Plea Agreement Gives Detainee Seven Years

David Hicks in an August 2004 courtroom illustration. Credit: Art Lien/Getty Images. i i

In this August 2004 illustration, censored by the military, Australian David Hicks (center) appears before a military commission at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Art Lien/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Art Lien/Getty Images
David Hicks in an August 2004 courtroom illustration. Credit: Art Lien/Getty Images.

In this August 2004 illustration, censored by the military, Australian David Hicks (center) appears before a military commission at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

Art Lien/Getty Images
An unidentified detainee at Guantanamo Bay. Credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images. i i

An unidentified detainee is escorted by U.S. military guards in December 2006 to his annual Admistrative Review Board hearing inside Camp Delta's maximum security area on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
An unidentified detainee at Guantanamo Bay. Credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images.

An unidentified detainee is escorted by U.S. military guards in December 2006 to his annual Admistrative Review Board hearing inside Camp Delta's maximum security area on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

A military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, revealed a plea agreement Friday with detainee David Hicks that limits his sentence to seven years in prison Friday. The 31-year-old Australian pleaded guilty Monday to providing material support for terrorism.

It was not immediately clear whether the maximum sentence accounts for the five years Hicks has already spent at Guantanamo Bay. Under an agreement between the U.S. and Australia, Hicks will serve any sentence in his own country.

The premature ending to the proceedings against Hicks prevented a full test run of new rules covering detainee trials. Hicks is the first al-Qaida suspect to be tried since the Bush administration drew up the rules in the wake of a Supreme Court decision on the handling of Guantanamo prisoners.

The first serious cracks in the newly minted Military Commissions Act started to appear just two hours after Hicks entered the courtroom on Monday, when the judge disqualified two of Hicks' civilian defense attorneys.

One of the disqualified lawyers was Joshua Dratel, a well-known Manhattan criminal defense attorney. Dratel has been on Hicks case since Hicks was first charged, about three years ago.

Under the new regulations, civilian lawyers are required to sign an agreement to abide by the new tribunal rules. But the military hasn't finished writing the rules. Dratel said he could not sign a blank check, documents that might commit him to regulations that have yet to be written.

So he withdrew from defending his client.

"It has never happened to me before," Dratel said. "It was unprecedented, in my experience, and unfortunate. It was not lightly done."

By the end of the hearing, Hicks was left with one military lawyer sitting at his defense table. A few hours later, court was suddenly reconvened and Hicks pleaded guilty.

His lawyers had predicted this might happen because Hicks felt the new trial process heavily favored the prosecution. They said Hicks was depressed and knew he could probably work out a deal to serve out the rest of his time in an Australian prison.

Lex Lasry, an attorney and an observer for the Australian Law Council, says the guilty plea is the best compromise for Hicks.

"Looking on, it just seems to me inevitable that this is all being done so that he can get out of here," Lasry said. "And he'll do what he has to [to] achieve that result."

Hicks' decision to plead guilty immediately accelerated the trial process. And it undermined a trial that was supposed to showcase the new Military Commissions Act.

A full trial would have been an opportunity to see how the tribunals would deal with issues such as coerced evidence, classified evidence and bringing in witnesses to testify.

Still, Col. Moe Davis, the chief prosecutor, says there are bigger issues at stake.

"My objective is to provide him a fair trial and, if he's convicted, a fair sentence," Col. Davis said. "And whether we get there through a guilty plea or a litigated case, at the end of the case it's whether the proceedings were fair."

Hicks' case has always run on a different track than other detainees.

The full weight of the Australian government is bearing down on the Bush administration to resolve his case. Australian Prime Minister John Howard is facing a tough re-election campaign, in large part because of the Hicks case. Australian lawyer Lasry says there's increasing public outcry to get Hicks home.

"Even though they're not sympathetic to what he did, they're sympathetic to the problem that he's been here more than five years without trial," Lasry said. "And that's become a problem for the [Australian] government."

Chief Prosecutor Davis agrees that the outcome of this trial is not a victory. But it's a first step in an unprecedented process for trying detainees at Guantanamo.

"We have learned a lot just in the last couple of days," Col. Davis said. "This was the first one, so there were some bumps and starts. But I still think, at the end of the day, it will be viewed as a fair trial and we'll move on to the next one."

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