US tribunals to allow hearsay in terrorist trials

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Hearsay and other evidence not normally permitted in criminal courts would be allowed in the military tribunals being set up by the United States to try senior members of al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.

The military judges – senior uniformed officers – would allow any evidence that a "reasonable person" would find useful. Under such a standard, the recently recovered videotape showing Osama bin Laden gloating about the terror attacks of 11 September would almost certainly be permitted.

In addition, the panel of judges would only require a two-thirds majority for a guilty verdict, though a unanimous decision would be required for a death sentence.

Since President George Bush issued a military order on 13 November, which established the tribunals, there has been controversy over safeguards for those being tried. Some critics said the original proposals would result in widespread violation of civil rights.

Mr Bush told reporters yesterday at his ranch in Texas: "Whatever the procedures are for military tribunals, our system will be more fair than the system of bin Laden and the Taliban. The prisoners that we capture will be given a heck of a lot better chance in court than those citizens of ours who were in the World Trade Centre or the Pentagon were given by Mr bin Laden."

The American Civil Liberties Union said the establishment of the tribunals – which have not been held since just after the Second World War and whose establishment would be unprecedented without Congress having declared a state of war – showed that Mr Bush was "unwilling to abide by the checks and balances that are so central to our democracy".

The latest details of the draft proposals, which were reported yesterday, show the administration has made a series of amendments, including the right to an appeal. One official said that after a five-member panel had issued the verdict and sentence, the decision would then be reviewed by a three-member group.

This appeal panel would listen to arguments from defence and prosecution lawyers and then make a recommendation to the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Mr Bush would have the final word.

While the tribunal would appoint a defence lawyer, the suspect would have the right to request his own attorney.

"These procedures show that we will conduct the military commissions in a very full and fair way and that we're going to follow a high standard of justice," one administration official told The New York Times.

American soldiers are detaining increasing numbers of Taliban and al-Qa'ida prisoners in Afghanistan, though it has not been fully decided which of them will come before the tribunals. There has been speculation that John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban fighter who is currently being held on a US warship in the Indian Ocean, could be placed before such a tribunal.

Mr Bush said Mr Lindh made a bad decision when he chose to join the Taliban. "He was working with the enemy," he said. "We'll see how the courts deal with that."

¿ The number of identified World Trade Centre victims has sharply increased in the past two weeks because of the increased use of DNA tests and the finding of more bodies. The city medical examiner's office has been identifying up to 16 victims daily. Until now, the number of new identifications was sometimes one or two a day. On Thursday, the number of dead and missing from the attack, including those on the two hijacked jets, stood at 2,939