A former Australian cowboy who allegedly attended an al Qaeda training camp and fought alongside the Taliban pleaded not guilty to all charges in a makeshift military courtroom here Wednesday, after an emotional reunion with family members he had not seen since leaving his outback homeland nearly five years ago.
David Hicks, 29, was escorted into the courtroom wearing a charcoal gray suit, a white button-down shirt and a tie. He did not make eye contact with members of his family, who were seated with a delegation of Australian government and other officials. They flew to the Navy base to witness the military commission proceedings here this week, the first of their kind held by the United States since World War II.
Hicks took his seat at the defense table and listened intently as the charges against him were read: conspiracy to commit war crimes, attempted murder and aiding the enemy. With his close-cropped hair, Hicks looked like some of the military officials sitting in the courtroom as he stood to enter his plea.
"Sir, to all charges, not guilty," he said in a deep voice with a heavy Australian accent.
Army Col. Peter E. Brownback III, who is presiding over the proceedings, adjourned the military commission for the case until Nov. 2, giving defense lawyers time to file motions seeking to have the charges dismissed. Brownback scheduled the trial to begin Jan. 10. Hicks could face life in prison if convicted.
Hicks is the only defendant from outside the Middle East to be formally charged and brought before the military commissions so far. President Bush revived the commissions two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and administration officials pledged that the system will balance the rights of the accused against national security interests. Critics of the commissions call them relics that fail to follow rules of fundamental fairness.
Defense attorneys for Hicks picked up where the lawyer for another suspected terrorist, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, left off on Tuesday: attacking the military commissioners who will serve as judges and jurors in Hicks's case and the three other cases pending at Guantanamo Bay.
After questioning the panelists, civilian attorney Joshua Dratel asked that five of the six commission members, including Brownback, be disqualified from the proceedings, contending they cannot be fair-minded participants. The military-appointed lawyer for Hamdan had asked that the same five commissioners be discharged.
One commission member served in intelligence operations in Afghanistan. Another prepared battle plans for the Afghanistan conflict and decided which detainees should be sent to Guantanamo Bay. Another commanded a Marine reservist who perished in the World Trade Center attack, and a fourth said he was uncertain what the Geneva Conventions are.
Dratel focused much of his attention on Brownback, who was selected to be presiding officer by a close friend, retired Army Maj. Gen. John D. Altenburg Jr., chief of the military commissions. Dratel questioned Brownback's qualifications and suggested he was appointed to the post because of his personal connections.
Dratel said the two men met in 1977 and became close in 1992 when they were stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. He said Brownback's wife worked for Altenburg, and Altenburg was the host of Brownback's retirement ceremony in 1999. Dratel described them as "close personal friends" and said Brownback called to volunteer as the presiding officer of the military commissions after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld named Altenburg to be their appointing authority. Brownback beat out 33 other candidates for the position.
Brownback said his relationship with Altenburg would not interfere with his decision-making process. Still, he said he would forward Dratel's challenge to Altenburg, who will decide whether Brownback or any of the other commissioners will be dismissed.
Dratel and other members of Hicks's defense team, including Marine Maj. Michael Mori, argue that their client did not violate any laws in effect at the time, and that Hicks has been held illegally at Guantanamo Bay almost since the inception of the military prison camp here in January 2002.
Terry Hicks said his son dabbled with drugs and was in and out of legal trouble before he left his home in Australia for a lifetime of adventure. David Hicks "always wanted to see what was over the next fence, and as he got older the fences got taller," his father said. How Hicks went from kangaroo skinner to alleged al Qaeda fighter is unclear, but prosecutors say he converted to Islam, joined the Kosovo Liberation Army, received training in an al Qaeda camp and took up arms with the terrorist organization against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Before Wednesday's hearing, Hicks met with his father and stepmother, Beverly, in a room in the commission building for about 15 minutes. Terry Hicks described the visit as "pretty emotional," and said his son told him he was treated poorly after his capture. He declined to elaborate but said the treatment did not take place at Guantanamo Bay.
"There's physical abuse which he caught before he came here. The mental side is here," he said.
At the end of the day, the military permitted the Hicks family to meet one more time.
"It's going to be a while before we see him again," Terry Hicks said afterward, his voice faltering. "It's going to be pretty tough."