By MICHAEL MELIA
The Associated Press
Saturday, March 31, 2007; 5:06 AM
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- An Australian who complained of his treatment at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo was convicted of supporting terrorism, but will spend less than a year in jail at home in a deal that requires his silence about alleged abuse.
David Hicks, 31, who has spent more than five years at Guantanamo, was the first of hundreds of foreign terror suspects held at the isolated prison in southeast Cuba to be convicted, a case that also marked the first U.S. war crimes conviction since World War II.
He was tried by a military tribunal under a system created by President Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks that has been widely criticized as a violation of the prisoners' right to challenge their confinement in U.S. courts.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the verdict vindicated what his government had said _ that Hicks was a dangerous terrorist. But his father, Terry Hicks, called the light sentence "amazing" given that "the Americans have been touting David as the worst of the worst."
"Something's not right. It shows how weak the evidence is in this charade," he said.
Hicks had faced a maximum sentence of life in prison. He entered a guilty plea Monday night, but he was not formally convicted until the judge accepted his plea at Friday's session.
A panel of officers flown to Guantanamo for the sentencing Hicks deliberated for two hours before approving a sentence of seven years, the maximum allowed under the plea deal. After they left the courtroom, the judge, Marine Corps Col. Ralph Kohlmann, revealed all but nine months would be suspended.
Asked if the outcome was what he was told to expect, Hicks said, "Yes, it was."
The plea deal will send Hicks to a prison in Australia within 60 days. His sentence begins immediately, but Guantanamo commanders said there would be no change in his detention conditions before his departure.
The former outback cowboy showed little emotion as he confirmed to the judge that he conducted surveillance on the former U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Hicks said he agreed to plead guilty because prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him. Speaking in a deep voice, he said he faced damning evidence taken from "notes by interrogators" that he had been shown.
Hicks wore a suit and tie and his hair had been shorn, a big change from previous sessions, when he appeared in a prison uniform and his hair hung below his shoulders. His lawyers said he had kept his hair long to help block out the round-the-clock lighting in his cell.
A Muslim convert, Hicks allegedly attended al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, conducting surveillance on the British and American embassies as part of his training. He had spent only two hours on the Taliban front line before it collapsed in November 2001 under attack by U.S. Special Forces and the Northern Alliance.
While fleeing, Hicks came across a group of Arab fighters who told him they were heading back to the front to fight to the death. Hicks declined to join them and was captured in December 2001 as he tried to escape into Pakistan, according to the military's charge sheet.
Hicks had alleged harsh treatment, including beatings, during his more than five years at the camp. But in his plea bargain, Hicks stipulated that he has "never been illegally treated by a person or persons while in the custody of the U.S. government," according to Kohlmann.
Furthermore, the judge said, the agreement bars Hicks from suing the U.S. government for alleged abuse, denies him any right to appeal his conviction and imposes a gag order that prevents him speaking with news media for a year.
Shayana Kadidal, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents hundred of Guantanamo detainees, said the provisions appeared aimed at preventing abuse allegations from emerging and politically damaging the Bush administration.
"If Mr. Hicks' treatment was not illegal, he should be allowed to describe it so the world can judge for itself," said Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a statement read by his Pentagon-appointed lawyer, Hicks thanked U.S. service members for their professionalism during his imprisonment and expressed regret for his actions.
"He apologizes to his family, he apologizes to Australia and he apologizes to the United States," said Marine Corps Maj. Michael Mori.
The lead prosecutor, Marine Lt. Col. Kevin Chenail, said Hicks deserved the maximum punishment for betraying the freedoms he was raised with in Australia.
"Muhammad Dawood will always be a threat unless he changes his beliefs and his ideology," said Chenail, who referred to Hicks by his alias.
Howard, who supports the U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, has faced growing pressure for Hicks to be returned home ahead of elections later this year.
"The bottom line will always be that he pleaded guilty to knowingly assisting a terrorist organization," Howard told reporters in Sydney. "He's acknowledged the prosecution could have proved that beyond a reasonable doubt."
Hina Shamsi of Human Rights First said it was clear the plea bargain was propelled by political considerations of a U.S. ally. "Mr. Hicks' military commission was like a train hurtling toward judgment," he said.
Chief prosecutor Air Force Col. Morris Davis denied that and said he was satisfied the proceedings were fair. He added that he hoped Hicks' short sentence would not set a precedent.
"I think David Hicks is very fortunate he's getting a second chance," he told reporters. "I think that he's learned a lesson from this and he'll make the most of that second chance."
Hicks had also been charged with supporting terrorist acts. That count was dismissed as part of the agreement.
Under the deal, he will also be required to cooperate with U.S. and Australian authorities to share his knowledge of al-Qaida and a militant Pakistani group, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, which helped him travel to Afghanistan to attend terrorist training camps.
"Any failure to cooperate with U.S. or Australian law enforcement may delay your release from confinement," Kohlmann warned.
Another condition calls for Hicks to hand over to the Australian government any proceeds from selling the rights to his life story.
In the days before his arraignment Monday, Hicks' lawyers said their client was deeply depressed and eager to leave Guantanamo. He spent the last few months alone in a small, solid-walled cell.
His father vowed to pursue the allegations that his son was sexually abused and tortured both physically and mentally by Americans.
"I'm not going to let this lie just because David's been forced into a situation where he has to sign a waiver," Hicks said.
Prosecutors say they plan to charge as many as 80 of the 385 men now held at Guantanamo on suspicion of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban.
But Hicks is the only detainee who has been formally charged since the military tribunals were revised after the Supreme Court in June struck down the original system as unconstitutional.
Now the court is considering a challenge to the new setup, which is also under attack from some members of Congress.