Hicks Pleads Guilty to Supporting Terrorism
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
At Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, there has been a dramatic development in the military trial of David Hicks. He's the 31-year-old Australian who was arrested in Afghanistan and has been held by the U.S. for five years. Yesterday David Hicks agreed to plead guilty to the one charge of providing material support for terrorism.
It's the first conviction of a Guantanamo prisoner under the revised military tribunal which the Bush administration calls military commissions. And the development capped a day full of surprises in the Guantanamo courtroom.
NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam was in the courtroom, and she joins us now. Hello. Good morning.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So Jackie, this plea was entirely unexpected?
NORTHAM: It did come as a surprise, Renee, mostly because Hicks' preliminary hearing had wrapped up for the day. But a few hours later there was a call that the trial was reconvening, and it was then that the judge announced that Hicks had agreed to plea guilty to one of two specifications in the charge against him.
That specification is a very broad definition of providing support for a terror organization; while the one that he pleaded not guilty to is a much more specific allegation of supporting an act of terrorism. I know it's a very fine line when you hear the charges, but there is a huge difference as far as sentencing goes.
MONTAGNE: Did any of the attorneys involved in the prosecution of Hicks comment on his sudden plea?
NORTHAM: No. The attorneys are under a gag order; they are not allowed to talk about this at all. But there has been quite a bit of speculation. We're not exactly sure if a plea bargain was in the works or not because they haven't been allowed to talk. Both sides have hinted that in a run-up to yesterday's hearing, that there had been some negotiations about a plea bargain. And in fact one of Hicks' defense lawyers said that his client was very depressed about his more than five-year incarceration at Guantanamo and that he was considering just such a deal so that he could possibly return home.
MONTAGNE: Now, you said there is a big difference in the possible sentences between what he's pleaded guilty to and not guilty to. He is due to be sentenced later in the week. What could he get?
NORTHAM: Well, on the initial charge, he could get life in prison. But certainly the chief prosecutor said that he would be satisfied with 20 years in prison. Hicks has already been at Guantanamo awaiting this trial for five years, so it's hard to figure out how the math is going to work in this.
After Hicks pleaded guilty, the chief prosecutor said that there's a good chance he'll be back in Australia before the end of the year. Renee, there's been a long-standing diplomatic agreement between Australia and the U.S. that would allow Hicks to serve out any time in Australia.
MONTAGNE: So that 20 years that he could get is comparable to what John Walker Lindh, known as the American Taliban, was sentenced to. And David Hicks is sort of known as the Australian Taliban.
NORTHAM: Yeah, you could run that parallel. And the chief prosecutor, in fact, brought up John Walker Lindh's name in saying this is about how much he got for what he did; and he could actually be satisfied giving 20 years to David Hicks as well. So he's using that as a baseline.
MONTAGNE: Now these proceedings, Jackie, yesterday had a few other surprises, didn't they?
NORTHAM: The earlier hearing became quite contentious between the judge and the defense. Colonel Ralph Coleman, the judge, disqualified two of Hicks' civilian defense team. One of them is a lawyer with the Defense Department. The judge said they weren't authorized to participate in these hearings. And he was basing that on the new rules for these tribunals, which were drawn up by the Bush administration last fall.
The judge ordered the lawyers to leave the courtroom when Hicks said he didn't want them if they weren't even allowed to participate. The irony is that at the beginning of the hearing Hicks had specifically appealed for a larger defense team to match the numbers that the prosecution team had, and instead, at the end of the hearing it was just Hicks and one military lawyer sitting next to him at the defense table.
MONTAGNE: David Hicks' father and sister flew in from Australia to be there in the courtroom. What was their reaction?
NORTHAM: Terry Hicks, the father, did tell reporters that they had had a very emotional meeting before the hearing and that there were hugs and tears all around. It's been three years since they've been allowed to see each other. And Terry Hicks said his son had changed quite a lot during that time. In fact, he said his son looked, and I quote, "bloody terrible."
MONTAGNE: Jackie, thank you very much.
NORTHAM: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam. She's in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where yesterday Australian David Hicks pleaded guilty to a charge of providing material support to terrorism.