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26 August 2004

Defense Department Report, August 26: Guantanamo Hearings Proceed

Military official says fair process sought for detainees

A senior military official who is familiar with the legal proceedings now underway for detainees being held in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba says the process "complies with international norms."

Brigadier General Thomas Hemingway told reporters at the Pentagon and those listening in from Guantanamo August 26 that the military commissions are "designed to expeditiously and fairly try people consistent with our national security concerns." Hemingway serves as legal adviser to the Appointing Authority for the Office of Military Commissions that is hearing the cases of prisoners who have been detained on charges that they committed war crimes by aiding Taliban or al-Qaida members in fighting against coalition forces in Afghanistan.

A preliminary hearing for Australian detainee David Hicks resulted in his August 24 plea of innocence to the charges against him. Attorneys for Hicks have filed several motions, which will be heard in November. He is not expected to be tried by the tribunal until January 2005.

The preliminary hearing for Yemeni national Salim Ahmed Hamadan, who is accused of being Osama Bin Laden's bodyguard, resulted in the granting of a continuance for the defense on August 25. Hamadan's military-appointed attorney challenged the selection of the presiding officer for the military commission and the suitability of other serving commission members on various grounds, ranging from personal connections to military service in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The August 26 hearing for Yemeni national Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al-Bahlul was recessed by Presiding Officer Army Colonel Peter Brownback after the detainee asked to represent himself during the proceedings, or be represented by a Yemeni lawyer. He also stated during the preliminary hearing that he is an al-Qaida member.

Hemingway said Brownback instructed the commission to disregard the detainee's statement.

Hemingway said the standards for the Guantanamo tribunals are the same as those previously used for the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Court for Rwanda. The standard of evidence is the same as is used before existing international tribunals, he said, and the commissions are permitted to admit evidence of hearsay.

Some 70 journalists are in Guantanamo to observe the commission in action, as are legal and human rights experts and, in some cases, family members and foreign government delegations.

Hemingway said the procedures for the military commissions have been established to provide fairness for the detainees and to protect U.S. national security concerns. Normally, he said, tribunals dealing with war crimes are conducted when conflict has ceased. But President Bush authorized the proceedings in November 2001 following the September 11 attacks against the United States. These are the first military commissions to be held in some 60 years.

Hemingway said he expects legal motions --- some 12 to 17 per case --- to be filed and says they will address a broad range of issues.

Asked about problems with consistency of Arabic translations in court, the legal adviser said there are provisions to replace contract Arabic linguists if need be. "We are always interested in making certain we have accurate translations," Hemingway said.

He said he hopes that the public will see that the proceedings are open and transparent, that legal counsel for both the prosecution and defense are capable, and that "the government is doing everything we possibly can to see to it that any issues regarding translation are appropriately resolved."

Hemingway described these detainee cases as both important and complex, and noted that they cannot be processed too quickly. At the same time he said, "we will try to conduct all of the proceedings with some degree of dispatch, bearing in mind that we can't do it so fast that it would become unfair to the individual on trial."


The Navy Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, announced August 26 that the commanding officer of the USS John F. Kennedy has been replaced. The decision to replace Captain Stephen Squires follows an investigation into the July 22 collision of the U.S. aircraft carrier and a small fishing vessel.

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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