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Guantanamo Tribunals Prove Challenging to American Legal System - 2004-08-10


U.S. military authorities at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba say hearings on the status of detainees there could last several more months. The tribunal hearings began recently to determine if nearly 600 detainees at the base should be considered enemy combatants. Separate military commissions, or war crimes trials are scheduled to start within weeks. The tribunals, the planned commissions, and the continued detention of individuals is being criticized by human rights and lawyers groups, but military authorities say Guantanamo Bay is an important asset in the war on terror.

Everything is automated at Camp 5, the new high-security detention facility that is home to detainees the U.S. military considers the most dangerous at Guantanamo Bay.

Camp 5 was built earlier this year and is a symbol of how things have changed at Guantanamo Bay since the first detainees were brought to the base from Afghanistan two-and-a-half years ago. Originally housed in tents or flimsy sheds behind barbed wire, the detainees now live in camps designed to award or punish good and bad behavior.

Life for detainees who cooperate with U.S. authorities is easier than for those who do not. One instructor is teaching some of the detainees how to read and write in Pashto, a reward they have earned for their cooperation and good behavior. There are no lessons for detainees in Camp 5, which holds prisoners accused of intimidating other detainees, or being physically violent against U.S. service personnel who guard them.

The detainees learning Pashto, live in Camp Delta, which houses most of those held at Guantanamo Bay, at security levels ranging from a minimal security level one to a maximum security level four, just below those who are sent to Camp 5, where the most hardened detainees are confined.

The system of offering rewards for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior is practiced in prisons around the world. However authorities at Guantanamo Bay say their job is not to punish the detainees, but to obtain information from them to prevent future terrorist attacks. Steve Rodriguez is the head interrogator at the base. He says there is nothing mysterious about the process.

"By and large the best approach is a direct approach," he said. "It is just about trying to start a conversation with an individual, just like what you and I are having. Sometimes what you try and do though is if you know an individual likes a particular subject, or has a hobby to talk about those kinds of things to start that conversation and once the conversation has started, you hope to get to talk about the things you really need to talk about."

Ever since the first detainees arrived at Guantanamo Bay, civil libertarians and human rights organizations have criticized the detentions. The International Committee of the Red Cross whose delegates visit the detainees on a regular basis, says the procedures at Guantanamo Bay "places detainees beyond the law."

Those criticisms were raised again earlier this year following the disclosures of prisoner abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Military authorities at Guantanamo say there is no comparison between what goes on at Guantanamo Bay, and what occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison, but they acknowledge what happened in Iraq has made it difficult to convince outsiders that the detainees at Guantanamo Bay are not mistreated.

Jeff Fogel, is the legal director of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights advocacy group that has long criticized the detentions at Guantanamo. Mr. Fogel says the detentions, the recently started tribunals and the upcoming commissions or war crimes trials all violate long-held traditions of American law.

"I think most people in the world feel that this is not appropriate," he said. "That the United States could keep people somewhere we have characterized as a 'no law zone.' Most people in the world thought it was wrong, and most people in the United States thought it was wrong and ultimately the Supreme Court said it was wrong. So the American legal system and perhaps the American foreign policy system are on trial in these matters."

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the detainees have the right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts. In response, military authorities announced the first of what are expected to be hundreds of combat-status review tribunals on whether the detainees can be classified as enemy combatants or not.

Authorities at Guantanamo say the tribunals could result in a number of detainees being set free, but human rights and lawyers groups have filed numerous lawsuits in U.S. courts saying the tribunals are not impartial and detainees should be allowed legal counsel.

Since the tribunals began, a number of detainees have refused to participate but military authorities say they will press ahead. Both sides say the detentions and administrative and legal proceedings at Guantanamo Bay have opened new legal issues that will probably take years to resolve.

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