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UN Expert Says Guantanamo Suspects Denied Fair Trial

By Lisa Schlein
12 December 2007

A U.N. human rights investigator says terror suspects held in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp are unable to get a fair trial before the military court set up for so-called enemy combatants. The expert, who was invited by the U.S. government to observe a military commission hearing at Guantanamo, has presented a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Lisa Schlein has more for VOA from Geneva.

The U.N. special investigator on counterterrorism, Martin Scheinin, has previously called for the abolition of the military commissions, which were established in 2001. He says his recent visit to Guantanamo Bay has reinforced his belief that detainees cannot get a fair trial before these courts.

The U.S. government invited Scheinin to observe a military hearing involving a Yemeni national, Salim Hamdan, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and has been in Guantanamo since 2002. Scheinin observed the case on December 5.

In presenting his report, he told the U.N. Human Rights Council that his visit to Guantanamo has confirmed his previous concerns.

"The hearings provided graphic illustrations of the practical difficulties in providing fair trials at a distant military base, and confirmed the difficulties or even impossibility of the defense to provide evidence. Neither witnesses from abroad or high-value detainees from the Guantanamo detention facility next door could be heard, at least on this particular occasion," said Scheinin.

However, the Finnish law professor had some praise for the military judge, who, he said, did his best to conduct a fair trial. He criticized the fact that six years after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, less than a handful of Guantanamo detainees have had any recourse to the military commissions. Although U.S. officials told him up to 80 of the little more than 300 detainees will be tried.

Deputy legal adviser at the U.S. Mission in Geneva, Melanie Khanna, called Scheinin's report disappointing. She said his oral presentation was misleading and contained no new information about the process.

"The unfortunate fact is that a large part of the report again repeats unfair and oversimplified criticisms of the United States," said Khanna. "This is particularly true in the sections dealing with the legal framework for the armed conflict with al-Qaida. These sections simply catalogue well-known criticisms and fail even to acknowledge that there are multiple ways of approaching the difficult issues discussed, something that other international observers have highlighted."

Khanna said Scheinin missed an opportunity to make constructive suggestions on how democracies should deal with the current threats posed by armed combatant terrorist groups.

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