A U.S. military judge accepted an Australian's guilty plea to supporting terrorism in a deal that will send the Guantanamo detainee to jail at home for less than a year, but requires silence about any alleged abuse while in custody.
David Hicks, whose charge carried a maximum penalty of life in prison, had his sentence capped at nine months on Friday by part of the plea agreement that was kept secret from a panel of military officers who returned a longer sentence.
In the first conviction at a U.S. war-crimes trial since World War II, the 31-year-old kangaroo skinner and confessed Taliban-allied gunman told Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann that he agreed to plead guilty because prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him.
Speaking in a deep voice, Hicks said he faced damning evidence taken from "notes by interrogators" that he had been shown.
The former outback cowboy, who acknowledged aiding al Qaeda during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, showed little emotion as he confirmed to the judge that he conducted surveillance on the former U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
The panel of officers flown to Guantanamo for sentencing Hicks deliberated for two hours before approving a sentence of seven years — what they had been told was the maximum allowed under the plea deal. After they left the courtroom, Kohlmann revealed all but nine months would be suspended.
Asked if the outcome was what he was told to expect, Hicks said, "Yes, it was."
"The thing to remember here is that no one accused David Hicks of committing a violent act — against U.S. forces or anyone else, and I think when you combine that with the fact that Australia, his native country, placed enormous political pressure on the United States, this sort of sentence makes sense," said CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen.
The plea deal will send Hicks to a prison in Australia within 60 days. His sentence begins immediately, but commanders of the U.S. military prison where he has been held for five years say there will be no change in his detention conditions before his departure.
"I don't think David's going to be able to show any real emotion until he gets off the plane in Australia," said his lawyer, Marine Corps Maj. Michael Mori. "I don't think until he leaves here will it be a reality, and that's why I hope it's as soon as possible."
Hicks expressed regret for his actions in a statement read by Mori, who described his client as an immature adventurer who had tried to enlist in the Australian army but was rejected for lack of education.
"He apologizes to his family, he apologizes to Australia and he apologizes to the United States," Mori said.
The lead prosecutor, Marine Lt. Col. Kevin Chenail, said Hicks deserved the maximum punishment for betraying the freedoms he was raised with in Australia. He argued al Qaeda gave him advanced training because his Western features made him a valuable operative.
"Today in this courtroom we are on the front line of the war on terrorism, face to face with the enemy," said Chenail, who referred to Hicks by his alias "Muhammad Dawood."
"Muhammad Dawood will always be a threat unless he changes his beliefs and his ideology," he said.
Under his plea deal, Hicks stipulated that he has "never been illegally treated by a person or persons while in the custody of the U.S. government," Kohlmann said. In the statement read by Mori, Hicks thanked U.S. service members for their professionalism during his imprisonment.
Furthermore, the judge said, the agreement bars Hicks from suing the U.S. government for alleged abuse, forfeits any right to appeal his conviction and imposes a gag order that prevents him speaking with news media for a year from his sentencing date.
Hicks previously reported being beaten and deprived of sleep at the prison erected for terrorism suspects held at this U.S. Navy base.
Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union suggest the government aimed to prevent the release of damaging allegations.
U.S. officials have been accused by human rights groups of permitting torture of detainees in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
Hicks, who was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001, entered a guilty plea Monday night but he was not formally convicted until Kohlmann accepted his plea at Friday's session.
Australia's conservative prime minister, John Howard, who supports the U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, has faced growing pressure for Hicks, one of the first detainees to arrive at the camp in January 2002, to be returned home ahead of elections later this year.
Defense attorneys secured the plea agreement through negotiations with "convening authority" Susan Crawford, the official appointed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to oversee the tribunals, according to the chief prosecutor Air Force Col. Morris Davis.
Mori, Hicks' defense attorney, declined to comment on any role the Australian government played in the discussions.
Critics said the pace of developments for Hicks, the first detainee to face prosecution under new tribunals at Guantanamo, suggested he was benefiting from political pressure.
"Mr. Hicks' military commission was like a train hurtling toward judgment," said Hina Shamsi of Human Rights First. "It was propelled by political considerations of a U.S. ally and nothing was allowed to stand in its way."
Davis, whose office plans to prosecute about 75 Guantanamo detainees, said politics did not influence their treatment of Hicks' case and that he was satisfied with the fairness of the first completed commission. But he said he hoped Hicks' short sentence would not set a precedent.
"I think David Hicks is very fortunate he's getting a second chance," he told reporters. "I think that he's learned a lesson from this and he'll make the most of that second chance."
At the hearing, Hicks wore a gray suit with a maroon tie, his hair newly shorn. He previously wore a tan prison uniform and his hair hung below his shoulders. His lawyers said he had kept his hair long to help block out the round-the-clock lighting in his cell.
Hicks had also been charged with supporting terrorist acts. That count was dismissed as part of the agreement.
Under the deal, he will also be required to cooperate with U.S. and Australian authorities to share his knowledge of al Qaeda and a militant Pakistani group, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, which helped him travel to Afghanistan to attend terrorist training camps.
"Any failure to cooperate with U.S. or Australian law enforcement may delay your release from confinement," Kohlmann warned.
Another condition calls for Hicks to hand over to the Australian government any proceeds from selling the rights to his life story.
In the days before his arraignment Monday, Hicks' lawyers said their client was severely depressed and eager to leave Guantanamo. He spent the last few months alone in a small, solid-walled cell. His father, Terry Hicks, suggested he pleaded guilty only to escape the isolated prison.
Hicks is the only detainee who has been formally charged under a new military tribunal system. Prosecutors say they plan to charge as many as 80 of the 385 men now held at Guantanamo on suspicion of links to al Qaeda or the Taliban.
The U.S. Supreme Court, which in June struck down the previous military tribunal system at Guantanamo as unconstitutional, is considering a challenge to the revised tribunals. Some members of Congress have vowed to repeal the law that eliminates detainees' access to U.S. courts.