Two Guantánamo detainees are charged with war crimes and are likely to face the first U.S. tribunals in a half-century.
The Pentagon on Tuesday for the first time charged captives in the war on terrorism with war crimes, accusing two men of being Osama bin Laden‘s bodyguards and inner-circle operatives of al Qaeda.
The conspiracy charges set the stage for the first U.S. war-crimes tribunals since World War II.
Charged were: Ibrahim al Qosi of Sudan, allegedly an al Qaeda paymaster, and Ali Hamza al Bahlul of Yemen, who was described as a propagandist in bin Laden’s media department.
Prosecutors are waiving the death penalty in both cases, said Maj. John Smith, a Pentagon spokesman. If convicted, they could be punished with life in prison.
The choice of charges to inaugurate the Bush administration’s tribunals raises questions about whether the 2-year-old prison and interrogation center at Guantánamo has uncovered any solid evidence linking prisoners to specific acts of violence.
Neither man is charged with direct involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, nor are they accused of violence against Americans in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Rather, the charges against them allege that they were part of an organization that conspired to commit murder, terrorism and destruction of property.
Both have been involved with al Qaeda for years, according to military indictments unsealed Tuesday.
No date was set for the trials, which will be held where the suspects are imprisoned — at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo, Cuba, Smith said.
International human-rights groups did not address the specific charges but responded to Tuesday’s announcement with criticism of the Bush administration’s tribunal system.
”Prisoners facing these courts after years of detention and interrogation will, among other things, be denied any meaningful right of appeal,” said William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Schulz slammed the upcoming tribunals as ”an incestuous process” designed and run by the Bush administration, which “seeks to operate unbound by due process.”
The military indictments unsealed Tuesday allege that Qosi joined with bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1992 through an investment company that was a front for al Qaeda. Qosi later moved to Afghanistan as an al Qaeda accountant and doled out salaries and travel expenses to network members, the U.S. alleges.
The charge sheet also alleges that Qosi served as bin Laden’s bodyguard and driver from 1996, helping him flee Kandahar, Afghanistan, on the eve of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bahlul’s indictment says he, too, was a bin Laden bodyguard who abetted the al Qaeda leader’s escape from Kandahar and worked as a media specialist.
As part of al Qaeda’s media office, Bahlul was directed by bin Laden, the indictment said, ”to create a video glorifying, among other things, the attack on the USS Cole . . . to recruit, motivate and awaken” a Muslim revolt against Americans.
Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed in the October 2000 suicide attack on the destroyer in Aden, Yemen.
Later, bin Laden allegedly ordered Bahlul to help establish a satellite TV hookup in remote Afghanistan to enable the al Qaeda leader to watch news reports about the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. He failed ”because of mountainous terrain,” the charge sheet alleges.
The proposed war-crimes trials have drawn wide international interest, in part because they would be the first staged by Washington since World War II and will be held at the controversial prison that holds 650 so-called ”enemy combatants” who have been denied prisoner-of-war status.
Several steps may delay the start of the trials, possibly until summer.
Pentagon lawyers assigned to defend Qosi and Bahlul have yet to meet the suspects or to see the evidence against them.
They are awaiting Pentagon-approved translators to speak with their clients. Also, the Defense Department has yet to assign military officers to judge the cases.