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 Friday, 22 March, 2002, 00:07 GMT
US defends al-Qaeda tribunals
Donald Rumsfeld explains the structure of the military commissions
Rumsfeld: Commissions uphold US traditions
The US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has defended as "fair and balanced" the procedures to be used in the trials of al-Qaeda and Taleban suspects in special military commissions.

Mr Rumsfeld laid out the structure of the commissions - which will be different both from the usual American civilian and military judiciary - to journalists in Washington.

We fear that in the proceedings undertaken by military commissions, justice may neither be done, nor seen to be done

William Shultz
Amnesty International
Human rights groups have expressed fears that justice may not be done in any future trials.

The New York-based group, Human Rights Watch, comments that Washington has condemned the use of military courts in other countries.

It says the US has criticised the use of military tribunals to try alleged terrorists in Egypt and also the convictions by military courts in Nigeria in 1995 which led to the executions of political activists like Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Mr Rumsfeld said that the evidence presented against the suspects would be "inclusive" - meaning it would include some kinds of evidence not usually admitted in an American court of law.

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

But Mr Rumsfeld said the commissions would be consistent both with America's national and security interests and "with its traditions of fairness and justice" and were the result of long deliberations within the Defence Department.

'Unique circumstances'

Defendants will have more rights than had originally been planned, though still fewer than in a standard court.

Evidence which a "reasonable person" would consider relevant will be allowed to be heard in the commissions.

A prisoner is moved by two Camp X-Ray guards
More than 300 suspects are being held at Guantanamo Bay
This is a looser standard than in American military and civilian courts and is likely to give prosecutors more room for manoeuvre than they would otherwise have.

Hearsay, or second hand, evidence will be permitted, as will materials where the chain of custody cannot be fully established.

Mr Rumsfeld said this was necessary due to the unique circumstances the war presents.

Defendants' rights

Those brought before the commissions will have the right to engage a civilian lawyer as well as the military one assigned to them at the cost of the government.

The death penalty can only be imposed by a unanimous vote of the military panel and will be subject to the approval of the president.

In other cases the panel will have to decide the defendant's guilt beyond reasonable doubt by a two-thirds majority.

And there will be an automatic right to appeal against the verdict, although it will be limited to a three-person hearing - unlike the court martial process which can go right to the Supreme Court.

There will also be better disclosure of evidence than had been originally planned and the media will have access, except where classified information is concerned.

Other rights include:

  • The presumption of innocence
  • The right not to testify or to incriminate themselves
  • Not being tried for the same crime twice

'Undermining justice'

The tribunals will apply to those held outside the United States, in particular to the 300 or so prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The world now will begin to see what we meant by a fair system that will enable us to bring people to justice [but] at the same time protect our citizenry

US President George Bush
The president will decide which suspects will be brought to trial but no decision as to which prisoners will face the tribunals, or when, is expected for several months.

Mr Shulz, of Amnesty International, criticised the military tribunals as likely to lead to miscarriages of justice.

"The commissions threaten to severely undermine, rather than reinforce, confidence in the administration of justice and maintenance of the rule of law," Amnesty International said in a statement.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Helen Simms
"A small number will stand trial at a military tribunal"

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20 Mar 02 | Americas
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