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Secret hearings begin for 14 terror suspects

March 10, 2007|From the Associated Press

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — The U.S. began a series of secret hearings Friday to determine whether 14 suspected terrorist leaders at its prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be declared "enemy combatants" who can be held indefinitely and prosecuted by military tribunals.

No details were released, and a military spokesman, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler, declined to identify which detainees appeared before the panel of three officers. Edited transcripts of the hearings at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba will be released later, Peppler said.

The 14 detainees, including a man the government suspects of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, were moved in September from a secret CIA prison network to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, where the U.S. holds about 385 men it suspects of links to Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Some are expected not to attend the proceedings, and their cases will be considered in absentia, Peppler said. "The evaluation of detainees is a robust and methodical process. We won't put a time limit on when they will be completed and decisions will be made."

The military allowed the media to cover previous hearings but this time has adopted more stringent rules, barring anyone without a special security clearance. The 14 detainees include Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks who was captured in Pakistan in March 2003, and other figures the U.S. government believes to be linked to Al Qaeda.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Mohammed was not among those who appeared before the panel Friday.

Legal experts have criticized the U.S. decision to bar independent observers from the hearings, and the Associated Press filed a letter of protest, arguing that it would be "an unconstitutional mistake to close the proceedings in their entirety."

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has agreed to free Abdullah bin Omar, a Tunisian being held at Guantanamo, an official for a London-based group working on behalf of prisoners said Friday.

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