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Tribunals press ahead despite ruling

U.S. detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, continued to go before military tribunals Tuesday despite a landmark ruling that could halt the proceedings and future trials.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Shackled in front of a three-member panel, detainees at the U.S. detention facility here continued to go before military tribunals Tuesday despite a landmark ruling that could halt the proceedings and future trials.

A federal court in Washington ruled Monday that Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 34, Osama bin Laden’s Yemeni driver, should not be tried by a military commission until its rules conformed to the established code of military justice. It also said he was entitled to a hearing on whether he was a prisoner of war.

The U.S. government said it would seek a stay of that ruling and file an appeal. The hearings would continue until further guidance is issued, said Lt. Gary Ross, a spokesman for the review tribunals.

Proper status for detainees contested
The decision threw into question U.S. plans to try alleged terrorists as “enemy combatants,” a status that affords them fewer legal protections under the Geneva Conventions than prisoners of war. The 550 or so prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were declared enemy combatants by the United States before they arrived.

Some of the prisoners from more than 40 countries have been held for nearly three years, but few have had access to lawyers.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson in Washington also ruled that Hamdan — and potentially all other prisoners — had the right to confront the evidence and witnesses in the case against him.

If the Guantanamo detainees are ultimately determined to be POWs entitled to trial by court-martial, they would have different standards for evidence and could appeal to the Supreme Court.

Wearing a white skull cap and scratching his beard with shackled hands, another Yemeni went before a tribunal Tuesday, admitting that he was a fighter for Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime but denying that he fought U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.

In a trailer with a U.S. flag tacked to the wall, the detainee told the panel that he finished high school in Yemen and then went to Afghanistan after a religious leader issued a fatwa, or religious edict, ordering Muslims to help the hard-line regime.

The U.S. government alleges that he trained at the al-Farouq camp in Afghanistan, where he was taught how to use assault rifles and grenades. He also allegedly manned battle posts in Bagram and Jalalabad.

“I didn’t do anything against the United States or its allies,” said the man, whose name journalists are prohibited from releasing. “I never saw Americans in Afghanistan, so how could I be an enemy combatant?”

Panel members quizzed the Yemeni on why he left his country, how he traveled to Afghanistan and the details of his training and duties for the Taliban.

No questions were asked about whether the religious edict that took him to Afghanistan instructed him to fight U.S. forces.

Likelihood of POW status
The review hearings began July 30, a month after a Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way for Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detentions in U.S. courts.

More than 300 prisoners have gone through the tribunals, so far but only one man — a Pakistani — was released.

Many of the men were declared enemy combatants because they were aligned with the Taliban or al-Qaida — declared enemies of the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Robertson’s ruling suggested that some may still be entitled to POW status.

Although journalists are allowed to attend review hearings, they are not allowed to choose which they witness. The government says they have a limited number of escorts for the media.

Despite a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Associated Press, the government has not provided transcripts of the prisoners’ testimony for sessions journalists cannot attend.

More than 30 percent of the prisoners have refused to attend the tribunals.

The prisoners who go before the tribunals are allowed to be present only for the unclassified parts of evidence read.

Robertson’s ruling also said Hamdan — and potentially all other prisoners — had the right to confront evidence and witnesses.