Critics assail Pentagon plan for terror trials

 

crosenberg@miamiherald.com

Critics of the Guantánamo Bay detention center Friday reacted with fury to Pentagon plans to build a major compound for war-crimes trials at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba -- deriding project as a ''white elephant'' and urging its rejection by Congress.

''Once again, the Defense Department seems to be operating in -- even constructing -- its own universe,'' said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International's U.S. division.

New York civil liberties lawyer Michael Ratner called the proposed compound, which could cost as much as $125 million, ``another huge waste of taxpayer money . . . to carry out kangaroo trials that will never pass constitutional muster.''

The Miami Herald on Thursday uncovered a Defense Department notice to would-be military contractors that sets forth its vision for the legal compound. which is meant to provide housing, meals and working space for up to 1,200 people at the first U.S. war crimes trials since World War II.

It set a July 2007 deadline for the project, although Congress has yet to fund or authorize the project.

CONGRESS' OK NEEDED

The Defense Department, in fact, must still formally present Congress with the proposal, which according to the ''presolicitation notice'' was posted Nov. 3.

Moreover, the Bush administration is still rewriting its formula before resuming military commissions at the detention center. The U.S. Supreme Court earlier declared as unconstitutional the original commissions. Congress only recently reauthorized a new court, and the Pentagon has yet to make any announcements concerning a new court or to or announce new charges against any prisoners who would be defendants.

''Yet the Pentagon wants to build a permanent homage to its failed experiment in second-class justice,'' Amnesty International's Cox said.

''Rather than wasting tons of money creating edifices that may prove to be a white elephant,'' he added, ``the U.S. government should use the sophisticated and fully adequate facilities already available to it to try terrorism suspects -- federal courts.''

Attorneys who work for the 430 or so alleged al Qaeda and Taliban captives at Guantánamo Bay held as ''enemy combatants,'' are also challenging the nearly five-year Guantánamo enterprise on several fronts.

Ratner's Center for Constitutional Rights has filed hundreds of habeas corpus petitions in U.S. District Court in Washington, on behalf of Guantánamo prisoners, past and present, challenging their detention.

Congress this year stripped that court of the power to hear the petitions and created an alternative review method, which lawyers are also challenging in the courts.

Once the Pentagon publishes its commissions formula, more challenges are also expected.

POLITICAL SEA CHANGE

Still unclear is whether the Defense Department will find a sponsor and funding mechanism in the so-called lame duck Congress, controlled by the GOP -- or whether it will wait until Democrats take control of both houses in January.

Ratner urged Congress not to fund the proposal, and asked the U.S. to close the offshore detention center.

''An offshore Devil's Island has no place in a country that claims it abides by the rule of law,'' Ratner said. ``The test now is to see if the Democrats cut the funding off for this human rights abomination.''

Meantime, the Pentagon has yet to name a replacement for a key supervisor of the war-crimes trial process, called ``the appointing authority.''

John Altenburg, a retired U.S. Army major general and a litigator in Washington, had held the job for almost three years. He returned to private practice at the firm of Greenberg, Traurig on Nov. 10, said Army Maj. Beth Kubala, a spokeswoman for the Office of Military CommissionsNo replacement has been chosen.

Kubala said Altenburg had originally signed on to the job for ``12 to 18 months to establish the system and refer initial cases to trial.''

No trial ever got past preliminary proceedings.

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