- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The first military commissions since the end of World War II are set to open next week for four terror suspects held at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Pentagon said yesterday.

The accused are charged with war crimes based on suspicion of involvement in terror network al Qaeda. Their attorneys will be appointed by the military and their fate will be decided by a panel of U.S. military officers.

Briefing reporters at the Pentagon yesterday, retired Army Maj. Gen. John D. Altenburg Jr., who is overseeing the commissions, said the first hearings will resemble the pretrial motions in U.S. civilian cases.

Gen. Altenburg defended the procedures, pointing out that, among other things, the accused will have the opportunity to challenge statements made under interrogation.

“The conditions of any interrogations and the conditions under which any statements that have been made are used in evidence will be looked at scrupulously by the defense lawyers and the presiding officer,” he said.

President Bush authorized the use of military commissions in November 2001 as a means for trying suspects arrested in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The majority of the nearly 600 suspects held at Guantanamo were captured during the 2001 campaign to topple the al Qaeda-supporting Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The upcoming commissions, which have been dismissed as unfair by human rights groups, may be vulnerable under a June 29 Supreme Court ruling that U.S. federal courts have jurisdiction over Guantanamo detainees.

The four men to be tried by the military commissions are Salim Ahmed Hamdan and Ali Hamza Sulayman al Bahlul, both of Yemen; Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi of Sudan; and David Hicks, of Australia.

Military officials have said the death penalty, while a legal option, is not being sought in any of the four cases.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that Hicks’ parents are expected to travel to Guantanamo to observe his hearing. The first hearing is to begin Tuesday, after which each of the four men are expected to have a full day of hearings.

The military commissions are separate from other hearings under way at Guantanamo to review the status of detainees. Those hearings, called “combatant status review tribunals,” are expected eventually to be held for all prisoners, with the goal of weeding out any who may have been unjustly detained.

Also yesterday, a Washington panel discussion involving human rights and other groups critical of the commissions called them an affront to justice.

Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for national security with the American Civil Liberties Union, called the commissions “a parallel system of justice that is being established … and displaces regular civilian courts and regular military courts.”

At the meeting, Human Rights Watch distributed a previously published report that urged the United States “to ensure that those tried before military commissions receive trials that are a credit to American justice, not a stain on its history.”

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