Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A defeat for Hicks, a victory for the hicks

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — Australian David Hicks pleaded guilty Monday to material support of terrorism, securing a symbolic victory for the Bush administration in the first war crimes trial since World War II.

After a day of legal wrangling in which two of Hicks' three defense lawyers were barred from representing him, the 31-year-old Muslim convert and soldier of fortune told the military judge in a specially reconvened night session that he had aided a terrorist group.

Bedraggled and appearing irritated, Hicks showed little emotion at the prospect of potentially leaving Guantanamo Bay after more than five years in military detention.

Under an agreement between Washington and the Australian government, Hicks would be allowed to serve any sentence in an Australian prison.

The tribunal's presiding officer, Marine Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann, is expected to hear the details of what Hicks has admitted to this afternoon, and the 10-member military commission could gather by the end of the week to determine a sentence, said spokeswoman Maj. Beth Kubala. The tribunal is formally known as a commission.

Hicks was captured in December 2001 by Afghanistan's Northern Alliance fighters while attempting to flee the country in a taxi. He was turned over to U.S. forces and flown to Guantanamo Bay in January 2002.

He faced allegations of using a gun to guard a Taliban tank, conducting surveillance of the empty U.S. Embassy in Kabul, attending Al Qaeda training camps and fighting American forces in Afghanistan.

Although she proclaimed herself a neutral party in the Pentagon's newly reconstituted war crimes process, Kubala said Monday's proceedings demonstrated that "this is a process that is transparent, legitimate and moving forward."

Hicks was the first detainee to be prosecuted among the nearly 800 men who have been brought here as so-called enemy combatants since January 2002, and the only one charged formally with a war crime. He also was one of 10 suspects charged under tribunals enacted by President Bush in November 2001 that were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court nine months ago. About 385 detainees remain in the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Under the evolving rules of the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress in September, the defense and prosecution can cut a plea bargain, as in a civilian court, and recommend a negotiated sentence to the tribunal members, who act as judge and jury in meting out punishment.

Hicks changed his mind about entering a plea after more than four hours of pretrial procedures in which his main defense lawyer, Marine Maj. Michael Mori, was unable to persuade Kohlmann that he needed more time to prepare.

Mori was left alone at the defense table with the defendant when civilian criminal defense lawyer Joshua Dratel was barred from participating because he refused to promise to adhere to procedural rules that had yet to be defined.

"I can't sign a document that provides a blank check on my ethical obligations," Dratel told Kohlmann, saying his obligation was to his client, not to the military process. "You can't make it an all-or-nothing proposition. I can't buy a pig in a poke."

Kohlmann also declined to approve a second civilian lawyer, Rebecca Snyder, on the grounds that commission rules allowed civilians only if their representation incurred no expense to the U.S. government. Snyder is a Pentagon employee.

Legal analysts were critical of the opening day of the reconstituted war crimes tribunal.

"These trials are the United States' chance to restore its moral authority and reputation as a leading proponent of the rule of law. Instead, today's antics highlighted the illegitimacy of a hastily crafted process without established precedent or established rules," said Jennifer Daskal, a lawyer observing the commissions for Human Rights Watch. "It appears that Mr. Hicks was strong-armed into pleading guilty after two of his counsel were thrown off the case."

L.A. Times

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