WASHINGTON – The Bush administration filed charges Thursday against David Hicks, an Australian suspected of aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan and the first terrorism-war era detainee to be charged under the new law for military commissions.
The decision was made even though officials of Australia already had asked the United States not to bring such charges. Australia has been a steadfast ally to the Bush administration in its war on terrorism.
Hicks, whose case has drawn international attention, is a former kangaroo skinner captured in Afghanistan in December 2001. He has been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than five years without trial.
According to a Defense Department announcement, Hicks is being charged with "providing material support for terrorism." He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
U.S. officials assured the Australians nearly a year ago that, if convicted, Hicks could serve his sentecne in Australia, a defense official said.
Despite a recommendation by military prosecutors that he also be charged with attempted murder for battling coalition forces in Afghanistan, officials decided to drop that charge.
Hicks would have a trial in a special military tribunal, established in a law that Congress passed last year, rather than a civilian court. Opponents have vowed to challenge the constitutionality of the military tribunal proceedings.
An earlier formulation of such military tribunals was declared unconstitutional last year by the Supreme Court.
"This is an important milestone for military commissions," said Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.
Hicks was among 10 detainees who had been charged with crimes under the earlier law that the court struck down. Then, he had been charged with conspiracy, attempted murder and aiding the enemy.
Last month, military prosecutors recommended that Hicks be charged with attempted murder and providing support for terrorism.
On Thursday, Susan Crawford, the head of the military commissions, formally charged Hicks only with providing material support for terrorism. The military offered no immediate explanation of why the attempted murder charge was dropped.
The military eventually hopes to charge 60 to 80 of the Guantanamo detainees — none of whom have ever gone to trial.
Hicks' legal status has been a sore spot for Australia. Last month, nearly half the members of Australia's Parliament signed a letter to the U.S. Congress appealing for help repatriating him.
The topic was also discussed last month in a meeting between Vice President Dick Cheney and Australian Prime Minister John Howard when Cheney visited Australia. Under growing public pressure, and with elections due later this year, Howard has begun pushing U.S. officials to deal with Hicks' case more quickly.
"Our sole concern is about the passage of time and the bedrock principle of our legal system ... that people should not be held indefinitely without trial," Howard told reporters.
In the fall, Congress passed a law that outlined the rules for trying terrorism suspects; the system is intended to protect classified information and provides detainees with fewer rights than civilian or military courts.
Once formal charges are filed, a timetable requires preliminary hearings within 30 days and the start of a jury trial within 120 days at Guantanamo Bay, where nearly 400 men are held on suspicion of links to Al Qaeda or the Taliban.