Australian's Guilty Plea Is First at Guantanamo

In this drawing by a sketch artist, Australian detainee David Hicks sits with his defense counsel at Guantanamo Bay.
In this drawing by a sketch artist, Australian detainee David Hicks sits with his defense counsel at Guantanamo Bay. (Drawing By Janet Hamlin -- Associated Press)
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, March 26 -- Australian David M. Hicks pleaded guilty to one charge of material support for terrorism during a brief military hearing Monday night, becoming the first Guantanamo prisoner to officially accept criminal responsibility for aiding terrorists since the detention facility opened more than five years ago.

The plea during the first day of hearings under the Military Commissions Act of 2006 marks a victory for the Bush administration, which is now likely to secure a conviction in the first case it pursues under Congress's new rules.

Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann, the military commission's presiding officer, has not accepted the plea but is expected to do so in hearings this week.

Military commission officials here said Kohlmann and lawyers for both sides will work out details of Hicks's plea. Then a full military commissions jury panel will meet to decide on a sentence. Hicks faces a possible life term, but prosecutors said in recent days that they probably will not seek a term longer than 20 years.

Defense lawyers for Hicks said late Monday night that they could not discuss details of the guilty plea or whether there is an agreement with prosecutors about a sentence, although they said the case will probably be disposed of by the end of the week. Australian officials were planning for Hicks's possible return within days so he could serve his sentence.

Hicks, 31, entered a plea of guilty to one specification of providing material support for terrorism and pleaded not guilty to one specification of supporting terrorist acts. Prosecutors alleged that Hicks trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and met Osama bin Laden, but they were not prepared to present evidence that Hicks attempted to kill anyone.

Maj. Michael D. Mori, Hicks's military defense attorney, entered the pleas at a late hearing on Monday after a three-hour session in the afternoon that dealt primarily with legal issues. Hicks became the first detainee out of hundreds who have gone through Guantanamo Bay to have his case adjudicated. If his plea is accepted, he will be the first detainee from Guantanamo Bay to be convicted of a crime.

Congress wrote new rules for the commissions after the Supreme Court overruled the administration's earlier version of the trials, calling them unconstitutional. Attorneys for Guantanamo detainees have challenged the new law, and members of Congress have vowed to push legislation giving more rights to the detainees. Hicks's guilty plea could give the government a conviction that will not be challenged.

"I don't look at it as a victory," said Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor, who said he is pleased the military commissions are underway. "We are satisfied where we stand at this moment."

David H.B. McLeod, a civilian lawyer from Australia who is on Hicks's defense team, said Monday night that he would not comment on the guilty plea other than to say it was "the first step toward David returning to Australia."

Hicks was among the first detainees to arrive at Guantanamo in January 2002 and has spent more than five years incarcerated here.

U.S. military prosecutors allege that he has been involved in militant extremism since the late 1990s, when he joined liberation fighters in Kosovo. Hicks later traveled to Afghanistan and trained with al-Qaeda forces, met bin Laden and secured a tank at an airport in Kandahar, according to the U.S. government. He later allegedly supported the Taliban.

Australian officials have been pressuring President Bush to try Hicks swiftly and have been negotiating to have Hicks returned to Australia to serve out any prison term.

Lawyers from Australia and a delegation representing the Australian government were in the courtroom on Monday, and Hicks, in a tan tunic and pants, at one point looked back, nodded and smiled to people in the front row.

Much of Monday's legal wrangling dealt with Hicks's defense team. The presiding officer ruled that his two civilian attorneys were not qualified to represent him in court, in part because one refused to sign a form he felt would compromise his ethical responsibilities. The lawyers, Rebecca Snyder and Joshua Dratel, separately stormed out of the courtroom.

"I'm shocked because I just lost another lawyer," Hicks said when Kohlmann asked if he wanted Dratel to remain at his defense table, even though he could not represent him. "What's the sense of him sitting here if he's not my lawyer and can't represent me?"

Hicks's father and sister traveled to Cuba for the hearing and spent several hours meeting with him in a private room in the morning, getting the opportunity to hug him, pass on family messages and share lunch with him.

Defense Department officials announced Monday that they had transferred a high-value detainee into Guantanamo over the weekend. Abdulmalik Abdul-Jabbar, who allegedly admitted to participating in a 2002 hotel attack in Kenya and to plotting to shoot down an Israeli airliner near Mombasa, was the first direct transfer to the prison since September 2004. He was arrested in Africa in recent days.

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