Guantanamo Tribunals To Resume Under New Rules

Administration officials say that military tribunals will resume this fall for a small number of Guantanamo terror suspects, but under new rules. The detainees will have greater legal protections, though tribunals will be held for only 13 of the 241 detainees at the naval base.

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As we just mentioned, the White House is reviving military tribunals, specifically a controversial trial system designed solely for a handful of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The tribunals have been on hold since January, while the new administration reviewed the legal process. Now they're back with a few tweaks. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: The tribunals, known as military commissions, were plagued by widespread criticism, delays and legal challenges long before the first detainees stepped into a Guantanamo courtroom five years ago. The commissions were seen by defense lawyers as patently unfair and biased towards the military prosecution.

Now the Obama administration has ordered some key changes to the rules; among them, any evidence collected through torture or abuse will be banned and there will be restrictions on hearsay evidence. The White House may make further rule changes in the coming months.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says President Obama believes the new rules will give the detainees better protection in court.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): The changes that he is seeking he believes will ensure the protections that are necessary for these to be conducted in order to reach that certain justice as well as live up to our values.

NORTHAM: The new tribunals will only apply to 13 of the roughly 240 detainees who remain at Guantanamo. That could include men whose cases are already underway, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who's accused of planning the 9/11 terror attacks. Still, there are questions about restarting a troubled legal process for so few.

Mr. JOHN HUTSON (Franklin Pierce Law School): Why are we setting up a court system for 13 people?

NORTHAM: John Hutson, the dean of Franklin Pierce Law School and a former Navy judge advocate general, says it's good that the Obama administration changed some of the more contentious tribunal rules. But Hudson doesn't think it will erase the stain of the earlier commissions.

Mr. HUTSON: I'm not sure that this will be seen as legitimate by either the domestic or the international community, simply because we've tried this twice before, it hasn't worked, and now, you know, yet again we're going to try it again.

NORTHAM: Hutson says the administration is missing the opportunity to use either a military court martial system or U.S. federal courts to try to the Guantanamo detainees. Both, he says, have the experience and the expertise to handle these types of cases.

Brad Berenson is a Washington lawyer who helped draw up the policies for the military commissions at Guantanamo. He calls the military tribunals a necessary weapon in the legal arsenal as the U.S. prosecutes suspected terrorists and says the Obama administration has made the right decision in keeping the commissions.

Mr. BRAD BERENSON (Lawyer): I think they've done the sound and reasonable thing in confronting the reality of the situation, recognizing that military commissions do have a role to play in this and largely preserving the structure that Congress set up when it passed the Military Commissions Act.

NORTHAM: Congress passed the act in 2006. At that time, then-Senator Obama voted in favor of the commissions but changed his stand dramatically during the presidential campaign, indicating he would reject the tribunals if he was elected.

During a press conference at the White House Friday, there were suggestions that the president was backpedaling. White House spokesman Gibbs denied this.

Mr. GIBBS: The president has been consistent in his views on this issue and been consistent on what was lacking in order to ensure justice, in order to ensure protection, and most of all to ensure that this process goes forward.

NORTHAM: In a statement, the president also indicated he wanted swift and certain justice, but the administration is asking for a four-month delay in the tribunals to give it time to enact the initial rule changes. Guantanamo is due to shut by January 2010, leaving the administration little time to get the newly revamped commissions underway at the remote prison camp.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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Obama Revives Guantanamo Tribunals

A detainee at Guantanamo Bay i i

In this 2008 image reviewed by the U.S. military, a detainee is visible through fencing around a cell block at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Randall Mikkelsen/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Randall Mikkelsen/Getty Images
A detainee at Guantanamo Bay

In this 2008 image reviewed by the U.S. military, a detainee is visible through fencing around a cell block at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Randall Mikkelsen/Getty Images

The White House announced Friday that it is reviving Bush-era military tribunals to prosecute about 13 of the roughly 240 detainees remaining at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But the tribunals will include new legal protections for terror suspects, President Obama said in a three-paragraph statement. "This is the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply held values," he said.

The new tribunals will apply only to about 13 of the detainees whose cases are under way. Several suspects in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks could be among them, including Khaled Sheik Mohammed, who is accused of planning the attacks. Proceedings are expected to resume by the fall to allow time for the new rules to be put in place.

A System Plagued With Problems

The tribunals have been plagued with problems since they were introduced at Guantanamo Bay five years ago.

Some human rights activists and legal scholars say it is unclear whether those problems will disappear now that the tribunals are being brought back.

When Obama announced earlier this year that the Guantanamo detention camp would close by January 2010, he also froze the trials of detainees while the new administration reviewed the legal proceedings.

The tribunals — known as military commissions — were drawn up solely to prosecute Guantanamo prisoners and have been the target of lawsuits claming that detainees have been denied legal rights and should instead be tried in federal courts.

Reviving the tribunals for just a few of the cases does not resolve the question of what to do with other Guantanamo detainees. Administration officials say they could be transferred to another country or tried in federal court. Some could be held indefinitely.

Changing The Rules Of Allowable Evidence

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the new tribunals are designed to provide detainees better protections in court than the earlier commissions. He said the new tribunals "represent a far different system" than the earlier commissions under the Bush administration.

Among the new rules: restrictions on hearsay evidence; any evidence collected through torture or abuse will be banned; detainees can change their military lawyers; and detainees won't be sanctioned if they refuse to testify.

The tribunal system was created after U.S. forces began capturing and detaining suspects in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The White House said Friday it will seek further rule changes in the next few months as it asks Congress to change the 2006 law that gave detainees additional rights under the tribunals.

Madeline Morris, director of Duke Law School's Guantanamo Defense Clinic, says repealing the more contentious rules is good, but she says it won't solve the problems surrounding the commissions.

"The military commissions system is brand new. It's been made up from whole cloth and is untested. And military commissions were never envisioned as handling these very complex cases," she said.

It is unclear where the new commissions will be held. There are facilities already in place at Guantanamo Bay, but it's unlikely that the new tribunals will be completed by the time the prison camp is due to close in January.

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