Secret Trials: Lives are in US military's hands

Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington

Saturday July 5, 2003
The Guardian - U.K.

The fate of the two Britons and four others consigned to the first US military tribunals since the second world war now rests in the upper ranks of the Pentagon, officials said yesterday. It also remains shrouded in secrecy.
Moazzam Begg, 35, Feroz Abbasi, 23, and the others selected from the 680 prisoners held at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could face the death sentence if convicted by military tribunals.

But a trial is not automatic, Pentagon officials said yesterday, and they could continue to be held indefinitely. Nor is their freedom guaranteed if they are cleared, as the US could continue to regard them as enemy combatants.

The six will have no right to a lawyer until they are charged, when one will be appointed from within the military.

Following George Bush's ruling on Thursday that there was evidence that the six were members of al-Qaida, Pentagon officials said yesterday that the decision to bring them to trial now belongs to the deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz. They gave no timescale for the prosecutions.

If the six are put on trial, they will appear before a panel of between three and seven US army officers, headed by a military judge advocate. The panel must have a two-thirds majority for a guilty verdict.

It is unlikely that the public would be able to follow their deliberations. Washington constituted the tribunals in part to ensure secrecy, and the authorities can withhold the names of judges and close sections of the trial.

The Pentagon is releasing only the slightest details of the evidence against the men, suggesting they had attended terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, or were engaged in fundraising and recruitment for al-Qaida. It will not say when and where the tribunals might be held, or where the prisoners are - although it is widely assumed they are in Guantanamo Bay.

It is also unclear what would happen to the prisoners if they were cleared. Officials said on Thursday that they would continue to be regarded as enemy combatants.

Legal experts believe that the six were selected not for their rank, but because the US authorities have been able to assemble relatively complete dossiers on their activities.

It is thought that some of the six may have agreed to act as witnesses in return for promises of a lighter sentence or early release. But Pentagon officials said on Thursday: "It's really mostly that these are people who are available.",3604,991848,00.html