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Australian to Face U.S. Military Tribunal on Terrorism Charges

June 11, 2004|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the first major terrorism case designated for a military tribunal, the Pentagon on Thursday announced it had charged an Australian adventure seeker whom the United States contended was a soldier for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

The decision to try 28-year-old David Hicks, a detainee at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was reached after lengthy talks between the U.S. and longtime ally Australia that produced a U.S. agreement not to seek the death penalty.

Hicks was charged with conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, as well as with attempted murder and aiding the enemy. However, unlike two other Guantanamo Bay detainees who face military tribunals, the government portrayed Hicks as a committed terrorist who trained alongside Bin Laden and shouldered an AK-47 and a grenade pack for the Al Qaeda network and the Taliban as they fought U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Hicks was captured in November 2001 on an Afghan battlefield along with John Walker Lindh, an American Taliban recruit from Northern California, weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Maj. John Smith, a Pentagon spokesman for the military tribunal process, said that Hicks "will be provided a fair and full trial" at the base in Cuba, and that two of his relatives and representatives of the Australian government would be permitted to attend along with the press.

"While there may be some classified information that is presented, there will be nothing secret about the process and the trial," Smith said.

At the Australian Embassy in Washington, spokesman Matt Francis said his government "welcomes" the start of the trial, because officials have wanted "Mr. Hicks' case to be resolved as expeditiously as possible."

"The Australian government is satisfied the military commission process will be fair and transparent while protecting the security interests of the U.S," he said.

However, the U.S. military lawyer who will defend Hicks against a team of military prosecutors and before a military judge and a jury of American soldiers said the process was stacked against his client.

"David Hicks has not violated any law of war and shouldn't have been charged," said Maj. Michael Mori, the lawyer.

Mori added that although Hicks is accused of conducting surveillance on the the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, as a possible terrorist target in August 2001, the embassy was closed at that time.

According to the charges disclosed Thursday, Hicks traveled to Albania in 1999 and joined the Kosovo Liberation Army, a paramilitary organization fighting on behalf of Albanian Muslims. He later returned home and converted to Islam from Christianity. In early 2000, he allegedly joined a terrorist group known as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, or Army of the Righteous, in Pakistan.

By early 2001, he was in Afghanistan at an Al Qaeda training camp, with a letter of in- troduction from Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. "Hicks turned in his passport and indicated that he would use the kunya, or alias, 'Muhammed Dawood,' " the charges state.

He next participated in an eight-week course at Al Qaeda's Al Farouq camp, where he was "trained in weapons familiarization and firing, land mines, tactics, topography, field movements, and basic explosives," the charges say.

By April of that year, he was allegedly taking guerrilla warfare and mountain tactics training with Al Qaeda.

"During one visit," the charge sheets said, "Hicks questioned Bin Laden regarding the lack of English Al Qaeda training material. Accepting Bin Laden's advice, Hicks began to translate the training camp materials from Arabic to English."

He allegedly continued to study and train with other terrorists, learning assassination and kidnapping techniques and the use of assault and sniper rifles. He also briefly visited a friend in Pakistan. "After watching television footage of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Hicks returned to Afghanistan to rejoin his Al Qaeda associates," the military says.

As U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan, Hicks helped guard a Taliban tank while Kandahar's airport was under bombardment by U.S. forces, according to the Pentagon. He later joined Lindh, and by the end of November had been captured.

Lindh also was taken prisoner. As an American, he was charged in U.S. courts and eventually pleaded guilty to fighting for the Taliban in return for a 20-year prison sentence.

At Guantanamo Bay, U.S. military authorities are holding about 600 non-Americans detained in the war on terrorism. Among them is another Australian, Mamdouh Habib.

Francis, the Australian Embassy spokesman, said his government had been advised by the U.S. that Habib likely would be included soon in another roster of detainees to stand trial at the U.S. base in Cuba.

It was unclear how much prison time Hicks could face if convicted, but under an agreement with the United States, he could serve some of the sentence in Australia.

Two other men are also awaiting tribunals: Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi of Sudan, an alleged paymaster for the Al Qaeda network, and Ali Hamza Ahamad Sulayman al Bahlul of Yemen, an alleged Bin Laden propagandist.

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