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Gitmo chief defends integrity of tribunals

An Army judge was removed from a war-crimes trial because his service orders were expiring, the chief judge at Guantanamo said Monday, rejecting suggestions that he was fired.
/ Source: The Associated Press

An Army judge was removed from the war-crimes trial of a young Canadian because his service orders were expiring, the chief judge at Guantanamo said Monday, rejecting suggestions that he was fired because of rulings favorable to the defense.

Chief judge Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann said he was making the rare public statement because last week's dismissal of Col. Peter Brownback raised questions about the independence of military officers presiding over tribunals at the Guantanamo Bay Navy base in Cuba.

"Any suggestion that my detailing of another military judge was driven by or prompted by any decisions or rulings made by Colonel Brownback is incorrect," Kohlmann said in the statement e-mailed to reporters.

Attorneys for the Canadian detainee, Omar Khadr, argue the timing is suspicious because Brownback had been resisting pressure from prosecutors to set a trial date and sided with Khadr in disputes over access to potential evidence.

On trial for murder
Khadr, who was captured when he was 15, faces charges including murder for allegedly throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan.

His case has been expected to be one of the first to trial at Guantanamo. But his Pentagon-appointed attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, said Monday that his team will seek documents relating to Brownback's dismissal, raising the potential for delays.

"We need to investigate the matter further," Kuebler said. "Whatever the case, this seriously undermines whatever integrity these proceedings possessed before."

The U.S. military is pressing ahead with plans to prosecute about 80 of the roughly 270 men held at Guantanamo, despite repeated legal setbacks and a pending Supreme Court decision on detainee rights that could halt the proceedings.

Prosecutors announced charges Monday against Mohammed Hashim — the 19th inmate chosen to face a tribunal system that the Bush administration and Congress created in 2006. Hashim, an Afghan who military records say is about 32, is accused of spying on American forces in Afghanistan and helping to launch a rocket attack for al-Qaida.

In his statement, Kohlmann said he removed Brownback only because he would not remain on active-duty service long enough to complete Khadr's trial.

Army let service orders expire
He said the Army decided by February to let Brownback's active-duty service orders expire by the end of June. Although Brownback had offered to remain on the case as long as needed and his 2004 recall had been renewed three times, Kohlmann said the Army apparently made its decision "based on a number of manpower management considerations" unrelated to the tribunals.

Jamil Dakwar, director of the human rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union, said Kohlmann's explanation does not satisfy concerns about judicial interference.

"Even if the reasons for not extending his term is unrelated to the military commissions, this move appears to be an example of meddling in the commissions from the executive branch," he said.

At a May 8 hearing, Brownback said that he had "badgered, beaten and bruised" by prosecutors to set a trial date. But he refused to do so before they satisfied defense requests for access to potential evidence, even threatening to suspend the proceedings unless the detention center provided records of Khadr's confinement.

So far, none of the cases at Guantanamo has gone to trial, although detainee David Hicks was convicted through a plea agreement that sent him home to Australia to serve a nine-month sentence.