Guantanamo's military trials are condemned as grossly unfair

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The Independent US

Tomorrow for the first time since the Second World War, America will start a series of military tribunals to prosecute four of the 600 prisoners it is holding at Guantanamo Bay.

Tomorrow for the first time since the Second World War, America will start a series of military tribunals to prosecute four of the 600 prisoners it is holding at Guantanamo Bay.

The US insists the tribunals will be fair, and are the appropriate way to deal with prisoners that President George Bush described as "killers" and his Attorney General, John Ashcroft called "uniquely dangerous".

But human rights groups and legal campaigners have condemned the hearings as unprecedentedly unfair and in contravention not just of the Geneva Conventions but a raft of other international laws.

"We're concerned that the military commission rules lack key fair-trial protections," said Wendy Patten, a director of Human Rights Watch, based in New York. "Under these rules, the military serves as prosecutor, judge, jury, appeals court and, potentially, even as executioner. The commission rules do not create a level playing field. The military commissions offer no possibility for independent appeal, no matter how serious the error. A fair system of justice provides an opportunity for trial mistakes to be corrected through independent review."

The tribunals were ordered by President Bush in November, 2001, as a way of prosecuting alleged al-Qa'ida and Taliban fighters captured during the war in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks. The Bush administration said at the time that the circumstances surrounding the attacks on New York and Washington were so unique that suspects could not be tried in normal courts without serious damage to national security.

The last US tribunals were held to try eight German saboteurs, captured in New York and Chicago in 1942. Six of them were executed, one was sentenced to life and the other to 30 years. The two who were jailed were granted executive clemency in 1948 and deported.

The four Guantanamo prisoners to be tried are David Hicks, an Australian citizen, Salim Ahmed Hamdan and Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al-Bahlul, who are Yemeni, and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi, from Sudan. Two of the four British prisoners, Feroz Abbasi and Moazzam Begg, also face military trial.

Mr Hicks, a former cattle drover who converted to Islam and fought in Kosovo, is the only Caucasian prisoner. The other three being tried are accused of serving as bodyguards for Osama bin Laden. The Australian faces charges of conspiracy to commit war crimes, attempted murder and aiding the enemy. The other three also face terrorism conspiracy charges. None faces a death sentence, US officials said.

Critics say the tribunals are heavily stacked against the men having a fair trial because of the rules regulating the hearings. Louise Christian, a solicitor who represents Mr Abbasi's family, said: "These tribunals breach every norm for a fair trial."

Defendants and their lawyers have no right to see evidence used by prosecutors, conversations between defendants and their lawyers will be monitored, there will be no jury, just a panel of military judges, and the legal standard required for a conviction is a lower than in normal civilian courts.

Defence lawyers have also been told that even if they do learn of classified information they will not be permitted to inform clients. Information obtained through torture or coercive interrogations will be permitted. The government says the rules are necessary to protect classified information and secret sources. The prisoners have had little contact with their lawyers. Mr Hicks and others selected for military tribunals are believed to have been held in solitary confinement for almost 30 months.

This has created huge difficulties for those trying to represent them. One lawyer has not seen his client in four months because of a government delay in giving clearance to a translator. Another has reportedly withdrawn because she has another job, leaving her client with no representation.

Last March, five British prisoners were released without charge from Guantanamo and freed within a day in Britain. Two others not facing trial are Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar. Three UK residents, Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil al-Banna and Jamal Abdullah, are also held.

This month, three of the freed Britons helped compile a detailed report claiming prisoners at the Cuban prison camp suffered torture, mistreatment and sexual humiliation.

Lieutenant-Commander Susan McGarvey, a spokeswoman for the hearings, said: "I think the commissions will be viewed with great interest, and over time, people will realise how full and fair they truly are."

IN THE DOCK

David Hicks, 29, an Australian, converted to Islam and fought in Kosovo in 1999, then allegedly with the Taliban until the Northern Alliance caught him.

Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, 44, born in Sudan, is accused of being an al-Qa'ida paymaster and supply chief.

Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, 33, from Yemen is said to have been a bodyguard for Bin Laden.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, also from Yemen. Age unknown. Also accused of being Bin Laden's bodyguard as well as driver.

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