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Military Defense Lawyers Question Planned Trials of Guantanamo Detainees - 2004-01-16

Two years after the arrival of the first detainees, controversy continues to surround the fate of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The latest challenge to plans for military trials for the detainees comes from military defense lawyers.

It was two years ago that the first terrorist suspects arrived at a special U.S. detention facility at the isolated American naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Some 660 detainees from more than 40 countries are now held there in what U.S. officials insist are humane conditions.

But there has been persistent criticism of what human rights groups have characterized as the "legal limbo" in which the detainees find themselves. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose delegates routinely visit the detainees, has complained the terror suspects have been placed "beyond the law." It says they have no idea of their fate and, as the Red Cross puts it, "no means of recourse through any legal mechanism."

The Pentagon plans to bring selected detainees before special military commissions for war crimes trials. But international groups like Human Rights Watch have already complained these will fall far short of international due process standards.

Administration officials dispute such charges. But several U.S. military lawyers appointed to represent terrorist suspects this week claimed in a legal brief to the Supreme Court that the Bush administration has overstepped its powers under the Constitution.

Their main complaint is that any detainee convicted by a military commission will not have the right of appeal to a civilian court, only to a civilian review panel specially appointed for the tribunal process.

The Pentagon has declined to comment on the substance of the complaint.

But a top military legal official, Brigadier General Thomas Hemingway, a legal advisor to the planned military commissions, says he is not surprised at the action of the defense attorneys.

"We've told the public all along that military defense counsel are going to be zealous advocates for their clients," he said.

But the general notes the defense attorneys have not challenged the president's authority to hold the detainees.

"They have conceded that the president has that authority," said General Hemingway.

The Red Cross has said it is following the evolution of the military commissions closely and has opened a dialogue with U.S. officials to discuss the issue in more depth.

The Red Cross has called for what it terms "due legal process" for the detainees and has raised concerns about the conditions of the detainees' internment and their treatment.

The Red Cross announced Thursday that its president, Jakob Kellenberger, has arrived in Washington for talks with senior U.S. officials to discuss the situation at Guantanamo. Among the officials he plans to meet are Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.