Guantanamo Bay terror convict from Australia to be released from prison

Saturday, December 29, 2007

ADELAIDE, Australia -- An Australian who became the first person convicted at a U.S. war crimes trial since World War II leaves prison today, apologetic for "what he's supposed to have done and what people believe he's done," his father said.

David Hicks, who was captured fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan in December 2001, pleaded guilty in March to providing material support to al-Qaida after more than five years at Guantanamo prison and returned to Australia to serve out his sentence.

He is due to be released in his hometown of Adelaide but will face strict controls on his movement because he was judged a security risk.

"He's looking forward to finally stepping out into the open," said Hicks' father, Terry, adding his son wants to go to find a job to fund university courses in environmental studies. "All he wants is to get out and try and get some sort of normality."

The 32-year-old former kangaroo skinner's long detention at Guantanamo without trial strained ties between Washington and one of its closest allies in the fight against terrorism.

A U.S. military tribunal sentenced Hicks -- a Muslim convert who has since renounced the faith -- to seven years in prison in March after he confessed to aiding al-Qaida during the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

All but nine months of the sentence was suspended, and under a plea bargain Hicks was allowed to serve the remainder at a maximum-security prison in South Australia state. He was told to remain silent about any alleged abuse he suffered while in custody.

Under the deal, Hicks forfeited any right to appeal his conviction and agreed not to speak with news media for a year from his sentencing date.

Terry Hicks said his son would issue a brief statement through his lawyer on Saturday.

"There'll be some sort of apology for what he's supposed to have done and what people believe he's done," Terry Hicks said. "It is important to him that he gets this message across and thanks everybody who has been supportive of him."

Hicks' lawyers described their client as an immature adventurer who traveled to Afghanistan only after his application to enlist in the Australian army was rejected because of his lack of education.

In the months before his plea deal, his lawyers and family said Hicks was depressed and eager to leave Guantanamo, where he was isolated in small, solid-walled cell.

His case became a cause for rights campaigners in Australia, and a political problem for former Prime Minister John Howard, who was criticized for letting an Australian spend so long behind bars without trial.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who defeated Howard in November elections, was a strong critic of Hicks' treatment and the military tribunal system that convicted him, saying it could not deliver justice and that the Guantanamo Bay prison should be closed.

But Rudd has not challenged the plea deal, and said Friday that Hicks would have to comply with post-release restrictions ordered last week by a court at the request of Australian federal police.

"Our expectations of Mr. Hicks is that he would comply with the requirements which have been imposed upon him," Rudd said Friday.

Last week, a federal magistrate ruled that Hicks was a security risk because of the training he had received in terrorist camps in Afghanistan. The court was told he met al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden at least 20 times.

He ordered Hicks to report to police three times a week and obey a curfew by staying indoors at premises to be agreed on by police. Other restrictions include that he not leave Australia or contact a list of terror suspects.

The restrictions will last for one year.

The only other Australian to be sent to Guantanamo Bay was Mamdouh Habib, who was detained in Pakistan in October 2001 and released in January 2005 after officials found there was insufficient evidence to lay charges.

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