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Lawyer says Rumsfeld "messed up" Guantanamo trials

Reuters | April 8 2006

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his appointees set rules that violate President George W. Bush's order to hold fair trials for prisoners charged with terrorism in the Guantanamo tribunals, a military defense lawyer said on Friday.

"We can't help it that the secretary of defense and his delegees (sic) have messed this thing up, but they have," military lawyer Army Maj. Tom Fleener told the presiding officer at one of the hearings.

"If the rules don't provide for a full and fair trial, then they violate the president's order."

Fleener was trying to persuade the presiding officer, Col. Peter Brownback, to let a Yemeni defendant act as his own attorney on charges of conspiring to attack civilians and destroy property.

Tribunal rules set by the Pentagon require the defendants to have U.S. military lawyers who are authorized to see secret evidence that the accused may not be allowed to view. Pentagon officials have refused to allow self-representation, which Fleener called a fundamental right in nearly every court on Earth.

Fleener was appointed to defend Ali Hamza al Bahlul, an acknowledged al Qaeda member charged with conspiring to commit terrorism by acting as Osama bin Laden's bodyguard and making al Qaeda recruiting videos.

Bahlul refuses to cooperate with any lawyer appointed by the U.S. military. He asked to act as his own attorney or to have a Yemeni lawyer, and declared a boycott when the request was denied during an earlier hearing. He did not attend his hearing on Friday at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Fleener said Bahlul cannot get a fair trial unless the rules change. "As the world looks at this system, it's going to have no legitimacy whatsoever," he said.

TRIBUNALS CRITICIZED

Two other defendants have also asked to act as their own attorneys. The prosecution agrees they should have that right, said the chief prosecutor, Col. Moe Davis.

"Give him the opportunity. If he screws it up, then he had his opportunity," Davis said of Bahlul.

Bush created the tribunals to try foreign terrorist suspects after the September 11 attacks, and directed Rumsfeld and his delegates to draft rules that ensure full and fair trials while protecting national security.

The chief prosecutor said those requirements had been met and described some of the angry courtroom complaints from defense attorneys as theatrical performances.

"The presiding officers have bent over backwards to protect the accused," Davis said.

Military defense lawyers and human rights groups have called the tribunals fundamentally unfair and stacked to ensure convictions. The U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to their legitimacy last month and is expected to rule by the end of June on whether the trials can proceed.

Defense lawyers say other Pentagon rules violate Bush's order, including one that gives only the presiding officer the right to act essentially as judge, rather than all the tribunal members sharing that role.

Ten of the 490 Guantanamo detainees have been charged by the tribunals and would face life in prison if convicted. Four had pretrial hearings this week, including 19-year-old Canadian Omar Khadr, who is accused of murdering a U.S. soldier by throwing a grenade at him in Afghanistan.

Khadr threatened on Wednesday to boycott the tribunal to protest his move from group housing to a solo cell where it was more difficult to meet with his lawyers.

His attorneys said on Friday they had received assurances from prison camp officials that the move was not punitive. They said Khadr agreed to participate in future proceedings.

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