In this April 6, 2006 file photo of a drawing by AP sketch artist Janet Hamlin,… (Janet Hamlin / Associated…)
Rocked by allegations of political meddling and misconduct, the war crimes tribunal at Guantanamo Bay announced Tuesday that charges had been dropped against five terrorism suspects the Pentagon had said were dangerous Al Qaeda operatives.
The Pentagon said all five had ties to Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi-born militant thought to have served as a recruiter for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Zubaydah has never been indicted, but he reportedly provided evidence against the five men, which led to them being charged with conspiracy and material support for terrorism.
Four of the men, whose charge sheets were expunged from the Pentagon's records even before the dismissals were announced, have been accused of being accomplices of "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla, who was convicted last year on identical charges in federal district court in Miami.
Susan J. Crawford, a Pentagon judge overseeing the Office of Military Commissions, gave no reason for dropping the cases.
In an announcement, tribunal spokesman Joseph DellaVedova said the charges were dismissed without prejudice, meaning they could be refiled later.
The five men will remain imprisoned as "enemy combatants." They are Binyam Mohammed, an Ethiopian-born British resident; Ghassan Abdullah Sharbi, a Saudi who told the war crimes tribunal in 2006 that he had proudly committed the acts for which he is accused; Sufyiam Barhoumi, an Algerian and alleged bomb-maker who lost a hand in an explosion; Jabran Said bin Qahtani, a Saudi and purported accomplice of the other three; and Noor Uthman Muhammed, a Sudanese accused of training terrorism recruits for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Defense lawyers said prosecutors cast the move as procedural, contending that they needed more time to prepare for trial after the resignation last month of an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who complained that the legal process had been corrupted.
Lt. Col. Darrel J. Vandeveld became at least the fourth prosecutor to step down, citing political intrusion or withholding of evidence from defense lawyers.
Lawyers for two of the men speculated that the Pentagon might be attempting to clear the war crimes court -- before the Nov. 4 elections -- of prosecutions expected to be difficult if evidence obtained through coercion cannot be introduced.
Bush administration officials have conceded that Zubaydah was subjected to the interrogation technique known as waterboarding.
The practice, which simulates drowning to the verge of death, has been condemned worldwide.
None of the trials could be completed before a new president is inaugurated, and both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have said they want to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and war crimes court.
"My hope would be that this doesn't survive the election and we recognize the commissions process for what it is: a historical aberration and an embarrassment that should be put behind us as soon as possible," said Army Lt. Col. Bryan Broyles, a defense lawyer for Qahtani.
Even former administration officials have looked askance at the moves of tribunal administrators.
"One of the purposes of the commissions is to convince the world and the American public that there are bad people at Guantanamo and that Al Qaeda is a discredited organization," said Vijay Padmanabhan, a former State Department lawyer responsible for detainee affairs who now teaches the law of war at Yeshiva University in New York.
"When you announce charges and cancel them without explanation, you undermine your ultimate goal."
Binyam Mohammed's lawyer, human rights activist Clive Stafford Smith, said the dropped charges were deceptive.
"Military prosecutors have told us that they are going to refile charges in about 30 days," Stafford Smith said.
He speculated that prosecutors wanted to prevent Vandeveld from being subpoenaed to testify about the withholding of evidence.
"What they're trying to do is neutralize his ability to be called as a witness," Stafford Smith said.
Human rights advocates pointed to the dismissed charges as further evidence of Guantanamo Bay's dysfunction and its denial of due process.
"The implosion of these five prosecutions painfully underscores how the Bush administration's torture and detention policies have failed to render justice in any sense of the word," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.