Hicks could cash in while taxpayers foot bill

CANBERRA – David Hicks, the Australian Guantanamo Bay inmate who has admitted aiding the al Qaeda terror group, has become a major recipient of political and taxpayer largesse as he waits for a decision on the deal his lawyers have struck with American military prosecutors.

He could also become rich.

Celebrity agent Max Markson told smh.com.au Hicks could become a millionaire by selling his story as both book and movie.

His saga moves from a broken home in Adelaide to life as an itinerant kangaroo-skinner, guerrilla fighter in Albania, convert to Islam training and fighting with al Qaeda and Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Toiba, Taleban fighter captured by a northern warlord in Afghanistan and, finally, inmate of the notorious Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba.

Hicks claimed to have been tortured, beaten and sodomised – allegations denied by the United States.

“He could make an absolute fortune,” Markson said. “Everyone wants to talk to him.”

It is now certain Hicks will serve his sentence at home, probably in South Australia’s maximum security Yatala prison, although remaining a federal inmate under the prisoner exchange agreement with the United States

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the former jihadist would probably fly home in a chartered jet to meet American security demands, as did Mamdouh Habib, another former Australian Guantanamo inmate released without charge in January 2005.

The tab will be picked up by taxpayers, as well as about A$300,000 ($339,000) in legal costs provided for legal counsel under arrangements open to all Australians facing trial abroad but unable to pay for their own lawyers.

Hicks has already benefited from a political turnaround by Australia’s conservative coalition Government which, after five years of dragging its feet, suddenly began demanding a rapid trial or release as it headed into an election year well behind Labor and facing growing voter anger over his detention.

Although now claiming vindication over Hicks’ guilty plea, the Government and nervous backbenchers who had long tried to force Prime Minister John Howard to pressure Washington, were clearly relieved at his admission.

But Downer is not backing down on his view of Hicks.

“On the basis of his admission of guilt he was a supporter of al Qaeda, which is the world’s most wicked terrorist organisation by a very big margin,” he told ABC radio.

“I am unapologetic in the strength of my feeling about dealing with terrorist organisations, because I … have been to the [Bali] morgue and seen what terrorists have done to our own people.”

The guilty plea, however, is already under heavy fire.

The military commission trying Hicks has been dubbed a kangaroo court by critics in Australia, fuelled by claims by his father Terry that the Australian Government had pressured his son to enter the plea.

“He’s had five years of absolute hell and I think anyone in that position, if they were offered anything, they would possibly take it,” he said.

Law Council of Australia president Tim Bugg said the plea could be interpreted as simply a pragmatic way of escaping an appalling situation. Other lawyers suggested it could be challenged by claims the admission was extracted under duress, or because materially supporting terrorism was not a crime when Hicks was arrested.

But Downer and Chief Prosecutor Colonel Moe Davis warned that if Hicks falsely swore that his plea of guilty was voluntary in a bid to escape Guantanamo he would be committing perjury.

Both sides regard the trial as a precedent. Observers believe Hicks’ deal to minimise his sentence by pleading guilty to a reduced charge will be repeated in the subsequent trials of other detainees.

Hicks has pleaded guilty to one part of his charge – providing material support to a terrorist organisation – but not guilty to materially supporting an act of terrorism.

Prosecutors alleged he attended advanced al Qaeda training camps and associated with senior al Qaeda leaders, was issued weapons to fight US and other forces in Afghanistan, carried out surveillance on the American and other embassies in Kabul and fought against Coalition troops, although not carrying out any acts of terrorism or harming any Coalition soldiers.

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