Thu, Jul 01, 2004 - Page 7 News List

US tribunal seen as response to ruling


David Hicks, one of two Australians being held without charge by the US at Guantanamo Bay, is seen in Adelaide in this undated file photo provided by his family.


The US military has formed a five-member military tribunal to preside over the first trials of terror suspects held at its naval base in Guantanamo Bay, officials said. An Australian and two alleged bodyguards of Osama bin laden will be the first defendants.

The Pentagon announcement came a day after the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners at the US base can appeal their detention to civilian courts.

That ruling was a blow to President George W. Bush's stance that the US can jail those it terms terror suspects without judicial review -- and that the Cuban base was beyond the reach of US courts. Relatives and advocates are now planning hundreds of lawsuits to challenge the detainees' captivity.

"This is an important first step," said Air Force Major John Smith, a lawyer who helped draft the tribunal rules. Smith said the trials would be held at the base, where detainees have been held since January 2002 and now number about 600 from 42 countries.

The first to be tried will be David Hicks of Australia, Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al Bahlul of Yemen and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi of Sudan. They are the only detainees charged to date, and three of only four out of the 600 allowed access to lawyers.

Hicks, 28, a convert to Islam, is accused of training at al-Qaeda camps and taking up arms against US-led forces in Afghanistan. He faces charges including war crimes conspiracy, attempted murder and aiding the enemy.

The military has charged al Qosi and al Bahlul with war crimes conspiracy, saying al Qosi was an al-Qaeda accountant and bin Laden bodyguard and al Bahlul was a bin Laden bodyguard and propagandist for al-Qaeda.

In Sydney, Australia, Hicks' lawyer Stephen Kenny accused the Bush administration of rushing cases of Guantanamo detainees before a military tribunal because of Supreme Court concerns that the trial process is unfair.

"Even on the face of the charges David is facing, the case is extremely weak. They don't constitute war crimes. They really have no justification for holding people for so long."

The US government has claimed that the prisoners at Guantanamo are "enemy combatants" and not prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. The US has come under criticism for holding the detainees for years without charge or legal recourse.

Defense lawyers have criticized the military tribunal process as stacked against them. Last week, Britain's attorney general said military tribunals were unacceptable because they would not provide a fair trial by international standards.

Smith said Monday's Supreme Court ruling did not affect the tribunals. But Tuesday's move likely was a response to the ruling, said Neal Katyal, a law professor at Georgetown University.

``The administration wants to convey the impression that there is a procedure in process at Guantanamo,'' he said.

The military could also have been waiting to see how far the Supreme Court would go, said Thomas Lee, a Fordham University law professor and former Navy intelligence officer.

The military lawyer appointed for al Bahlul, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Philip Sundel, said he is concerned about time to prepare because he has not talked with his client for nearly three months due to delays in obtaining security clearance for an Arabic interpreter.

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