SYDNEY, Australia – David Hicks, the first inmate at the Guantanamo Bay detention center to face a U.S. military tribunal, was flown back to his hometown in Australia on Sunday to serve out the remainder of his sentence in a maximum security prison cell.
The former Outback cowboy and kangaroo skinner pleaded guilty in March to providing material support to Al Qaeda, including attending terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.
Under a plea deal, he was sentenced to nine months in prison — a fraction of the life term he could have received — and was allowed to return to Australia to serve out his term.
Accompanied by police and prison officials, Hicks was flown from the U.S. military camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in a jet chartered by the Australian government and landed early Sunday at the heavily fortified Edinburgh air force base on the outskirts of Adelaide.
Shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit, Hicks was then taken to the Yatala Labor Prison, where he will serve the final seven months of his sentence in a high-security wing alongside the prison's most dangerous criminals.
Nevertheless, lawyer David McLeod said Hicks was thrilled to be home after more than five years at Guantanamo.
"He is happy to be back on Australian soil," McLeod told reporters outside Yatala prison. "He visibly was elated when we touched down."
Prison officials have said Hicks will be kept in a 6-foot-wide, single-bed cell similar in size to the one he left in Cuba. The 31-year-old will be barred from having any personal items in his cell, and his visits with family will be strictly limited, with no physical contact allowed.
His telephone calls will be monitored and he will be allowed little or no contact with other inmates, authorities have said.
Attorney General Philip Ruddock declined to comment on security arrangements, saying only "public safety is the primary concern."
A high school dropout and Muslim convert, Hicks was captured in December 2001 in Afghanistan by the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, and became one of the first terrorist suspects to be transferred to the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
He was tried by a military tribunal under a system created by the U.S. military after the Supreme Court last summer ruled the Pentagon's previous system was unconstitutional. Attorneys for Guantanamo prisoners insist the new system is still unfair, and have asked the Supreme Court to intervene again and guarantee prisoners have the right to have their cases heard in U.S. courts.
In a statement Saturday, the Defense Department said the tribunals were legal under "the law of war," and that similar tribunals were used by the U.S. during World War II.
"Trials by military commission demonstrate that the United States is committed to holding dangerous terror suspects accountable for their actions," the statement said.
Hicks was accused of attending Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and conducting surveillance on the British and American embassies as part of his training. He had spent only two hours on the Taliban front line before it collapsed in November 2001 under attack by U.S. Special Forces and the Northern Alliance.
While fleeing, he came across a group of Arab fighters who told him they were heading back to the front to fight to the death. Hicks declined to join them and was captured as he tried to escape into Pakistan, according to the military's charge sheet.
As part of his plea deal, Hicks agreed to a 12-month order prohibiting him from talking to the media and stated he had "never been treated illegally" since he was captured in Afghanistan and taken to Guantanamo.
He is due to be released at the end of December, and the Australian attorney general has said he may be free to speak to the media about his ordeal, despite the U.S. gag order. But under local law, Hicks, a convicted criminal, would not be allowed to sell his story.