GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – Australian David Hicks pleaded guilty Monday to material support of terrorism, securing a symbolic victory for the Bush administration in the first war-crimes trial since World War II.
After a day of legal wrangling in which two of Hicks’ three defense lawyers were barred from representing him, the 31-year-old Muslim convert and soldier of fortune told the military judge in a specially reconvened nighttime session that he had aided a terrorist group.
Bedraggled and appearing irritated, Hicks showed little emotion at the prospect of potentially leaving Guantanamo after more than five years in military detention.
The commission’s presiding officer, Marine Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann, is expected to hear the details of what Hicks has admitted to this afternoon, and the full 10-member military commission could gather here by the end of the week to determine a sentence, said Maj. Beth Kubala, spokeswoman for the military commissions, as the tribunals are formally known.
While she proclaimed herself a neutral party in the Pentagon’s newly reconstituted war-crimes process, Kubala said Monday’s proceedings demonstrated that “this is a process that is transparent, legitimate and moving forward.”
Hicks was the first detainee to be prosecuted among the nearly 800 men who have been brought here as enemy combatants since January 2002 and the only one charged formally with a war crime. He also was one of 10 suspects charged under earlier tribunals enacted by President Bush in November 2001 that were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court eight months ago. About 385 detainees remain in the Guantanamo facility.
Under the evolving rules of the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress in September, the defense and prosecution can cut a plea bargain as in a civilian court and recommend a negotiated sentence to the tribunal members, who act as both judge and jury in meting out punishment.
Hicks changed his mind about entering a plea after more than four hours of pretrial procedures in which his primary defense attorney, Marine Maj. Michael Mori, failed to convince Kohlmann that he needed more time to prepare.
Mori was left alone at the defense table with the defendant when civilian criminal defense lawyer Joshua Dratel was barred from participating because he refused to promise to adhere to procedural rules that have yet to be defined.
Kohlmann also declined to approve a second civilian lawyer, Rebecca Snyder, on the grounds that commission rules allow civilians only if their representation incurs no expense to the U.S. government. Snyder is a Pentagon employee.
Legal analysts were critical of the opening day of the reconstituted war-crimes tribunal.
“These trials are the United States’ chance to restore its moral authority and reputation as a leading proponent of the rule of law. Instead, today’s antics highlighted the illegitimacy of a hastily crafted process without established precedent or established rules,” said Jennifer Daskal, an attorney observing the commissions for Human Rights Watch. “It appears that Mr. Hicks was strong-armed into pleading guilty after two of his counsel were thrown off the case.”
Kohlmann had adjourned the arraignment hearing, in which Hicks chose to put off entering a plea until other preliminary matters were decided. But the presiding officer called the tribunal back to order at 8:25 p.m., and Hicks pleaded guilty to the part of the charge accusing him of supporting a terrorist organization, although he denied committing any specific violent act.
Hicks’ initial appearance stunned his family and court spectators, as he was scruffy, wore his hair halfway down his back and had gained at least 30 pounds since he was last seen at a Guantanamo proceeding in November 2004.