Australian David Hicks, the first prisoner to face a new U.S. war crimes tribunal, unexpectedly pleaded guilty on Monday to a charge of helping al Qaeda fight American troops during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Hicks entered his plea following the first day of hearings in the military tribunals created by Congress after the Supreme Court struck down an earlier version that President George W. Bush authorized to try foreign captives on terrorism charges.
Hicks, a 31-year-old former kangaroo skinner who has been held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center for more than five years, earlier said he would defer entering a plea.
His military lawyer Marine Maj. Michael Mori later told the court that Hicks had changed his mind. Hicks answered "yes, sir," when the judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, asked him to confirm the guilty plea.
Hicks had faced life imprisonment if convicted on the charges. Those included supporting terrorism by attending al Qaeda training camps, conducting surveillance on the American embassy in Kabul and fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where he was captured in December 2001. He was sent to Guantanamo a month later.
His guilty plea is likely to mean a more lenient sentence and the judge ordered the prosecutors and defense lawyers to draw up a plea agreement by 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT) on Tuesday.
Under a long-standing diplomatic agreement, Hicks will serve his sentence in Australia.
One of his Australian lawyers, David McLeod, had said on Sunday that Hicks was convinced he will not get a fair trial.
"He expected that he would be convicted even if he defends the charges," McLeod told reporters on Sunday.
Hicks, who wore a khaki prison uniform and was unshackled during the hearing, has grown his hair to chest-length and looked far older and chubbier than at his last hearing in 2004.
He had been allowed to meet privately in the court building with his father, Terry Hicks, and sister Stephanie, who were flown to the base by the U.S. military for Monday's hearing.
"He's really changed a lot in three years," said the elder Hicks, who had last seen his son at the 2004 hearing.
Hicks, the first of the 385 Guantanamo prisoners to be charged in what are formally called military commissions, wants only to return to Australia, settle down and see his two children, his father said.
"We will stand by him on anything he decides, whichever way it goes," said his father, who left the base before the guilty plea was announced.
Hicks has said he was sodomized, beaten, and subject to forced injections while in U.S. custody, allegations the military calls untrue and nonsense.
Rights activists and foreign governments have long criticized the prison camp on the eastern tip of Cuba for what they say are abuses of detainees' rights. Washington contends the prison system is necessary to hold foreign suspects captured in the war on terrorism it declared after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Hicks' lawyers and human rights monitors observing the hearings said the tribunals were rigged to ensure convictions and allow evidence obtained through coercion. The tribunals are already the subject of new court challenges.
Hicks is not accused of involvement in the September 11 attacks and Human Rights Watch said he could easily be tried in a regular U.S. court.