The U.S. military has held a dress rehearsal of planned tribunals for al Qaeda and Taliban combatants, complete with a defendant who acted up and had to be restrained and ejected.
The mock trial was conducted in early November at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the Pentagon is holding 660 "enemy combatants" captured during the conflict in Afghanistan. A building near the detention center has been converted into a courthouse for the expected trials.
Prosecutors played the roles of presiding judge and defense attorneys, while military police played defendants and their own role of providing court security, military sources said.
Some of the rehearsal's main objectives were to work out procedures for getting defendants into and out of the courtroom, maintaining security and handling the media pool.
At one point, a "defendant" acted up and had to be removed. "They practiced what to do if one of the detainees had some sort of an outburst in court," said one source. "Who will do what -- how to get him out of the courtroom, how to get people into the courtroom."
Army Lt. Col. Pamela Hart, chief spokeswoman at Guantanamo's Camp Delta detention center, confirmed that an "internal exercise" took place.
"We don't want to get ahead of the Defense Department," Col. Hart said. "We have not gotten any official order or directive from the Department of Defense to hold commissions, so it's all premature. In the military, we practice everything. So we did an exercise, so we are ready to get such an order."
Asked if the rehearsal included a disgruntled defendant, Col. Hart said: "We practice every aspect, everything we think of that might occur in a given military situation."
To date, President Bush has selected six of the 660 detainees as eligible for trial by military commissions, which are also called tribunals. The Pentagon has not released the names or nationalities of any detainee, including the chosen six. However, Britain has said that two of the men are British citizens; Australia has said one is an Australian citizen.
Despite the selection of detainees and the dress rehearsal, sources say the first trial is months away.
There is a team of military defense attorneys at the Pentagon assigned to defend the prisoners. But to date, no criminal charges have been filed, and none of the defense team has met with future clients. A second military source said the defense team wants several months to prepare once criminal charges are filed, unless the defendant decides to plead guilty.
Some defense attorneys have visited the base and checked out the facilities. They have housing and vehicles awaiting them.
The Bush administration considers the detainees terrorists. Mr. Bush has designated them as enemy combatants -- not prisoners of war, by which they would receive greater legal rights under the Geneva Convention.
The Pentagon has devised special trial rules. The detainees, some of whom have been held nearly two years, do not, for example, have the right to appeal to the military court of appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court.
As the detainees continue to sit in Guantanamo, an increasing number of defense attorneys are criticizing the tribunal system.
"I would give them a failing grade," said Eugene R. Fidell, a prominent defense attorney in Washington and a specialist on military law. "I think the amount of time that has passed is inexcusable. The rules that have come out continue to be profoundly disturbing. No independent appellant review? That's sort of the jewels in the crown."
Convicted detainees will have access to a review panel outside the normal judicial review system. "That is a far cry from a proper court of appeals, whose members have some independence," Mr. Fidell said. He urged the administration to conduct hearings to decide who should be, or should not be, considered POWs.
The actual tribunals will be run by the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions. It includes a staff of six military defense attorneys and 10 prosecutors. An "appointing authority" -- at this point it is Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- will approve any charges and appoint three to seven commission members for the trial, including a presiding officer.