David Hicks Pleads Guilty to Helping al Qaeda

Last night, Australian David Hicks became the first terror suspect to be arraigned at Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba since the controversial facility opened more than five years ago.

Mr Hicks had been scheduled to appear before a military tribunal in November 2005, but this was cancelled after the US Supreme Court ruled that the Bush administration’s initial trial process was unconstitutional. The current hearing is being held under the new Military Commissions Act of 2006.

In a surprise move, Mr Hicks, 31, pleaded guilty to one charge of material support for terrorism related to helping al Qaeda fight US troops during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Three charges that had previously brought against him – attempted murder, conspiracy and aiding the enemy – were recently dropped.

It is believed that the plea was negotiated just before 8.30 pm local time, to avoid the 20-year prison term that chief prosecutor Air Force Colonel Moe Davis suggested might be imposed if Mr Hicks were tried and found guilty.

David McLeod, his Australian lawyer, said: “Obviously all the options have to be discussed, from ‘not guilty and tough it out’, through to ‘how do I get out of here at the earliest opportunity?’”Mr McLeod also said he believes the military commission is unfair and designed to obtain convictions.

One of the long-standing criticisms of both the previous and current military tribunal processes is the admissibility of evidence obtained by means of coercion.

Yesterday, Mr Hicks’ hearing began with the presiding officer, Colonel Ralph Kohlmann, barring the participation of two lawyers who had been working with Mr Hicks over the past two and a half years.

One of the attorneys, Rebecca Snyder, was removed from the case on the basis that the commission could only allow civilians to represent detainees if there was no expense incurred by the US government; Ms Snyder works for the Pentagon. Then criminal defense lawyer Joshua Dratel was disqualified from representing Mr Hicks when he refused to agree to procedural rules that had not yet been defined. He said, “I can’t sign a document that provides a blank check on my ethical obligations.”

Mr Hicks, who had long intended to plead not guilty, became alarmed as his legal team dissolved. When Colonel Kohlmann asked if he wanted Mr Dratel to remain at his side despite being disqualified, Mr Hicks responded, “I’m shocked because I just lost another lawyer. What’s the sense of him sitting here if he’s not my lawyer and can’t represent me?”

This left only US Marine Major Michael Mori to represent Mr Hicks. Major Mori has been an indefatigable advocate for Mr Hicks since being appointed his defense counsel in 2003, often appearing in the Australian media to criticize both the US and Australian governments for allowing Mr Hicks to be subjected to inhumane treatment,  extended interrogations and years of detention at Guantanamo Bay without being charged. Major Mori has also been a fierce critic of what he sees as the lack of judicial fairness of the Bush administration’s military commissions.

Jennifer Daskal, an attorney who is observing the Guantanamo Bay military commissions for Human Rights Watch, condemned yesterday’s proceedings. “These trials are the United States’ chance to restore its moral authority and reputation as a leading proponent of the rule of law,” she said. “Instead, today’s antics highlighted the illegitimacy of a hastily crafted process without established precedent or established rules. It appears that Mr Hicks was strong-armed into pleading guilty after two of his counsel were thrown off the case.”

Chief prosecutor Colonel Davis rejected this interpretation, insisting that the process is fair and robust, and would “stack up at least equally if not better than any other system on the planet”.

Colonel Kohlmann is expected to accept Mr Hicks’ guilty plea later this week.

Under a long-standing diplomatic agreement, Mr Hicks will serve his prison sentence in Australia.

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