The first war-crimes trial here drew outrage Saturday from legal experts who described it as a perversion of the rule of law that may fatally discredit the Pentagon’s already disparaged handling of terrorism suspects.
Australian detainee David Hicks, whom prosecutors cast as a highly trained and dangerous Al Qaeda operative, will be out of prison before the year ends because of a secret deal cut by the Bush administration appointee overseeing the military commissions.
The jury went through the motions: The panel of senior military officers flew in from around the world, deliberated for two hours and sentenced Hicks — who had entered a guilty plea — to what they’d been told was the maximum term of seven years.
But the person overseeing the tribunals, veteran Defense Department lawyer Susan J. Crawford, had bypassed the prosecution and cut a pretrial deal directly with the defense to suspend all but nine months of any sentence rendered in exchange for the guilty plea.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard is one of Washington’s closest allies in the war on terrorism, and his Liberal Party had been flagging in this election year because of public resentment of Hicks’ being held without charges at Guantanamo for more than five years.
Bringing his case to the war-crimes tribunal first, and before all the procedural guidance was ready, left the impression with many legal analysts that Crawford stepped in to do Howard a favor — at the expense of the commissions’ credibility.
Even the chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, issued what seemed a subtle dig at the plea deal made behind his back. After offering sincere congratulations to Hicks’ military defense lawyer, Marine Maj. Michael Mori, he said he also wanted to thank Howard’s government for everything it had done to bring closure to the case.