News,  May 26th, 2003

A SENIOR bureaucrat today denied the United States wanted Australia to take suspected Taliban fighter David Hicks home for prosecution.

Hicks and fellow Australian Mamdouh Habib have been held without charge for more than 18 months at the US Guantanamo Bay base on Cuba.

Attorney-General Department secretary Robert Cornall denied before a Senate inquiry a New York Times report that the Bush administration had asked Australia to take Hicks and charge him.

The report quoted US and Australian officials as saying there was no evidence Hicks had broken any Australian law and that Australia had not pressed for his release.

"That they (Americans) had determined not to deal with him and had pressed us to take him, I'm saying that is incorrect," Mr Cornall told the Senate committee.

Mr Cornall said the Americans had been pressed to decide what they would do with both Australians soon.

With the first prosecutions among the 700 Guantanamo Bay detainees expected to proceed before military commissions soon, the United States had not yet said whether either Australian would be charged.

"The matters are being discussed at the present time and we have said to the American government that these matters need to be resolved in the relatively near term because they have gone on for some time," Mr Cornall said.

The Americans had also been reminded of Australian abhorrence of capital punishment, Mr Cornall said.

Justice Minister Chris Ellison today could not say if Australia was one of eight countries that had demanded the United States release their nationals from Guantanamo Bay.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell had reportedly written to US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complaining that the ongoing detentions were jeopardising international cooperation in the war against terrorism, the committee was told.

The Americans continued to deny the Australians in Guantanamo Bay consular access or access to lawyers, the committee heard.

Australian authorities were allowed to question the Australians but only in the presence of US officials and without lawyers, Mr Cornall said.

If either Australian were tried, Australia had demanded conditions similar to a criminal trial and would push for the inclusion of Australian defence lawyers, Mr Cornall said.


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