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Hicks Pleads Innocent At Gitmo

David Hicks, the so-called 'Australian Taliban' seen holding a rocket launcher in Kosovo.
CBS
An Australian cowboy accused of fighting with the Taliban pleaded innocent Wednesday before a U.S. military commission to charges that could bring a sentence of life in prison.

David Hicks, 29, pleaded innocent to three charges, including conspiracy to commit war crimes, aiding the enemy and attempted murder for allegedly firing at U.S. or coalition forces.

After uttering a simple "not guilty," Hicks breathed a huge sigh, and smiled after panel members rose to conclude the hearing. They set his trial date for Jan. 10.

During Wednesday's hearing, a defense attorney challenged the impartiality of one panel member who was once praised by his superiors for "tracking and killing" Taliban fighters.

Whether or not the members of the five-member panel will be impartial has been a key issue since preliminary hearings for four prisoners began Tuesday. A military appointing authority could choose to disqualify any of the panel members for good cause.

Hicks arrived at the hearing wearing a dark gray suit and tie. He was captured in Afghanistan and arrived at Guantanamo Bay in January 2002 as a slight and baby-faced 26-year-old. At the hearing he looked considerably older and stern. It was the first time he had seen his family in five years.

Hicks is "a bit of a mystery, apparently something of a mercenary, captured in Afghanistan, and he is the first English-speaking detainee who will go before this military commission," reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann.

Earlier, his father questioned the fairness of a U.S. military commission panel on the eve of his son's hearing, while an earlier hearing ended with another challenge to its impartiality. Hicks' family, which has not seen him in five years, arrived at Guantanamo Bay on Tuesday and met with him Wednesday morning.

"My expectation was that we would have David back to Australia after the first three months," said father Terry Hicks, 58, after arriving from Adelaide with his wife, Beverly, Hicks' stepmother. "I don't think it is a fair and honest system."

Osama bin Laden's chauffeur, 34-year-old Salim Ahmed Hamdan of Yemen, declined to enter a plea Tuesday at the first U.S. military commission hearings to convene since World War II.

Hamdan withheld his plea until motions filed by his military-appointed lawyer are decided. A ruling is not likely until November.

His defense is challenging whether the hearing should proceed without a ruling on his "enemy combatant" status, which allows fewer legal protections than prisoners of war. That classification was used to justify trying Hamdan and others before military commissions, which will allow secret evidence and no federal appeals, rather than courts-martial or U.S. civilian courts.

The military lawyers are putting on a surprisingly vigorous defense. They essentially are asserting that this entire process, these proceedings, are something of a sham, reports Strassmann. "They clearly believe that the rights of their clients are not protected, are not being safeguarded, and that the jewels of the U.S. justice system are simply not on display."

Hamdan's defense attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, has filed a lawsuit in U.S. civilian courts that is to be heard in Washington alleging the illegality of commissions.

"If we can't capture bin Laden, then we'll just punish his driver. And that seems a very poor substitute for justice," he said.

Swift also challenged the capacity and impartiality of four panel members ? including the presiding officer ? and one alternate.

"It is important that these proceedings not only be fair, but appear fair to the world," Swift said in the hearing that lasted more than eight hours.

Hamdan, who was not shackled and wore a flowing white robe, listened intently to an Arabic interpreter through headphones. He smiled and chuckled at several points in the hearing, but appeared more serious toward the end.

He is charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes, including attacking civilians, murder and terrorism. He isn't charged with any specific violent act.

Hamdan, also known as Saqr al Jaddaw, has said he earned a pittance for his family as bin Laden's driver before the Sept. 11 attacks, but he has denied involvement in terrorism. U.S. officials allege that he served as the al Qaeda leader's bodyguard and driver between February 1996 and Nov. 24, 2001, and that he delivered weapons to al Qaeda operatives.

Tribunal members and prosecutors asked the media not to use the names of the panel members, fearing possible retribution. Names were previously made public and have been published.

One of them, Marine Col. Jack K. Sparks Jr., said he was a commanding officer of a Marine reserve unit and that one of his men was a firefighter killed in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. He said he went to the funeral.

Another member, Marine Col. R. Thomas Bright, said he was in charge of the logistics of moving detainees to Guantanamo and was involved in putting their names in order, but he said he had no knowledge of Hamdan.

An alternate, Army Lt. Col. Curt S. Cooper, said at some point he had referred to Guantanamo prisoners as "terrorists" but had no presumption of guilt about Hamdan or others.

"It was a very general statement at a very general time," he said, adding that he had undergone self-study about Islam and al Qaeda to "understand both sides."

Another member, Air Force Col. Christopher C. Bogdan, was involved in arming drone planes during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy K. Toomey said he was an intelligence officer in Afghanistan and acknowledged he might have seen information on Hamdan.

The only member of the commission with formal legal training is the presiding officer, Army Col. Peter E. Brownback, a former military judge who came out of retirement when he volunteered. Asked by Swift whether he thought the proceedings were legal, Brownback chose not to answer.

John D. Altenburg Jr., a retired Army general, will decide whether any of the commission members should be removed. It was not clear how soon he might rule.

Hamdan and three other men being arraigned this week face charges that could bring life in prison, but other detainees could face the death penalty.

Two others charged with conspiracy are Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, 33, also of Yemen, and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, a Sudanese born in 1960. Their hearings also were scheduled for this week.

Even if these detainees are ultimately found not guilty, they could end up staying as prisoners in Guantanamo Bay indefinitely, reports Strassmann, because they have been judged enemy combatants and a potential threat to the United States. The government has said that anybody who is a threat in the war on terror will be kept in Guantanamo Bay until it's been proved that they are no longer a threat to this country.