Guantanamo trials seen soon, but not for big fish
Tuesday, September 12, 2006; 4:21 PM
MIAMI (Reuters) - The U.S. military has begun preparing charges against alleged September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other terrorism suspects recently moved to Guantanamo, the chief prosecutor for the tribunals said on Tuesday.
But dozens of other longtime Guantanamo detainees are likely to face trial well before the 14 "high-value" prisoners who were transferred to the U.S. base in Cuba from secret CIA prisons overseas earlier this month, said Air Force Col. Moe Davis, the lead prosecutor.
"The 14 new cases, we really are starting from scratch," Davis said. "We've got attorneys that are looking at the cases but obviously those are complex cases and it's early in the process. We've got a long way to go on those."
The war crimes trials at Guantanamo were halted when the U.S. Supreme Court in June rejected the tribunal system set up by President George W. Bush to try foreign terrorism suspects. They cannot resume until Congress passes a new law authorizing them, nor can new charges be filed.
Congress is negotiating over Bush administration proposals to allow the use of hearsay and secret evidence that would not be shown to the accused, some of the same rules that military defense attorneys called fundamental flaws in the original tribunal system.
With elections in November, Congress is under pressure to act before the pre-election recess and the tribunals' top lawyers expect there will be a deal.
"Everyone is on pins and needles to see it," said Marine Col. Dwight Sullivan, the military's chief defense lawyer for Guantanamo trials.
Once a law is passed, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's appointees would have 90 days to issue orders implementing the new procedures, so trials could resume as early as January or February.
"I think everyone's optimistic the legislation is going to go forward in some form and we will be back in business soon," Davis told Reuters in a telephone interview from Washington. "I would anticipate early in 2007 being back in court."
SOME CASES READY QUICKLY
Those likely to be tried first at Guantanamo are the 10 men already charged under the old tribunal system because they already have lawyers, who have had a chance to review much of the evidence, Davis said.
One of them, Canadian teen Omar Khadr, is charged with murdering a U.S. soldier during a firefight in Afghanistan, but none is accused of direct involvement in the September 11 attacks,
Charges against four other prisoners were ready to be filed when the Supreme Court ruled, and charges against an additional 20 are in various stages of development, Davis said.
"Those cases we had already begun, I believe we'll be able to recharge those pretty quickly," said Davis, who has asked the military to build a second courtroom at the Guantanamo base in anticipation of the trials ramping up.
Military defense lawyers are still visiting their clients at Guantanamo to prepare for trial, including a team that was meeting on Tuesday with Australian prisoner David Hicks, who was one of the first captives brought to Guantanamo when the camp opened in January 2002.
He is accused of fighting for al Qaeda in Afghanistan and seemed assured of passing the five-year mark at Guantanamo without a trial.
The 14 recently sent to Guantanamo from secret CIA prisons won't get military defense lawyers until after they are charged with crimes, Sullivan said.
In addition to Mohammed, they include alleged al Qaeda operations director Abu Zubaydah; Ramzi bin al Shaibah, who is accused of acting as an intermediary between al Qaeda leaders and the September 11 hijackers; and an Indonesian known as Hambali, who is accused of planning the 2002 bombings in Bali.