January 13, 2006

Guantanamo defense lawyers criticize tribunals

By Jane Sutton

military officers ordered to defend accused war criminals at
Guantanamo base in Cuba have joined the outcry of activists
assailing the court system for human rights violations.

"It was horrific to sit there and watch this happen," said
Army Maj. Tom Fleener, who represented a Yemeni prisoner in
pretrial hearings at Guantanamo this week.

The nine Guantanamo prisoners charged so far are accused of
conspiring with the Islamist militant al Qaeda group to kill
Americans in the September 11 attacks and on the battlefield.

"We live in a country where we've spent a couple hundred
years putting together a good system of justice where people
have rights to counsel (of their choosing), people have rights
to confront accusers, people have rights to evidence," Fleener
told journalists.

"None of that stuff is present in these hearings."

The five military defense lawyers appointed so far have
challenged every aspect of the tribunals.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, who represents another Yemeni
prisoner, has asked the Supreme Court to rule that U.S.
President George W. Bush lacked authority to create the new
court system rather than try the prisoners under existing
civilian or military law.

The Bush administration and the military prosecutors said
the system was designed to provide fair trials for suspected
terrorists whose crimes had not been contemplated under
existing law.


In Washington, Bush told reporters on Friday: "Guantanamo
is a necessary part of protecting the American people."

Human rights activists said the horrific nature of the
charges is being used as an excuse to justify a flawed system
that allows the use of secret evidence and evidence that may
have been obtained through torture.

"If this is the best we can do, we risk forfeiting our
ability to hold ourselves out as examples to the world," said
Ben Wizner, who is monitoring the trials for the American Civil
Liberties Union.

Fleener said he believed in protecting Americans from al
Qaeda but viewed the tribunals as fundamentally unfair.

He is a federal public defender in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in
civilian life and an Army reservist called to duty three months
ago. His client is an alleged bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and
does not want a lawyer appointed by the military enemies who
captured him.

Fleener said he would comply with orders to put on a
zealous defense but believes representing a client who has
rejected him is an ethical violation that could cost him his
law license.