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Guantanamo trial praised, panned

Wed., March 28, 2007, midnight

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – As a military judge Tuesday reviewed the specific crimes to which Australian terrorism suspect David Hicks has pleaded guilty, proponents of the Bush administration’s war-crimes tribunal here hailed the plea deal as a successful start in bringing America’s enemies to justice.

In the first trial to be convened under the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress last year, Hicks decided after setbacks in the opening hours to cut a deal that would allow him to serve any additional prison time in his homeland.

The military judge hearing Hicks’ case, Marine Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann, asked the defense and prosecution for a detailed account of what actions in support of a terrorist organization Hicks was admitting to.

Once he receives that and the plea is confirmed by both sides, a panel of senior military officers will be convened to act as jury and judge in setting Hicks’ sentence – probably guided by any pretrial agreement reached to obtain the guilty plea.

Kohlmann gave no indication of when the commission panelists would gather, but others have speculated that a sentence could be issued by the end of the week.

Legal scholars and human-rights advocates said Hicks’ de facto admission of support for the Taliban and al-Qaida demonstrated that prisoners broken by years of mental and physical abuse saw confession as the only escape. Hicks has been held at Guantanamo for five years.

Observers criticized the plea deal as resulting from pressure brought by the Australian government.

“This will be seen for what it is, which is a decision that was impacted by outside political influence and thus violated one of the most basic and minimum requirements of a fair-trial system,” said Hina Shamsi, a lawyer for Human Rights First.

The legal wrangling that preceded Hicks’ guilty plea exposed the paucity of legal guidance for the military commissions, which blend some elements of a U.S. civilian court and military courts-martial, although they permit practices such as denying the accused the right to face his accusers, and acceptance of evidence obtained through torture and hearsay.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, Va., who tracks anti-terrorism legislation and policy, said: “I think the perception at home and abroad will be that the United States did not give Hicks a fair trial and that he ultimately pled so he could return home.”

Commissions officials argued that the guilty plea showed the Pentagon’s system for trying war-crimes suspects worked.

“The accused used the forum to take advantage of the Military Commissions Act and to plead guilty in this forum,” said Maj. Beth Kubala, spokeswoman for the process.


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