Guantanamo War Crimes Charges Dismissed

Charges against two Guantanamo detainees accused of chauffeuring Osama bin Laden and allegedly killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan were dismissed Monday. In both cases, military judges ruled that only "unlawful" enemy combatants can be tried by the military trials. The ruling is a major setback for the Bush administration.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The prosecution of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay has been dealt another blow with military judges throwing out the only two war crimes cases that have been brought before tribunals. In separate rulings yesterday, judges said the U.S. has failed to established jurisdiction over the detainees there. The rulings could further undermine the Bush administration's efforts to try the hundreds of Guantanamo prisoners.

NPR'S Jackie Northam is in Guantanamo Bay and joins us. And Jackie, remind us just briefly who these two detainees are.

JACKIE NORTHAM: One of them is a 22-year-old Canadian named Omar Khadr and he was charged with the murder of a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, among other things. The other one was Salim Ahmed Hamdan and he's a Yemeni national who the military says was a bodyguard and a driver for Osama bin Laden.

MONTAGNE: Now, this ruling has nothing to do with whether these two are guilty or innocent, but it actually rests on one word in the law passed by Congress last year.

NORTHAM: It really does. The judges in both cases ruled that the charges against the men be thrown out because the military hadn't classified the men properly or to a standard that Congress said was required for the trials to move ahead.

The military designated both Hamdan and Khadr - and really, Renee, for that matter, everyone of the roughly 380 detainees here at Guantanamo to be enemy combatants. But a new law drawn up by Congress last year said the prisoners must be unlawful enemy combatants if they are to be tried in a military tribunal. So it is only one word, the word unlawful that was missing. But as one judge said, it just changes the standard - the term unlawful enemy combatant is more applicable to al-Qaida and the Taliban and terrorism, and that's what Congress wanted - with a more exacting definition of the detainee status. And the judges said the military just hadn't met that standard.

MONTAGNE: So are you saying it's not just a matter of semantics?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, initially, when the first ruling came down, the Khadr ruling came down, that was the government's initial response, the military's initial response. But by the late afternoon, when the second ruling came down the same way, it was pretty clear that there was a fundamental problem that the administration was going to have to address.

In the second trial, the judge, the Navy captain named Keith Allred, he gave a much more expansive reasoning into his decision and it became clear that if the Bush administration wants to move forward on trying these cases, there are going to have to be some changes made.

The prosecution said it, you know, it wanted to reserve the right to have a couple of days to decide if it wants to appeal. But the first judge said, fine, you can appeal. But as of yet there's no military appeals court set up for these Guantanamo tribunals. So the whole process is just stalled right now.

MONTAGNE: And those rulings affect on future prosecutions?

NORTHAM: Well, at the end of the day yesterday, the prosecution came out and made a brief statement saying that it really would be unwise to speculate about the future, to make any assumptions about the future of the commissions. But clearly something is going to have to change, because at this point it can't go forward. And one notion that came out yesterday is that the military could go back and re-designate the hundreds of detainees still held here so they did have that word unlawful in front of the, you know, enemy combatant and that. That would mean, you know, new hearings again. There might be other ways that the military can get around it, but you know, these are very early days after these rulings.

At the end of the day, Renee, it's fair to say that this has been a major setback for the Bush administration to try these men. And so far it's unclear how they are going to move forward to try and get the hearings up and running again.

MONTAGNE: Jackie, have there been reaction to these two rulings there in Guantanamo Bay?

NORTHAM: I think at best the reaction could be muted. You know, the defense really for all intents and purposes won its cases yesterday. All the charges against their clients were dismissed, but they certainly didn't come out and trumpet it that way. They just said, look, all this does is prove that this system has flaws, and these flaws have to be addressed before the whole thing moves forward. And the prosecution, you know, came out, as I said, made a very, very brief statement. So again, everything has just been very low key about this. You know, very surprising turn of events down here.

MONTAGNE: Jackie, thanks very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Jackie Northam in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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