Detainees held in U.S. custody at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will learn of their legal rights for the first time beginning Monday as part of a Pentagon plan to determine how many of the prisoners are enemy combatants and who should be set free, officials said yesterday.
The Pentagon yesterday offered a preliminary outline of a new tribunal process developed in the wake of a June 28 Supreme Court decision that allows detainees to challenge their imprisonment in federal courts. But the new process doesn't immediately grant the nearly 600 detainees at Guantanamo access to lawyers, and it is unclear how detainees will assert their rights while imprisoned at a remote base in another country.
Gordon England, secretary of the Navy, said a military tribunal process to evaluate the status of detainees held as enemy combatants in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks could begin within a few weeks. Detainees will first be told of their rights to contest their detention, to seek a writ of habeas corpus and to meet with a personal representative who will be their advocate throughout the military process.
England said the tribunals' underlying principle will be to see if each detainee should be released to his home country, and he said detainees will have the opportunity to present witnesses or affidavits to support their claims for freedom. It is unclear what access detainees will have to witnesses in their home countries, and England said it is likely that most witnesses will testify via affidavits.
Detainees should learn of their rights -- there will be an effort to present written notifications in as many as 17 languages -- by the end of next week. They will then be assigned a military officer with a rank of at least major to represent them in navigating the tribunals, and England said efforts will be made to ensure that the representatives remain "neutral."
England said the military will move quickly to examine all detainees, hoping the process will be completed within 120 days.
"Speed is of the essence," England said at a Pentagon briefing. "But the first principle is to do this correctly. That is, do it fairly, make sure we have the right standards, make sure it's well documented, but also do it as quickly as we can."
The plan met with quick criticism, with defense attorneys calling the internal process a way for the military to delay habeas corpus claims from reaching federal courts and public scrutiny. The tribunals also will be entirely controlled by the Pentagon, which has been asserting for years that each detainee is an enemy combatant and can be held indefinitely without charges or access to lawyers.
"For a detainee to be released under this process, this would require the military to determine that they've been wrong for years," said Rachel Meerapol, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents dozens of Guantanamo detainees. "They feel rigged toward a certain outcome. I find it impossible to believe that a branch of government that has been saying for 21/2 years that we've been able to hold these people can fairly decide whether they are enemy combatants."
Meerapol also said the Supreme Court decision in Rasul v. Bush requires the government to allow detainees to be represented by legal counsel. To date, none of the detainees has been allowed to meet with lawyers, and England said he expects that something will have to be worked out to allow groups of detainees to meet with groups of lawyers, although no details have been devised.