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Draft Rules Set for Military Tribunals - 2002-03-21

The U.S. Defense Department is set to announce how it plans to proceed with military tribunals for terrorist suspects captured in the war in Afghanistan. Several hundred people have been held and interrogated for months, amid growing calls for them to be either formally charged or released.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expected to announce as early as Thursday, procedures for how some may be put on trial.

In November, President Bush ordered the Pentagon to draft rules for convening military tribunals that could be used to try detainees from the war in Afghanistan.

The tribunals for terrorist suspects, perhaps even of Osama bin Laden if he is captured, would be similar to a military court martial. But unanswered questions include whether they would be open, what level of proof would be required to obtain a conviction, and whether those charged would have the right to appeal a guilty verdict that could involve the death penalty.

After months of consideration, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has approved what Pentagon Spokeswoman Victoria Clarke calls a fair system, but one designed to prosecute enemies during wartime. Ms. Clarke said, "People who understand what an unconventional time we're in, and what unconventional circumstances we're dealing with, believe they've put together a pretty good package."

Legal analysts, including Douglas Kmiec, dean of the Catholic University School of Law, expect tribunal rules will allow for a lesser burden of proof than would be used in a U.S. civilian criminal court. "The standard of proof," he said, "would be a very practical standard of proof, namely not beyond a reasonable doubt but more probable than not. It would not have rules of evidence that are designed for peace time and the preservation of individual civil liberties of American citizens."

President Bush has ruled out bringing Americans before the tribunals, including John Walker Lindh. The 21-year-old Californian captured fighting along side the Taleban, is now awaiting trial for conspiring to kill Americans and supporting terrorists.

But any of the several hundred detainees being held at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, could come before a panel of military officers. A decision has yet to be made about where the tribunals would be held or when they might begin.