GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- Amid days of secret Pentagon proceedings against those suspected of being al-Qaida terrorists, the U.S. military is reopening its war-crimes court today with a single charge against an alleged war-on-terror foot soldier with no explicit links to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Australian David Hicks, 31, is slated this afternoon to become the first Guantanamo captive to appear before a newly constituted Military Commission.
In a nine-page charge sheet, he is accused of providing material support for terrorism. It casts the former kangaroo skinner as a Christian convert to Islam who wandered the world as a soldier of fortune and joined an international anti-American jihad.
If his case is completed, it would be the first U.S. war-crimes tribunal since World War II. If convicted, officials say he would serve out any sentence -- a maximum of life imprisonment -- in Australia under an earlier diplomatic deal.
"On or about Sept. 9, 2001, Hicks traveled to Pakistan to visit a friend," his charge sheet says. "While at this friend's house, Hicks watched television footage of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and expressed his approval."
Earlier, while being trained in an al-Qaida camp, it claims, he personally complained to Osama bin Laden about a lack of English-language training material. By the time the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, he had rejoined bin Laden's forces, it is alleged, mostly guarding a Taliban tank with an AK-47.
He saw two hours of combat near Konduz, it says, but doesn't specify that he ever fired a shot.
His scheduled arraignment today comes only days after the Pentagon released transcripts of alleged al-Qaida kingpin Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who admitted in a secret hearing here to orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks and beheading Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Mohammed, instead of being charged in traditional U.S. or military courts, went through a secret Guantanamo status hearing on March 10, a prelude to any future Military Commission, likely to be held after Hicks' trial finishes.
The Pentagon has released censored transcripts of five other status hearings; in all, 14 former CIA-held captives are undergoing the closed hearings in a trailer at Camp Delta -- behind razor wire and far from the building serving as a war court.
In a court hearing, in November 2004, Hicks appeared as a mild-mannered, stocky, 5-foot-2 man in suit and tie, declaring his innocence and saying little but "yes, sir" to the military judge.
Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled those earlier proceedings illegal, sending the Pentagon back to Congress, whose Republican-led majority last year enacted a revised Military Commissions Act.
His Camp Delta commanders here have characterized Hicks as a bad boy among nearly 400 or so "enemy combatants" -- sometimes waging hunger strikes, sometimes refusing showers and recreation breaks as, his advocates say, he has slowly gone mad during five years of confinement without trial.
Today's hearing, an arraignment before Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, comes as the Bush administration is considering charges against the 14 more prominent prisoners here who arrived at this remote outpost in southeast Cuba six months ago after years of secret CIA interrogation.
Also, the U.S. Supreme Court could decide as early as today whether to fast-track review of the federal law that created the framework for Hicks' latest charges. Justices could hear new arguments surrounding the rights of detainees at Guantanamo before Hicks ever goes to trial, starting this summer.
"I think there is some symbolic value in actually charging him and proceeding with a Military Commission against a national of our ally Australia," said University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias, who has watched the White House develop national security law across the years.
To Tobias, today's hearing demonstrates the Pentagon's commitment to its war court even as such fundamental issues as civilian review through habeas corpus petitions are likely to reach the high court.
"They have been persistent," he said, referring to the Pentagon's revival of Military Commissions and its assertion that the terrorist suspects at Guantanamo have no constitutional rights despite two key, earlier losses before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Other experts, however, say this week's proceedings have a been-there, done-that quality.
"I think the historic moment passed us back in 2004, when they got it wrong the first time and refused to learn from their mistakes," says Miami defense attorney Neal Sonnett, who is in Guantanamo as an observer for the American Bar Association. The ABA has advocated the scrapping of special commissions altogether, calling for the use of time-tested courts-martial or civilian courts instead.
Hicks' arraignment comes days after The New York Times reported on a rift within the Bush administration over this offshore detention center.
With prime backer Donald H. Rumsfeld gone from the Pentagon, The Times reported, new Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has sided with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in arguing for a swift closing of the prison camps here, declaring them symbols that stoke anti-Americanism around the globe.
On the other side are embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Vice President Dick Cheney, who still have President Bush's support.
The Pentagon has not yet moved forward with charges against two other long-held captives -- bin Laden's driver, a 46-year-old Yemeni named Salim Hamdan, and a Canadian teen combatant named Omar Khadr.