Tension grows in Australia on terrorism case

Prime minister faces political pressure as Guantanamo Bay detainee faces charges

March 03, 2007|By New York Times News Service

SYDNEY, Australia -- The decision by the U.S. military to charge an Australian citizen with one terrorism-related offense comes as Prime Minister John Howard is under mounting pressure, even from conservatives in his own party, to have the man charged, tried and brought home.

The man, David Hicks, is the first detainee from the American base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be charged under the Military Commissions Act of 2006. But the single charge, of providing "material support for terrorism," after Hicks has been held for five years in Guantanamo, has been met with skepticism, disbelief and some anger here, from conservatives and liberals alike.

The charge, which was announced Thursday by the Pentagon in Washington, represents a substantial reduction in the case the Bush administration has said it has against Hicks, a high school dropout who was captured in Afghanistan after the American invasion in 2001.

Only two weeks ago, the American ambassador to Australia, Robert D. McCallum Jr., described the Guantanamo detainees as "ruthless fanatics who would kill Australians and Americans without blinking an eye."

Hicks was initially charged with conspiracy to commit murder and engage in acts of terrorism, attempted murder and aiding the enemy. That was later reduced to attempted murder and "providing material support for terrorism."

Now all those charges, except material support, have been dropped, and there is a question if even that will stick. Hicks' lawyers argue that material support was not made a crime until 2006, five years after Hicks trained with al-Qaida.

The relatively minor, single charge after such a long detention "means they've botched it," said Barnaby Joyce, a federal senator for the conservative National Party, which is part of the governing coalition. "They've completely abused the process of justice."

Joyce is one of an increasing number of conservative politicians and others who have joined the Bring David Hicks Home movement, which has gained considerable momentum here in the last few months.

In fact, the case has generated such political outrage that members of Howard's own center-right Liberal Party acknowledge that it is hurting the prime minister in his bid for re-election this year.

For nearly five years, Howard, one of President Bush's most stalwart supporters, was generally content to allow Hicks to remain in Guantanamo. But in recent weeks, he has been forced to take account of the strong shift in public opinion around the case, which has become a major irritant in American-Australian relations.

Last month, Howard raised the Hicks case directly with Bush in a telephone call and again with Vice President Dick Cheney when he was here last week.

Whether the charge finally leveled against Hicks was "the result of my representations to President Bush and Vice President Cheney, I don't know," Howard was quoted by BBC as telling Australian journalists yesterday.

It is an issue that Hicks' lawyers are expected to explore, for if there was any influence of this kind on the bringing of the charge, it could result in the case being dismissed.

The next probable step is that the U.S. government will try to have Hicks plead guilty to the single charge, in exchange for a sentence of time served. That would send him back to Australia soon. Australian officials said this would be acceptable.

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