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Last Updated: Friday, 6 August, 2004, 15:21 GMT 16:21 UK
US opens up Guantanamo tribunals
Room set up for tribunals at Guantanamo Bay
Part of the proceedings were open to journalists
Two Afghan men have denied being enemy fighters in appearances before US military tribunals reviewing the status of Guantanamo Bay detainees.

For the first time, the US allowed journalists to attend the hearings.

The men, both handcuffed and shackled, admitted they were with the Taleban but said they never fought US forces. Their requests to call witnesses were denied.

The US insists the process to determine whether the men are being held legally as enemy combatants is fair.

The tribunals, which have been running since Friday, were instigated after the US Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners could challenge their detentions.

I wasn't going to fight anyone
Afghan detainee

It is the first time any of the around 600 detainees, who have been held without trial or access to lawyers for more than two years, have been allowed any form of hearing.

Five of the 10 prisoners reviewed so far have refused to take part, but all will eventually go through the process even if they choose not to appear before the tribunals in person, the US authorities say.

Initial results could be given by next week, US officials say.

'I surrendered myself'

The BBC's Nick Childs was one of a small group of reporters allowed into a windowless small, cramped room at the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

US Navy Secretary Gordon England
England does not expect many inmates to be freed

Just a couple of metres from him was the slight, heavily bearded first Afghan detainee.

"He was handcuffed and his feet were shackled to the floor. He wore the normal orange prisoner clothing. All I can say in terms of identification is that he was a 31-year-old Afghan," our correspondent reports.

Three military officers and other officials heard a summary of the case against him:

  • that he was a Taleban member

  • that he was a soldier who had been given a weapon

  • that he had gone to the northern Afghan city of Kunduz to fight the Northern Alliance

  • and that he had been caught with a Taleban leader.

Speaking through an interpreter, the man denied being a fighter and said the Taleban gave everybody weapons.

"I surrendered myself to Americans because I believed Americans are for human rights," he said. "I had never heard Americans mistreated anybody in the past."

The detainee asked when he would know the decision and whether he would be sent back to his country.

'Witnesses irrelevant'

During the second hearing, the 49-year-old man argued through an interpreter that he had been forced to join the Taleban.

He said he had not fought and had not been trained to fight, but had been taken captive after Taleban leaders in the house he had been taken to surrendered.

Prisoner in cell at Guantanamo Bay
Almost 600 detainees are held at Guantanamo
He said he was kept in the house in Kunduz for about 20 days with an armed Taleban guard posted outside.

"We could not leave the compound. They [the Taleban] were sending people by numbers to fight," he said, adding that he was never called.

Both detainees asked for witnesses and each was denied by the tribunals on the grounds that they were not relevant to their particular deliberations, our correspondent says.

After this part of the hearings, journalists had to leave while officials reviewed classified information.

'No declared war'

The Pentagon decided to go ahead with the hearings after heavy pressure on the US defence department.

The man overseeing the prisoners' appeal process, Gordon England, has rejected claims that the process is flawed.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Guantanamo Bay is a mistake and sets an example that may well come back to haunt the US for a very long time
Simon, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Mr England told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the system was derived from the Geneva Convention.

"We are allowing the detainees to appear before the hearing and present their case, and we have a person to work with them," he said.

The detainees do not have lawyers, but "personal representatives" because it is an administrative not a legal proceeding, Mr England said.

He said detainees were being treated as enemy combatants, not prisoners of war which are entitled to certain legal rights, because "there's no declared war between countries".

If the tribunals, presided over by three military officers, find that a prisoner does not qualify as an enemy combatant, he may have to be freed.

Mr England conceded this, but said he did not expect "a very large number" to be released.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's David Loyn
"Human rights groups say these tribunals are not fair"



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