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US detainee tribunals notch wins, raise concerns

Successes include David Hicks's guilty plea this week. But experts say the process is riddled with problems.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 2007


After years of dispute, legal wrangling, and false starts, the makeshift military justice system set up at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, naval base is rolling into action.

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Military officials have achieved a string of recent successes with the guilty plea earlier this week of Australian David Hicks and public admissions two weeks earlier from alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and two other Al Qaeda suspects.

But behind these developments lurks a fundamental question. Can America's terror detention camp with its controversial reputation for harsh treatment remake itself into a bastion of fairness and justice?

Defense Department officials are hailing the Hicks guilty plea as an important milestone, marking the first conviction of a defendant facing a military commission trial. But human rights advocates and many legal analysts say Mr. Hicks appears to have pleaded guilty to avoid a trial he knew would never be fair.

"I think it is easy to read his guilty plea as simply a surrender to a system that had been detaining him without a possibility of any kind of resolution for a very long time," says Diane Amann, a war crimes and international law expert at the University of California at Davis School of Law. "I don't think we can say [the plea] proves the commissions are legitimate and that they are going to operate fairly."

On Monday, Hicks pleaded guilty to a charge that he provided material support to Al Qaeda by attending a string of terror training camps in Afghanistan and taking up positions armed with an AK-47 assault rifle to help repel an expected American offensive after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Earlier this month in a closed hearing at the naval base, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Mohammed, admitted responsibility "from A to Z" for the World Trade Center and Pentagon plots, and confessed to involvement in a long list of other terror operations. Two days later, on March 12, Walid bin Attash told a panel of military officers in a closed hearing that he was a key organizer of the 2000 attack in Yemen on the USS Cole.

And Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani admitted in a closed hearing on March 17 that he purchased and delivered the explosives used to bomb the US Embassy in Tanzania in 1998. He told the panel he did not know that the TNT would be used for a terror attack, but he went on to detail his later work providing false travel documents to Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Some analysts say this recent flurry of public disclosures from Guantánamo is no coincidence. "This is an attempt by the government to legitimize everything that has happened up to this point," says J. Wells Dixon, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents several detainees at Guantánamo. "They are trying to show the world that these detainees have some measure of fair process." He adds, "That is just not the case."

Legal analysts say the detainee procedures at Guantánamo are riddled with problems that will taint and undermine the legitimacy of the process from beginning to end.

For example, Mohammed's rambling March 10 confession was presented to the military panel assembled to determine whether he is an enemy combatant eligible to be held indefinitely in a cell at Guantánamo. But it could also be used as evidence against him in a subsequent military commission trial. Although Mohammed said he was mistreated and tortured during his interrogation by US officials, the panel – and any future military commission – is empowered to accept coerced information as valid evidence.