Source: The News Online,23599,21045888-2,00.html

January 12, 2007

By Geoff Elliott and Samantha Maiden
Additional reporting: Ean Higgins

DAVID Hicks could be home before the end of the year if he accepts a plea bargain that takes into account his five years in jail.

Intense lobbying in Washington by the Howard Government on the case of the terror suspect could pay off, with expectations growing that he could be back before the federal election.

John Howard confirmed yesterday that he had tackled George W. Bush over the long delays in bringing the Guantanamo Bay inmate to trial when the US President had telephoned on Wednesday to brief him on his new policy for Iraq.

US prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis has told The Australian that the option of Hicks returning home this year was a "possibility" and government sources indicated they expected the case would be resolved "one way or another" within six months.

"I can tell you if someone came in with an offer to plead guilty in exchange for leniency, that would be looked at," he said. Asked if this meant that Hicks could be sent home this year either under plea bargain or a successful prosecution, Colonel Davis said: "That is not outside the realm of possibility."

He was considering levelling charges against Hicks of "material support" for a terrorist organisation, which carries a maximum penalty of life in jail.

But Colonel Davis also noted the jury could find a defendant guilty but impose a sentence of "no punishment" - in consideration of time already served - which would allow Hicks to walk.

There is also an agreement between Canberra and Washington that Hicks could serve out a sentence in Australia. The Prime Minister said yesterday the Government was "unhappy that he's been held for so long without trial".

"I have made it clear and the Attorney-General has made it clear that he cannot be held indefinitely in detention," Mr Howard said.

"We have been told that he will be charged very soon. We expect that to happen and we will be extremely disappointed, to say the least, if it doesn't happen."

Hicks, 31, has been detained by the US at its naval base in Cuba since January 2002, a month after he was captured with Taliban forces in Afghanistan. At a military commission hearing in August 2004 he pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, aiding the enemy and attempted murder.

Those charges were dropped when the US Supreme Court ruled last June that the military commissions set up to try Hicks and other Guantanamo Bay detainees were unlawful.

But legal challenges from other detainees to the new tribunal system could mean more delays.

Mr Hicks's Australian lawyers confirmed two years ago that a number of plea-bargain offers had been made to Mr Hicks but said none had been acceptable.

"But there have been no plea bargains on the table since I joined the team in March 2005," his Adelaide-based lawyer, David McLeod, told The Australian yesterday. "If he was offered something that got him home tomorrow, obviously we would have a look at it."

Hicks's father, Terry, said he did not believe his son would accept a deal. "Why should he take a plea bargain for something he may not have done," he said.

Colonel Davis said that even in the case of a guilty verdict, the five years Hicks had already served in harsh conditions at Guantanamo would be taken into consideration.

Colonel Davis said his wish was for Hicks to serve more time, because of his close association with al-Qaeda, but that the sentence would be up to the jury.

The Government has become increasingly vocal about the delays in getting Hicks to trial, recognising that Hicks is an issue that is biting in the electorate.

Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said he had received a call from his US counterpart, Alberto Gonzales, on Wednesday confirming Hicks was likely to be charged shortly. He also revealed he had not sought to see the US brief of evidence against Hicks in the five years he had been held.

And he rejected calls from the federal Opposition for Hicks to be brought back to Australia on bail on a control order pending his trial as "naive".

Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull said that regardless of Hicks's alleged crimes, he had been denied justice. "Five years awaiting trial is too long," he said.

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