March 2, 2006

Guantanamo defendant puts defense in a bind

By Jane Sutton

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE (Reuters) - An al Qaeda
member refused to appear before a Guantanamo war crimes
tribunal on Thursday or to cooperate with a U.S. military
defense lawyer whom he considers an enemy.

That left the court struggling to figure out how to comply
with President George W. Bush's order to present a "zealous"
defense for all the foreign terrorism suspects charged at the
Guantanamo base in Cuba.

Ali Hamza al Bahlul, a Yemeni captive and acknowledged al
Qaeda member, is charged with conspiring with Osama bin Laden
to commit crimes against civilians and property. He is accused
of acting as bin Laden's bodyguard and making al Qaeda
recruiting videos, but he has said he had nothing to do with
the September 11 attacks.

Bahlul refused to enter the courtroom for a pretrial
hearing at the remote base on Thursday and the presiding
officer, Col. Peter Brownback, said he would not order him
shackled and dragged in involuntarily.

Bahlul's attorney, Army Maj. Tom Fleener, has ignored
Brownback's instructions to file certain motions in the case
and said it was because his client told him to do nothing on
his behalf.

"Mr. Fleener, I told you to represent him," Brownback said,
sounding exasperated.

"The issue is not as simple as you say 'do it,' and I do
it," Fleener replied, "He doesn't want me, and can't be forced,
I believe, to have me."

Bahlul has repeatedly sought and been refused permission to
act as his own attorney or to have a Yemeni lawyer. Tribunal
rules require that defendants have U.S. military lawyers who
are able to review secret evidence that may not be shown to the

Defense attorneys and legal monitors said those rules
violate international law guaranteeing the right to
self-representation and the right to a lawyer of one's

"Even Saddam Hussein gets his own lawyer," said Neal
Sonnett, an attorney monitoring the hearings on behalf of the
American Bar Association.

But unless Bahlul changes his mind and cooperates with his
military lawyer, he will not have the vigorous defense Bush
ordered when he created the tribunals.

"The law isn't set up to deal with Mr. al Bahlul in this
particular situation. It's why this thing is fatally flawed,"
Fleener said.

Bahlul faces life in prison if convicted.

He is among 10 Guantanamo prisoners charged before the
tribunals, formally called commissions and modeled after those
President Franklin Roosevelt created in 1942 to try Nazi
saboteurs captured in the United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider later this month
whether Bush had authority to create the tribunals. The case
was brought by a military lawyer for another Guantanamo
defendant, who said the Geneva Conventions signed after World
War Two guarantee the defendants the same rights they would
have in the military courts-martial system.

The court will hear arguments on March 28 and is expected
to rule in June or July.