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US Begins Criminal Proceedings Against Accused Enemy Combatants - 2004-08-24

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 WWII, 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 Tuesday was a Yemeni man alleged to have worked for Osama bin Laden.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan is identified as being Osama bin Laden's driver and bodyguard. While not accused of involvement in specific acts of terrorism, military prosecutors allege he supplied weapons to al-Qaida prior to the 9/11 attacks. His military-appointed defense lawyer says the 34 year old Yemeni was not aware of Osama bin Laden's plans to attack the United States and had no role in them.

He and three other accused terrorists set to be arraigned this week have been detained as enemy combatants at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay after being captured by the U.S. military.

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 these trials as lacking fairness since U.S. military officers will serve as prosecutor, judge and jury.

"These commissions have the right to execute people that they find guilty and they can do so based on information that the accused has never seen and never had the opportunity to confront without any independent review by any appeals court," said Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. "That's an extraordinary claim of power."

This week's hearings will deal with pre-trial motions, including challenges from defense lawyers likely to question the admissibility of evidence against their clients gained through interrogations, which some defendants say were conducted under duress.

The hearings mark the start of what will be the first U.S. military commissions since WWII, ordered by President Bush to try non-Americans accused of violating the laws of war in conspiring with al-Qaida or the Taleban to attack the United States or its allies.