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THE NATION

2 Afghan Detainees Plead Cases Before Tribunals

The military hearings at Guantanamo Bay are the first to be open to the media. The Pentagon keeps a tight lid on information.

August 06, 2004|From Associated Press

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Two Afghan prisoners, their hands bound and feet chained to the floor, pleaded for their freedom Thursday before U.S. military tribunals. The hearings were the first open to observers.

The first detainee, who has been held for 2 1/2 years, spoke quietly through an interpreter to declare he had a Taliban-issued rifle but never fought against Americans.

"I surrendered myself to Americans because I believed Americans are for human rights," the 31-year-old prisoner said. "I had never heard Americans mistreated anybody in the past."

The other prisoner, 49, also speaking through an interpreter, said he was a wood seller who was forced to join the hard-line Islamic militia. "The Taliban came to my house and they took me," the man said.

Thursday's hearings, held in a windowless room in a trailer, were the ninth and 10th since the tribunal process began a week ago to determine whether 585 men being held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba should be detained as "enemy combatants" or set free.

Though the media was admitted for the first time, the military kept a tight lid on information. No identities of prisoners were to be made public, and all testimony was being checked for classified information.

The hearings are the first opportunity prisoners have had to plead their cases since being detained in January 2002. Human rights lawyers call the tribunals a sham, pointing out that the detainees are not allowed lawyers and saying the officers hearing cases cannot be considered impartial.

The review panels have the power to reverse assessments that some detainees are enemy combatants, a classification that carries fewer legal protections than "prisoner of war." The process is separate from upcoming military commissions where prisoners will face charges, trial and possible sentences including the death penalty.

All prisoners are accused of links to Afghanistan's fallen Taliban regime or the Al Qaeda terrorist network, although some observers have said a number of foot soldiers are among the detainees. More than 100 prisoners have been freed or transferred to their home governments.

Each detainee is being assigned a military officer as a "personal representative" for the reviews.

Defense lawyers argue that the officers are acting as government agents and are not impartial.

The military convened the Combatant Status Review Tribunals in response to a Supreme Court ruling in June that said prisoners had a right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts. It is not clear if the reviews meet the court's requirements.

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