`Australian Taliban' denies US charges

CLOSED DOORS: Taliban foot soldier David Hicks plead not guilty to war crimes charges as the military tribunal he faces was criticized for being biased and secretive

AFP , GUANTANAMO BAY US NAVAL BASE, CUBA

Fri, Aug 27, 2004 - Page 7

Accused Australian Taliban fighter David Hicks on Wednesday denied war crimes charges made at a US military tribunal which in turned faced renewed criticism of bias.

Hicks, 29, put on a suit to meet his father for the first time in five years, before being escorted into the tribunal by military police.

After an emotional reunion, Terry Hicks said his son had told "unpleasant stories" of being abused while in US military custody in Afghanistan after his capture in late 2001.

Hicks, a former ranch hand and kangaroo hunter who is just 1.57 meters tall was charged with conspiracy to attack civilians, attempted murder and aiding the enemy by fighting with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

During his appearance, Hicks spoke only to say he was happy with his defense team and later: "Sir, to all charges, not guilty."

His defense made motions for the charges to be dismissed and that the military commission was not competent to try the case.

The response of the US military authorities, which are running the controversial commissions, will be announced on Nov. 2, 2004. A full trial has been scheduled to start on Jan. 10, 2005.

The US military case is that after converting to Islam in 2000, Hicks went to Pakistan where he joined the radical group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.

According to the charges, he was sent to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, met Osama bin Laden, and joined Taliban fighters against US and coalition forces before his capture in December 2001.

Hicks had put on weight but was otherwise in good physical health, said his father.

The US military provided the suit for the tribunal hearing that his military lawyer, Major Michael Mori, said was the first he had ever worn.

The legs had to be shortened to make them fit.

All 585 detainees at Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base in Cuba are normally held in isolation and in shackles.

Terry Hicks and civilian lawyer Josh Draytell said that Hicks was abused while in US military custody in Afghanistan.

"His treatment was not very pleasant in the early stages, the report from the English is correct," Terry Hicks told reporters, referring to a sworn statement by three former British war on terror detainees who said Hicks had been tortured.

"He has been abused in not very pleasant ways, I think it will come out later," Terry Hicks said.

Australia asked the US authorities to investigate after claims by three former British inmates that Hicks and another Australian inmate, Mamdouh Habib, were tortured.

Hicks was allegedly tied hand-and-foot before being beaten and Habib allegedly dragged around by a chain on his foot.

US authorities have denied there has been any abuse at Guantanamo.

Hicks' lawyers are making a new attempt to launch civil action against the military commissions in US courts.

The defense has made 19 motions to the tribunal urging it to dismiss the charges for reasons ranging from the invalidity of the military commission and charges to the failure to give US and foreign suspects equal treatment.

The United States last held such a commission in 1948 and defense lawyers and rights groups have protested it is unfair because of the lack of appeal to an independent body and evidence restrictions.

Josh Dratel, the lead defense counsel, said: "This is a process that is completely unfathomable. It isn't found in the military, civil or international courts."

"We have never hidden from David that he is facing an unfair system resuscitated from the 1940s and his life and freedom is in jeopardy," Major Michael Mori, a military lawyer for the Australian, added.

The lawyers also hope Australia will be able to take advantage of any future deal Britain makes with the US government about the return of British detainees.

Four Britons are still held at Guantanamo and the British government has reportedly refused to accept military commissions for its nationals. On Tuesday, Osama bin Laden's personal driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a 34-year-old Yemeni, was formally charged in the first hearing of the new military commissions.

A Yemeni and a Sudanese are due to face similar pre-trial hearings on yesterday and today.