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US files terrorism charges against Australian detainee

If convicted, David Hicks faces a life sentence. If convicted, David Hicks faces a life sentence.

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration filed charges yesterday against David Hicks, an Australian suspected of aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan and the first terrorism-war era detainee to be charged under the new law for military commissions.

The decision was made even though officials in Australia already had asked the United States not to bring such charges. Australia has been a steadfast ally to the Bush administration in its war on terrorism.

Hicks, whose case has drawn international attention, is a former kangaroo skinner captured in Afghanistan in December 2001. He has been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than five years.

According to a Defense Department announcement, Hicks is being charged with providing material support for terrorism. He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

US officials assured the Australians nearly a year ago that, if convicted, Hicks could serve his sentence in Australia, a defense official said.

Despite a recommendation by military prosecutors that he also be charged with attempted murder for battling coalition forces in Afghanistan, officials declined.

Hicks would have a trial in a special military tribunal, established in a law that Congress passed last year, rather than a civilian court. Opponents have vowed to challenge the constitutionality of the military tribunal proceedings.

The Supreme Court last year declared an earlier formulation of such military tribunals unconstitutional.

"This is an important milestone for military commissions," said Commander J. D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.

The military eventually hopes to charge 60 to 80 of the Guantanamo detainees -- none of whom have ever gone to trial.

Hicks's legal status has been a sore spot for Australia. Last month nearly half the members of Australia's Parliament signed a letter to the US Congress appealing for help repatriating him.

The topic was also discussed last month in a meeting between Vice President Dick Cheney and Australian Prime Minister John Howard when Cheney visited Australia. Under growing public pressure, and with elections scheduled later this year, Howard has begun pushing US officials to expedite Hicks's case .

In the fall, Congress passed a law that outlined the rules for trying terrorism suspects. The system is intended to protect classified information and provides detainees with fewer rights than civilian or military courts.

Once formal charges are filed, a timetable requires preliminary hearings within 30 days and the start of a jury trial within 120 days at Guantanamo Bay, where nearly 400 men are held on suspicion of links to Al Qaeda or the Taliban.