When Major Michael Dante Mori ’91 first learned he would be defending “Guantanamo Detainee Number 002,” he was expecting what then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described as “among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth”—someone who likely had been involved in the 9/11 attacks. Then he met David Hicks: a 5-ft., 2-in. Aussie with an eighth-grade education, who alleges that the first time he heard the word “al-Qaeda” was while being interrogated by U.S. military personnel.
Hicks was a high school dropout from a rural, working-class suburb of Adelaide. After visiting a local mosque, he converted to Islam and traveled to Pakistan to study the Qur’an. While there, he joined 30 other foreigners being trained in mountain warfare by a group who were fighting the occupying Indian army in the Kashmir border region.
In August of 2001, he traveled to Afghanistan to learn about guerilla and urban warfare at a camp administered by the local Afghan government. After a few weeks, he was ready to return home, but unwisely made the two-hour journey back to Kandahar on September 12, 2001 to retrieve his passport from a hotel safe. The borders closed behind him and, following a horrific chain of events lasting several months, he was apprehended in Baglan and turned over to U.S. military personnel.
The second detainee to be processed in Bush’s War on Terror and the first Guantanamo detainee to be given legal counsel, Hicks had already been incarcerated for two years when Major Mori was assigned to him. Having volunteered for the case because he thought it would be “an opportunity to do something different,” Mori quickly found himself in uncharted waters. As the chief prosecutor at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, he was well versed in court-martial law; however, he admits, “International criminal law was something I never had training in, so I had to do a lot of reading.”
Since Hicks was not guilty of any crime under the existing judicial system, the Pentagon had created (or more accurately, resurrected) a new system: military commissions. Under this alternate model— utilized in 1942 to try Nazi saboteurs—Hicks would be systematically denied any of the rights or protections normally granted to the accused by the Geneva conventions, and tried in secret by a government-appointed tribunal.
Nothing in Major Mori’s experience had prepared him for what lay ahead. Besides pretty much guaranteeing that the accused wouldn’t receive a fair trial, the military commissions system flew in the face of everything Mori stood for—as an American, as a member of the legal profession, and as a Marine. As he told Raymond Bonner of The New York Times, “It offends my understanding of what justice is that’s been ingrained in me by the Marine Corps and by my legal training.”
Faced with near impossible odds, Mori changed his strategy, abandoning his efforts to prove his client’s innocence in an unfair system and instead focusing on exposing a rigged system that had no legal grounds on which to charge his client in the first place. Meanwhile, Hicks’ incarceration continued for years. He was the only westerner left among 540 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. U.S. authorities couldn’t release Hicks uncharged, as it would have constituted an admission of human rights violations on their part.
In January 2007, in reaction to mounting pressure from the Australian media and public, then Australian Prime Minister John Howard gave the Bush administration an ultimatum: If Hicks wasn’t charged by February, he would request his release. On February 2, Hicks was charged for the second time—with “Attempted Murder and Providing Material Support for Terrorism.” This, despite the fact that the first Military Commission had been thrown out by the Supreme Court as violating the Geneva Conventions, and the new Manual for Military Commissions had not yet been drafted.
One month later the head legal adviser for the commissions offered Mori’s client a deal: If Hicks would plead guilty to providing material support to terrorism, the attempted murder charge would be dropped, he would be released from Guantanamo in 60 days, and he would serve seven months of a nine-year sentence in an Australian prison. Given that his only other option was remaining at Guantanamo, facing illegal charges and possibly never seeing his family again, the offer was simply too good to refuse. At Mori’s near insistence, and after much soul searching, Hicks reluctantly signed, effectively ending his five-and-a-half-year ordeal.
News of Hicks’ impending release electrified the Australian media, garnering Mori celebrity status. Robyn Shelly, an Australian journalist covering the story for Unknown News, called him a “modern day Atticus Finch.” Mori was presented with an honorary membership to the Australian Bar Association. The Australian Lawyer’s Alliance (ALA) presented Mori with a civil justice award that recognizes “unsung heroes who, despite personal risk or sacrifice, have fought to preserve individual rights, human dignity or safety.”
Back in the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had earlier presented Mori with the Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty, the monetary portion of which Mori asked the ACLU to donate to a trust fund for David Hicks’ three children.
Now retired from the Marines, Mori has turned the page on this somewhat surreal chapter of his life and is spending more time with his three sons, Dante, Enrico, and Antonio. But he won’t soon forget his client and experiences and wrote a book detailing his time at Guantanamo and the Military Commission system titled, “In the Company of Cowards” which was published by Penguin Australia.
In 2014, Major Mori’s complaint that the Material Support Charge was illegal was vindicated by U.S. Federal Court in D.C. They determined that the charge Hicks plead guilty to was invalid, which resulted in his conviction being was thrown out.
Adapted from an article by Diana Weggler entitled “Undue Process” that appeared in the Norwich Record in 2012.