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Archive for Monday, August 23, 2004

Military readies for first arraignments of Guantanamo detainees

August 23, 2004

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— One man allegedly worked as an al-Qaida accountant. Another, a poet, is accused of crafting terrorist propaganda. A third drove and protected Osama bin Laden. A fourth, a baby-faced Australian, fought with Afghanistan's ousted Taliban. None is accused of killing Americans.

These Guantanamo prisoners will be the first suspected terrorists arraigned in preliminary hearings this week before their cases go to military commissions, or trials, in an unprecedented judicial process that foreign governments, lawyers and human rights groups have criticized.

While the maximum sentence the four men face is life in prison, the military commissions -- the first in nearly 60 years since the United States tried German saboteurs -- will have the power to sentence others to death, and there is no independent appeal process.

Significant challenges already exist ahead of the first hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

One defense attorney hasn't seen his client in four months because of a government delay in giving clearance to a translator. Another defense lawyer has withdrawn from the case after accepting another job, leaving her client with no representation. Others say the broad restrictions, which include the military's right to monitor conversations between attorneys and clients, will make it nearly impossible to win their cases.

"I've never gone into a hearing with so little information," said Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, a military defense attorney representing Salim Ahmed Hamdan.

Hamdan, a 34-year-old Yemeni driver for Osama bin Laden, is scheduled to be arraigned first on a charge of conspiracy to commit war crimes for his ties to al-Qaida.

Two of the other men face similar al-Qaida conspiracy charges: Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, 33, also of Yemen; and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, of Sudan.

The fourth defendant is David Hicks, 29, of Australia, who faces the broadest set of charges -- conspiracy to commit war crimes as well as aiding the enemy, and attempted murder for allegedly firing at U.S. or coalition forces in Afghanistan before his capture.

When many of the prisoners arrived at this U.S. outpost in eastern Cuba in January 2002, the Bush administration was quick to declare them guilty: "These are killers," President Bush said. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft described them as "uniquely dangerous."

After comments like those, critics doubt the detainees can receive a fair trial since top U.S. officials also have the power to choose commission members.

"If the U.S. attorney would be able to handpick each jury, everyone in the world would say that is clearly not fair," said Kevin Barry, a retired Coast Guard captain and director of the National Institute of Military Justice.

The Bush administration defends the process.

"I think the commissions will be viewed with great interest, and over time, people will realize how full and fair they truly are," said Lt. Cmdr. Susan McGarvey, a government spokeswoman and one of the public affairs officers for the hearings.

One key issue the commission authorities expect to come up: the use of information against the men that could have come from interrogations at Guantanamo and other overseas outposts. Several detainees released from Guantanamo Bay claim to have made false confessions after interrogations, which can last anywhere from two to 15 hours.

Only four of Guantanamo detainees have been charged so far, while 11 others' charges are pending approval. Most of the men in the camp have been refused access to attorneys.

At this week's open preliminary hearings, expected to last four days, charges will be read to the men, who can enter pleas, and their lawyers can make motions. It could be months before the military commissions, or trials, begin.

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