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Homeland Security

11 January 2006

Detainee Military Trials Resume at Guatanamo Bay Naval Base

Tribunals will prosecute "unlawful conduct, not persecute religious beliefs," official says

By Alexandra Abboud
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- U.S. military commission proceedings against suspected terrorists being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are expected to resume January 11.

Two enemy combatants, Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, a Yemeni accused of making propaganda videos for the terrorist group al-Qaida, and Canadian teenager Omar Ahmed Khadr, who is accused of killing a U.S. serviceman while fighting for al-Qaida in Afghanistan, are the first detainees to be tried by military commission since President Bush established them after the September 2001 attacks on the United States.

Air Force Colonel Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor for the Defense Department's Office of Military Commissions, said January 10 that those conducting the commissions would do so in a fair and transparent manner.  The military commissions have been established “to prosecute unlawful conduct, not persecute religious beliefs," he said.

Military proceedings against Bahlul began in August 2004 but were halted by a U.S. federal court ruling.  During that trial, Bahlul said in court that “people of the entire globe should know I testify that I am from al-Qaida,” and asked to represent himself in court.

The commission ruled that Bahlul may not represent himself because, under military commission rules, defendants must be represented by military defense counsel.  Detainees also may secure private U.S. defense attorneys who have a secret security clearance, and may request foreign legal consultants.

In July 2005, a U.S. federal appeals court ruled that the military commissions are competent tribunals, making way for the trials to continue.  (See related article.)

As the result of a 2004 Supreme Court ruling, detainees have the right to challenge their detention in federal courts.  (See related article.) 

The first hearing is scheduled for January 11, and will explore procedural issues of the Bahlul case, such as establishing a trial schedule and possibly allowing the defense attorneys to challenge the fairness and impartiality of the presiding officer, whose role is similar to a judge in U.S. court proceedings.

A separate tribunal will be held for Khadr, who is accused of detonating a grenade that killed a U.S. serviceman and members of the Afghan military.  He was 15 at the time, but will be tried as an adult.  Teenagers accused of murder in the United States routinely are tried as adults, said Colonel Davis.

Since President Bush established the commissions in 2001, the Defense Department has modified the commissions to ensure fairness and transparency.  Critics of the tribunal argue that the courts do not provide proper legal protections to the defendants.

The military commissions will use the same standard of evidence used by many current international tribunals, including the International Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, as well as the International Criminal Court (ICC).  According to Brigadier General Thomas Hemingway, legal adviser to the Appointing Authority for Military Commissions, the rules of evidence apply to both sides, and “any evidence that is introduced by either side must also meet the standard of protecting a full and fair trial.”

According to the Pentagon, over 30 media representatives will likely cover the proceedings, with eight reporters allowed in the courtroom, and the others observing the hearings via television nearby.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear cases in March on whether President Bush had the authority to establish the commissions.

If convicted by the commissions, Bahlul and Khadr could face life in prison.

For more information see Detainee Affairs.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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