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Yemeni Demands to Represent Himself at Guantanamo Tribunal - 2004-08-26

A man from Yemen has been formally charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes by a U.S. military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The suspect, who was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001, is demanding to represent himself.

Through a translator, Ali al-Bahlul, 36, said in court that he is a member of al-Qaida and does not accept his military-appointed defense attorneys. He demanded to be allowed to represent himself or have a Yemeni attorney appointed for him. The commission's presiding officer first told him this was not allowed but then adjourned the hearing until the issue could considered by higher military authorities.

Pentagon officials charge the suspect was a bodyguard for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and a propagandist for the group. His father calls him a peace-loving writer of poetry.

Mr. al-Bahlul is the third person this week to go before a panel of military officers on terror conspiracy charges. The preliminary hearings at this American base on the island of Cuba mark the start of what will be the first U.S. military trials for war crimes in 60 years.

On Wednesday, Australian David Hicks pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and terrorism charges and is set to face trial in January. He and the other defendants are among nearly 600 accused enemy combatants detained here, all of them captured by the U.S. military since the start of the war on terror three years ago.

Defense lawyers have filed motions challenging the impartiality of these military commissions as well as the qualifications of officers hearing evidence, only one of whom is an experienced lawyer.

"It does not mirror anything of military criminal justice, it does not mirror U.S. civil criminal justice, it doesn't mirror European civil law style courts," said Marine Major Michael Mori, David Hicks' military appointed defense attorney. "It's an aberration and has no rules of evidence."

President Bush ordered the war crimes commissions to try non-Americans who areaccused of conspiring with al-Qaida and the Taleban to attack the United States. Despite concerns from legal and human rights groups, the Pentagon says everyone charged will be presumed innocent and must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.