ADELAIDE (Reuters) - The first Guantanamo Bay inmate convicted of supporting terrorism by a U.S. military court returned to Australia on Sunday under a veil of secrecy, but “elated” to serve out his remaining sentence at home.
A government-chartered executive jet bringing David Hicks from the U.S. enclave prison in Cuba landed at an Australian military base in Adelaide, where a convoy of elite police whisked him to jail in a blacked-out police van.
“He’s very, very glad to be back on Australian soil,” his Australian lawyer David McLeod said.
Hicks’s return was cloaked in secrecy on government orders after an intense public campaign that damaged Prime Minister John Howard’s standing ahead of an election due later this year.
Polls have showed slipping support for Howard, who has been accused of indifference over Hicks’s case, despite a five-year struggle by family, friends and the public to bring him home.
Hicks’s van sped past the media and into Yatala Prison, where he will spend the next seven months after he pleaded guilty to providing material support to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.
“He was visibly elated when we touched down, and he’ll be very glad to see his family,” said McLeod, who accompanied Hicks on the flight with police, prison guards and a medical officer on the private jet, a Gulfstream V.
Hicks, 31, was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001 and spent five years in Guantanamo before he was sentenced in March to seven years’ jail.
Under a deal with U.S. prosecutors, most of his sentence was suspended and he will be free on December 29, 2007.
Hicks was the first person convicted by a U.S. war crimes tribunal since World War Two and the first of hundreds of foreign captives held at the Guantanamo Bay to face a military trial.
McLeod said security at Guantanamo was at “fever pitch” on Hicks’s departure and the former kangaroo skinner was restrained in his seat during the 24-hour flight via Tahiti.
The lawyer said Hicks was able to watch a movie and enjoy his “first small taste of freedom” for five-and-a-half years.
Australia’s government defended the A$500,000 (209,000 pounds) cost to bring Hicks home, with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer saying Hicks was unable to fly commercially “because of the security issues”.
McLeod said Hicks had suffered some physical ill-effects as a result of his years in Guantanamo Bay, but bigger fears were held for his mental health.
“In the western world’s most notorious prison, he’s become institutionalised,” he said without elaborating.
A small group of protesters outside jail carried placards in support of Hicks. But Downer said he should not be treated as some kind of hero.
“You are dealing with somebody who is a criminal here and somebody who has been involved in several terrorist organisations, in particular, al Qaeda,” Downer said.
Hicks has been placed in the high-security 24-cell G-division at Yatala, alongside Australia’s worst serial killers, two men who murdered 11 people and disposed of many of the bodies in barrels hidden in a disused bank vault.
A prison source said Hicks would have no contact with other inmates, but would be able to meet his lawyers and family.
“It’s now been turned into high political farce by the Howard Government, special planes, secrecy, high drama, but it’ll leave in most Australians’ minds a sense of absurdity,” opposition Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown said.
Support group Get Up said the long legal wrangling over Hicks had stained the reputation of the government and Australia.
At his trial, Hicks acknowledged he trained with al Qaeda and met Osama bin Laden, the accused mastermind of the September 11 airline attacks in the United States.
He denied advance knowledge of the attacks, but said he learned guerrilla ambush and kidnap skills before briefly fighting against U.S. allies in Afghanistan in late 2001.
McLeod said Hicks wanted to put the past behind him and would respect a U.S. gag stopping him speaking to the media for a year after his March conviction.
“He wants to get on with his education and, if possible, go to university,” McLeod said. “He’s not proud of his notoriety and he simply wants to get on and move on.”
Additional reporting by James Grubel and Rob Taylor
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