Back to Military Commissions?

Human rights advocates and legal scholars fear that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama may resurrect the military commissions designed by his predecessor to try Guantánamo detainees after Obama’s 120-day moratorium on proceedings expires on May 20.

That possibility appeared to move a step closer to reality when Guantánamo’s chief judge refused to delay a May 27 pretrial hearing for Ahmed Al-Darbi, 34, a Saudi Arabian accused of providing material support for terrorism and participating in a conspiracy to commit murder and other crimes.

Military authorities also allege that he conspired with al-Qaeda in a never-realized 2000-2002 plot to bomb vessels at sea in the Straits of Hormuz. He has been a U.S. prisoner since 2002, first at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, and since 2003 at Guantánamo.

Darbi’s hearing will be the first commission session since President Obama took office and ordered the freeze on war court proceedings. The Guantánamo judge, Army Col. James Pohl, ruled that defense lawyers had ample notice to prepare for the one-day hearing.

Judge Pohl’s ruling ordering the May 27 hearing noted that "There has been no change in the statutory or regulatory scheme governing military commissions."

In setting that date, Pohl said he was "not trying to influence the administration’s review" and would consider adjusting or canceling the hearing if there "are changes between now and May 27."

The major issue at the al-Darbi hearing is how much evidence might be presented at his military trial in a bid to show that he was tortured into confessing crimes he now denies. Darbi’s lawyer, Ramzi Kassem of the Yale University law school, is trying to prevent Pentagon prosecutors from introducing dozens of the Saudi’s self-incriminating statements, which the lawyer claims were obtained through brutal treatment during interrogations at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay.

Darbi’s attorney has requested that two documentary films describing a climate of abuse at the time of Darbi’s interrogations be introduced as evidence.

During his first week in office, President Obama ordered a case-by-case review of all detainees held at Guantánamo. Al-Darbi’s lawyer told IPS he doesn’t know if Darbi’s case has been reviewed by the administration. But he was certain that his client could not find justice at a military commission trial, whether it was held in Guantánamo or in the U.S.

He told IPS, "The (George W.) Bush administration decided on using the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba because they considered it a law-free zone, but the courts decided otherwise. Now that the Obama administration has pledged to close the base, they seem to be thinking of moving the military commissions to the U.S. mainland, perhaps with a few detainee protections added."

However, he added, "There is no amount of tinkering that will make military commissions ‘better.’ This is a system designed to produce convictions, not justice."

Al-Darbi has also filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court in Washington, D.C.

The Defence Department says Darbi is the brother-in-law of one of the 9/11 hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. While Darbi is not accused of involvement in 9/11, military authorities say he conspired with al Qaeda in the never-realized 2000-2002 plot to bomb vessels at sea in the Straits of Hormuz. He also allegedly met Osama bin Laden and trained in an Afghan al Qaeda camp.

The Bush-era military commissions have had a bumpy history. In a series of orders in 2001 and 2002, the Bush administration created a system of tribunals that specifically did not adhere to the standards set out in the Geneva Convention, arguing that as "non-state actors” the suspects were not entitled to that kind of protection; the system was also declared to be beyond review by federal courts.

The government then established a prison camp at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba to hold these prisoners away from federal court jurisdiction, arguing that the right of habeas corpus — the fundamental right, centuries old, to ask a judge for release from unjust imprisonment – did not apply to foreigners being held outside the U.S. as enemy combatants.

But, in 2004, the Supreme Court disagreed, in a case known as Rasul v. Bush. And in another decision in June 2006, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the high court struck down military tribunals that the Bush administration had established shortly after the Sep. 11 attacks. The court ruled that the tribunals violated the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions.

In response, the Bush administration and Congress effectively rewrote the law, by passing the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

The measure broadened the definition of enemy combatants beyond the traditional definition used in wartime, to include non-citizens living legally in the United States as well as those in foreign countries and anyone determined to be an enemy combatant under criteria defined by the president or secretary of defence.

In place of habeas proceedings, it said detainees could challenge their imprisonment only through hearings known as combatant status review trials. It allowed evidence seized in the U.S. or abroad without a search warrant to be admitted at trial.

And while the bill barred the admission of evidence obtained by cruel and inhuman treatment, it made an exception for any obtained before Dec. 30, 2005, when Congress enacted the Detainee Treatment Act banning torture.

But, in a June 2008 decision in the case of Boumediene v. Bush, the Supreme Court overturned those portions of the law, finding that foreign terrorism suspects held at Guantánamo Bay have constitutional rights to challenge their detention in United States courts.

In a harsh rebuke of the Bush administration, the Court rejected the administration’s argument that the individual protections provided by the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 were more than adequate.

Meanwhile, human rights groups continue to oppose trials under the Military Commissions Act. Amnesty International says, "Any trials of Guantánamo detainees should be conducted before U.S. federal civilian courts in trials that meet international standards."

The organization called on the Obama administration to abandon the commissions altogether, withdraw all charges under the Military Commissions Act, and transfer to the U.S. mainland any Guantánamo detainee who was to be charged, bring him before a civilian judicial authority, and promptly charge him with specific offences under applicable federal law.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) expressed a similar view. Its executive director, Anthony D. Romero, said, "The Obama administration’s purported plan to resuscitate the Guantánamo military commissions and ship them onto American soil is fatally flawed."

"The military commissions are built on unconstitutional premises and designed to ensure convictions, not provide fair trials," he said. "Reducing some but not all of the flaws of the tribunals so that they are ‘less offensive’ is not acceptable; there is no such thing as ‘due process light.’ Our justice system depends upon basic principles of fairness and transparency and once they are compromised even a little, they are rendered meaningless."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.