GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A U.S. military tribunal at Guantanamo convicted Australian al Qaeda trainee David Hicks on Friday of providing material support for terrorism, the first conviction of one of the hundreds of suspects held for years at the controversial detention center.
The tribunal judge accepted Hicks’ guilty plea as part of an agreement that limits his sentence to seven years in prison, in addition to the five years he has been held at Guantanamo in Cuba. But the deal allows for at least part of that sentence to be suspended.
The 31-year-old former kangaroo skinner from Adelaide is the first person to be convicted in revised military tribunals created by the U.S. Congress after the Supreme Court struck down an earlier version that President George W. Bush authorized to try foreign captives on terrorism charges.
Hicks acknowledged that he trained with al Qaeda, fought with its forces against U.S. allies in Afghanistan in late 2001 for two hours, and then sold his gun to raise cab fare and tried to flee to Pakistan.
He denied having any advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks, which he watched on television from a friend’s home in Pakistan.
Hicks was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001 and was among the first group of prisoners brought to Guantanamo as “enemy combatants” a month later. He had previously claimed he was abused by the U.S. military but said in his plea agreement that he has “never been illegally treated while in U.S. custody.”
Hicks’ sentence is expected to be announced during the weekend and the United States will send him to Australia to begin serving it within 60 days.
The plea agreement prohibits Hicks from speaking to any member of the media for one year and says that if he ever sells the rights to his story, the Australian government will get the money.
Hicks, a convert to Islam who later abandoned the faith, agreed to cooperate with the U.S. and Australian governments and intelligence services and to testify in court against his former al Qaeda and Taliban colleagues if asked.
Hicks’ chest-length hair was newly cut short and he wore a dark gray suit and tie as he stood before the judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann.
Hicks raised his right arm and answered “yes” in a guttural voice when asked if he would swear to tell the truth.
Kohlmann read a list of the acts Hicks admitted to, and asked him to affirm each. Hicks answered “yes, sir” or “it’s good” as the judge went through each of the 50 paragraphs in the agreement.
Hicks said he had reviewed the notes of interrogators who questioned him and others before signing the plea agreement.
“At some point you were interrogated by someone?” Kohlmann asked, but did not press for details after Hicks answered “yes.”
In the agreement, Hicks explained why he was conducting surveillance of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in August 2001, more than a decade after it closed. That was a training exercise for one of four al Qaeda courses he took in Afghanistan to learn urban and mountain warfare techniques and the use of disguises.
He acknowledged meeting Osama bin Laden at one training camp and asking him why there were no training manuals written in English. Hicks admitted guarding a Taliban tank at the Kandahar airport for a week while “a fat al Qaeda leader” on a bicycle brought him food and daily updates about the U.S.-led invasion in the autumn of 2001.
Rights groups and foreign governments have long condemned the prison at the U.S. naval base on the eastern tip of Cuba for what they say is abuse of prisoners’ rights.
But Washington has argued the camp is necessary to hold detainees in the war on terrorism it declared after the September 11 attacks more than five years ago.