US Pushes To Resume Trials At Guantanamo

Wednesday, December 5th 2007, 7:18 am
By: News On 6

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) _ The U.S. military will try once again to prosecute men held at this isolated tropical outpost on Wednesday, as the U.S. Supreme Court meets to consider the broad rights of Guantanamo prisoners.

A military judge, presiding over a makeshift courtroom at a former airstrip under heavy security, is scheduled to hold a pretrial hearing for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a native of Yemen accused of being a member of al-Qaida and a driver for Osama bin Laden.

The Supreme Court showdown revolves around whether Guantanamo prisoners can challenge their detention in U.S. civilian courts. At the Navy base in Cuba, the hearing is expected to focus on the question of whether the American military tribunal system has jurisdiction over Hamdan and can proceed to trial more than three years after he was first charged.

A legal challenge by Hamdan prompted the Supreme Court last year to throw out the previous rules for military tribunals.

On Wednesday, Hamdan's lawyers are expected to argue he is not an unlawful enemy combatant but, instead, a prisoner of war, and entitled under the Geneva Conventions to a U.S. military court martial _ a system that detainee advocates say has higher legal standards than the commissions proposed for Guantanamo prisoners.

A top military legal official said the timing of the hearings in Guantanamo and Washington is coincidental. He predicted that the Hamdan hearing is a signal the long-stalled trials will soon be on the fast-track.

``We are moving with intensity and I expect things to pick up,'' Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the legal adviser to the commission system, told reporters at Guantanamo.

The U.S. holds about 305 prisoners on suspicion of terrorism or links to al-Qaida and the Taliban at Guantanamo and plans to prosecute at least 80, including the alleged architect of the Sept. 11 attacks. So far, only three detainees have been formally charged and one, Australian David Hicks, was convicted in a plea bargain and sent home.

The military blames the delays on the difficulty of preparing cases involving men captured far away and held five years or more _ and on a series of legal challenges, including Hamdan's.

Hamdan is charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism.

In June, military judges threw out the charges against him and Canadian national Omar Khadr, ruling the commissions lacked the authority to prosecute them because they had not been officially designated ``unlawful enemy combatant'' as required by the Military Commissions Act, which was signed into law by President Bush in October 2006 after the Supreme Court's ruling in Hamdan's challenge.

The government appealed and a newly established military review court reinstated the charges, ruling tribunal judges at Guantanamo have the authority to make the designation.

Critics of the tribunal system believe that Hamdan would be better off under a traditional military court martial. Hina Shamsi, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the U.S. would not be able to use evidence obtained through coercion and would be more restricted in the use of secret evidence and proceedings.

``We are stuck in a thicket that was created by the Bush administration's entire approach to detention and trial of terror suspects,'' said Shamsi, who is observing the Guantanamo proceedings against Hamdan.

Some of the secrecy was on display this week ahead of the hearing. Prosecutors and defense lawyers were prohibited from discussing details of the expected testimony or divulging the names of witnesses.

Hartmann, however, defended the tribunals, noting they afford the accused such protections as the right to counsel and appeal. ``We are proud of the system that we've set up. We think it's really unprecedented in the number of rights that we are providing to these accused.''