The U.S. military has begun preliminary hearings at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to prosecute four accused enemy combatants on war crimes charges for allegedly conspiring with terrorists who threaten the United States. The Pentagon says the military commissions, the first since World War II, will provide the same standard of due process as civilian courts. But legal and human rights groups have already denounced the process as fundamentally flawed. The first to be arraigned was a Yemeni man alleged to have worked for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Tuesday's hearings began with the arraignment of Salim Ahmed Hamdan who prosecutors allege was Osama bin Laden's driver and bodyguard, and supplied weapons to al-Qaida before the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States. But his military appointed defense lawyer immediately challenged the jurisdiction of the Guantanamo court to hear the Hamdan case, as well as the legality of President Bush's order three years ago that established what are the first U.S. military trials for war crimes since World War II.
The 34-year-old Yemeni deferred entering a plea and listened through headphones to a translator during Tuesday's court proceedings. He is the first of four accused terrorists set to be arraigned this week who have been detained along with hundreds of others as enemy combatants at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
Navy Lieutenant Commander Susan McGarvey is a spokeswoman for the military commissions set to hear their cases in the coming months.
"This process is a trial, a commission that is addressing alleged violations of the law of war," she said. "People are being detained as enemy combatants and under international law they can be detained for the course of the conflict."
While spokesmen for these military commissions say those accused must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, legal and human rights groups have denounced the process as lacking fairness since U.S. military officers will serve as prosecutor, judge and jury, with the power to recommend the death penalty. During this week's pre-trial hearings, defense lawyers are expected to question the admissibility of evidence against their clients, some of it secret, some of it gained through interrogations.
For that reason and others, observers here including Neal Sonnett of the American Bar Association, believe these commissions are deeply flawed.
"We have a justice system that has worked in this country for more than 200 years," he said. "There is no reason to believe it would not have worked in this kind of situation. The fact that we may have a new kind of war does not mean that we have to give up fundamental freedoms and rights and do away with due process. And what we have now is a situation which just does not meet American standards and ideals for fundamental fairness and due process considerations."
On Wednesday, the military court is set to hear pre trial motions in the case against Australian David Hicks. He as well is charged with conspiring to commit terrorism along with attempted murder after being captured in Afghanistan three years ago.