March 22, 2002

Rules for Military Terror Trials Set, Criticized

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The United States on Thursday unveiled rules for expected military trials of some al Qaeda and Taliban captives in the war on terror and quickly blew up a storm of criticism over defendant rights.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the ``commissions'' would be different from traditional military courts-martial, but critics assailed rules that did not provide for defendants to appeal convictions to civilian courts.

Few of the 500-plus al Qaeda guerrillas and Taliban fighters captured in Afghanistan and now held by the U.S. military are expected to face military trials.

Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference that President Bush had not selected any captives for trial. The secretary did not say where such trials might be held.

Those facing trial would be presumed innocent, would have the right to avoid self incrimination and would be provided military counsel, he said.

The juries, which could impose the death penalty for certain crimes, would include up to seven members of the military. Rumsfeld would name a three-member military panel to review decisions and Bush could appoint civilians to briefly join the armed forces and serve on review panels.

Two-thirds of a jury would be enough to convict, but a unanimous vote would be required for the death penalty.

Bush, who authorized the military trials after the Sept. 11 attacks on America, would have to give final approval to any death sentences.

``Most people will find that, taken together,are fair and balanced and justice will be served in their application,'' Rumsfeld said.


The military trials have caused concern among some countries, especially in Europe where European Union nations oppose capital punishment. Amnesty International and other civil rights groups raised objections on Thursday because convictions would go only to the military review board and not to civilian courts.

``We fear that in the proceedings undertaken by military commissions, justice may neither be done, nor seen to be done,'' said William Shulz, the executive director of Amnesty International USA.

Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith stressed the rules, while different from both civilian and traditional military trials, were extremely fair at a time when America was fighting those bent on killing civilians.

``We are ... fighting a war that is going to last for a long time and we want to try to bring justice to some of these individuals while the war is still under way,'' he said.

Despite insistence by Rumsfeld and Bush that the procedure would be fair, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York demanded to know how the government would ``guarantee an independent appeal process.''

``Secretary Rumsfeld highlighted that the regulations are consistent with U.S. traditions of fairness and justice,'' said Michael Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York.

``These traditions include independent judicial review by an independent judiciary -- and that's absent here. Defendants cannot appeal to the civilian courts,'' added Posner.


Addressing journalists' fears the trials might be closed to coverage, Defense Department General Counsel Jim Haynes said reporters would be given access in most cases except when top-secret material was being discussed.

He also suggested that while the rules did not provide for appeal to civilian courts, lawyers for convicted defendants might file such appeals.

Asked how similar the trials might be to Nuremberg war crimes trials of Nazis after World War Two, Haynes said there were some similarities but ``these procedures frankly are much more detailed and in many respects are more generous (in their defendants rights) than what was done at Nuremberg.''

Bush and other administration officials insisted the rules were less stringent than some critics had feared, but the American Civil Liberties Union argued the prisoners captured in the war in Afghanistan could be denied due process rights.

The new rules sparked different reactions in Congress, where House Armed Services Committee Chairman Bob Stump, an Arizona Republican, and ranking Democratic member Ike Skelton of Missouri praised the commissions.

``They support the fundamental values of fairness and due process,'' they said in a statement.

But Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan countered, ''They (the Pentagon and White House) just want to get easier convictions.''

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who criticized initial plans for the military trials several months ago, on Thursday praised the Pentagon for moving away from the strict Uniform Code of Military Justice, which governs military courts-martial.

``I am pleased that the administration is moving forward with rules on military tribunals which provide a balance to convict the guilty and to protect the rights of defendants,'' said Specter, a former district attorney.

Copyright 2002. Reuters. All rights reserved.

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