Sat, Jul 24, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Detainees to get first public hearings

GUANTANAMO BAY The US military says suspects will be able to plead their cases before military review panels and that they will be freed if they are being wrongly held


Hundreds of foreign detainees suspected of terrorist ties will get their first formal opportunity to argue for their release at review panels that the US military is preparing in coming days at its base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

US military officials say the hearings could start as soon as early next week.

Human rights lawyers criticize the process as a sham, saying the three military officers assigned to hear cases can't be considered impartial and that each detainee should be allowed a lawyer.

Under the rules, each detainee will be assigned a military officer to be a "personal representative" before the panel.

The military says members of the panels -- which the Pentagon calls Combatant Status Review Tribunals -- will be neutral and that detainees will be freed if the panels determine they are being wrongly held.

Nearly 600 prisoners from more than 40 countries are held at the US base in eastern Cuba, some since January 2002. Only a handful who have been charged have been allowed lawyers.

Most have had no contact with the outside world except letters from home censored by the military.

The Guantanamo panels were set up shortly after the US Supreme Court ruled last month that the detainees, all men, have a right to bring challenges before US civilian courts.

Human rights lawyers have since filed lawsuits for dozens of detainees in US federal court. The most recent, for three detainees from Bahrain, was filed on Thursday in Washington, said New York lawyer Joshua Colangelo-Bryan.

The Pentagon has said the panels will prepare for court challenges by showing that each prisoner's case has been reviewed.

The process, allowing detainees to challenge their US-designated status as "enemy combatants," is separate from military tribunals to try detainees.

So far only four detainees have been charged, and the US government has designated a total of 15 as eligible for trial. It's unclear how soon those trials could begin.

Navy Secretary Gordon England has said the review panels could finish their work within four months.

Those who appear before panels may ask to present written statements from witnesses. But military officials also acknowledge that any incriminating information a prisoner might provide to his representative could be used in a tribunal.

Human Rights Watch said the creation of the panels shows the Pentagon is struggling to keep control over detainees.

"What we object to most is that they're starting with a presumption that they are enemy combatants," said Jamie Fellner, director of the group's US program.

"A process similar to this was what was called for two-and-a-half years ago ... when these guys were captured," Fellner said.

The Pentagon defines an "enemy combatant" as "an individual who was part of or supporting Taliban or al-Qaeda forces, or associated forces engaged in hostilities against the US or its coalition partners." The military says all the detainees are suspected of links to al-Qaeda or Afghanistan's defeated Taliban regime.

Fellner said Human Rights Watch has received authorization to attend tribunals, and it will also ask to attend the review panels.

The hearings are to be open to the media, but England said the first ones probably would be closed due to logistical difficulties.

Fellner said it is important that all hearings should be open to public scrutiny.

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