Prosecutor defends Guantanamo conviction

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The chief prosecutor at the Guantanamo tribunals bristled on Thursday at suggestions that Australian David Hicks, the only man convicted in a new U.S. military court system, was merely an al Qaeda bit player.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates briefs the press at the Pentagon in Washington, March 22, 2007. Gates said on Thursday Congress should look for ways to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, but said any solution must ensure some detainees would remain incarcerated for life. REUTERS/Larry Downing

“It’s not the grand strategic thinkers that caused the deaths of thousands of people around the world, including Americans and Australians,” said the prosecutor, Air Force Col. Moe Davis.

“It’s those down at the tactical level that are willing to strap on the bombs and take up arms on the front lines and carry out the objectives of the extremist ideology that their way is the only right way and anything else is wrong,” Davis told reporters visiting Guantanamo.

Hicks pleaded guilty on Monday night to a charge of providing material support for terrorism in Afghanistan. His hearing was scheduled to resume at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) on Friday in a hilltop court building at the U.S. naval base in southeast Cuba where Hicks has been held for more than five years - most of that time without being charged.

His father, Terry Hicks, said David caved to pressure to plead guilty because he believed it was the only way he would ever get out of the U.S. prison camp. Human rights groups said the plea did not bestow legitimacy on a tribunal system they have long criticized as illegal and stacked to ensure convictions.

Davis said Hicks would answer the critics himself when he is required to describe in detail and under oath what he is guilty of.

“I’d say the facts presented under oath in the courtroom tomorrow carry more weight than the speculation of those who are removed from the process,” Davis said.

Hicks pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorism but denies carrying out terrorist acts.

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The U.S. military accused him of attending al Qaeda training camps, conducting surveillance on the shuttered former U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, taking up arms to guard a Taliban tank and fighting against U.S. forces and their allies in Afghanistan during a two-hour battle in Konduz.

Hicks was trying to flee to Pakistan by taxi when he was captured in December 2001 and was sent to Guantanamo a month later. He is not accused of actually shooting at anyone.

Hicks is the first of as many as 80 Guantanamo prisoners the United States intends to try in the revised military tribunals, which Congress created after the Supreme Court struck down an earlier version that President George W. Bush authorized to try foreign captives on terrorism charges.

The prosecutors, defense attorneys and judge have spent the last three days meeting privately to work out exactly what deeds Hicks will acknowledge.

Once he has persuaded the judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, that he is indeed guilty, at least five U.S. military officers who comprise the rest of the tribunal will decide Hicks’ sentence.

“The panel members are being flown in from all points of the globe as we speak,” said one of Hicks’ Australian attorneys, David McLeod.

Davis said he would recommend substantially less than the 20-year sentence he initially planned to request but would not be more precise. Hicks will be allowed to serve his sentence in Australia.

Hicks, whose hair had grown to mid-back, was expected to get a visit from a barber and a new set of clothes to replace the tan prison uniform he wore at Monday’s hearing.

McLeod had said Hicks grew his hair long so he could use it to shade his eyes from the light that shines all night in his cell. Hicks has also claimed he suffered abuse.

Before Hicks announced his decision to plead guilty, Kohlmann said the prison uniform could compromise Hicks’ presumption of innocence in the eyes of the tribunal members. He urged Hicks’ lawyers to find him a suit, or at least a shirt and slacks, that met “business casual” standards.