GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Australian terror suspect David Hicks pleaded guilty Monday to a war-crime charge of providing material support to terrorism in a plea bargain that will assure his transfer from Guantanamo's cells to Australia, officials said.
The 31-year-old detainee, who has spent more than five years imprisoned in Guantanamo and was accused of supporting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, could be sentenced by the end of the week, military officials said. Defense attorneys said a gag order by the military judge prevented them from discussing details of the plea until a sentence is announced.
The United States has agreed to let Hicks serve any sentence in Australia.
"This is the first step toward David returning to Australia," said David McLeod, an Australian attorney for Hicks.
Before the hearing, defense attorneys said Hicks did not expect a fair trial at Guantanamo and was considering a plea deal to end his imprisonment on this U.S. military base in southeastern Cuba.
Hicks' military attorney, Marine Corps Maj. Michael Mori, told the judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, that his client was pleading guilty to one of two counts of providing material support for terrorism and not guilty to the other. Asked by Kohlmann if this was correct, the heavyset Hicks, clad in a khaki prison jumpsuit, said solemnly: "Yes, sir."
He was the first Guantanamo Bay detainee to make such a plea at this U.S. Navy base to terrorism-related charges since the first detainees were brought here in 2002.
The count he pleaded guilty to says he intentionally provided support to a terror organization involved in hostilities against the United States. He denied the charge that he supported for preparation, or in carrying out, an act of terrorism.
Kohlmann, wearing a black robe over his uniform, ordered attorneys to attend a closed session Tuesday in a hilltop courthouse on the base in southeast Cuba to specify the acts to which Hicks is pleading guilty. The judge will also make sure Hicks understands the consequences of the plea, officials said.
A panel of military tribunal members convened for the Hicks case must travel to Guantanamo to approve any sentence, a development that could come this week.
"We're anticipating in the next few days bringing this to a conclusion," said Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo tribunals.
The war-crime charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, but Davis has said he would seek a sentence of about 20 years. He said the five years Hicks has spent at Guantanamo could be considered as a factor in the ultimate sentence.
In Australia, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he expected Hicks would return soon to Australia, where an outcry over his continued detention has cost Prime Minister John Howard support ahead of elections due this year.
"I am pleased for everybody's sake that this saga ... has come to a conclusion," Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
But Sen. Bob Brown, leader of the minor opposition Greens party, said Hicks made the plea so he could get out of Guantanamo Bay and his guilt would remain in doubt.
"He's pleaded guilty but under circumstances that wouldn't hold up in an Australian court and that debate will fly home with Hicks," Brown said.
The plea announcement marked a dramatic conclusion to the first hearing under revised military tribunals set up after the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the Pentagon's previous system for trying Guantanamo prisoners.
Defense lawyers and human rights groups say the new system, approved by the U.S. Congress last year, is also flawed because it does not offer the same protections as U.S. courts.
"In a narrow sense, David Hicks was not legally coerced today to issue a plea, but he was operating in the background of a highly coercive system that has held him for five years and did little today to restore his faith ... in the legitimacy of the system," said Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch.
At an earlier hearing session Monday, Hicks asked for more lawyers to help defend him against charges he supported Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but Kohlmann instead ordered two civilian attorneys to leave the defense table, leaving the defendant with one attorney.
Kohlmann said the two civilian lawyers, including a Defense Department attorney, were not authorized to represent Hicks.
One of the lawyers, Joshua Dratel, said he refused to sign an agreement to abide by tribunal rules because he was concerned the provisions did not allow him to meet with his client in private.
"I'm shocked because I just lost another lawyer," Hicks said after Dratel's departure, drawing a scolding from the judge for interrupting as he explained the reasoning for removing the lawyers.
Mori challenged Kohlmann's impartiality, arguing that his participation in the previous round of military trials that the Supreme Court last year found to be illegal created the appearance of bias.
Hicks, a Muslim convert, shaved his beard before his arraignment but kept the long hair that his attorney says he uses to block the constant light in his cell at the prison, where the United States is holding about 385 prisoners.
Officials have said they plan to prosecute as many as 80 prisoners at Guantanamo, and some could face the death penalty. The Australian faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Among those at the prison is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an Al Qaeda member who during a so-called Combatant Status Review Tribunal earlier this month confessed to planning the Sept. 11 attacks and other terror acts. That military panel determined he was an enemy combatant who could later face charges.
Mohammed and other "high value" detainees were transferred to Guantanamo from secret CIA jails in September but none has been charged with any crime.
Unlike the alleged terrorist mastermind, Hicks has been depicted by the U.S. military in its charge sheet as a minor figure.
Armed with grenades and an assault rifle, Hicks spent weeks trying to join the fight in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban against invading U.S. forces and their Northern Alliance allies, the charge sheet says, but the Taliban's lines collapsed barely two hours after he reached the front. Hicks' menial assignments along the way included guarding a tank.
A challenge of the reconstituted tribunal system is pending before the Supreme Court. Lawyers for detainees have asked the high court to step in again and guarantee that the prisoners can challenge their confinement in U.S. courts.
Lawmakers have also questioned the detainees' lack of access to U.S. courts. Last week, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, filed a brief urging a federal appeals court in Washington to restore habeas corpus, or the right of prisoners to challenge their detention.
Hicks' father, Terry Hicks, had an emotional reunion with his son before the arraignment Monday.
But he already had boarded a plane to leave Guantanamo when he was told an evening session would be held, according to U.S. military officials, and was not in the courtroom when his son entered his pleas.