US President George W. Bush on Thursday designated six foreign captives in what he has called the war on terrorism as eligible to be tried before US military commissions, the Defense Department said.
"The president determined that there is reason to believe that each of these enemy combatants was a member of al-Qaeda or was otherwise involved in terrorism directed against the United States," the Pentagon said in a statement.
Senior defense officials, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, declined to reveal many details of the process. They refused to identify the six individuals by name or even by nationality, saying no charges have yet been brought against them and that their identities may never be announced.
The Pentagon was next to decide whether the six will be brought to trial before commissions and on what charges, the officials said.
They refused to put a time line on when charges may be brought or to say where the six are being held and whether they had been informed of Bush's action.
"We're not going to discuss particular aspects of any of the individual cases because it's just premature to do that," a senior official said.
The six were believed, however, to be among the more than 600 prisoners imprisoned at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Any trials are set to be held at Guantanamo.
Despite the secrecy, Australian Federal Attorney General Daryl Williams yesterday said an Australian national was among the six.
David Hicks, suspected of training with the al-Qaeda group, has been held without charge at Guantanamo Bay since being captured in December 2001 while fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Earlier, Hicks' lawyer, Stephen Kenny, confirmed Hicks had been put on the list.
"The American government are about to have the first six detainees at Guantanamo Bay put under President Bush's military order. David Hicks is to be one of the first six,'' Kenny said.
The Australian government believes Hicks trained with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror group.
A spokeswoman for Williams, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government had pressed for Hicks to be given a fair hearing.
"The government has made every effort to ensure that if any Australian is prosecuted before a military commission, they will receive a fair trial that is transparent and that fundamental guarantees, such as a presumption of innocence, proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and access to legal representation, are assured," the spokeswoman said.
Kenny said he did not know why Hicks was chosen.
"Whether [it is because] he is one of the most dangerous men in Guantanamo Bay, we would say that is extremely unlikely," Kenny said. "It could be that he is someone who has attracted publicity."
Human rights groups said the rules for the trials set by the Pentagon are biased toward the prosecution, place unacceptable conditions on the defense and allow for no independent judicial review by civilian courts.
Charges set out in the Pentagon's instructions for the trials could bring the death penalty.