Sunday, August 22, 2004

The New York Times > National > U.S. Terrorism Tribunals Set to Begin Work

The New York Times > National > U.S. Terrorism Tribunals Set to Begin Work:
"United States officials are keenly aware that Guantánamo, which has served as a prison for as many as 800 detainees captured at the end of the Afghanistan war, has become in many parts of the world a symbol of American high-handedness and unwillingness to acknowledge international law. Last month, Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general of Britain, told a law conference in London that the tribunals did not offer enough guarantees of a fair trial.

Because of the criticism, United States military officials say they are determined to demonstrate that they will hold fair trials for the detainees, the first four of whom are charged with various counts of conspiracy to commit terrorism."

John D. Altenburg Jr., a retired Army lawyer who oversees the tribunal system, told reporters in Washington that the trial procedures were based on many principles that would safeguard justice, like a presumption of innocence and a requirement that a defendant may be deemed guilty only by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the trials will be open to news media representatives and legal observers, though conducted under a barrage of doubts about their fairness, voiced by human rights groups, foreign governments and, most strikingly, American military defense lawyers who have gone beyond the expected protestations of their clients' innocence to scathing speeches asserting that the trials are stacked in favor of the prosecution.

One of those lawyers, Lt. Cmdr. Philip Sundel, said he accepted the job after the Navy's top lawyer said it would be a historic opportunity. "Not historic enough, I guess," Commander Sundel said in an interview.

"I found out in June I was not selected for promotion for the second year in a row," said Commander Sundel, who has a strong reputation as a trial lawyer. Under the military's system that emphasizes promotion or resignation, he will leave the service. Asked if he believed the promotion denial was related to his representation of Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al-Bahlul of Yemen and his strong criticism of the tribunal system, he said: "I have no way of knowing if it adversely impacted my situation. It didn't positively impact, it seems."

His client is charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism and war crimes. Mr. Bahlul is accused of having sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden, traveled with him as a bodyguard and made a videotape that was used as a recruiting tool for Mr. bin Laden's terrorist network, Al Qaeda.

Some of the defense lawyers have complained that problems with their translators, who have not been paid in a timely manner, hampered them in mounting their cases. Mr. Altenburg told reporters that the complaints had merit and he was moving quickly to address them.

Commander Sundel said he expected to do little at the coming hearings beyond ask for more time to meet with his client. "We desperately need to speak with him," he said. "The hearing is Thursday and we were only given a new interpreter last week."

The first translator was judged inadequate and dismissed in April.
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