Full scope of tribunals taking shape

 

crosenberg@miamiherald.com

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Ever since the U.S. military opened the prison camps here in 2002, the Pentagon has carefully choreographed what the world would see of this corner of the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

An early image showed captives just in from Afghanistan -- on their knees -- in orange jumpsuits at Camp X-Ray.

Marines stood guard in watchtowers, sailors fashioned chain-linked fences into cages at Camp X-Ray.

But with the Pentagon controlling access at this base in southeast Cuba, visitors never saw the entire story.

Elsewhere on this base, a secret unit commandeered a children's day-care center to coordinate interrogations meant to feed intelligence to the battlefield and to obtain eventual tribunal justice.

So it was Friday night with the denouement of the Bush administration's efforts to stage the first U.S. war-crimes tribunal since World War II that the whole picture emerged slowly, and with a surprising outcome.

The Bush administration had sought a life prison sentence for self-confessed al Qaeda foot soldier David Hicks, the 31-year-old Australian who had claimed he had been brutalized in U.S. custody.

Instead, it settled for nine months in jail, most of it served out in his native Australia, in a plea deal in which Hicks renounced the right to claim his captivity was illegal.

Last Monday, a military judge presiding over Hicks' arraignment ejected two civilian attorneys from the Hicks case as unqualified to serve under evolving Pentagon rules for U.S. military commissions.

SECRET ACCORD

But both the news media and judge did not know that the disqualified lawyers had already secured a secret agreement from the Pentagon that would free Hicks in his homeland by New Year's.

Hicks has been held at the detention center for some five years, and the deal came after Australian Prime Minister John Howard insisted that the United States get his sole countryman here to trial, quickly.

Perceived indifference over Hicks' plight by Howard's government, a strong ally of the Bush administration, had become a burden to Howard's reelection campaign.

"David Hicks is very fortunate. He's getting a second chance, " said Air Force Col. Moe Davis, chief Pentagon prosecutor for war crimes.

And trials by commission, according to a Pentagon statement released late Friday, "demonstrate that the United States is committed to holding dangerous terror suspects accountable for their actions."

Countered attorney Hina Shamsi, who was permitted by the Pentagon to observe the proceedings for the lawyers group Human Rights First:

"Mr. Hicks' military commission was like a train hurtling toward judgment. It was propelled by political considerations of a U.S. ally and nothing was allowed to stand in its way."

Davis said the plea deal in the Hicks case was agreed to by Susan Crawford, a Bush administration appointee supervising the process.

Her job is called Convening Authority, and she is no stranger in the Pentagon.

From 1989 to 1991, she served as inspector general of the Department of Defense -- during the tenure of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

MORE PROSECUTIONS

If Crawford approves, Davis intends to carry out 74 more such prosecutions under the Military Commissions Act, newly revised last year after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared an earlier formula illegal. And he has sent two other cases to Crawford for possible prosecution for war crimes:

* Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 36, a Yemeni who admits to working as Osama bin Laden's driver and challenged the earlier military commissions to the Supreme Court, and won.

* Omar Khadr, 20, a Canadian captive who was captured at age 15 in Afghanistan, after allegedly throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. Special Forces medic in a 2002 firefight between al Qaeda suspects and American soldiers.

Waiting in the wings are more recent arrivals, such as allegedly self-confessed al Qaeda kingpin Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who in a document released by the Pentagon admitted to masterminding the 9/11 attacks and personally beheading Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in a 31-point list of terror plots, most never realized.

Meanwhile, civil liberties lawyers expressed alarm that Hicks swore in his plea agreement that U.S. forces never treated him illegally -- an about-face from a statement he filed in British court claiming he was both sodomized and drugged by U.S. personnel.

"Hicks' statement is essentially meaningless, given that under the government's interpretation of the law in 2001 when Hicks was first arrested, even water boarding, mock drowning, was legal, " said Jennifer Daskal, a lawyer here and an observer for Human Rights Watch.

Read more In the Courts stories from the Miami Herald

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