GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Australian al Qaeda foot soldier David Hicks was sentenced to seven years in prison on Friday but will only serve nine months, a U.S. military tribunal said.
Hicks, who became the first war crimes convict among the hundreds of foreign captives held for years at the Guantanamo prison camp, had pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorism in an agreement with U.S. military prosecutors.
The deal allowed all but nine months of the sentence to be suspended, meaning he could be free by New Year’s. Hicks will serve his sentence in Australia. The United States will send him home by May 29 after holding him for more than five years at the Guantanamo base in Cuba.
In Australia, Hicks’ father said Saturday he was relieved his son would soon be home. “The bottom line of all this is that at least he’s back home. He’s out of that hell hole,” Terry Hicks told local media.
The younger Hicks, a former kangaroo skinner from Adelaide, acknowledged that he trained with al Qaeda, fought U.S. allies in Afghanistan in late 2001 for two hours, and then sold his gun to raise cab fare and tried to flee by taxi to Pakistan.
Hicks, 31, denied having advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks. His attorney, Marine Maj. Michael Mori, portrayed him as a now-apologetic soldier wannabe who never shot at anyone and ran away when he got a taste of battle.
The prosecutor, Marine Lt. Col. Kevin Chenail, said Hicks freely joined a band of killers who slaughtered innocents. “We are face to face with the enemy,” Chenail said.
Hicks was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001 and was among the first prisoners the United States sent to Guantanamo a month later. Washington considers them dangerous and unlawful “enemy combatants” who must be detained in the war against terrorism.
Hicks had previously said 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 was the first person convicted in a U.S. war crimes tribunal since World War Two, and the only one charged in the 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.
A convert to Islam who later abandoned the faith, Hicks agreed to cooperate with U.S. and Australian intelligence services and testify in court against his former al Qaeda and Taliban colleagues.
Hicks’ plea agreement bars him from speaking to the media for one year and requires him to give the Australian government any money received for the rights to his story.
Rights groups who monitored the trial said the deal seemed aimed at shielding the United States from scrutiny over its treatment of Guantanamo prisoners.
“If the United States had nothing to be ashamed of, it would not need to hide behind a gag order that would be illegal in our own courts,” said Ben Wizner, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
At the sentencing hearing, Hicks wore a dark gray suit and tie and his hair was newly cut short. He did not speak except to answer “Yes, sir” or “It’s good” as the judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, asked him to affirm each act acknowledged in the plea deal.
Hicks admitted conducting surveillance of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul more than a decade after it closed, as a training exercise for one of four al Qaeda warfare courses he took in Afghanistan.
He acknowledged meeting bin Laden at one al Qaeda camp and asking him why there were no training manuals in English. Hicks also admitted guarding a Taliban tank at Kandahar airport for a week while “a fat al Qaeda leader” on a bicycle brought him food and updates about the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
“I think that David Hicks is very fortunate. He’s getting a second chance,” said the tribunals’ chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Moe Davis.
Australian consular officials at the hearing declined to comment. But Lex Lasry, a senior barrister with the Law Council of Australia, said the tribunal process failed to meet international standards.
“I’m satisfied that David Hicks got a reasonable deal today so that’s good for him. As to the rest of the process, the Law Council remains far from satisfied,” Lasry said.