CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Sentencing for Australian David Hicks, the first person to plead guilty to terrorism before a U.S. military commission, could vary widely, Australia’s top legal official said Friday, while another minister said it could be as short as time already served.
Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock, the government’s senior legal officer, said the government did not know what the sentence would be for Hicks, a 31-year-old Muslim convert accused of joining al-Qaida during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Hicks is appearing before a military judge Friday to enter his guilty plea under oath. Because of the plea, a prosecutor said Hicks faced “substantially less” than the 20 years previously flagged.
Ruddock said the military commission had ultimate say over
the sentence. “The penalty could vary very considerably,” he told Sky News. “That’s a matter that’s determined by the commission.”
A military judge at Guantanamo Bay, Marine Corps Col. Ralph Kohlmann, said Friday during Hick’s hearing that a plea bargain will limit the sentence to a maximum of seven years in prison.
The plea agreement also calls for an unknown portion of the sentence to be suspended.
The agreement calls for Hicks to be returned to Australia within 60 days of his sentencing, which is expected within days.
The U.S. government had previously agreed to let him serve any sentence in Australia.
Another Australian Cabinet-level official, Employment Minister Joe Hockey, said the five years Hicks has already spent at the Guantanamo Bay prison would probably be taken into account. “There might not be a custodial sentence that comes out of it so he might come back here and be set free,” Hockey told Seven Network television.
Under a prisoner-exchange agreement between the U.S. and Australia, Hicks would serve any sentence in a prison in his home town of Adelaide.
The Australian government does not have the discretion to reduce the sentence imposed by the American military, but Hicks’ father, Terry Hicks, has proposed court challenges in Australia to the legality of his detention. However, a short custodial sentence could circumvent such a challenge and neutralize Hicks’ detention as an issue in federal elections due late this year.
In a report citing unnamed government sources, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper said Thursday that Hicks was expected to spend about a year in an Australian prison. Prime Minister John Howard, a staunch ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, has long rejected pressure for Hicks to be repatriated despite legal and human rights groups condemning the military commission system as unfair.