The Pentagon announced three criminal charges yesterday against David Hicks, an Australian held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, accusing him of conspiracy to commit war crimes, attempted murder and aiding the enemy.
The move made Hicks, who was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001, the third captive at Guantanamo Bay -- and the first citizen of a U.S. ally imprisoned there -- to be charged with terrorism-related offenses. He will face trial under the controversial military tribunal process devised for some of those apprehended in government's war on terrorism.
According to the Pentagon charge sheet, Hicks, 28, a high school dropout and convert to Islam who has done stints as a cowboy, boxer, shark fisherman and kangaroo skinner, attended several al Qaeda training courses at camps in Afghanistan in 2001. Leaving the country briefly, he returned after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to fight alongside al Qaeda and Taliban members.
Marine Maj. Michael Mori, a military lawyer representing Hicks, said his client has not committed any crime and would fight the charges.
"What's not in the charges is almost more telling than what is," Mori said in a telephone interview. "There is no statement that David Hicks shot any service member or planted any bombs."
In outlining its case, the Pentagon said Hicks trained in Albania in 1999 with the Kosovo Liberation Army and fought for Albanian Muslims. He converted from Christianity to Islam and, in early 2000, joined an Islamic extremist group in Pakistan known as Lashkar e Tayyiba, or Army of the Righteous, participating in clashes with Indian forces in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
In January 2001, Hicks traveled to Afghanistan to attend al Qaeda terrorist training camps, where he took courses on weapons, urban tactics, guerrilla warfare and other military-related subjects, the Pentagon said. As part of a course on information gathering, Hicks conducted surveillance of various targets in Kabul, including "the U.S. and British embassies," according to the charge sheet.
At that time, though, neither the United States nor Britain operated an embassy in the Afghan capital. A spokesman for the military tribunals said yesterday that the reference was to buildings once used as embassies and still occupied, when Hicks allegedly spied on them, by employees of the United States and Britain.
According to the Pentagon, Hicks had personal contact with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as well as al Qaeda lieutenants Muhammad Atef, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and Saif al-Adel. At the suggestion of bin Laden, Hicks began translating some training camp materials from Arabic to English, the Pentagon said.
In Pakistan visiting a friend in September 2001 when the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were attacked, Hicks returned to Afghanistan and joined with fighters opposing U.S. and allied forces first in the southern city of Kandahar and then in the northern town of Kunduz, according to the Pentagon.
No date was announced for the trial. Trial dates have not been set in the cases of the two other Guantanamo Bay inmates charged so far -- Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi of Sudan and Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al Bahlul of Yemen. They were charged in February with conspiracy to commit war crimes. Three other men have been designated eligible for trial before the tribunals but have not been charged.
Formally called "commissions," the tribunals will be the first of their kind for the United States since World War II. Yesterday's Pentagon statement pledged that the trials will be "full and fair," but the defendants' lawyers, legal experts and human rights advocates have raised questions about the fairness of the process.
If convicted, Hicks would face a maximum sentence of life in prison because the United States agreed in negotiations with Australia last year not to seek the death penalty. Yesterday's Pentagon statement also made clear that U.S. officials are open to the idea of transferring Hicks to Australia to serve his sentence.
Word of the charges came a week after President Bush met in Washington with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who has sought to resolve the cases of Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, another Australian imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.
In a statement yesterday, the Australian government welcomed announcement of the charges, saying it "is satisfied the military commission process will be fair and transparent while protecting the security interests of the U.S." It also said that Australian authorities had been advised that Habib will be included on a "second list," due soon for approval by Bush, showing more detainees eligible for military commissions.