April 7, 2006

Lawyer: Rumsfeld “messed up” Guantanamo trials

By Jane Sutton

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his appointees set rules that
violate President George W. Bush's order to hold fair trials
for prisoners charged with terrorism in the Guantanamo
tribunals, a military defense lawyer said on Friday.

"We can't help it that the secretary of defense and his
delegees (sic) have messed this thing up, but they have,"
military lawyer Army Maj. Tom Fleener told the presiding
officer at one of the hearings.

"If the rules don't provide for a full and fair trial, then
they violate the president's order."

Fleener was trying to persuade the presiding officer, Col.
Peter Brownback, to let a Yemeni defendant act as his own
attorney on charges of conspiring to attack civilians and
destroy property.

Tribunal rules set by the Pentagon require the defendants
to have U.S. military lawyers who are authorized to see secret
evidence that the accused may not be allowed to view. Pentagon
officials have refused defense requests to allow
self-representation, which Fleener called a fundamental right
in nearly every court on Earth.

Fleener was appointed to defend Ali Hamza al Bahlul, an
acknowledged al Qaeda member charged with conspiring to commit
terrorism by acting as Osama bin Laden's bodyguard and making
al Qaeda recruiting videos.

Bahlul has refused to cooperate with any lawyer appointed
by the U.S. military. He asked to act as his own attorney or to
have a Yemeni lawyer, and declared a boycott when the request
was denied during a March hearing. He did not attend his
hearing on Friday at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay,

Fleener said Bahlul cannot get a fair trial unless the
rules change. "As the world looks at this system, it's going to
have no legitimacy whatsoever," he said.

Bush created them to try foreign terrorist suspects after
the September 11 attacks, and directed Rumsfeld and his
appointees to draft rules that ensure full and fair trials
while protecting national security.


Defense lawyers have questioned whether another rule
violated Bush's order by changing the role of the presiding
officer. The president's order said tribunal members would all
serve as triers of law and fact, giving each of the four to
seven panel members a dual role as judge and juror.

Subsequent Pentagon rules gave only the presiding officer
the authority to decide legal issues, making him essentially
the judge. The presiding officers have conducted three rounds
of pretrial hearings at Guantanamo since January without the
other tribunal members present. Defense lawyers questioned
whether that constituted a proper hearing.

The Guantanamo tribunals are the first war crimes trials
held by the U.S. military since World War Two.

Military defense lawyers and human rights groups have
called the tribunals fundamentally unfair and stacked to ensure
convictions. The U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to their
legitimacy last month and is expected to rule by the end of
June on whether the trials can proceed.

Ten of the 490 Guantanamo detainees have been charged with
conspiring to commit terrorism and four had pretrial hearings
this week at the base. The defendants would face life in prison
if convicted.