David Hicks pleads guilty

Hicks, who has spent the last five years in US custody, now looks set to return to Australia, possibly serving a lesser sentence in an Australian jail.

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In a dramatic day at Guantanamo Bay, Hicks earlier refused to offer a plea to the charge, which carries a maximum sentence of life.

The tribunal had adjourned but was quickly reconvened amid growing speculation of a deal for Hicks to plead guilty in return for a lighter sentence.

Looking sombre, with his hands clasped in front of him, Hicks, 31, stood beside his military lawyer who told the judge his client would not contest the charge of providing material support for terrorism.

Hicks answered "yes, sir", when the judge, Marine Colonel Ralph Kohlmann, asked if he was pleading guilty.

Hicks' father Terry told SBS from Washington that he will stand by his son, who he says is desperate to get out.

"This is a way out and so this is what he's got to do because the Australian government, they're not gonna try and do what we were hoping that they'd do and call the Americans to send him home," he said.

In Guantanamo Bay, SBS correspondent Mark Davis says the defence is keeping tight-lipped about a plea deal.

"It's pretty much certain that there's been a plea bargain however that exact term is not being used by the prosecution or defence," he said.

Mark Davis also says that at a brief press conference Moe Davis, the chief prosecutor said, "it would not be unforseen for David Hicks to be back in Australia before the end of the year".

"The defence team indicates that it could be an even shorter time period than that," SBS's correspondent reported.

Sentencing looms

The judge ordered the prosecutors and defence lawyers to draw up a plea agreement by 6am (AEST) tomorrow, which was expected to spell out what sentence he will serve.

However US military prosecutors were expected to outline the Australian's likely sentence at a press conference later today.

The chief prosecutor for the military commissions had said previously that a 20-year sentence would be a "reasonable" benchmark for Hicks.

It was not immediately clear if the military authorities would take into account his time served at the Guantanamo prison.

But an exchange of prisoner agreement between Australia and the US means Hicks will be allowed to serve out any sentence in Australia, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said today.

Hicks was captured in 2001 by the US-backed Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and handed over to the United States and was transferred to the Guantanamo camp.

The guilty plea followed a three hour hearing which was supposed to clear the way for a trial against Hicks before a special US military tribunal.

Terry Hicks, and David Hicks' sister, Stephanie, were on the tarmac of the Guantanamo Bay airfield in a Lear jet ready for a flight for Washington DC, following an emotional meeting with the detainee.

A message was sent to the plane, which also had Australian and US officials on board, that Kohlmann was recalling the tribunal.

It was unclear whether they knew Hicks had agreed to plead guilty, but they opted to stay on the plane to fly to Washington DC.

Hicks is accused of undergoing training at an al-Qaeda camp in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan and volunteering to fight alongside Taliban forces during the US-led invasion.

The charge sheet does not allege Hicks attacked a US target, but says he conducted surveillance on the abandoned US embassy in Kabul and met Osama bin Laden as well as accused "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.

Earlier, Hicks arrived in the tribunal room dressed in khaki prison garb with chest-length hair but clean-shaven, escorted by two uniformed, unarmed soldiers. He was not wearing handcuffs or shackles.

But what was supposed to be a routine procedural hearing turned into a tense confrontation when Kohlmann disqualified two civilian lawyers on the defence team.

The judge said US lawyer Joshua Dratel could only represent Hicks in the tribunal if he signed an agreement setting out the rules governing how the defence counsel could operate.

Mr Dratel refused, saying: "I can't sign a document that provides a blank cheque that draws on my ethical obligations as a lawyer."

Mr Dratel said the tribunal system was making up rules as it went along, comparing it to the previous military commissions that were ruled illegal by the US Supreme Court in June.

"These are the same problems that plagued the last commissions, that everything is ad-hoc," Dratel said.

A second civilian lawyer, Rebecca Snyder, was told by the judge she would have to step aside, at least for the moment, until she changed her reserve status in the military.

"I'm shocked because I just lost another lawyer," Hicks told the judge.

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