The Pentagon announced Tuesday that it has formed a five-member military tribunal to try three terrorism suspects held at this U.S. naval base.
The Pentagon’s announcement came a day after the Supreme Court issued a ruling that prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay should have access to U.S. civilian courts to appeal their detention — a decision considered a major blow for President Bush’s stance that the United States can jail suspects without judicial review.
The trials — of an Australian, a Sudanese and a Yemeni — would be the first of any of the prisoners swept up in the U.S. war on terror and held at Guantanamo. These would be the first military tribunals convened by the United States since World War II.
“This is an important first step,” Air Force Maj. John Smith, a lawyer who helped draft commission rules, said in a telephone interview from the Pentagon. “We’d like to have a case tried by the end of the year.”
He said the trials would be held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo, where detainees have been held since January 2002 and now number nearly 600 from 42 countries.
Convictions could bring life in prison
A Pentagon statement said the first to be tried will be David Hicks of Australia, Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al-Bahlul of Yemen and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi of Sudan. It was unclear which would go first.
The three have been charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes and other offenses. They could face up to life in prison if convicted, the Pentagon has said previously, ruling out death sentences for the three.
Al-Qosi is alleged to have been an al-Qaida accountant and bin Laden bodyguard, while al-Bahlul, of Yemen, is accused of being a propagandist for bin Laden who produced videos glorifying the killing of Americans, according to an official list of charges released by the Pentagon in February.
The men are alleged to have trained at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, but the Pentagon’s list of charges makes no mention of either man carrying out or planning any terrorist attack.
Hicks, 28, a convert to Islam, is accused of training at al-Qaida camps and taking up arms against U.S.-led forces.
Retired Army colonel to preside over tribunal
Charges include war crimes conspiracy, attempted murder and aiding the enemy. The attempted murder charge relates to claims he was an “illegal combatant.”
The presiding officer was identified as Retired Army Col. Peter E. Brownback III, who is being recalled to active duty. Brownback has 22 years of experience as a judge advocate and nearly 10 years of experience as a military judge, the statement said.
It said the remaining panel members as two U.S. Marine Corps colonels, an Air Force colonel and an Air Force lieutenant colonel, but did not identify them by name.
“The presiding officer will be contacting attorneys in the cases in the near future to set an initial trial schedule,” the Pentagon said in its statement.
Defense lawyers have criticized the process as stacked against them, but the military has said tribunals would offer full and fair trials.
Smith said Monday’s Supreme Court ruling made no difference to plans for the tribunals, which the military calls commissions.
“The Supreme Court right now doesn’t directly affect military commissions at all,” he said. “Everyone would like to move this cases forward as quickly as possible.”