AS HE sought re-election in 2007, John Howard called in a political "favour" from the US government to get any charge possible laid against David Hicks, a former Guantanamo Bay chief military prosecutor has claimed.
Colonel Morris Davis's accusation against the former prime minister adds weight to an American journalist's report that quotes leaked US government documents.
Jason Leopold, of the internet publication Truthout, says he has material, including documents from the office of the former vice-president Dick Cheney, stating that Mr Howard met Mr Cheney in Sydney on February 24, 2007, and told him the Hicks case had become a "political threat" to his re-election campaign.
Leopold, who has not released the documents, says he was told Mr Howard not only pushed for a war crimes-related charge against Hicks, but he refused a US government offer to have Hicks sent home so Australia could deal with him instead.
Colonel Davis has maintained there was political interference in the charge against Hicks, which he says any reasonable person would see as a "favour for an ally".
The Sunday Age sent Mr Howard detailed questions but he has refused to comment on the allegations.
The United Nations is investigating the Hicks case after receiving a complaint from Australian human rights barrister Ben Saul that Mr Howard negotiated directly with Mr Cheney to rapidly dispose of the Hicks case because of political pressure.
Hicks was apprehended in 2001, during the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, by the Northern Alliance and handed over to the US military. He was sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he was held for five years before being returned to Australia. He pleaded guilty in 2007 to providing material support for terrorism, a charge which had not previously existed. He has maintained that he was coerced into accepting a plea deal, fearing he would never be released.
Colonel Davis said Hicks had been a good candidate to be transferred back to his home country - without charge - like dozens of others held in Cuba.
He came to the conclusion there was political interference in the case soon after he received an urgent phone call from Pentagon general counsel William "Jim" Haynes, who had asked him: "How quickly can you charge David Hicks?"
"I knew for John Howard it was becoming a political liability with an election coming up," Colonel Davis said.
That was the first and only time Mr Haynes had ever called him about a specific case and he found it "odd".
The eventual plea bargain was negotiated behind his back, Colonel Davis said.
The deal, referred to as Alford plea, involved Hicks agreeing to the charge of providing material support, which was not a war crime before the passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006. It meant that Hicks did not admit to the act he was being charged with, but did admit that the prosecution could probably prove it.
Mr Saul, who is professor of international law at the University of Sydney, has made a 107-page submission to the UN Human Rights Committee, arguing that Hicks's imprisonment in Australia - for seven months after his return from Guantanamo Bay - was an illegal, retrospective punishment, his trial was unfair, and that his plea agreement was obtained under duress.
Hicks is also preparing to have his first day in court, defending an action by the Australian government to seize, as proceeds of crime, the royalties from his book Guantanamo: My Journey.
Colonel Davis, who has quit the military and is now the executive director of the Crimes of War Education Project, said that as Mr Howard was one of the US's few allies it "made sense" that the charge was to help him by making the Hicks case go away.
Colonel Davis said Hicks had made a conscious decision to go and fight in Afghanistan, "but he was no Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Osama bin Laden, he was a foot soldier".
"Traditionally war crimes have been typically prosecuted against the leaders … not the rank-and-file soldier."
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