorneys as unqualified, leaving Hicks with only his military lawyer as he faced a possible life-in-prison sentence.

During the earlier session, Hicks didn't enter a plea.

There was no hint that Hicks' case would come to a close so quickly when Kohlmann recessed Monday's hearing after less than four hours. But then in the early evening Kohlmann ordered participants in the hearing to return to court.

Hicks' father, Terry, and sister Stephanie had been in the courtroom for the first hearing, but had left for a multi-leg flight back to Australia when Kohlmann called the attorneys back to the hilltop tribunal building many miles from the U.S. prison camps.

Hicks' father earlier had told reporters that he and Stephanie had had an emotional, two-hour meeting with Hicks in a cell behind the tribunal chamber.

"He just wants to try to get back to a normal life," his father said. "He knows that (Prime Minister) John Howard is frightened that he'll do something when he gets back. What the hell is he going to do? He did nothing in Afghanistan. His main aim is to come back to Australia, see his kids and settle down."

Hick's decision to plead guilty came after Kohlmann determined that two civilian U.S. lawyers who'd spent years on Hicks' defense couldn't serve.

Kohlmann excused attorney Rebecca Snyder because, although she was a reserve officer in the U.S. Navy, his reading of the rules said that a taxpayer-paid defense attorney could only be an active-duty officer, in uniform.

Next, Kohlmann excused New York defense attorney Joshua Dratel from the team, after Dratel said he wouldn't agree to sign a pre-trial agreement that Kohlmann was requiring, since Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had yet to issue rules governing military commission defense lawyers.

By the time the case prosecutor, Marine Lt. Col. Kevin Chenail, stood to read the charges, Hicks' defense table was half empty. Only Mori, an outspoken critic of the process both here and in Australia, sat beside him.

Everyone agreed that Hicks would wait until after the defense-lawyer issue and others were settled to enter a plea.

"From my understanding, I just lost a lawyer," Hicks said after Snyder was disqualified. "I'm shocked because I just lost another lawyer," he said soon after Dratel packed up his briefcase and walked out of the commission chambers.

The hearing was the first time Hicks had been seen by anyone other than his lawyers and captors in nearly three years.

He wore a rumpled tan prison uniform and black flip-flops, prompting the military judge to remind Hicks' defense attorney that detainees were expected to appear in neat office attire or a culturally appropriate equivalent.

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(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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