[It should be made clear: David Hicks is pleading guilty to only one charge at this point, that of being trained at an al-Queda camp. He has been held for five years in appalling conditions. The author heavily implies that the military judge may be biased. The Aussie government says his confession vindicates those who are persecuting him, but I don't think I can give that confession a lot of credence. It's kind of like the 15 UK sailors confessing to invading Iran's territorial waters in an act of aggression.
Prayers for all those held at Guantanamo Bay.]
GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba: An Australian who was trained by Al Qaeda and spent five years in detention at Guantánamo Bay has pleaded guilty here to providing material support to a terrorist organization.
The guilty plea by David Hicks on Monday was the first under a new military commission law passed by U.S. Congress in the autumn after the Supreme Court struck down the Bush administration's first system for trying inmates at Guantánamo.
The guilty plea is sure to be seen by administration supporters as an affirmation of its efforts to detain and try terrorism suspects at this prison camp, although the government's detention policies still face significant legal and political challenges.
In Australia, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, whose coalition government has suffered at the polls for their support of the Guantánamo process, gave a cautious welcome to the plea.
"I'm pleased for everybody's sake that this saga has come to a conclusion," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, reflecting the widespread belief among Australians that whatever crime Hicks may have committed, the process of bringing him to trial had taken too long.An editorial in the Wednesday edition of the newspaper The Australian said the guilty plea vindicated Hicks's prosecutors. "The suburban boy from Adelaide who left his family to join the cause of violent Islamic fundamentalism has not spent the past five years jailed at Guantánamo Bay because of a youthful misadventure, but rather because he committed some very real crimes with very real consequences," the paper said.
But critics of the government said Hicks's plea represented his desire to leave Guantánamo Bay more than his guilt. "His urge to get home to Australia almost under any circumstances has overtaken him. There is no way that this can be seen as a genuine guilty plea," said Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Green Party.
The plea by Hicks came after an extraordinary day in a red, white and blue courtroom.
Earlier, the military judge had surprised the courtroom with unexpected rulings that two of Hicks's three lawyers would not be permitted to participate in the proceedings, leaving only Major Michael Mori of the U.S. Marine Corps at the defense table.
After several acrimonious sessions in which Mori contended that the judge, Colonel Ralph Kohlmann of the Marines, was biased, the judge insisted that he was impartial and the hearings came to a close.
But in the evening, Kohlmann called the court back into session, saying he had been approached by lawyers who said Hicks was prepared to enter a plea.
Hicks, a stocky 31-year-old former kangaroo skinner who has been held at the prison for five years, was accompanied by guards to a defense table. Mori then said Hicks was prepared to plead guilty to one of two specifications in the charges against him.
That charge described Hicks's stay in a Qaeda training camp where, it said, he learned kidnapping techniques and was trained how to fight in an urban environment. Prosecutors have said that Hicks, who was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001, had never shot at Americans there, but that he had taken part in other activities, including collecting intelligence on the U.S. Embassy.
Australian officials, who have described Hicks as a "lost soul" and "soldier wannabe," had been pressing the United States to resolve the case, and a prosecutor said Hicks would probably be back there within a year. Mori had waged an unusual campaign to rally support in Australia.
During the plea, Kohlmann led Hicks through a brief session in which he asked whether the earlier dispute about whether his lawyers were authorized to participate in the proceedings had influenced his decision to plead guilty.
"No, sir," Hicks, dressed in a tan prison uniform, answered calmly several times.
The road to Hicks's guilty plea was long and fraught with legal and diplomatic strife.
The Pentagon had originally hoped to begin trying detainees in the spring of 2002, but the Bush administration's system for military tribunals has been the subject of lengthy legal challenges. The Supreme Court struck down the administration's first plan for tribunals in June, ruling that a principal flaw was that the president had established them without the authorization of Congress.
In October, Congress enacted a new law providing for military tribunals, but lawyers for prisoners and other critics have challenged it as establishing a trial system that does not afford defendants the same protections as civilian courts. For example, critics have pointed out that the rules allow for the use of evidence obtained by coercion.
In addition to the legal challenges, the policy of holding "enemy combatants" without charges for as long as five years has drawn international protest, including from U.S. allies.
The Hicks case has drawn particular criticism in Australia, where Hicks, a high school dropout, turned to Islam after unsuccessfully trying to join the army and then joining an evangelical church.
On Monday, after Hicks's guilty plea, the judge adjourned the case for further proceedings this week, evidently so that the lawyers could settle on what specific acts he may acknowledge. The sentence will be decided by a five-member military commission.
Lawyers have suggested that Hicks might serve out the remainder of any sentence in Australia. Asked whether he might be back in Australia by the end of the year, a military prosecutor said, "The odds are pretty good."
Hicks's arraignment Monday was the first public proceeding under the new tribunal rules. The hearing quickly turned fractious, especially after the judge disqualified the two lawyers.
Hicks appeared startled as his long-awaited day before the tribunal turned into something a free-for-all, rather than the orderly arraignment that had been anticipated.
"I am shocked because I just lost another lawyer," Hicks said, after the judge said that one of his two civilian defense lawyers, Joshua Dratel, had not complied with the judge's rules for handling a military commission case. Dratel, a lawyer in New York, has been a central player in the Hicks case.
"Right now you do not represent Mr. Hicks," said Kohlmann, the presiding judge of the new military commission organization, who assigned himself to the Hicks case.
Referring to the Bush administration's previous plan for military commission trials struck down by the Supreme Court, Dratel said in the courtroom before he left that the events Monday showed that the new commission process was as plagued by problems as the old one.
"You cannot predict from one day to the next what the rules are," Dratel said.
The judge rejected each assertion that he was acting arbitrarily or was biased. In an even tone, he methodically moved through the events of the day, turning aside each defense complaint. The defense claims, he said, "do not raise matters that would cause a reasonable person to question my impartiality."
Even before the hearing Monday, the case against Hicks had been marked by an unusual public dispute between Hicks's military lawyer, who has openly attacked the tribunals, and the military prosecutor.
And on Monday, Mori was also critical of the judge, saying that some of his rulings seemed aimed at helping the government prove its case against Hicks. Mori said some rulings appeared to be "fixing the rules to fix their mistakes."
Kohlmann said his rulings had been impartial, aimed only at assuring that the case moved ahead professionally and quickly.