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Suspected Australian Terrorist Appears Before Guantanamo Hearing - 2004-08-25

An Australian man accused of conspiracy to commit war crimes is having a preliminary hearing before a panel of U.S. military officers set to prosecute accused enemy combatants on war crimes charges. The hearings are under way at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where 29-year-old David Hicks is the second of four people accused of supporting al-Qaida to face what would be the first military commissions for alleged war crimes since WW II.

David Hicks was captured by the U.S. military in Afghanistan three years ago. His father, Terry, flew here from Australia to attend this trial after having not seen his son in five years.

"He took up the Islamic faith. He went to Pakistan and we're not really sure on the circumstances with Afghanistan," he said. "David's been an adventurer all his life. He always wanted to see what was over the next fence, and I think as he got older, the fence got taller."

Now he's facing charges of conspiring to commit war crimes, aiding the enemy, and attempted murder for allegedly helping al-Qaida fight U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. He could face life in prison if convicted.

The Pentagon says everyone who appears before these commissions is presumed innocent and must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But legal and human rights groups have denounced the process as fundamentally unfair since the U.S. military will serve as prosecutor, judge and jury. Secret evidence can be introduced and guilty defendants have no rights to appeal to an independent court.

"The fact is that still there will be no outside appeal beyond the chain of command," noted Anthony Romero, with the American Civil Liberties Union, one of several groups observing the hearings. "This is about American values, it's about us and so far we're off to a start that only raises some additional questions."

The hearings are being conducted under extremely tight security after what commission spokesman Colonel David McWilliams says have been threats of retaliation by al-Qaida against military officers.

"They have a concern about protection for themselves and their families, if they are publicly known to have been participating in a process against someone who is alleged to have committed war crimes, to have served with or been part of al-Qaida," he added.

The four accused terrorists appearing before these commissions this week are among nearly 600 people being detained as enemy combatants at this U.S. Naval base here on the southeastern tip of Cuba, all of them picked up in the war on terrorism over the past three years.