SYDNEY, (Reuters) – The father of convicted terrorist David Hicks said on Saturday he was relieved his son would serve out his sentence in his homeland.
Hicks is due to be sent back to Australia in weeks, and possibly days, to serve nine months in jail and could be a free man by New Year’s Day. “The bottom line of all this is that at least he’s back home. He’s out of that hell hole,” Terry Hicks told local media.
Hicks, 31, who has spent five years at Guantanamo Bay, was sentenced by a U.S. military commission on Friday to seven years’ jail after pleading guilty to supporting terrorism. He made the plea after reaching an agreement with U.S. military prosecutors.
However, the commission suspended six years and three months of the sentence, meaning Hicks will serve just nine months in an Australian prison.
Hicks is the first war crimes convict among the hundreds of foreign aptives held at the Guantanamo prison camp. His father, who has spearheaded a campaign to have his son returned to Australia, said the sentence was better than it could have been, but his son’s case was never properly tested in court.
“It’s a real shame David had to go through this way to get released when he should have had the Australian government standing up for Australia’s citizens’ rights,” he told Australian Associated Press.
Terry Hicks said his son had been “through hell” and should never have been made to endure the conditions at Guantanamo Bay.
Australia, a close U.S. ally with forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, had refused to ask for Hicks to be returned home because he could not have been charged with any offence under its laws.
But conservative Prime Minister John Howard, facing a tough election later this year and under growing public pressure to bring Hicks back, complained to Washington about the long delay in putting the Australian on trial.
Howard said on Saturday he believed Hicks had pleaded guilty because the U.S. military had a strong case against him.
“He’s not a hero in my eyes and he ought not to be a hero in the eyes of any people in the Australian community,” Howard told reporters in Sydney. “The bottom line will always be that he pleaded guilty to knowingly assisting a terrorist organisation.”
Hicks, who was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001, acknowledged that he trained with al Qaeda, fought against U.S. allies in Afghanistan in late 2001 for two hours, and then sold his gun to raise cab fare and tried to flee by taxi to Pakistan.
Hicks’ defence lawyer, Major Michael Mori, said his client
had gained certainty about a return to Australia from his plea. “That’s what he’s focused on. He’s focused on seeing his family,” Mori told local radio.
Australian Greens leader Bob Brown, who has been a fierce critic of Hicks’ detention, said the sentence was simply aimed at helping Howard weather political unrest. “It is clearly a political fix arranged between Mr Howard and the Bush administration to shut up Hicks until after the election in November,” he said in a statement.
Hicks’ plea agreement bars him from speaking to the media for one year and requires him to give the Australian government any money received for the rights to his story.