WASHINGTON – The Australian government said Tuesday it is satisfied its citizens can get fair trials before the military tribunals the United States created for terrorist suspects -- the first country to publicly take that position.
After several months of negotiations, the U.S. and Australian governments have agreed to a number of changes in tribunal rules that both sides feel will provide fair and open trials without compromising national security, officials from the two countries said Tuesday.
The agreement follows two years of domestic and international criticism over the holding of the prisoners and questions about whether their trials would meet minimal standards for justice.
Some 660 prisoners, many captured during the war against Al Qaeda (search) terrorists in Afghanistan, have been held without charges or lawyers while U.S. authorities interrogated them for intelligence in the counterterror war.
It was unclear how soon the Australian agreement might clear the way for the first trials. President Bush had promised in July that tribunals for Australian or British citizens held as terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, would be suspended until the completion of negotiations with allies on the rules.
Talks with the British continue.
Some of the rule changes negotiated by the Australian and British governments are being incorporated into the rules for all defendants, and it is unclear how long the revisions will take, one U.S. official said.
Australia (search) and Britain sought negotiations just after Bush announced he had selected six prisoners who could be candidates for the first military tribunals, authorized by the president shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
One Australian and two Britons are among the six, and their countries quickly won U.S. agreement that they would not be subject to the death penalty.
The United States also agreed to allow defendants to have lawyers from their homelands as "consultants to their U.S. defense teams" and promised not to eavesdrop on lawyer-defendant conversations, something that would have been allowed under the original tribunal rules.
The Australian is David Hicks; the Britons are Feroz Abbasi and Moazzem Begg.
After a number of negotiating sessions, officials revealed the governments were also working to settle the cases of the seven other Britons and one other Australian also detained at Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. government is known to be negotiating with a number of other countries to figure out whether their nationals should be freed, repatriated for further detention, held indefinitely at Guantanamo or tried by the American tribunals.
Officials said Tuesday that trial rules negotiated for Hicks also would apply to the other Australian, Mamdouh Habib, should he face trial.
The Australian government said in a statement issued Tuesday that it accepts the idea that its nationals could be tried, "provided that their trials are fair and transparent."
"The government believes that military commission processes will fulfill these criteria." the Australians said.
The United States has agreed that Australian lawyers who pass security clearances could have direct contact with the defendants rather that just be consultants to the U.S. defense teams. The Australian government would be able to send a legal observer to the trials. Any Australian citizens who go to trial would be allowed phone calls with their families, and their families could attend the trials.
Habib's lawyer, Stephen Hopper, said the real issue was that his client had been unlawfully detained for two years. The U.S. pledges were just "window dressing using the rhetoric of justice," he said.
Hicks' father, Terry, said he would attend his son's trial but complained that Australia wasn't doing enough to help. "The poor fellow has been there for two years, without charge, and the government hasn't given two hoots," he said.