Sat, Nov 01, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Military trials imminent

REUTERS , WASHINGTON

The start of military trials of foreign terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is imminent, the Pentagon's chief prosecutor said on Thursday, while defending a rule allowing the US government to monitor conversations between the defendants and their lawyers.

President George W. Bush in 2001 authorized the first US military commission trials of wartime prisoners since World War II. On July 3, Bush designated six foreign captives as eligible for such trials.

"I think it's safe to say our start is imminent, soon," Army Colonel Frederic Borch, named by the Pentagon to lead the prosecution, told an American Bar Association event.

He did not give a specific date, how many defendants would be tried, or the charges involved.

The rules set by the Pentagon for the trials have come under sharp criticism from human rights groups and criminal defense lawyers, who doubt the defendants can get fair trials.

"Ultimately, I would ask all the critics, wait until we actually start the process so you can see what actually happens," Borch said.

Defendants tried before the commissions of seven American military officers must be non-US citizens. They are expected to be among the roughly 660 foreign prisoners, most captured in Afghanistan and imprisoned at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay. No criminal charges have been brought against any Guantanamo prisoners to date.

Commission trials are set to be held there. Defendants could face the death penalty if convicted.

Critics argue the rules are biased in favor of the prosecution, place unacceptable conditions on the defense and allow for no independent judicial review by civilian courts.

"We are now putting forth a system of justice before the world that doesn't meet either current American or international standards of due process," said Kevin Barry, a renowned expert in military justice and board member of the National Institute of Military Justice.

One rule that has drawn particular ire from critics is the government's right to monitor communications between the defendants and their lawyers.

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