Australian to Return Home to Serve Shortened Term

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, March 30 -- Australian David M. Hicks, who pleaded guilty this week to lending material support to terrorists, will be a free man by the end of the year after the presiding officer of his military commission announced Friday night that a pretrial agreement limited his sentence to a maximum of nine months.

Hicks will leave the Guantanamo Bay detention facility for an Australian prison by the end of May. When he is freed Dec. 30, he will have spent more than six years behind bars for training with al-Qaeda and playing a limited role in the war in Afghanistan in late 2001.

A military commission panel deliberated two hours Friday night on Hicks's sentence and handed down the maximum term: seven years in prison, on top of the five years he has already spent at Guantanamo Bay. But Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann, the presiding officer, announced that the convening authority, Susan J. Crawford, had already agreed to suspend all but nine months of the term.

Hicks's case marks the first conviction and penalty under Congress's new rules for enemy-combatant terrorism trials, and it was charged with political influence from one of America's closest allies. Australian Prime Minister John Howard, up for reelection later this year, had been asking for his countryman's return; Hicks will be released from prison just after the elections.

The sentence was part of a carefully crafted plea agreement with Crawford that will allow him to leave his tiny cell on this island by May 29 but also will provide novel protections to the U.S. government. U.S. officials hailed the verdict as showing that the military commissions system works, but the case gave just a glimpse of the complex and untested law because Hicks pleaded guilty on the case's first day.

Perhaps most important to Hicks, his five years at Guantanamo are nearly up, and there is a definitive end to his incarceration in sight. Kohlmann accepted his guilty pleas Friday morning.

Faced with the prospect of a life sentence had he gone to a full trial, Hicks entered what was essentially an Alford plea, meaning he did not admit guilt but did accept that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him. He also said that the version of events presented to the jury, which described him as training with al-Qaeda and taking up arms with the Taliban briefly in Afghanistan, squared with what he remembered doing.

Dressed in a charcoal-gray suit and purple tie with a new, short haircut, Hicks decided not to directly address the military commission but asked his defense attorney, Marine Maj. Michael "Dan" Mori, to speak on his behalf. Hicks offered an apology to his family, Australia and the United States and, Mori said, said he "wishes to acknowledge the 'many members of the U.S. military that have treated him with professionalism and humanity here at Guantanamo.' "

Hicks agreed to say that he was never "illegally treated" by anyone while he was in U.S. custody, and he promised not to file lawsuits against anyone in the U.S. government. He also agreed not to talk to the media about his actions, his capture or his detention for at least the next year. He is forbidden by Australian law to ever profit financially from his ordeal.

The U.S. government arranged to treat Hicks's five years in Guantanamo as exempt from applying toward time served in prison. The precedent could mean that terrorism suspects in future military commissions will face sentences that would be tacked onto their time spent in Cuba.

Prosecutors called Hicks "the enemy" and described him as someone who wanted to kill Americans on the front lines in the war in Afghanistan. Marine Lt. Col. Kevin Chenail called Hicks repeatedly by one of his aliases, Muhammad Dawood, during a closing argument that included calling him a "mere tool for terrorism."

"Muhammad Dawood will be a threat unless he changes his beliefs, his ideologies," Chenail said, arguing for the maximum sentence of seven years. He said Hicks could easily have stayed out of the fight but chose instead to travel to Afghanistan to oppose the United States and its allies.

Mori, on the other hand, said Hicks "hasn't hurt one person" and has taken steps to improve his life since entering Guantanamo, such as taking correspondence courses toward his high school equivalency degree and cooperating with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials. Mori painted him as a hapless "wannabe soldier" who could not hack it on the battlefield and instead ran from the fight.

The new system's rules required that a jury assemble for sentencing. The jury left the courtroom before Kohlmann announced the nine-month sentence.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company