US Gives Australian Qaeda Suspect Access to Lawyer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A military lawyer has been assigned to defend an Australian al Qaeda suspect being held in Guantanamo Bay, but no charges have yet been laid and no trial date set, the U.S. Department of Defense said on Wednesday.

The assignment of a military lawyer to defend David Hicks is the first time a foreign terror suspect imprisoned at the U.S. military base in Cuba has been allowed access to a lawyer, and comes only a day after the Pentagon said a U.S.-born man captured in Afghanistan would get a defense attorney.

Hicks, 28, an Islamic convert from South Australia state, was caught fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan in November 2001. He has been named as one of the first six prisoners eligible for trial before a U.S. military commission.

The Defense Department said in a statement U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Michael Mori, a lawyer, will visit Hicks at Guantanamo Bay “in the near future” to tell Hicks that he has the option of retaining a civilian defense counsel and an “appropriately cleared Australian attorney consultant.”

Mori will also discuss military law with Hicks, including the presumption of innocence, the requirement for proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the opportunity to present evidence and call witnesses, the Defense Department said.

“The Appointing Authority, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has not yet made the decision to approve charges and refer Hicks’ case to trial. Since no charges have been approved, no trial date has been set,” it said in the statement.

A Pentagon spokesman said the assignment of a lawyer to Hicks did not set a precedent for other Guantanamo Bay detainees to have defense counsel, and declined to elaborate on why Hicks was chosen to be the first foreign suspect assigned a lawyer.

The Pentagon on Tuesday said it would allow a U.S.-born man captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and held at a Navy jail to have access to a lawyer, after denying him counsel for two years.

Yaser Esam Hamdi, 22, who is being held in Charleston, South Carolina , and has not been charged, would be given access to a lawyer “as a matter of discretion and military policy” because interrogators have finished collecting intelligence from him, the Defense Department said.

The United States , which does not recognize the detainees as prisoners of war but as “enemy combatants,” has been widely condemned overseas for holding prisoners at the U.S. military base without allowing them to challenge their detention in court.

Hicks and another Australian detainee, Mamdouh Habib, have been held at Guantanamo Bay since late 2001 along with about 600 other detainees, but neither man has yet been charged.

Australia has already won assurances from the United States that both Hicks and Habib would be allowed to return to Australia to serve any prison sentences if convicted, and that neither would be subject to the death penalty, which Australia opposes.

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