STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Today at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a military hearing gets underway for a suspected terrorist. David Hicks is an Australian citizen who is charged with one count of providing material support for terrorism. Hicks has been held at Guantanamo for more than five years. He is one of only 10 prisoners actually charged.
Dozens of attorneys, human rights workers, journalists, legal professors, even family members have traveled to the remote military detention camp for what is expected to be the briefest of hearings.
NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam is at Guantanamo Bay.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Two and a half years ago, David Hicks first walked into the small courtroom that sits on a hilltop here at Guantanamo Bay overlooking the military camp. And for nearly two and a half years he's been waiting for his trial to resume. Hicks' trial and those of nine other Guantanamo detainees has been on hold while various legal battles over the validity of these types of military tribunals were played out in U.S. courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Today, the 31-year-old Hicks will become the first al-Qaida suspect to have a hearing since the Bush administration rewrote the rules for these tribunals, which it calls military commissions, and a Republican Congress signed off on them last fall. Air Force Colonel Mo Davis, the chief prosecutor, explains what led to the charge against Hicks.
Colonel MO DAVIS (U.S. Air Force): He went to al-Qaida training to learn how to perfect his skills. After 9/11, he traveled back to Afghanistan and reported in to a senior al-Qaida commander and in essence said, David Hicks, reporting for duty. He was issued a weapon. He was issued hand grenades. He was sent out to the frontlines. All those acts together, his support for the al-Qaida organization, is what we intend to prove.
NORTHAM: If convicted, Hicks could face life in prison. However, Davis said he would be satisfied if the defendant received a 20-year sentence. There has been talk about a possible plea bargain. David McLeod, one of Hicks' civilian defense lawyers, says his client is weighing the options.
Mr. DAVID MCLEOD (Attorney for David Hicks): He's been in the Western world's most notorious prison for five years. He was in Camp Echo about eight months, no access to sunlight. He's had a pretty rough trot over a period of five years. And if it was yourself, you would be thinking, I suspect, about how to get out of this place.
NORTHAM: McLeod says, on the other hand, Hicks has always maintained a desire to stay and defend the allegations against him. Beyond those negotiations, there is increasing public acrimony between the defense and prosecution, and most recently the defense team has asked that chief prosecutor Davis be taken off the case. There's also a PR battle underway. The defense has increasingly mobilized public outrage over Hicks' incarceration back in Australia. Davis acknowledged that the prosecution has a huge image hurdle to overcome.
Col. DAVIS: I'm aware of the reputation around the world, that these stories that have been told and these horror tales about Guantanamo and about military commissions. I hope the way we conduct these can help change those perceptions.
NORTHAM: Defense lawyer McLeod says there are still too many loopholes in the system for these trials to satisfy Hicks' attorneys.
Mr. MCLEOD: In particular, the ability to introduce evidence obtained by hearsay in the circumstances of this case, and the ability to introduce evidence obtained by coercion, which is the new word for torture.
NORTHAM: The hearing is also being given a huge emotional tug with the arrival of Hicks' stepsister and his father from Adelaide, Australia. Terry Hicks last saw his son nearly three years ago. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, he said he's concerned about his son's mental and physical health.
Mr. TERRY HICKS (Father of David Hicks): It is a huge concern. You know, we've had feedback through the lawyers over the last few years of how he's been going and he's deteriorated. And as I said before, you know, this is one of things that we've got to sort of brace ourselves for, I suppose.
NORTHAM: Hicks will get to spend about an hour with his family before he enters the courtroom today and then briefly afterwards, before they leave this southeast corner of Cuba and head back to Australia.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
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