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U.S., Australia reach detainee agreement

From Elise Labott

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- At least one of two Australians being held by the United States at the Guantanamo prison camp in Cuba would escape the death penalty and would be sent to Australia to serve any sentence imposed by a U.S. military tribunal, a senior administration official told CNN on Wednesday.

The agreement covers David Hicks, an alleged al Qaeda member who was born in Australia, the official said.

It has not yet been determined whether another alleged al Qaeda member, Mamdouh Habib of Sydney, is an Australian citizen, but he will be covered by the agreement if he is.

Hicks, 26, is a self-styled "soldier of fortune" who converted to Islam while fighting for the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The Australian government said Hicks moved to Pakistan in November 1999 and trained with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of dozens of Islamic groups fighting to wrest control of Kashmir from India.

He then moved to Afghanistan in 2001 and trained with Osama bin Laden's network, the Australian government says. The Northern Alliance captured him in December 2001 and handed Hicks over to the U.S. military. He was one of the first detainees transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

The official said the suspects will be allowed access to Australian lawyers at their trials, which would be opened to the media so long as the security situation permits. If found guilty, they would serve out their sentences in Australia. They also will be permitted to speak with their families on the phone.

The United States and Australia came to tentative agreement about the two suspects during the summer, but had been waiting to formalize the details until completion of parallel discussions with Britain over British nationals at Guantanamo.

But the official said Australia decided to finish its negotiations based on the understandings it already reached with the U.S. government.

The United States and Britain have not reached agreement on two British detainees whose names the White House had forwarded to the Pentagon as eligible for military tribunals.

While the United States has given "preliminary assurances" it would not seek the death penalty for those two British detainees, based on the facts of their cases, the official said the discussions with the British government are dealing "holistically" with the outcome of all British detainees at Guantanamo.

Nine Britons are being held at Guantanamo as enemy combatants after being captured during military operations to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan.

"We are basically looking at the factual circumstances surrounding each detainee to see what could occur," the official said. "So that is why a final decision hasn't been made."

The official said the ongoing discussions with Britain include assessing each detainee's threat level and determining whether continued detainment is needed at all.

"Decisions haven't been made on some (as to) whether they should face military trial, and (on) others (about) if continued detention is in order," he said.

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