The retired Army general overseeing the trials of at least four accused al Qaeda supporters at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has dismissed three of the six officers who would pass judgment in those cases, after defense lawyers argued potential bias.
The dismissal of the officers came a day after a federal judge ruled that suspects held at Guantanamo must be allowed to meet with lawyers and that their conversations cannot be monitored.
The trials, called commissions by the military, will go ahead on schedule, the Pentagon said yesterday.
Because they need at least three panel members, proceedings will move on for Australian David Hicks and Yemeni Salim Ahmed Salim Hamdan on Nov. 1. Hicks is accused of fighting alongside the Taliban. Hamdan is accused of being one of Osama bin Laden’s drivers.
The appointing authority for the commission, retired Army Maj. Gen. John D. Altenburg Jr., upheld the challenge to the three commissioners, but denied requests to dismiss two other panelists. A sixth commissioner was not challenged.
The military did not identify which commissioners had been dismissed.
The presiding officer over the commission, Army Col. Peter E. Brownback, will retain his post. Col. Brownback had been challenged by both prosecutors and defense lawyers over his relationship with Gen. Altenburg.
Gen. Altenburg and Col. Brownback had worked together in Fort Bragg, N.C., and Col. Brownback spoke at Gen. Altenburg’s retirement roast and attended the wedding of Gen. Altenburg’s son. Col. Brownback’s wife also worked in Gen. Altenburg’s office.
Replacement commissioners will be appointed for the cases of Ali Hamza Sulayman al-Bahlul, a Yemeni accused of crafting propaganda for al Qaeda, and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi, a Sudan national accused of being an al Qaeda paymaster.
Last month, Col. Brownback recommended the dismissal of two commissioners, including the only alternate, and the retention of two others challenged by defense lawyers.
The two men who Col. Brownback said should step aside were Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy K. Toomey, an intelligence officer who was involved in capture of suspects in Afghanistan, and the alternate, Army Lt. Col. Curt S. Cooper, who acknowledged calling Guantanamo prisoners “terrorists.”
Col. Brownback recommended keeping Marine Col. Jack K. Sparks Jr. and Marine Col. R. Thomas Bright.
In a Wednesday ruling on detainees’ rights to confidential legal representation, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said administration “attempts to erode this bedrock principle” of attorney-client privacy were backed by “a flimsy assemblage” of arguments.
The Supreme Court ruled in June that the 600 foreign-born men then held in the Navy-run prison camp could challenge their captivity in American courts.
Judge Kollar-Kotelly, a former Justice Department lawyer named to the bench by President Clinton, said that would be impossible without legal help.
“They have been detained virtually incommunicado for nearly three years without being charged with any crime. To say that [detainees’] ability to investigate the circumstances surrounding their capture and detention is ‘seriously impaired’ is an understatement,” she wrote.
Wednesday’s decision came in the case of three Kuwaiti nationals who have been held since shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Government lawyers had agreed to let the men see attorneys, but argued that such permission was not legally required. The government also wanted to monitor the meetings and review attorneys’ notes and mail, which Judge Kollar-Kotelly said would infringe on the detainees’ attorney-client privilege.