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U.S. Prepares for Likely Military Tribunals of Terror Detainees

Leaders of prosecution and defense teams are named for possible trials this year.

May 23, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

In preparation for possible military tribunals in the war on terrorism, the government on Thursday named heads for its prosecution and defense teams and invited civilian attorneys to apply to represent prisoners detained by the U.S.

The announcement indicates that at least some of about 680 detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- and probably some of the high-profile captives being held in secret locations -- likely will stand accused in military tribunals this year.

Pentagon officials promised "to conduct full and fair military commissions for enemy combatants," but that process cannot officially begin until President Bush signs executive orders specifying that certain detainees go to trial.

"Although the president has not made a determination that anyone will stand trial by military commission, we have the responsibility to be ready should he make that decision," said the Pentagon's deputy general counsel, Paul Koffsky.

The Pentagon earlier detailed 18 war crimes and eight other offenses, including terrorism and the killing of civilians, as charges that could be handled by military tribunals. With that in mind, Army Col. Fred Borch, who was named to head the prosecution team, said he already is reviewing at least 10 possible cases.

But the new chief defense lawyer, Air Force Col. Will Gunn, said his team will work vigorously to ensure that detainees are given the best legal assistance possible. "We don't have a group of people who will roll over and go with whatever the prosecution presents," he said.

Thursday's developments came after mounting criticism, inside the administration and from civil liberties groups, that too many detainees have been held for too long without being granted a lawyer or access to their families. The first detainees on Guantanamo Bay arrived in January 2002.

Recently, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urged the Pentagon to speed up the process, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), in a new, separate letter to the administration, called for the prompt release of children and Taliban fighters picked up in Afghanistan.

Saying the war in Afghanistan ended with the installation of Hamid Karzai and his government, Kennedy wrote to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that "the United States no longer has the authority" to keep holding the prisoners.

"They should immediately be repatriated," he wrote in the letter, sent Tuesday.

Under Pentagon guidelines, the cases would be decided by a board of up to seven military officers serving equally as judge and jury. Convictions could be handed down by a majority vote. Any death sentence would have to carry a unanimous vote.

Gunn said he would strive to shield his defense team from political pressure during the tribunals, saying defense lawyers would work hard to ensure the proceedings are fair.

"We have a job to do," he said. "We believe in this nation and we believe in the values this nation espouses."

Borch promised that the tribunals would be tough, but fair.

"I can tell you that every single case that merits prosecution, that we're told to prosecute, we will prosecute," he said.

That includes many of the high-profile cases, he added, including that of Jose Padilla, an American citizen arrested in Chicago after allegedly returning to this country to scout out a target for a radioactive "dirty bomb."

Padilla, like the others, has not been charged, and he remains locked up in a Navy brig. Speaking about the Padilla case, Borch said, "I can't speak for what the president might or might not do, or what advice he might be getting."

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