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$125 million trial complex planned at Gitmo

- The Washington Times - Friday, November 17, 2006

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- The U.S. military yesterday said it plans to build a $125 million compound at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, where it hopes to hold war-crimes trials for terror suspects by the middle of next year.

The compound, designed to accommodate as many as 1,200 people, would include dining areas, work spaces and sleeping accommodations for administrative personnel, lawyers, journalists and others involved in trials at the isolated detention center in southeast Cuba.

It would create a total of three courtrooms on the base to allow for simultaneous trials, and a separate high-security area to house the detainees on trial.

"We need to build more courtrooms, and we want to do multiple trials," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler, a Pentagon spokesman. He said the government hopes to begin construction as soon as possible to be ready for trials no later than July 1.

Human rights groups and foreign governments have called on the Bush administration to close Guantanamo, saying detainees are being held illegally, but the planned construction of new facilities underscores its permanence.

"This is a huge waste of taxpayer money," said Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents hundreds of Guantanamo detainees.

"They've been trying to try people for five years, and until they try somebody according to the Constitution, nothing's going to happen there."

The project, which has not yet been submitted for congressional approval, represents one of the largest upgrades to the detention center since it began receiving suspected enemy combatants in January 2002.

Among the terror suspects expected to face war crimes trials at Guantanamo are 14 "high-value" detainees who were recently transferred from secret CIA custody. They include Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks and Abu Zubaydah, believed to be a link between Osama bin Laden and many al Qaeda cells.

Plans for the compound are provided in a "presolicitation notice," dated Nov. 3 and posted on the Internet for potential government contractors. It was first reported by the Miami Herald.

The U.S. government is drafting new rules for the trials under the Military Commissions Act, which President Bush signed last month. The Supreme Court had declared that previous efforts to try Guantanamo detainees were unconstitutional.

Previously, 10 detainees were charged with crimes. About 70 detainees are expected to be charged under the new law, military officials have said. There are currently about 430 detainees at Guantanamo.

Defense lawyers have challenged the validity of the new law, which bars detainees from using the civilian court system. If a federal appeals court or the Supreme Court rules in their favor, it could strike down the military trials.