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Australian detainee pleads not guilty

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- An Australian cowboy who converted to Islam and allegedly fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan went before a US military commission yesterday and pleaded not guilty to war crimes charges.

Lawyers for David Hicks also challenged the impartiality of four members and one alternate. It was the second attack on the commission's ability to be fair since arraignments began a day earlier.

Hicks, 29, in dark gray suit and tie, sat expressionless while listening to charges -- including conspiracy to commit war crimes, aiding the enemy, and attempted murder for allegedly firing at US or coalition forces -- carrying a possibility of life in prison.

''Sir, to all charges, not guilty," Hicks said, then breathed a huge sigh. He smiled after the five-member panel rose to conclude the hearing. It set his trial for Jan. 10.

Captured in Afghanistan, Hicks arrived at Guantanamo Bay in January 2002 as a slight, baby-faced 26-year-old. At yesterday's hearing he looked considerably older and stern.

It was the first time his family had seen him in five years.

''My expectation was that we would have David back to Australia after the first three months," his father, Terry Hicks, 58, said after arriving Tuesday from Adelaide, Australia, with Hicks's stepmother, Beverly. ''I don't think it is a fair and honest system."

Joshua Dratel, David Hicks's lead civilian attorney, began the hearing by challenging the impartiality of the presiding officer, Army Colonel Peter E. Brownback, a former military judge.

At the core of his argument is Brownback's relationship with John D. Altenburg Jr., a retired Army general in charge of the proceedings.

Brownback was 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 roast for the general.

Dratel also questioned the impartiality of three other panel members and an alternate, and he argued that David Hicks should be considered a prisoner of war rather than an ''enemy combatant," a status used by the United States that provides fewer legal protections.

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