Inside a Gitmo review
A Saudi detainee faces military panel, without seeing a lawyer or evidence, that decides his fate
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - Handcuffed, with his bare feet shackled to the floor, the young, bearded Saudi glared at a group of military officials as one of them listed reasons he should still be considered an enemy combatant, too dangerous to release from the maximum-security detention camp here.
"Why can't I hear the classified [evidence] against me?" the prisoner repeatedly demanded in Arabic, said an interpreter who translated his words into sometimes flawed English. "I don't have no knowledge of the terrorists or their organizations. I wasn't never an enemy for the Americans."
When a Marine colonel leading the proceedings said security concerns prevented him from sharing the classified information, the detainee began rattling his chains. "This is a play!" he shouted. "You are a dog ... a criminal!"
The exchange Tuesday in a windowless room was part of what the Pentagon calls an administrative review, a procedure similar to a parole hearing in which it decides two things: Do the detainees continue to pose a threat to the United States and its allies, or are they of sufficient intelligence value to keep at this controversial outpost in the war on terror - or both? Those deemed to be neither are eligible for release.
Like almost everything these days at Guantanamo, whose continued existence was the topic of a stormy debate Wednesday in the U.S. Congress, the reviews are stirring up a political storm.
Pentagon officials say the reviews, which began in earnest in February and are to be held annually for each detainee, are the best way to weed innocents from the pool of foreign prisoners rounded up after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The hearings "balance the fairness to the detainee with the fairness to U.S. citizens, to make sure individuals who are a huge threat aren't still on the streets," said Navy Capt. Eric Kaniut, who oversees the process.
Critics counter that they deny detainees the minimal legal rights that international conventions guarantee war prisoners. "The administrative review boards are a farce - nonsense built on stilts," said Eric Freedman, a Hofstra Law School professor who advises attorneys representing Guantanamo detainees.
Among detractors' concerns:
Lawyers are barred from representing prisoners at the reviews. Instead, prisoners are assigned a military officer with no legal training.
Neither detainees nor defense lawyers - if they have any - can see classified evidence the military is using to consider their cases.
The detainees can't call witnesses.
The name tags of all military officials involved in the reviews, including the three board members who examine the evidence, are taped over for security.
The Pentagon has decided some cases but won't say how many or how it ruled. So far, no detainees who have undergone reviews have been released.
The procedures used last year to define Guantanamo prisoners as enemy combatants in the first place were conducted in a similar fashion and their constitutionality is under appeal in federal court.
Military officials argue that, as foreign-born prisoners, the detainees aren't entitled to forms of due process that are required in U.S. courts. They say lawyers can't attend because the procedures are administrative rather than legal, and the classified information could divulge investigative secrets that would weaken the war on terror.
Many lawyers believe the reviews are designed intentionally to hide flimsy evidence against many of Guantanamo's 520-odd prisoners, only four of whom have been charged.
Kristine Huskey, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, obtained the documents read aloud at reviews summarizing the primary unclassified factors for and against freeing two Kuwaiti detainees. In one case, she said, the arguments against release included assertions that "the detainee often complains about President [George W.] Bush and the U.S. Government" and "has been a regular leader of prayer and continually physically trains in his cell."
"For that they should lock me and a lot of my friends up," said Huskey, though she acknowledged the detainee also has more serious allegations against him that she disputes, including being a spiritual adviser to Osama Bin Laden.
In the case of the other Kuwaiti, a professional volleyball player, the factors supporting release didn't mention numerous affidavits submitted from relatives and teammates insisting the prisoner had never shown any zealous or anti-American behavior, Huskey said.
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