Military panels hear captives' side of story

11/08/2004 12:03 PM

10/26/2007 12:45 PM

Hunching over to stroke his beard with hands shackled to his waist, the scrawny Yemeni was exasperated with the trio of U.S. military officers authenticating that he is held as an enemy of the United States.

"It's not true that I'm an al Qaeda supporter," the 27-year-old war-on-terrorism captive said through an interpreter.

True, he said, he was swept up in a Pakistani police raid on his student guest house in Lahore. Yes, he was living there cost-free with other Yemeni students, thanks to a Muslim missionary group the United States claims is a cover for al Qaeda, called Jama'at al Tabligh.

But he claimed he never had a weapon, never fought in a jihad against America and never set foot in Afghanistan - until Pakistani police delivered him to U.S. forces about three years ago.

This was the scene Saturday for an hour behind the razor wire at Camp Delta, where the Pentagon is still sorting and categorizing the 550 or so captives kept here for interrogation and perhaps future trials.

Systematically since July, the Department of Defense has cranked about 300 of the terrorism suspects through Combatant Status Review Tribunals - administrative hearings by officers, not judges, to reaffirm their "enemy combatant" classification in a bid to placate the Supreme Court. Only one so far has been sent home.

Reporters are being encouraged to act as observers of the portions where a prisoner can plead for his freedom but are banned from naming anyone in the room. And, like the detainees, reporters don't get to see secret files that the military has built on the captives here.

DETAINEES' STORIES

Supervised by a civilian, Navy Secretary Gordon England, the hearings are run by a Navy captain, who, like everyone else in the process, forbids publication of his name. "It just tears your heart out to listen to them, the stories they tell about how they got caught up in this thing," he said. "Whether it's true or not, I don't know."

But more than a third have skipped the hearings altogether, shunning the chance to tell their tales. These include the four prisoners facing war-crimes trials because their defense lawyers were banned from taking part.

Moreover, critics of the U.S. system say the review panels are too little, too late. The Pentagon created a version of the Geneva Conventions' battlefield Article V hearings up to three years after their capture, and critics say the panels are not in the spirit of a June Supreme Court ruling that gave Camp Delta captives the right to judicial review.

"It's less about the facts and more about policy and politics," said New York lawyer Ken Hurwitz of Human Rights First, the new name of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, who was allowed to observe a hearing through a one-way window.

So far, U.S. lawyers have filed about 60 habeas corpus petitions on behalf of detainees here, pressing the federal courts to evaluate the captives on a case-by-case basis or compel the military to let them go home.

SUBSTITUTE

Meantime, the Pentagon has resisted civilian intervention, saying the status review hearings satisfy Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's comment that "an appropriately authorized and properly constituted military tribunal" might be a substitute for the majority's opinion that an enemy combatant must be given a meaningful opportunity to contest his detention.

The Yemeni captive echoed confusion over the administrative hearing during his chance to challenge his detention as he sat in a chair - in beige prison garb with his shackled feet padlocked to the floor, his hands handcuffed to his waist.

"Will you be the board that is deciding what I'm saying is true?" he asked. "Or will that be another panel?"

Under the framework, the military officers are merely confirming that intelligence agents believe the detainees were either captured on the battlefield or were in league with the Taliban or al Qaeda. Full-blown parole hearings could start in about a month, when military officers start to sift through the case files again to weigh whether they are safe enough to be sent home to the 32 or so nations.

For now, though, the three officers let the captives have their say, six days a week, up to 10 hearings a day, before reviewing the facts of the case, in classified settings without any outside observers. Captives are notified later of the results in their cells.

A QUESTION OF MATH

For an hour Saturday, the young student of Islam sparred with the officers, sometimes scolding them that the United States had wrongly captured and jailed him for nearly three years.

"One plus one is two. But one plus five is not 10. You want to make one plus five equal 10," he said, disputing U.S. logic that he must be an al Qaeda supporter because U.S. intelligence believed that al Qaeda sometimes used the group sponsoring his school as a cover.

Later, sounding sorrowful, he told the officers, "A person is innocent until proven guilty - not guilty until proven innocent. I don't have anything else."

WHAT THE TRIBUNALS ARE

The Combatant Status Review Tribunals for every war-on-terrorism captive at Guantanamo Bay are different from the war-crimes court where four captives so far have been charged.

Not a court, the so-called tribunals are a review of the captives' cases by military officers serving as neither judge nor jury.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

At the war-crimes court, called a Military Commission, on another corner of the Guantanamo base, a three-colonel panel is serving as judge and jury of four captives charged by the Pentagon with war crimes under an executive order by President Bush.

The court resumes hearing motions today in the case of Salim Hamdan, 34, of Yemen, who is accused of conspiracy in part for serving as Osama bin Laden's driver on his farm in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and sometime bodyguard. Hamdan denies through his Navy lawyer that he was either a terrorist or a member of al Qaeda.

Last week, the court heard motions in the case of David Hicks, 29, of Australia, an Outback cowboy turned Muslim who was accused of being in league with the Taliban and al Qaeda.

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About Carol Rosenberg

Carol Rosenberg

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Carol Rosenberg reports on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the place, policy, people, war court.


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