American Taliban, Australian Taliban

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American John Walker Lindh (left) and Australian David Hicks

Two young men, one Australian, the other American, were found guilty of aiding terrorists after their capture in Afghanistan by U.S. forces. But the radical discrepancy between punishment given the two has some crying foul.

Australian David Hicks, 31, was recently handed a nine-month sentence by a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, and expects to be free by New Year's Eve after five years in legal limbo at the U.S. detention facility. Meanwhile, the so-called "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh, languishes in a super-max prison in Colorado, serving a 20-year term. The stark comparison between their punishments is the basis of a petition sent this week by Lindh's lawyers to President Bush and the Justice Department, calling for his sentence to be commuted. "This is a simple cry for justice with regard to one person," Lindh attorney James Brosnahan told a San Francisco press conference.

President Bush is not expected to look favorably on Lindh's latest plea for leniency — his third since striking a deal in 2002 with the Justice Department in which he agreed to plead guilty to serving as an armed member of the Taliban in exchange for avoiding a variety of other terrorism charges that had also been lodged against him.

Lindh, now 26, converted to Islam and then joined the Taliban in the summer of 2001 in Afghanistan, where he was later captured by U.S. forces, becoming the first person charged in an American court on terrorism charges in the wake of 9/11. Lindh's lawyers have drawn a comparison between the treatment of their client and that of David Hicks, the Australian who admitted to fighting alongside the Taliban and training with al-Qaeda. Hicks's internment at Guantanamo amid allegations of torture and other mistreatment had become an issue in Australia, where Prime Minister John Howard — a strong supporter of President Bush's "war on terror" facing an upcoming election — was under growing pressure to get Hicks released and brought home. Earlier this year, Howard had reportedly urged Vice President Cheney to expedite the resolution of the Hicks case.

In exchange for a one-year gag order prohibiting Hicks from speaking to the press, he will be sent home by the end of May to serve the balance of a nine-month jail term — with seven years suspended — handed down at Guantanamo. The deal also prohibits Hicks from later accusing the U.S. of mistreating him, or suing for damages. The deal was struck without consulting the military prosecutors in the Hicks case, who had favored a much longer sentence, provoking charges in Australia and the U.S. of a political fix.

In another case cited by Lindh's lawyers, Yasser Hamdi, an American citizen also held at Guantanamo, was allowed to renounce his citizenship and move to his native Saudi Arabia in 2004, after three years of being held as an enemy combatant.

Despite the inequality between his sentence and that of Hicks, Lindh's release would face strong opposition — most notably from Johnny Spann, whose son, CIA officer Michael Spann, was killed in an uprising at the prison in Afghanistan where Lindh was initially taken after his capture. Spann has declared publicly that he believes Lindh should have been given a life sentence, and that he should serve his full 20-year term. He argues that Lindh could and should have warned his son of the danger presented by the prison uprising, but did not. At his trial, Lindh claimed to have been unaware of the planned uprising.