The US will not seek a death sentence against an Australian terror suspect held at Guantanamo Bay if he is convicted, Australia's justice minister said.
US officials gave a similar pledge to British officials seeking changes to the rules for military trials of British terrorism suspects held at the US Navy base in Cuba. Australian Justice Minister Chris Ellison said Wednesday that American officials, in talks this week, also pledged to make several other rule changes if Australian David Hicks is tried before a military tribunal.
Nine Britons and two Australians are among the more than 660 al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects at Guantanamo. Hicks and two Britons are among the six suspects President George W. Bush has named as candidates for the first military tribunals.
US treatment of the detainees has provoked strong feelings in Australia and European countries such as Britain, where opposition to the death penalty is high.
The US agreed to talks on the prisoners' status with British and Australian officials when British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Washington last week.
The US agreed that it would not offer any evidence against Hicks that is classified, Ellison said. Hicks would be able to see all the evidence against him. The Pentagon's ground rules for military tribunals allow prosecutors to present classified evidence without the defendant -- or his civilian lawyers -- present.
Hicks will be allowed an Australian lawyer as a consultant to the legal defense team. The governments still have to resolve if the consultant can have direct contact with Hicks.
The Pentagon rules say that only US citizens who pass background checks can be civilian defense lawyers for tribunal defendants.
The US also agreed not to monitor conversations between Hicks and his legal defense team. The Pentagon rules allow such monitoring for national security reasons -- a provision attacked by American defense lawyers and human rights groups as an unfair violation of attorney-client privilege.
If Hicks is tried and convicted, the two governments will discuss if he could serve his sentence in Australia, Ellison said. If not, Australia has requested that he serve his sentence on the US mainland.
The Pentagon said it assured Australia that the military commission process is based on fair-trial principles, including presumption of innocence, proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, representation by defense counsel and no adverse inference for choosing to remain silent.
Hicks' Australian lawyer, Frank Camatta, said the Hicks family welcomed the concessions as a step forward.
"The ruling out of the death penalty of course is a relief," Camatta told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio. "The access to counsel, certainly to military counsel and possibly to US civilian counsel in a proper solicitor-client arrangement, is also a positive development."
Hicks was captured while allegedly fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan and has been imprisoned without charge at Guantanamo Bay for 18 months.
According to US authorities, Hicks trained with the al-Qaeda terrorist group for several months, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said on Tuesday.