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Terror suspect pleads guilty

Times Staff Writer

Australian David Hicks pleaded guilty Monday to material support of terrorism, securing a symbolic victory for the Bush administration in the first war crimes trial since World War II.

After a day of legal wrangling in which two of Hicks’ three defense lawyers were barred from representing him, the 31-year-old Muslim convert and soldier of fortune told the military judge in a specially reconvened night session that he had aided a terrorist group.

Bedraggled and appearing irritated, Hicks showed little emotion at the prospect of potentially leaving Guantanamo Bay after more than five years in military detention.

Under an agreement between Washington and the Australian government, Hicks would be allowed to serve any sentence in an Australian prison.

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The tribunal’s presiding officer, Marine Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann, is expected to hear the details of what Hicks has admitted to this afternoon, and the 10-member military commission could gather by the end of the week to determine a sentence, said spokeswoman Maj. Beth Kubala. The tribunal is formally known as a commission.

Hicks was captured in December 2001 by Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance fighters while attempting to flee the country in a taxi. He was turned over to U.S. forces and flown to Guantanamo Bay in January 2002.

He faced allegations of using a gun to guard a Taliban tank, conducting surveillance of the empty U.S. Embassy in Kabul, attending Al Qaeda training camps and fighting American forces in Afghanistan.

Although she proclaimed herself a neutral party in the Pentagon’s newly reconstituted war crimes process, Kubala said Monday’s proceedings demonstrated that “this is a process that is transparent, legitimate and moving forward.”

Hicks was the first detainee to be prosecuted among the nearly 800 men who have been brought here as so-called enemy combatants since January 2002, and the only one charged formally with a war crime. He also was one of 10 suspects charged under tribunals enacted by President Bush in November 2001 that were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court nine months ago. About 385 detainees remain in the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Under the evolving rules of the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress in September, the defense and prosecution can cut a plea bargain, as in a civilian court, and recommend a negotiated sentence to the tribunal members, who act as judge and jury in meting out punishment.

Hicks changed his mind about entering a plea after more than four hours of pretrial procedures in which his main defense lawyer, Marine Maj. Michael Mori, was unable to persuade Kohlmann that he needed more time to prepare.

Mori was left alone at the defense table with the defendant when civilian criminal defense lawyer Joshua Dratel was barred from participating because he refused to promise to adhere to procedural rules that had yet to be defined.

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“I can’t sign a document that provides a blank check on my ethical obligations,” Dratel told Kohlmann, saying his obligation was to his client, not to the military process. “You can’t make it an all-or-nothing proposition. I can’t buy a pig in a poke.”

Kohlmann also declined to approve a second civilian lawyer, Rebecca Snyder, on the grounds that commission rules allowed civilians only if their representation incurred no expense to the U.S. government. Snyder is a Pentagon employee.

Legal analysts were critical of the opening day of the reconstituted war crimes tribunal.

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

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Kohlmann had adjourned the arraignment hearing, in which Hicks chose to put off entering a plea until other preliminary matters were decided. But the presiding officer called the tribunal back to order at 8:25 p.m., and Hicks pleaded guilty to the part of the charge accusing him of supporting a terrorist organization, though he denied committing any specific violent act.

The split plea was probably negotiated with the government to justify a lighter sentence than the 20-year term the chief prosecutor had hinted would be in order if Hicks were tried and found guilty. The charge can carry a life term, but the prosecutor, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, had said Sunday that he doubted a conviction would warrant the maximum sentence.

Davis said the prosecution would take into consideration that Hicks’ plea spared the government weeks of testimony and presentation of evidence.

Hicks, dressed in tan prison garb, stunned his family and court spectators with his initial appearance: He was scruffy, wore his hair halfway down his back and had gained at least 30 pounds since he was last seen at a Guantanamo Bay proceeding in November 2004.

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Terry Hicks, the defendant’s father, said his son told him during an emotional morning reunion in a court anteroom that he didn’t trust the U.S. military forum to live up to a pledge by the Bush administration to transfer Hicks to Australian custody at the end of the proceedings.

“Will they allow him to go home?” Terry Hicks asked with skepticism. “They’ve held him for five years. Who would you trust who held you for five years!”

In Australia, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told the Associated Press today that the government expected Hicks to be returned to Australia soon under the agreement with Washington.

Terry Hicks and the defendant’s sister, Stephanie, were boarding a State Department plane for a trip back to Washington when tribunal officials learned of the decision to enter a plea. The two were given an opportunity to return to the courtroom across Guantanamo Bay from the airstrip but declined, a senior military official here confirmed on the condition that he not be identified.

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Kohlmann asked Hicks whether his exclusion of Dratel and Snyder had influenced his decision to plead guilty. Hicks said it had not. Lawyers were prohibited by tribunal authorities to discuss more about the plea deal than was revealed in court.

Hicks’ protracted stay in U.S. custody -- he was among the first Guantanamo Bay prisoners to arrive -- has become an issue in Australia, where Prime Minister John Howard’s Liberal Party faces a tough reelection campaign this year.

“There’s no reason for this to happen except that political considerations are driving the schedule,” said Ben Wizner, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Every time, these proceedings reveal themselves to be political and not legal.”

The Pentagon set a 30-day deadline for arraigning Hicks when it charged him March 1, just after Vice President Dick Cheney visited Australia and was urged by Howard to dispense with further delays.

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carol.williams@latimes.com


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