- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

U.S. NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — The opening of a Yemeni terror suspect’s military commission was spiked with drama yesterday when the accused announced that he was a member of al Qaeda, only to be abruptly interrupted by the Army colonel in charge of the court.

Speaking through an Arabic translator before the five-member panel that will rule on whether he committed war crimes as propagandist for the terrorist network, Ali Hamza Sulayman al Bahlul suddenly began to say: “I am from al Qaeda, and the relationship between me and September 11 …”

The sentence was cut short by Col. Peter E. Brownback III, who quickly warned the panel that the statement should not be considered evidence because al Bahlul was not under oath when he made it.

Moments earlier, al Bahlul, 36, had refused his Pentagon-appointed defense attorneys, saying he wished to defend himself against a list of charges accusing him of close ties to Osama bin Laden before, during and after the September 11 attacks.

But there was confusion over whether self-defense was allowed under the Pentagon’s rules for the military commissions authorized by President Bush to try suspects in the war on terror.

Col. Brownback first responded, “The answer is no, you’re not allowed,” because the newly minted rules for the commissions require that suspects be represented by either a military lawyer or an American civilian lawyer who qualifies for top-secret clearance.

However, the colonel backpedaled when al Bahlul asked why he was not allowed to be his own attorney. For the matter to be resolved, the colonel said, it would need to be given a closer examination up the chain of command at the Defense Department.

The Pentagon charges al Bahlul with being “personally assigned” by bin Laden to create “several instructional and motivational recruiting videotapes,” including one glorifying the October 2000 terror attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. He has been held in Cuba without legal review for more than two years since his arrest in Afghanistan.

Col. Brownback said defending one’s self would present challenges because certain classified evidence would be kept secret from al Bahlul as military prosecutors try to prove his guilt.

Legal analysts and human rights advocates witnessing the hearing said it exposed significant weaknesses in the overall design of the commissions, which have been created because the Bush administration deems the men held at Guantanamo too dangerous for regular trials.

“It appears as if the case of Mr. al Bahlul should have been an easy one,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “And yet the system was unable to facilitate his confession today.”

Others said the problems were exacerbated by poor translations during the hearing.

Sam Zia-Zarifi, an observer with Human Rights Watch, said there was “gross incompetence in the translations.”

The al Bahlul case is the third of four opening as the first military commissions since World War II get under way. On Tuesday, Yemeni terror suspect Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 34, did not enter a plea, although a trial date was set for Dec. 3.

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