The Australian government says it expects Australian Taleban fighter David Hicks to return "fairly soon" to serve a prison sentence at home, after his guilty plea at Guantanamo Bay to a terrorism charge. The case, which has dragged out for more than five years, was becoming a political embarrassment to Australian Prime Minister John Howard. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
It now seems certain that David Hicks will be sent back to Australia to serve his prison sentence for providing material support to terrorism.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard says an agreement is already in place with the United States, which has been holding the 31-year-old former kangaroo hunter for five years.
"We have an agreement - an understanding - with the United States that he would serve the un-expired residue of any term imprisonment in Australia, that is, after making allowance for the five-odd years that he's been in captivity," he said.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer welcomed Hicks' guilty plea, which came late Monday night. He said he was pleased that the "saga," as he termed it, had finally come to an end, and said Hicks would probably be back in Australia "fairly soon."
The Hicks case has become a major political issue in Australia, with opinion polls showing the public growing increasingly angered at his lengthy incarceration.
The Howard government has been criticized for not doing enough to secure the release of Hicks, the only Australian held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Mr. Howard has supported the U.S. policy of holding "enemy combatants" and having them face military tribunals instead of civilian courts, but he had recently expressed frustration at the slow pace of Hicks's case.
Hicks, a convert to Islam, arrived in Guantanamo Bay in early 2002, a month after being captured during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. He was accused of undergoing training at an Al-Qaida camp, and of volunteering to fight alongside the forces of the Taleban regime that the invasion pushed from power.
Hicks was later charged with war crimes and attempted murder. Those charges were dropped when the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled the system of trying enemy combatants unconstitutional. Earlier this year, the charge of providing material support to terrorism, to which Hicks has now pleaded guilty, was filed.