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Context of 'August 24, 2004: Defense Attorney For Detainee Challenges Qualifications of Commission’s Members'

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The mobile trailer where Combatant Status Review Tribunals are held.The mobile trailer where Combatant Status Review Tribunals are held. [Source: US Navy]At Guantanamo, the first of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (see July 7, 2004) convenes to determine whether the designations of 585 detainees at Guantanamo as unlawful enemy combatants are just. The hearings were ordered by the Supreme Court which ruled in June that detainees have the right to challenge their detention (see June 28, 2004). The hearings, open to only a small number of reporters, are conducted by three military officers. Each hearing will generally take about two hours. The defendants are not required to cooperate or even be present during the hearings. (Lewis 8/24/2004) The burden of proof during the tribunal hearings lies with the detainees, although they are hardly in a position to make their case. They are not permitted attorneys to represent their case. Instead, each detainee is assigned a “personal representative,” who is a military officer, not a lawyer or advocate. The detainees can be denied information about how, where, and from whom incriminating information about them originates. (Lewis 8/24/2004) Although the detainees may call witnesses or present evidence, the Los Angeles Times reports that they are rarely permitted to put forward any evidence or offer the testimony of witnesses in their defense. According to the newspaper, their requests are frequently turned down as “irrelevant.” Other evidence is often ruled inadmissible. (Serrano 11/7/2004) Government prosecutors, however, are permitted to use a wider range of types of evidence than that which is permissible in a US criminal court. According to the order establishing the tribunals: “The Tribunal is not bound by the rules of evidence such as would apply in a court of law. Instead the Tribunal shall be free to consider any information it deems relevant and helpful to a resolution of the issue before it. At the discretion of the Tribunal, for example, it may consider hearsay evidence, taking into account the reliability of such evidence in the circumstances.” (US Department of Defense 7/7/2004 pdf file)

An artist’s drawing of Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi appearing before a military commission on August 27, 2004.An artist’s drawing of Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi appearing before a military commission on August 27, 2004. [Source: Art Lien/ Getty Images]The number of Guantanamo detainees charged with a crime and singled out for trial by military commission reaches 15. However, for the time being, hearings are scheduled for only four of them—David Hicks, Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al-Bahlul, Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi, and Salim Ahmed Hamdan. All are charged with conspiracy, except for Australian David Hicks, who is also charged with attempted murder and aiding the enemy. (Lewis 8/25/2004)

Tim Edgar of the American Civil Liberties Union says the status review tribunals (see July 30, 2004, August 2004, and August 24, 2004) being held at Guantanamo amount to “second-class tribunals, the likes of which we haven’t seen since World War II.” (Hendren 8/18/2004)

A hearing is held for Guantanamo detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who is being accused of being a member of al-Qaeda, conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, and destruction of property. The five-member military commission—the first to conduct a trial since World War II—is presided over by Army Col. Peter Brownback, who, according to the Pentagon, has 22 years of experience as a judge advocate and almost 10 as a military judge. (BBC 6/29/2004; Hendren 8/25/2004) Hamdan’s military lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, begins his argument with an attack on Brownback’s qualification to practice law. He calls attention to the fact that Bownback, a retired military judge, is not a current member of the bar in his home state of Virginia. He also alleges that the judge’s office had inappropriate out-of-court discussions with the Office of Military Commissions, and that Brownback had said in a meeting with defense lawyers that a speedy trial was “not an issue here.” Though Brownback denies making the comment, Swift produces a recording of the conversation. But Bownback isn’t the only one put on trial by Swift. He also targets three members of the commission and an alternate member. Swift argues that three have “extensive backgrounds” in dealing with operations in Afghanistan, the treatment of detainees, and military intelligence, and therefore are not in a position to pass an unbiased judgment on the defendant. The alternate member, Lt. Col. Curt S. Cooper, Swift demonstrates, knows little about international law. When asked, “Do you know what the Geneva Convention is, sir?” Cooper replies: “Not specifically. No, Sir. And that’s being honest.” But, he adds, he knows that the Convention consists of three articles. But as Swift points out, that is wrong. “Actually, there are six, Sir,” Swift says, correcting him. Air Force Col. Christopher C. Bogden is the only commission member not challenged by Swift. (Hendren 8/25/2004; Lewis 8/25/2004) In addition to his attacks on the commission members, Swift challenges the merits of the charges against his client. For example he argues that Hamden was denied a speedy trial and that the laws he has been accused of violating were written after the alleged offense.

A Los Angeles Times editorial says the recent hearings before a military commission in Guantanamo (see July 30, 2004) (see August 2004) (see August 24, 2004) are “slapdash preliminary hearings,” which “violated basic tenets of fairness.” They resembled “something between a Mel Brooks farce and the kangaroo courts of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin,” the paper says. (Los Angeles Times 9/2/2004)

Following criticism over their impartiality (see August 24, 2004), retired Army Maj. Gen. John D. Altenburg Jr. removes three members from the six-member military commission that is trying enemy combatants at the Guantanamo base in Cuba. (Buncombe 10/23/2004) Altenburg heads the Appointing Authority for the Office of Military Commissions, which selects members of the military commissions. (Hendren 8/25/2004) Army Col. Peter Brownback retains his job. Brownback’s eligibility to preside over the Guantanamo hearings had earlier been challenged by Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, the attorney for detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan. Critics suggest his close personal relationship with Altenburg is a factor. Brownback was a close colleague of Altenburg at Fort Bragg. He attended the wedding of Altenburg’s son, and his wife worked in Altenburg’s office. Swift criticizes the decision not to remove Brownback and says the standards “make no sense.” (Buncombe 10/23/2004)


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