The Pentagon took an important step yesterday toward starting the first U.S. military tribunals since World War II, naming the officers who will decide the fate of the three Guantanamo Bay prisoners charged by the United States.
The Pentagon formally referred the three cases to a single tribunal comprised of a presiding officer, retired Army Col. Peter E. Brownback III, and four other officers, but did not set trial dates. Maj. Michael Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman, said officials hoped to have a case tried by the end of the year.
"It's an important step. Having the presiding officer will get the process moving," added Maj. John Smith, a military lawyer and Pentagon spokesman on the tribunals, formally known as military "commissions."
U.S. officials say the defendants -- David Hicks of Australia, Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al Bahlul of Yemen and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi of Sudan -- are al Qaeda members.
The Pentagon's move came a day after the Supreme Court decided the Guantanamo Bay prisoners could in U.S. courts challenge their confinement. Military lawyers assigned by the Pentagon to represent the three defendants said the ruling could bolster court challenges to the legality of the tribunals.
The trials will be conducted at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the United States is detaining about 595 foreign terrorism suspects, including the three defendants.
Officials said it likely will be a month or two before trial dates are set. It was not determined which defendant would be tried first, they added. The Pentagon did not identify the other panel members.
Army Maj. Mark A. Bridges, who represents al Bahlul, said he has spoken to his client only once because the government has not approved a new interpreter after the first proved unqualified. "It seems to me that the government's putting more effort into getting the case referred to trial than they are in getting me the basic necessities to defend my client," Bridges said.
Two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush authorized military commission trials of non-U.S. citizens caught in the global war on terrorism.
Human rights groups have condemned the process, saying the rules favor the prosecution and do not permit independent judicial review. The Pentagon has promised "full and fair" trials.
Al Bahlul and al Qosi, both described as close associates and former bodyguards for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, were charged in February with a single count each of conspiracy to commit war crimes. Hicks, a convert to Islam accused of joining al Qaeda, this month was charged with three counts: conspiracy to commit war crimes, attempted murder by an unprivileged belligerent and aiding the enemy.
The Pentagon has said it does not plan to seek the death penalty against the three.