Hicks pleads guilty; sentence reduced to 9 months

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Self-confessed al Qaeda foot soldier David Hicks pleaded guilty here Friday to supporting terrorism in exchange for a nine-month prison sentence under a plea deal that forbids him from claiming he was abused in U.S. custody.

In return, Hicks, 31, will be allowed to leave Guantánamo to serve out the sentence in his native Australia within 60 days. And he will be free, at home, by New Year's Eve.

It was a startling conclusion to the first U.S. war-crimes tribunal since World War II.

''They told us this was one of the world's worst terrorists, and he got the sentence of a drunken driver,'' said Ben Wizner, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Bush administration had originally sought life in prison for the former kangaroo skinner turned soldier of furtune. A panel of senior U.S. military officers were told they could sentence him to seven years for providing material support to terrorism, which they did.

But moments after they were ushered out of the tribunal chambers at 8:15 p.m., the presiding officer, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, disclosed that a Pentagon official had cut the secret deal.

Under its terms, the man who was captured while fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and spent more than five years at this remote, offshore detention center agreed to:

Refrain from talking to the media for a year;

Forever waive any profit from telling his story;

Renounce any claims of mistreatment or unlawful detention;

Voluntarily submit to U.S. interrogation and testify at future U.S. trials or international tribunals.

''If the United States were not ashamed of its conduct, it wouldn't hide behind a gag order,'' Wizner said. ``The agreement says he wasn't mistreated. Why aren't we allowed to judge for ourselves?''

Hicks' Marine defense attorney cast him as a hapless private without a cause, and urged a 20-month sentence, arguing he should get credit for his five years, four months in detention here as an ``enemy combatant.''

The short, stocky Hicks stood ramrod straight in a charcoal suit and tie, with a trim, styled haircut, after he admitted taking four al Qaeda training courses before the Sept. 11 attacks.

At one point, he admitted, he personally asked of Osama bin Laden why al Qaeda had no English-language training manuals.

He also admitted to standing guard with an AK-47 during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, first at Kandahar Airport, later beside a Taliban tank. He said he was engaged in two hours of combat with U.S. proxy Northern Alliance troops, but did not admit to ever firing a shot.

''His heart wasn't with al Qaeda,'' said Marine Maj. Dan Mori, his Pentagon-appointed attorney, calling Hicks a ''wannabe'' soldier who ran away after the dropout's bid to enlist in the Australian army was rebuffed.

''He guarded a tank, he sat in a trench and he got bombed,'' he added.Countered Marine Lt. Col. Kevin Chenail, the prosecutor, who urged the maximum seven years: ``Other confused lost souls might follow in his footsteps.''

Besides, said Chenail, Hicks willingly rejoined bin Laden's forces a day after the 9/11 attacks. ``He knew America was coming after al Qaeda; he wanted to help them out.''

Just four days ago, at his arraignment, Hicks looked a disheveled, disheartened man in a crumpled tan prison camp uniform with long straggly hair down his back.In contrast, he looked relieved Friday morning while soberly answering two hours of questions from Kohlmann, the military judge, with short replies of ``yes, sir.''

Asked what evidence he had been shown to conclude a U.S. military tribunal would find him guilty, he replied: ``Notes from interrogations taken from me or other people.''

Kohlmann announced the agreement in a lengthy morning session that set out a 25-item narrative. It said Hicks learned of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks while watching TV in Pakistan, on vacation, visiting a friend after four rounds of al Qaeda training. It said he had no prior personal knowledge of the terrorist attacks, but returned to Afghanistan on Sept. 12 to volunteer his services with al Qaeda and the Taliban.While guarding a Taliban tank in October 2001, according to the narrative included in the plea agreement, he got regular updates from ``a fat al Qaeda leader in charge who was on a bicycle.'' The Hicks case had roiled national politics in his native Australia. Prime Minister John Howard, a Bush administration war-on-terror ally, had at first expressed indifference. But late last year he insisted on a speedy resolution.