ACLU Executive Director Travels to Cuba To Observe Military Tribunals

August 19, 2004 12:00 am

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Will Be Watching for Command Influence, Obstacles to Defense


WASHINGTON – Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, will travel Saturday to the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base on the eastern tip of Cuba to observe the first preliminary hearings in the new system of military commissions set up by President Bush.

“While granting the public limited access to the military commissions is a step in the right direction, that alone will not fix the serious civil liberties problems,” Romero said. “Key evidence can be kept secret by the prosecution, the only venue for appeal is up the chain of command and defense attorneys will be hamstrung by bad procedure and lack of privilege. These are not full and fair trials in keeping with the best of American traditions.”

Along with the potential for command influence and the ease with which key evidence – even evidence of innocence – can be kept secret on shaky “national security” grounds, the ACLU pointed to the potential for these military commissions to expand beyond Guantánamo.

With the stroke of the president’s pen, the commissions could be used to try suspected terrorists around the world, or citizens and non-citizens alike on American soil, Romero said.

Many of the ACLU’s concerns with the military tribunals have been outlined in a recent report, titled “Conduct Unbecoming: Pitfalls in the President’s Military Commissions,” which analyzes in detail the Defense Department’s guidelines for the military commissions. The commissions were authorized in a 2001 presidential order.

Romero will be observing the first series of preliminary hearings for the commissions, which are different than the hearings that opened for business last month. Those dealt with the status of several detainees, and found that they were all rightfully detained indefinitely as “enemy combatants.” During his stay, Romero will be providing daily dispatches about the proceedings that will be posted online at Additional ACLU observers will travel to Cuba in the coming weeks.

The pre-trial hearings that begin on Monday will actually make factual determinations in the cases of four detainees at Guantánamo, including how to handle classified material and how to deal with interpreters for the defendants.

Those detainees are: David Hicks, an Australian terrorist suspect; Salim Ahmed Hamdan of Yemen, who the military claims was a driver for Osama Bin-Laden, and Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al Bahlul of Yemen and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi of Sudan, both alleged Bin-Laden bodyguards.

“While everybody wants terrorists punished, we also want the process by which we judge guilt to be fair and legitimate,” Romero said. “The system that I am going to witness cannot be seen as legitimate.”

The ACLU’s report on the military commissions can be found at: /node/11576

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