Leading human rights groups say the United States plans to block them from attending trials of prisoners being held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba as part of the U.S. “war on terrorism”.
WASHINGTON, Feb 24 (IPS) – Leading human rights groups say the United States plans to block them from attending trials of prisoners being held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba as part of the U.S. “war on terrorism”.
According to the groups, the Pentagon said it intends to reserve seating at the hearings only for selected members of the press and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
“The Defence Department wants to control who can talk to the journalists covering the trials,” said Wendy Patten, U.S. advocacy director for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“The Pentagon has imposed a gag rule on defence lawyers, who can only speak to the press with the military’s permission. Now it wants to shut out experienced trial observers who could provide the public with independent analysis,” she added in a statement Tuesday.
Late Tuesday, the Pentagon announced it has charged its first two Guantanamo prisoners, nationals of Yemen and Sudan, with conspiracy to commit war crimes.
The administration of President George W. Bush announced the special “military commission” hearings last year, but to date only six of the 660 detainees being held in what has been described as a “legal black-hole” at Guantanamo have been declared eligible for trial, according to HRW.
The group, along with London-based Amnesty International and New York’s Human Rights First (formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) have sent a joint letter to U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld to protest the Pentagon’s decision to exclude them and ask that it reconsider.
A Pentagon spokesman denied that was the motive, insisting the decision was dictated by a lack of space.
“It is expected that limited courtroom seating and other logistical issues will preclude attendance by many who desire to observe military commission proceedings,” the spokesman said in an interview. “In other words, space is at a premium.”
He added that a lottery was conducted for seats that will be allocated to members of the press, and that media that were selected will be announced soon. Space will also be made available for diplomats or consular officials from the countries of detainees who face trial, said the spokesman.
“We indicated to these folks,” he added referring to the rights groups, “that should we find that we are able to accommodate them, we would keep their request in mind”.
The groups said that the decision to exclude them, like many other decisions surrounding plans for the military commission, will likely prove embarrassing and fuel concerns the defendants are not being treated fairly.
In that sense it will exacerbate concerns generated by the prolonged detention without charges of more than 600 foreigners detained in Afghanistan and several other countries on suspicion of terrorism or membership in the al-Qaeda terrorist group or the Taliban — the former ruling regime of Afghanistan.
The groups and legal experts have criticised the planned commission hearings for failing to provide basic standards of legal justice. For instance, decisions cannot be appealed to a civilian court and detainees’ lawyers can be denied access to evidence against their clients.
All three groups have longstanding experience in monitoring controversial trials, including trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and in assessing the extent to which they meet or fail to meet international standards.
The Pentagon said in its statement Tuesday that both Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al Bahlul of Yemen and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi of Sudan had been bodyguards of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Al Bahlul also made videos to “recruit, inspire and motivate” terrorist attacks, while al Qosi was an accountant and arms smuggler, said the statement.
The date of the trials and commission members will be determined later, it added.
In their letter, which was sent Feb. 20, the three groups argued their presence “will be critical to demonstrating that the commission process is open, and to evaluating whether it meets international fair trial standards”.
By attending the commission, they said Tuesday, they could provide the public with independent and informed analysis. But by denying them access, journalists covering the trial will have to rely only on military officials present for information about the proceedings.
Under the current commission rules, neither civilian nor military defence lawyers are permitted to speak to the press without permission from the presiding military officers, who can also determine the scope of those conversations.
Defence lawyers might also be prohibited from saying anything about closed portions of the trials, even if their statements do not deal with classified or even sensitive information.
While the ICRC also has longstanding experience as an observer of proceedings that involve the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war, its comments are ordinarily conveyed privately and confidentially to the interested authorities.
“The U.S., in the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights, annually criticises other governments for failing to accommodate trial monitors,” said Alex Arriaga of Amnesty International USA.
“Allowing media coverage while pleading insufficient space for human rights groups smacks of fear of informed criticism, and will only fuel the perception that tribunals will be show trials,” he added in a statement.
Coincidentally, the latest annual edition of the Country Reports is due to be released here Wednesday.
The groups also charged that the Pentagon’s pretext for excluding them because of space reasons is disingenuous.
The size of the courtroom, or any overflow room with video access, they said, is a limiting factor in any trial. But the decision to exclude a whole category of observers with internationally recognised expertise in monitoring trials made little sense, particularly because they, like the press, could be chosen through a pool or lottery process.
Moreover, the logistical and other challenges arising from the Pentagon’s choice to hold the commission at Guantanamo Bay were “problems of the Bush administration’s own making”, the letter added.
No commissions have been scheduled for the roughly 660 people being held at the base.
Last Thursday, British officials disclosed that five of the prisoners who hold British citizenship will soon be transferred to their custody, while a Danish national is also supposed to be returned to Denmark, although authorities there have said they have no grounds for keeping him in custody.
A number of Saudi prisoners have reportedly been repatriated over the last 18 months on the condition that they remain in custody there, while a number of Afghan and Pakistani prisoners, including several children, have also been repatriated after their interrogators concluded they were harmless or picked up by mistake.
Two weeks ago, senior U.S. Defence officials said they planned to set up a panel to review the cases of longer-term prisoners on an annual basis to determine whether they remained a threat to the United States. But this “quasi-parole board” will not take the place of the military tribunals.
The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in April on whether the detainees at Guantanamo Bay can be denied basic constitutional protections, including the right to a court review of why they are being held.