- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

SYDNEY, Australia — Prime Minister John Howard, facing a tough re-election battle this year, finds his political fortunes increasingly tied to those of David Hicks, the Muslim convert at Guantanamo who is about to become the first terrorist suspect to be tried by a U.S. military tribunal.

A year ago, when polls were good for Mr. Howard’s government, Mr. Hicks’ fate seemed to matter little. But a Newspoll survey released yesterday shows Mr. Howard’s government trailing the opposition by 22 percentage points.

Australia will be watching closely on Monday when Mr. Hicks, 31, becomes the first person in the war on terrorism to be tried by a newly created U.S. military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The kangaroo skinner turned devout Muslim has become a prominent symbol of Mr. Howard’s government, thanks in part to efforts of his U.S.-appointed defense attorney, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Michael Mori.

After five years in detention, Mr. Hicks is charged with providing support to a terrorist organization and faces a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted.

Other charges, such as aiding the enemy, attempted murder and conspiracy, have been dropped.

The prosecution contends that Mr. Hicks attended four al Qaeda courses, including an advanced course in urban terrorism, and that after September 11, 2001, he returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan to join al Qaeda fighters to battle the U.S.-led coalition.

Maj. Mori plans to argue that the charge was created retrospectively, to ensure that Mr. Hicks stays behind bars.

“The Australians should demand that David be treated the same as an American citizen and that retrospective legislation should not be applied to him and that he should be returned,” Maj. Mori told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. during a recent visit here.

Mr. Hicks’ Australian attorney, John North, said the continued incarceration and trial by a military commission defies Australian notions of fairness.

The U.S. Embassy here argues otherwise.

“The Military Commissions Act, which was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2006, ensures that defendants such as Mr. Hicks are prosecuted before regularly constituted courts affording the defendants fair processes, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. Procedures include numerous due process safeguards,” said Daniel A. Clune, the charge d’affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Canberra.

Britain has managed to extradite its citizens from Guantanamo Bay and return them to Britain. In contrast, Australia has put its faith in the U.S. military trials.

With political winds shifting during an election year, Mr. Howard decided to press for a quick resolution of Mr. Hicks’ case when Vice President Dick Cheney visited here last month.

Public opinion in Australia remains divided about Mr. Hicks’ guilt or innocence, but frustration at the lack of action is growing.

Black on white banners outside some homes scream, “Bring David Hicks Home,” while talk radio callers frequently say that Mr. Hicks is a prisoner of war and needs to stay in jail.

In the meantime, Mr. Hicks’ Australian defense team has filed a case on his behalf in the Federal Court of Australia accusing the Australian government of failing in its duty to protect citizens overseas.

“If you do something plainly wrong and abandon a citizen to a regime that the U.S. won’t use for its own people, ultimately it will turn and bite you,” Mr. North said.


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