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Last Updated: Friday, 4 July, 2003, 14:22 GMT 15:22 UK
US terror trials condemned
Inmates at Guantanamo Bay
There are at least 680 people being held at Guantanamo Bay

Human rights groups have expressed outrage at the planned use of military tribunals to try terror suspects being held in Guantanamo Bay.

There are at least 680 suspected al-Qaeda and Taleban members at the US naval base in Cuba.

President Bush decided on Thursday that six of them, including Britons Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi and Australian David Hicks should face trial in a military tribunal rather than in a regular court.

But the decision has been criticised by human rights group who say the tribunals are a "legal black hole".

Neil Durkin, a spokesman for the human rights organisation Amnesty International said the detainees could not have a fair trial.

"It is being done outside the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court without the protection of the US constitution," he told BBC News Online.

"They will have no entitlement to lawyers unless they, or their governments can afford them. It's irregular, improper and concerning."

'Fewer safeguards'

There are a number of important differences between military tribunals and civilian courts:

  • Convictions in civilian courts must be unanimous, while military tribunals could convict by a two-thirds majority.

  • Different rules of evidence apply, with lower standards for admission.

  • Defendants are not guaranteed the right to appeal against convictions in military tribunals.

  • Civilian trials must be open to the public, military tribunals can be held in secret.

Some critics of military tribunals warn that, in general, many of the protections afforded to defendants in civilian courts do not necessarily apply in military tribunals.

But US Department of Defense guidelines for "War on Terror" tribunals specify that defendants have the right to a lawyer, to know the charges against them, and to examine the evidence, among other safeguards guaranteed in civilian courts.

However Colonel Will Gunn, the chief defence lawyer in military trials, said he would push for the proceedings to be as open as possible, saying the US would be judged on the fairness of the process.


Another key difference between the two types of trials is that legally, military tribunals are not courts - they are military commissions, which is why different standards apply.

Mr Durkin said he was concerned about what evidence might be used by the tribunals.

Terror suspects Feroz Abbasi (l) and Moazzam Begg (r)
Feroz Abbasi and Moazzam Begg are among those facing the tribunals
"If you have been held for over a year in legal limbo and you have been interrogated, then you have to worry very much that 'evidence' is going to be brought before the military tribunal that has been extracted out of individuals," he said.

"We want no use of material taken from people under those circumstances. We think it should be thrown out."

Mr Durkin also pointed out that Guantanamo inmates could face the death penalty.

"We don't think governments around the world have spoken up strongly enough.

"We urge the UK Government to strenuously object to any British national, or indeed any national, facing execution following the proceedings at Guantanamo Bay."

A country at war?

Defenders of military tribunals argue that the US is at war with terrorists, and that in times of war, enemy aliens are never afforded the protections of the US legal system.

But Mr Durkin rejected that argument, as many of the Guantanamo Bay inmates had not been caught on the battlefields.

"We have never seen the rationale for this to be a military court," he said.

"Moazzam Begg is one example of the men who were taken from all around the world, he was swept up in a US sweep in Pakistan.

"The military argument doesn't hold."

Six people out of over 600 are to be tried and the rules have to be fixed, otherwise there might be no convictions
Stephen Jakobi
Fair Trials Abroad
Stephen Jakobi, director of the British pressure group Fair Trials Abroad, said his concerns over the use of tribunals related to the most fundamental concepts of international law.

"After 18 months, six people out of over 600 are to be tried and the rules have to be fixed, otherwise there might be no convictions," he said.

"The US Department of Defence will appoint the judges and prosecutors, control the defence and make up the rules of the trial.

"It appears to have only one objective - to secure a conviction.

"If they were prepared to take these people to American soil and try them under normal US prosecution, the evidence wouldn't stand up."

The BBC's Frank Gardner
"Azmat Begg says his son is no terrorist"

Bush approves terror suspect trials
04 Jul 03  |  Americas
Analysis: Military tribunals
04 Mar 03  |  Americas

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