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Pentagon drops terror charges against 5 detainees -- for now

In this image reviewed by the U.S. military, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, Chief Prosecutor for the U.S. Military Commissions, listens to a question from a member of the media during a press conference inside an abandoned hangar used for media activities, at the U.S. Navy Base, in Cuba, Thursday, June 5, 2008.
In this image reviewed by the U.S. military, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, Chief Prosecutor for the U.S. Military Commissions, listens to a question from a member of the media during a press conference inside an abandoned hangar used for media activities, at the U.S. Navy Base, in Cuba, Thursday, June 5, 2008. ASSOCIATED PRESS

With signs of continuing turmoil at the Guantánamo war court, the Pentagon announced Tuesday it has dropped terror charges against five detainees, even as the prosecutor pledged the filing of new charges soon.

The development followed the high-profile resignation of a case prosecutor, Army Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who had protested internally that some evidence helpful to the case of a sixth man, a young Afghan, might never surface.

Those whose charges were dropped: Binyam Mohamed, 30, an Ethiopian-born former British resident; Sufiyan Barhoumi, 35, an Algerian; and Saudis Ghassan Sharbi, 33, and Jubran Qahtani, 31, and Noor Uthman Muhammed, of Sudan.

Mohamed's case has gained some attention in London because he claims the United States sent him to Morocco for interrogation, and was tortured into confessing.

Sharbi's case has drawn interest because he had an engineering degree from a U.S. flight school, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona.

NO EXPLANATION

Susan Crawford, an official who holds the title of Convening Authority for Military Commissions, signed the paperwork that canceled the charges on Monday. She provided no explanation.

On Tuesday, even before the official announcement was released on the Defense Department website, the chief war crimes prosecutor, Col. Lawrence Morris, said he had supported the move to give time for new charges and a new analysis of the case against five men accused of conspiring with al Qaeda and providing material support for terror.

''It's cleaner for me and simpler to tear the case down and start afresh,'' said Morris, calling it ''the wisest course of action'' in five cases that had some common links.

Asked for a timeline for new charges, Morris replied while en route to Guantánamo: ``Not a real long time. I don't have one. I expect we will charge all of them again.''

Four of the five men were captured in a U.S.-Pakistani raid on Faisalabad, Pakistan, in March 2002 at an alleged al Qaeda safe house -- at the same time as alleged arch-terrorist Abu Zubaydah.

The CIA separated Abu Zubaydah from the others and, CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden has revealed, subjected him to harsh interrogation techniques authorized by President Bush, among them the use of waterboarding to break his will in secret overseas custody. He has never been charged.

The development was the latest in a series of efforts to repair the on-again, off-again military commissions championed by the Bush administration as the first exclusively U.S.-run war crimes tribunal since World War II.

The Pentagon announcement noted that Morris had ``recently appointed new trial teams who will review all available material, coordinate with intelligence agencies and recommend appropriate courses of action in each case.''

STEPPED-UP CRITICISM

Critics were not satisfied.

''The implosion of these five prosecutions painfully underscores how the Bush administration's torture and detention policies have failed to render justice in any sense of the word,'' said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

``We need to close Guantánamo and shut down the military commissions.''

Only one man has been convicted of being a terrorist at a Guantánamo trial -- Osama bin Laden's driver. And military jurors in that case gave the convict, Salim Hamdan, 40, of Yemen, time served plus imprisonment for the remainder of 2008.

Next, bin Laden's alleged media secretary is slated to go on trial Oct. 28, accused of conspiracy, too, followed by Canadian Omar Khadr on Nov. 10, accused of the grenade killing of a U.S. soldier during a July 2002 firefight in Afghanistan.

Meantime, Vandeveld, a career civilian prosecutor, became the latest war court critic to cast a spotlight on complaints about the inability to declassify and locate evidence that could help the war court accused to defend themselves at trial.

He had been case prosecutor in the five cases that were dismissed.

They constituted a fourth of the Guantánamo prosecutor's current public caseload.

Prosecutors had prepared the earlier cases against all five men during the tenure of Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, who emerged as a controversial figure and target for complaints during his year-plus role as legal advisor to the process.

Hartmann is no longer functioning as a commissions lawyer but is operations director, a "war court czar'' of sorts overseeing logistics and staffing in both Camp Justice at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba and the Bush administration's Office of Military Commissions in a series of Washington, D.C., area offices.

Three military judges ruled separately, in other cases, that Hartmann had appeared to favor prosecutors, rather than serve as an unbiased legal advisor. The judges excluded Hartmann from a lawyering role at different phases of the three trials.

In Britain on Tuesday, a defense attorney for Mohamed declared the dismissal a "farce.'' The dismissal did not assist his client's effort to uncover documents that support Mohamed's claim that the U.S. outsourced his interrogation to torture in Morocco.

"Far from being a victory for Mr. Mohamed in his long-running struggle for justice, this is more of the same farce that is Guantánamo,'' said Clive Stafford Smith of the London-based legal defense group Reprieve. "The military has informed us that they plan to charge him again within a month, after the election.''

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