CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australian David Hicks will become the first Guantanamo Bay inmate to face a U.S. military tribunal hearing on Monday, but a growing band of supporters want the trial scrapped and his case heard in an Australian court.
Hicks, 31, a Muslim convert and former ranch hand from the sleepy suburbs of Adelaide, is charged with providing material support for terrorism by joining al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.
The arraignment before the newly constituted U.S. military commission comes more than five years after Hicks was captured in late 2001 by Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan as he allegedly tried to flee in a taxi.
Australia’s conservative government has refused to intervene in the Hicks case, saying he could not be charged at home because his alleged offences were not a crime in Australia at the time.
But growing public support for Hicks, and frustration at the military commission system, has forced Prime Minister John Howard to express frustration at trial delays and could become an issue for national elections due in the second half of 2007.
“At first there was patience, then there was concern, and now there is increased outrage,” said Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown, who heckled President Bush about Hicks when Bush addressed Australia’s parliament in 2003.
Several government lawmakers broke ranks in February and demanded Hicks be returned home. Opinion polls show 69 percent of Australians want him to face a civilian trial at home.
NO “BACKPACKING FROLIC”
Howard has raised the issue of delays directly with Bush, and has an agreement allowing Hicks to serve a prison sentence back in Australia if convicted by the U.S. military. But he continues to support the military tribunals and says Hicks must face trial.
“He wasn’t in Afghanistan on some kind of backpacking frolic. These are very serious allegations and they should be tested,” Howard told Australian radio earlier this month.
A high-school dropout, Hicks worked on cattle stations in the Australian outback, and as a fisherman, before stunning friends and family when he scored a job in Japan as a horse trainer.
But in 1999, angered by media coverage of Serbian atrocities against Muslims in Kosovo, Hicks traveled to Albania to join the paramilitary Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), although he claimed he saw no fighting.
The U.S. charge sheet against him says Hicks completed military training at a KLA camp and engaged in hostile action before returning to Australia, where he converted to Islam.
In 2000, Hicks went to Pakistan, where he began training with militant network Lashkar e-Toiba. The U.S. charge sheet says Hicks went to Afghanistan in January 2001 where he met al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Hicks’ father, Terry Hicks, has spearheaded an international campaign to both humanize his son and seek his return home.
In 2003, he went to Times Square in New York, dressed in orange Guantanamo-style prison overalls, and stood inside a metal cage to highlight how his son was being detained. He followed that with a documentary retracing his son’s journey.
Australia’s law council, which represents the nation’s lawyers, has demanded Hicks be returned to Australia, saying the military trial had an “unacceptably low standard of justice”.
High-profile Australian adventurer and businessman Dick Smith also joined the Hicks camp, offering to pay his legal bills.
But not everyone has sympathy.
The Australian newspaper said it would be an injustice if Hicks did not have to face trial to account for joining the KLA, Lashkar e-Toiba, al Qaeda and the Taliban.
“To join one terrorist group could I suppose be regarded as careless,” the Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, wrote in February. “To join four is pretty much beyond the pale.”