GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba - A guilty plea by Australian David Hicks to terrorism charges should not be seen as legitimizing U.S. military tribunals taking place at Guantanamo Bay, human rights groups said on Tuesday.
Lawyers met to work out details of the plea after Hicks, a farmhand turned al Qaeda trainee, stunned many in the court at the U.S. naval base on Monday night by pleading guilty to a charge of providing material support for terrorism.
Hicks, who is accused of helping al Qaeda fight American troops and their allies during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, acknowledged providing support to a terrorist organization but denied a portion of the charge that accused him of carrying out terrorist acts.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented Hicks and other Guantanamo prisoners in U.S. court challenges to their open-ended detention, said the process was illegal.
"Hick's guilty plea should not be seen as legitimizing in any way an utterly illegal system of off-shore penal colonies, abuse, and 'trials' that violate fundamental due process rights," it said in a statement.
Jennifer Daskal, U.S. advocate at Human Rights Watch and an observer at the trial, said: "There's little reason to think that if Hicks had gone to trial he would have received a fair hearing."
Hicks, 31, is the first of 60 to 80 Guantanamo prisoners the United States intends to try in the new military tribunals, which Congress created after the Supreme Court struck down an earlier version that President George W. Bush authorized to try foreign captives on terrorism charges.
Five U.S. military officers will be brought to the base by the end of the week to decide Hicks' sentence.
The charge sheet accused him of attending al Qaeda training camps, conducting surveillance on the American embassy in Kabul, taking up arms to guard a Taliban tank, and fighting against U.S. forces and their allies in Afghanistan.
Hicks was captured there in December 2001 and sent a month later to Guantanamo, where camp officials quoted him as declaring "Before I leave here, my goal is to kill an American."
Now flabby and pale with scraggly hair down to mid-back, he showed no such bravado in the courtroom.
Hicks has said he was sodomized, beaten, and subjected to forced injections while in U.S. custody, allegations the military calls untrue and nonsense.
Once the agreement is drafted, Hicks will appear again before the judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, who will review it and decide whether it is "provident."
"The judge will conduct an inquiry with Mr. Hicks and satisfy himself that he is in fact guilty of the facts," said the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Moe Davis.
Although he had faced a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted, Davis said he never planned to ask for more than 20 years.
That request will now be trimmed because of the guilty plea and will take into account the five years Hicks has spent at Guantanamo, Davis said. Under a long-standing diplomatic agreement, Hicks will serve his sentence in Australia.
"I don't look at it as a victory. I look at it as a first step," Davis said.
"To me what's important is that this be a fair process and Mr. Hicks get a fair trial and receive a fair sentence if he's found guilty. We're a couple of steps along that process."
© Reuters Ltd 2007.