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Guantánamo hearing for Australian detainee

London Guardian | March 26, 2007
Suzanne Goldenberg

David Hicks, an Australian detainee at Guantánamo Bay, is to appear before a war crimes court at the US detention centre today, the first inmate to go before the Bush administration's new military tribunals.
Mr Hicks, a 31-year-old former kangaroo skinner who has spent five years as a prisoner at the US base in Cuba, faces a single charge of providing material support to al-Qaida. His lawyers have said he will enter a plea of not guilty.

Mr Hicks is the first of some 60 to 80 Guantánamo prisoners the Pentagon plans to charge with war crimes under legislation passed by Congress last year.
In a nine-page charge sheet prepared by the Pentagon, he emerges as a hapless holy warrior, a high school dropout who converted to Islam and then drifted towards the battlefields. He is not accused of any link to the September 11 2001 attacks.

Indeed by the time of the US invasion of Afghanistan later that autumn, Mr Hicks had spent weeks trying to persuade al-Qaida leaders to let him anywhere near the frontline, the charge sheet alleges.

He was eventually tasked with standing guard over a Taliban tank with an AK-47 at Kandahar airport. By the time he managed to get close to the fighting, the Taliban defences were within hours of collapse. The charge sheet is unclear over whether Mr Hicks actually fired on US forces before his capture by the Northern Alliance near the northern town of Kunduz.

Five years of confinement at Guantánamo have proved harsh. Mr Hicks, who is allowed out of his small cell for just two hours a day, has shown signs of depression. He has complained repeatedly about his treatment and his lawyers believe he is emotionally and mentally fragile.

The Pentagon earlier dropped far more serious charges of attempted murder, aiding the enemy and conspiracy in what Mr Hicks's military defence lawyers have called an admission of the weakness of the case.

Mr Hicks's defence team argues that the charge against him is invalid because it is not recognised as a war crime under the laws governed by the Geneva convention.

If convicted, Mr Hicks would serve out his sentence, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, at an Australian jail under the terms of an earlier diplomatic agreement.

Today's hearing comes as the supreme court considers a challenge to a law stripping Guantánamo detainees of the right to challenge their detention in the US courts.

It also comes only days after the Pentagon released partial transcripts of earlier hearings in the trial of the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

 

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