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Controversy Continues Over Impending Trials for al-Qaida Detainees at Guantanamo


At the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, nearly 500 men are being held, awaiting trial or release. Some are suspected of committing war crimes as part of the al-Qaida terrorist network. A number of them have been in custody at the military base for four years, and were captured during the war in Afghanistan which toppled the fundamentalist Taleban regime.

Pre-trial hearings to formally read charges against the detainees have been underway at Guantanamo Bay as part of U.S. military war crimes tribunals. President Bush set up the tribunals to try foreign terrorism suspects following the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States.

So far, only 10 detainees have been charged with war crimes, which include conspiring with al-Qaida to attack civilians, commit murder and destroy property. Some detainees are accused of attending al-Qaida camps where they allegedly learned, and trained others, how to make electronically controlled explosives to use against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

A tribunals spokeswoman, Air Force Major Jane Boomer, says the detainees have rights that are similar to those in other U.S. courts. "The presumption of innocence, proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the right to a defense counsel, the right to a zealous defense, the right to present evidence, the right to challenge the government's evidence, the right to cross-examination of the government's witnesses, there's a review process in place. All of these procedures are the fundamental principles that are applied to Americans who go through civilian and military courts-martial," she said.

U.S. officials say the tribunals are necessary because al-Qaida has declared war on the United States, and Guantanamo detainees fall outside the customary rules applying to prisoners of war. But legal and human rights groups argue that charges against the detainees should be brought in civilian courts or the military courts martial system, which have long established rules.

Neal Sonnet, an attorney with the American Bar Association who is observing the hearings, says the tribunals are flawed because the rules can be changed at any time. "Unfortunately, instead of using an already accomplished system, the administration decided to construct a new system, and they've been making it up as they go along, and that's simply unacceptable," he said.

Chief prosecutor, Air Force Colonel Moe Davis, says the war tribunals, known formally as military commissions, will be just. He says there are solid cases against the ten detainees scheduled to go on trial. "I don't think it's a great leap in logic. If you're a member of al-Qaida making bombs, and you don't put them out in Afghanistan for deer season, then they're there for one purpose, and that's to kill people," he said. "Osama bin Laden issued a 'fatwa,' declaring war against the United States. So it's pretty clear what the intended purpose of all these improvised explosive devices were."

Defense lawyers have sued to stop the tribunals. They consider them unfair for numerous reasons, including the use of secret evidence that defendants are not allowed to see, and the potential of evidence being presented that was obtained by torture.

Major Tom Fleener is a court-appointed Army attorney for detainee Ali Hamza Al Bahlul. The 37-year-old Yemeni and self-proclaimed al-Qaida member is accused of being Osama bin Laden's bodyguard and making recruiting videos. Al-Bahlul wants to represent himself but is not allowed to under tribunal rules. Major Fleener says he is competent to defend himself and the ruling violates international law guaranteeing the right to self-representation. "It is allowed in every single courtroom in the United States. Nearly every single courtroom in the world. It's mentioned in every treaty, in every military commission in the past, there isn't a place where defendants are forced to have attorneys," he said.

Later this month, the Supreme Court is considering whether the Bush administration had the authority to create the war tribunals. Military Commission prosecutors say no cases will go to trial until after the Supreme Court makes its ruling.