April 7, 2006

Lawyer says 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 to allow self-representation, which
Fleener called a fundamental right in nearly every court on

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 refuses 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 an earlier 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.


Two other defendants have also asked to act as their own
attorneys. The prosecution agrees they should have that right,
said the chief prosecutor, Col. Moe Davis.

"Give him the opportunity. If he screws it up, then he had
his opportunity," Davis said of Bahlul.

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

The chief prosecutor said those requirements had been met
and described some of the angry courtroom complaints from
defense attorneys as theatrical performances.

"The presiding officers have bent over backwards to protect
the accused," Davis said.

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.

Defense lawyers say other Pentagon rules violate Bush's
order, including one that gives only the presiding officer the
right to act essentially as judge, rather than all the tribunal
members sharing that role.

Ten of the 490 Guantanamo detainees have been charged by
the tribunals and would face life in prison if convicted. Four
had pretrial hearings this week, including 19-year-old Canadian
Omar Khadr, who is accused of murdering a U.S. soldier by
throwing a grenade at him in Afghanistan.

Khadr threatened on Wednesday to boycott the tribunal to
protest his move from group housing to a solo cell where it was
more difficult to meet with his lawyers.

His attorneys said on Friday they had received assurances
from prison camp officials that the move was not punitive. They
said Khadr agreed to participate in future proceedings.