Australian al-Qaeda foot soldier David Hicks was sentenced to seven years in prison on Friday but will only serve nine months, a US military tribunal said.
Hicks, a 31-year-old former kangaroo skinner, was sentenced after pleading guilty at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to aiding al-Qaeda. It is the first conviction at a US war crimes trial since World War II.
The deal allowed all but nine months of the sentence to be be suspended, meaning he could be free by New Year's. Hicks will serve his sentence in Australia. The US will send him home by May 29 after holding him for more than five years at the Guantanamo base in Cuba.
In Australia, Hicks' father said yesterday he was relieved his son would soon be home.
"The bottom line of all this is that at least he's back home. He's out of that hell hole," Terry Hicks told local media.
The younger Hicks, a former kangaroo skinner from Adelaide, acknowledged that he trained with al-Qaeda, fought US allies in Afghanistan in late 2001 for two hours, and then sold his gun to raise cab fare and tried to flee by taxi to Pakistan.
Hicks, 31, denied having advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks. His attorney, Marine Major Michael Mori, portrayed him as a now-apologetic soldier wannabe who never shot at anyone and ran away when he got a taste of battle.
The prosecutor, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Chenail, said Hicks freely joined a band of killers who slaughtered innocents.
"We are face to face with the enemy," Chenail said.
Hicks was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001 and was among the first prisoners the US sent to Guantanamo a month later. Washington considers them dangerous and unlawful "enemy combatants" who must be detained in the war against terrorism.
Hicks had previously said he was abused by the US military but said in his plea agreement that he has "never been illegally treated while in US custody."
Hicks was the first person convicted in a US war crimes tribunal since World War II, and the only one charged in the tribunals created by the US Congress after the Supreme Court struck down an earlier version that US President George W. Bush authorized to try foreign captives on terrorism charges.
A convert to Islam who later abandoned the faith, Hicks agreed to cooperate with US and Australian intelligence services and testify in court against his former al-Qaeda and Taliban colleagues.
Hicks' plea agreement bars him from speaking to the media for one year and requires him to give the Australian government any money received for the rights to his story.
Rights groups who monitored the trial said the deal seemed aimed at shielding the US from scrutiny over its treatment of Guantanamo prisoners.
"If the United States had nothing to be ashamed of, it would not need to hide behind a gag order that would be illegal in our own courts," said Ben Wizner, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
At the sentencing hearing, Hicks wore a dark gray suit and tie and his hair was newly cut short. He did not speak except to answer "Yes, sir" or "It's good" as the judge, Marine Colonel Ralph Kohlmann, asked him to affirm each act acknowledged in the plea deal.
Hicks admitted conducting surveillance of the US embassy in Kabul more than a decade after it closed, as a training exercise for one of four al-Qaeda warfare courses he took in Afghanistan.
He acknowledged meeting bin Laden at one al-Qaeda camp and asking him why there were no training manuals in English. Hicks also admitted guarding a Taliban tank at Kandahar airport for a week while "a fat al-Qaeda leader" on a bicycle brought him food and updates about the US-led invasion in late 2001.
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