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Homeland Security

American Forces Press Service

Military Commissions to Begin at Guantanamo

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 18, 2004 -- The first four enemy-combatant detainees held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be charged with war crimes will make their first appearance before a military commission when preliminary hearings begin there next week.

From among the Guantanamo detainees, President Bush has designated that 15 individuals be tried for war crimes by a military commission. Prosecutors have prepared cases against four of them.

John Altenburg Jr., appointing authority for the Defense Department's Office of Military Commissions, explained in a Pentagon press briefing Aug. 17 what is likely to happen when the military commission is in session.

Altenburg stressed the events of the week of Aug. 23-27 will only include preliminary hearings. He could not say when actual trials might occur or even when they might be scheduled. To get a picture of the types of motions involved before a case gets to trial, he suggested reporters consider what happens in high-profile trials in the United States.

When trials do get under way and throughout the preliminary-hearings phase, the military commissions will appear similar to proceedings in any American court. The main difference, he said, will be that a panel of six officers will preside instead of a single judge.

"But other than that," Altenburg said, "the prosecution will do what you've seen prosecutors do in trials, and the defense will do what you've seen defense lawyers do in trials."

He laid out several areas in which the military commissions proceedings will be identical to those in civilian U.S. courts.

  • There is a presumption of innocence;
  • Each charged detainee has been appointed a defense counsel for free and is allowed to obtain his own civilian counsel;
  • The accused cannot be required to make a statement;
  • Prosecutors must establish proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; and
  • Defense counsels have the ability to cross-examine witnesses, to challenge the government's evidence, and to present evidence and call witnesses of their own.
Altenburg noted this is the first military commission formed since the end of World War II, and he stressed many details are being worked out as the process progresses.

He acknowledged one problem already has been a shortage of translators available, particularly to defense attorneys for meeting with their clients. But, he stressed repeatedly, officials are committed to ensuring defense teams have adequate resources.

"I think that their concern is legitimate. They should have had interpreters sooner," Altenburg said. "There are many reasons involved in why that didn't work out. And all I can tell you is that we're taking every step we can to make sure they get (what they need.)"


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