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Australian Becomes First Guantanamo Inmate to be Assigned Lawyer - 2003-12-04

A U.S. military lawyer will travel to the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention center in Cuba within days to meet an Australian suspect, the first to be assigned a military defense counsel.

Pentagon officials say Marine Corps Major Michael Mori will go to Guantanamo shortly to confer with Australian David Hicks. Mr. Hicks, an Islamic convert, was captured in Afghanistan two years ago, and has been accused of cooperating with the Taleban and al-Qaida.

The Australian is one of six detainees previously designated as a possible candidate for trial before a special U.S. military tribunal. But he is the first to be assigned a military defense attorney.

That has led to published reports that Mr. Hicks could be the first terrorist suspect to go on trial.

But some sources suggest he may never be tried, because he may make a plea bargain arrangement, that is, he might plead guilty to charges brought against him, perhaps in return for a reduced sentence.

A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Major Michael Shavers, describes as "speculation" the suggestion that Mr. Hicks could be the first detainee to go on trial. He dismisses as "another rumor" the notion the Australian could strike a plea bargain deal with prosecutors.

However the spokesman acknowledges plea bargains will be a part of the Guantanamo legal process.

The Pentagon says that when defense counsel Major Mori meets Mr. Hicks in the next few days, he will advise him of his right to retain a civilian defense attorney and an Australian defense consultant. He will also advise the detainee of various tribunal processes.

Although charges are pending against Mr. Hicks, these have not yet been formally approved or announced by the Pentagon.

The Pentagon has, however, reached agreement with Australian authorities granting Mr. Hicks certain concessions. These include a guarantee prosecutors will not seek the death penalty against him. They also include an undertaking to transfer Mr. Hicks to Australia to serve any prison sentence that might be imposed against him.

The move to appoint a lawyer for Mr. Hicks comes amid continuing criticism of the United States for its handling of so-called enemy combatants detained in the war on terrorism. Until now, none of the foreign suspects held at Guantanamo has been allowed access to an attorney.

The move also follows a flurry of recent news reports indicating scores of Guantanamo detainees, perhaps more than 100, could be released in the coming weeks.

The Pentagon has confirmed a process is under way that could see more detainees released, with U.S. officials engaged in talks with various foreign governments.

Some 660 suspected al-Qaida and Taleban fighters are currently held at Guantanamo, where the terrorist detention facility opened about two years ago.

Since the camp opened, 88 detainees have been released, 84 of them set free and four others sent to their home countries for continued imprisonment.