Three Guantanamo 'judges' removed due to Pentagon bias

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The Independent US

Three members of the military panel established to hear the cases of Guantanamo Bay prisoners have been removed because of concerns about their lack of impartiality. But the officer acting as the senior "judge", who has close links to the Pentagon official overseeing the hearings, has been allowed to retain his job.

Three members of the military panel established to hear the cases of Guantanamo Bay prisoners have been removed because of concerns about their lack of impartiality. But the officer acting as the senior "judge", who has close links to the Pentagon official overseeing the hearings, has been allowed to retain his job.

Following criticism from defence lawyers and human rights groups, John Altenburg, a Pentagon official and retired army general, agreed to remove three military officers from the six-member panel. One of the officers had overseen an operation that sent suspected terrorists from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, another was an intelligence officer in Iraq and the third caused controversy earlier this summer when he said he did not know the details of the Geneva Conventions.

But Mr Altenburg, who has the title of Appointing Authority for the Commission, refused to remove the panel's senior officer, Colonel Peter Brownback, whose presence has been questioned by defence and prosecution lawyers because of a perceived lack of impartiality. Mr Brownback and Mr Altenburg worked together at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, while Mr Brownback spoke at a retirement roast for Mr Altenburg and attended the wedding of his son. His wife worked in Mr Altenburg's office.

The developments are just the latest twist in the Bush administration's efforts to deal with the 600 or so prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, among them four British citizens. Earlier this summer the US Supreme Court ruled that all of the prisoners had the right to challenge their incarceration in the US courts: the Bush administration has so far refused to grant them that access.

Instead, the Pentagon is proceeding with efforts to try the prisoners in military tribunals that were established by an executive order signed by Mr Bush in November 2001. Such tribunals - at which defendants have fewer legal protections than in a normal court - have not been held in the US since the end of the Second World War.

Officials said the decision to remove the three officers, Thomas Bright, Timothy Tooney and Curt Cooper, will not delay the hearings because regulations permit them to proceed with three officers. The hearings, which opened in late August, are due to restart on 1 November when the officers consider legal questions relating to an Australian, David Hicks, and a Yemeni, Salim Ahmed Salim Hamdan.

The trial of Mr Hicks, a ranch hand who converted to Islam and is accused of fighting with the Taliban, is due to start on 11 January. The trial of Mr Hamdan, who is accused of being a driver for Osama bin Laden, is set to start on 7 December.

Lt-Commander Charles Swift, the military-appointed lawyer for Mr Hamdan, said the decision to remove three officers made little difference. "The prosecution lost absolutely nothing in this," he said. If Mr Altenburg saw fit to remove the three members, he added, he should also have removed Mr Brownback. "[The standards] make no sense."

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