An Australian man accused of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit war crimes pleaded not guilty Wednesday before a U.S. military commission set to begin prosecuting accused enemy combatants. The hearings are underway at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for four people accused of supporting al-Qaida or the Taleban.
David Hicks, 29, was captured by the U.S. military in Afghanistan three years ago. On Wednesday, he got his first opportunity to appear in court, pleading 'not guilty' before a panel of military officers who could send him to prison for life if he's convicted of supporting terrorists who threaten the United States.
A trial date was set for January 10. But his defense lawyers first plan to file a series of motions that challenge the military court's jurisdiction to hear this case and also raise objections to military officers being on the commission who have been directly involved in the war on terror or affected in some way by the September 11th, 2001 attacks.
"He is facing an unfair system that has been resurrected from the 1940s and he's being thrust into it and his life and freedom is being put in jeopardy," said Marine Major Michael Mori, Mr. Hick's military appointed lawyer. "It's being placed in a system that the United States would not tolerate for its citizens that Britain will not tolerate for its citizens."
David Hicks' parents flew from Australia to attend this trial after having not seen their son in five years. His father Terry says David told him he was physically abused before being brought to Guantanamo.
"His treatment in the early part wasn't very pleasant," he said. "He's been abused not in very pleasant way."
But after a tearful reunion, he still could not fully explain how his son allegedly became caught up with al-Qaida and the Taleban.
"David's his own person," he said. "It could have happened to anyone from what David told us about how he was picked up and everything. In that time, there were a lot of people picked up because they were Westerners and so I suppose it was just unfortunate that David was where he was."
The Pentagon says everyone who appears before these war crimes 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 four accused terrorists scheduled to have hearings this week are among nearly 600 people being detained as enemy combatants at this U.S. Naval base on the southeastern tip of Cuba, all of them picked up in the war on terrorism over the past three years.