May 17, 2006

Pending ruling stalls Guantanamo tribunals

By Jane Sutton

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE (Reuters) - Hearings this
week for two Guantanamo war crimes defendants were canceled or
cut short as their attorneys opted to wait for the U.S. Supreme
Court to rule on the legitimacy of special military tribunals
set up by the Bush administration.

Uncertainty over the pending ruling has stymied
prosecutors' efforts to complete the preliminary hearings, even
as they face criticism for holding hundreds of prisoners at the
U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for more than four
years without trial.

"We would like to keep cases moving so they might be ready
(for trial) when we get a Supreme Court decision," said the
chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Moe Davis.

Lawyers for a Yemeni prisoner, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, argued
before the Supreme Court in March that the tribunals, set up
after the September 11 attacks, are unconstitutional because
they allow the president, through his military subordinates, to
define the crime, choose the prosecutor and judges and set all
the rules.

The court is expected to rule by the end of next month.

An Afghan detainee, Abdul Zahir, appeared briefly before a
tribunal on Wednesday

His military lawyer, Lt. Col. Thomas Bogar, had asked for a
hearing after Zahir was moved from a medium-security camp,
where prisoners live in groups, to a maximum-security facility
where detainees live alone in concrete cells.


Bogar initially asked the presiding officer to reverse the
move, but withdrew the request at Wednesday's hearing, in part
because he wanted to see if the Supreme Court ruling in the
Hamdan case sheds light on his client's rights.

"I think from a legal standpoint we may have more of a
legal bearing after Hamdan," Bogar said after the hearing.

Zahir is accused of being an al Qaeda paymaster who took
part in a grenade attack on a car full of civilians in
Afghanistan in March 2002.

The other prisoner scheduled for a hearing this week,
Ghassan al Sharbi, won a stay on Friday after a federal judge
in Washington ruled that the Saudi captive could suffer
irreparable harm if he appeared before a tribunal that could be
deemed illegal in a month.

Sharbi, an electrical engineer accused of being an al Qaeda
bombmaker, was the fourth among the 10 defendants charged so
far to have his case frozen until after the ruling. Pretrial
hearings scheduled for June 5-9 have been canceled, though
others set later in the month are still expected to take place.

All 10 defendants are accused of conspiring with al Qaeda
to attack civilians and property, and would face life in prison
if convicted.

The tribunals are the first convened by the U.S. military
since World War Two. Davis said charges are "in the pipeline"
for another two dozen Guantanamo prisoners and that President
George W. Bush had already signed off on charges against two of

But even those are not expected to be filed until after the
Supreme Court rules, Davis said.

"The Hamdan case is the linchpin," Davis said.