updated 10/5/2004 7:00:30 PM ET 2004-10-05T23:00:30

A U.S. military panel held more hearings Tuesday to determine whether the United States should continue detentions for terrorism suspects, amid growing criticism from lawyers excluded from the proceedings.

A 26-year-old prisoner boycotted one of the hearings, as have 45 of the 71 men whose cases have gone before the panel so far.

The panel was hastily set up in July after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners held at this remote U.S. Navy base on Cuba’s eastern tip, some for nearly three years, had the right to challenge their detentions.

Only one detainee has been freed as a result of the hearings, and 64 have been ordered to remain in custody. Findings are pending in other cases that have been heard, and hundreds of prisoners from 40-plus countries are still to go before the panel.

“The question is ... whether this is a legitimate process,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, the military appointed lawyer representing Osama bin Laden’s driver, whose case was expected to be heard Tuesday.

Although the hearings are open to the press, journalists cannot stay on the base for extended periods, so many cases go uncovered.

The U.S. government does not provide the names or the nationalities of the men whose cases go before the three-member panels.

Prisoner boycotts hearing
The prisoner who boycotted his hearing Tuesday apparently had an alias that allegedly appeared on the hard drive of a computer of a known al-Qaida operative. The prisoner also allegedly was involved in a 2002 attack on U.S. Marines training in Kuwait, killing one of them, said Lt. Cmdr. Daryl Borgquist, a spokesman for the Combatant Status Review Tribunals.

The hearings, unlike the military trials set to begin in December, are aimed at determining whether the 550 detainees here are being properly held as enemy combatants, a classification that affords fewer legal protections than for prisoners of war.

One criterion is whether a prisoner was linked to either Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime or the al-Qaida terrorist network. Although many have said they were forced to work for the Taliban under the threat of death, the voluntary nature of a prisoner’s association is not taken into account during the hearings.

It is rare for a prisoner to challenge the evidence, not being told where it originated and only being read unclassified parts. Some detainees have simply not participated in the hearings, fearful that their statements could be used against them later.

Wartime civil liberties

“The question is about legitimacy,” said Swift, who was appointed to represent Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 34, of Yemen, who was bin Laden’s chauffeur.

“What we are seeking and asking for is that before they ram though a lot of these cases we have an opportunity for the federal courts to look at whether this is a legitimate process,” Swift said. “It is appropriate to make that decision at the onset, not after we do a multitude of these cases.”

Some of the evidence used in the review tribunals has come from interrogations, a sore point for lawyers who say the information may have been derived by force.

“I think we’ve worked really hard to see that there is significant cooperation between the intelligence side of the mission and the legal side,” said Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, commander of the detention mission at Guantanamo Bay. “And our mission remains the same — to gather intelligence and to continue treating detainees in a safe and secure manner.”

Questions over usefulness
Only about 30 percent of the current detainees are considered of high intelligence value, but many have provided valuable information about fellow detainees, said Steve Rodriguez, a civilian in charge of interrogations and intelligence.

If the men remain jailed for much longer without being charged or tried, the United States risks angering its allies. Foreign governments are increasingly demanding the release of their nationals, and families are mounting protests.

But some people worry that a large-scale release could risk aiding attacks on Americans abroad. One recently released Guantanamo Bay detainee, Abdul Ghaffar, was killed after returning to Afghanistan last month. He allegedly shot at U.S. troops.

Some critics say that is the fault of the detentions.

“It has become almost an incubator for hatred,” said Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission. “These proceedings give the perception that Muslims are not valued the same as other humans. This means only the extremists win in the end.”

Episcopal Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is among the critics, making cameo appearances in a touring play about the controversy surrounding Guantanamo Bay.

“You look around the world and the types of comments coming out and you see that the criticism over Guantanamo is rampant,” said Jumana Musa, a member of the human rights group Amnesty International.

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