Aug 25, 4:33 PM EDT

Australian Held in Cuba Pleads Innocent

Associated Press Writer

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) -- An Australian cowboy accused of fighting with the Taliban against U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan pleaded innocent to war crimes charges Wednesday before a U.S. military commission.

David Hicks, 29, uttered "not guilty" to charges including conspiracy to commit war crimes, aiding the enemy and attempted murder for allegedly firing at U.S. or coalition forces.

He then breathed a huge sigh and smiled after panel members concluded the hearing. His trial was set for Jan. 10. Hicks faces life in prison if convicted.

During Wednesday's hearing, a defense attorney challenged the impartiality of a panel member once praised by superiors for "tracking and killing" Taliban fighters.

Whether the five members of the panel will be impartial has been a key issue since preliminary hearings for four prisoners began Tuesday. A military appointing authority could choose to disqualify any panel member for good cause.

Before Wednesday's hearing, Hicks' father, 58-year-old Terry Hicks, met with his son for the first time in five years.

David Hicks arrived at the hearing wearing a dark gray suit and tie. He was captured in Afghanistan and arrived at Guantanamo Bay in January 2002 as a slight, baby-faced 26-year-old.

On Wednesday, he looked considerably older and stern.

"My expectation was that we would have David back to Australia after the first three months," Terry Hicks said after arriving Tuesday from Adelaide, Australia, with his wife, Beverly, who is David Hicks' stepmother. "I don't think it is a fair and honest system."

The Hicks' reunion lasted 15 minutes. There were no guards present, and it was unclear whether Hicks was shackled. The U.S. military said he would be allowed to meet them once more after the hearing.

David Hicks' lead civilian defense attorney, Joshua Dratel, began the proceedings by challenging the presiding officer, Army Col. Peter E. Brownback, a former military judge.

He contended Brownback had ties to John D. Altenburg Jr., a retired Army general in charge of the proceedings.

Brownback worked with Altenburg in Fort Bragg, N.C., and his wife worked in Altenburg's office. He also attended the wedding of Altenburg's son and spoke at a retirement gathering for the general.

On Tuesday, the first day of the tribunal, Osama bin Laden's chauffeur, 34-year-old Salim Ahmed Hamdan of Yemen, declined to enter a plea. That hearing marked the start of the first U.S. military tribunal since World War II.

Hamdan withheld his plea until motions filed by his military-appointed lawyer are decided. A ruling is not likely until November.

His defense is challenging whether the hearing should proceed without a ruling on his "enemy combatant" status, which allows fewer legal protections than for prisoners of war. That classification was used to justify trying Hamdan and others before the tribunals, which will allow secret evidence and no federal appeals, rather than at courts-martial or in U.S. civilian courts.

Hamdan's defense attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, has filed a lawsuit in U.S. civilian courts in Washington alleging the illegality of commissions.

Swift also challenged the capacity and impartiality of four panel members - including the presiding officer - and one alternate.

"It is important that these proceedings not only be fair, but appear fair to the world," Swift said during Tuesday's hearing, which lasted more than eight hours.

Hamdan is charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes, including attacking civilians, murder and terrorism. He is not charged with any specific violent act.

Hamdan, also known as Saqr al Jaddaw, has said he earned a pittance for his family as bin Laden's driver before the Sept. 11 attacks, but he has denied involvement in terrorism. U.S. officials allege that he served as the al-Qaida leader's bodyguard and driver between February 1996 and Nov. 24, 2001, and that he delivered weapons to al-Qaida operatives.

The only member of the commission with formal legal training is Brownback, who came out of retirement when he volunteered. Asked by Swift whether he believed the proceedings were legal, Brownback chose not to answer.

Altenburg will decide whether any commission members should be removed. It was unclear how soon he might rule.

Hamdan and three other men being arraigned this week face charges that could bring life in prison, but other detainees could face the death penalty.

Two others charged with conspiracy are Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, 33, also of Yemen, and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, a Sudanese born in 1960. Their hearings also were scheduled for this week.

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