t1_hicks.jpgGUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) — A U.S. military tribunal sentenced Australian al Qaeda trainee David Hicks on Friday to seven years in prison, but he will only have to serve nine months of the sentence.

Hicks, who became the first war crimes convict among the hundreds of foreign captives held for years at the Guantanamo prison camp, had pleaded guilty to supporting terrorism in an agreement with U.S. military prosecutors.

The deal allowed all but nine months of the sentence to be be suspended. He will serve it in Australia, and the United States must send him home by May 29. (Watch as a legal expert suggests Hicks may have opted for a “pragmatic course of action”)

The tribunal judge accepted Hicks’ guilty plea as part of an agreement that limited his sentence to seven years in prison, in addition to the five years he has been held at the Guantanamo base in Cuba.

The former kangaroo skinner from Adelaide acknowledged that he trained with al Qaeda, fought against U.S. allies in Afghanistan in late 2001 for two hours, and then sold his gun to raise cab fare to flee by taxi to Pakistan.

Hicks, 31, denied having advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks. His attorney, Marine Maj. Michael Mori, portrayed him as a now-apologetic soldier wannabe who never shot at anyone and ran away when he got a taste of battle.

The prosecutor, Marine Lt. Col. Kevin Chenail, said Hicks freely joined a band of killers who slaughtered innocents. “We are face to face with the enemy,” Chenail said.

Hicks was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001 and was among the first prisoners the United States sent to Guantanamo a month later. Washington considers them dangerous and unlawful “enemy combatants” who must be detained in the war against terrorism.

Rights groups and foreign governments have condemned the prison at the U.S. naval base on the eastern tip of Cuba for what they say is abuse of prisoners’ rights.

But Washington has argued the camp is necessary to hold detainees in the war on terrorism it declared after the 9/11 attacks.

Hicks is not accused of shooting anyone.

To finalize his plea, Hicks had to convince the judge that his plea was genuine and not just a maneuver to escape Guantanamo and return home, as his father describes it.

Hicks was in the first group of prisoners brought to Guantanamo in January 2002 and has said he was abused by his captors, which the U.S. military denies.

The chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Moe Davis, on Thursday said he was not claiming that “David Hicks is on par with Osama bin Laden.”

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.