The Pentagon will unveil today the military tribunals to be used in the prosecution of Taliban and al-Qa'ida prisoners – revealing a system that will closely resemble courts-martial but will not give full right of appeal. Some tribunals may take place on naval vessels for security reasons.
Defendants will be granted a military lawyer and will have the right to hire a civilian counsel. To secure a conviction, the panel of between three and seven officers must vote by a majority of at least two-thirds. A death sentence will require a unanimous vote.
The details of the system – certain to arouse fresh controversy over America's handling of those prisoners captured in Afghanistan – are due to be revealed by United States Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. But it is unclear whether there will be more than just a handful of prosecutions. Decisions have not been reached on whether the five Britons being held at Guantanamo Bay will be brought before the tribunals, though it is thought unlikely.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said: "I think people will be pleased with the system. It contains some very important principles that people in this country care about." President George Bush signed an executive order last year establishing the tribunals. After leaked details of the initial plan led to a wave of criticism, administration lawyers and officials were forced into a redraft.
As a result, defendants will now have the right to a limited appeal – asking a special panel to review the case. They will not have the right to appeal to a federal court or the US Supreme Court. President Bush will hold the final right of review.
Defendants will also have the right to see prosecution evidence in advance. The prosecution will be allowed to use evidence not normally permitted in civilian courts. This could include hearsay evidence and documents that have passed through several hands before reaching investigators. The tribunals will be open to the media in most circumstances but television cameras will be banned.
While the US is holding 500 prisoners from more than 30 different countries, it is likely that only a few will be brought before the tribunals. Mr Rumsfeld said last month that no prisoners had yet been identified as suitable to be tried and that ideally they would be tried in their own countries.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said last night that discussions were ongoing about the fate of the five Britons being held. "We have cited our preference for them to be brought back here to face justice," she said.
The Home Secretary David Blunkett, has warned that plans to return the prisoners to Britain on the understanding that they would be charged were unworkable because of the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service.
"Before anyone is detained and before they're charged, the CPS has to examine the evidence that's been presented against them and that is what we will do," he said.
The Pentagon's plan has already drawn criticism. Amnesty International said yesterday that denying a full right to appeal bypassed the "fundamental principles for fair trials" and could be in contravention of international law.Reuse content