Guantanamo detainees to get hearings once a year

USA TODAY
May 19, 2004, Wednesday, FIRST EDITION
BYLINE: Tom Squitieri and Toni Locy
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 10A
LENGTH: 527 words
DATELINE: WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is beginning annual reviews of foreign detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to determine whether they should be considered as potential terrorists or released, the Defense Department announced Tuesday.

The review program is aimed in part at addressing complaints by some human rights groups, released detainees and U.S. allies that the United States has unfairly incarcerated many of the 595 men who are being held at Guantanamo after being captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere during the war on terrorism. The detainees have not had access to lawyers or hearings since they began arriving more than two years ago.

The Bush administration’s policy of indefinitely holding detainees for interrogations at the U.S. military base in Cuba drew sharp questions last month from Supreme Court justices. In a case that asks whether Guantanamo detainees should have access to U.S. courts to challenge their detentions, justices asked government lawyers how the administration was making sure that it was not holding any innocent people. The justices were told that a review policy was in the works.

Under the Pentagon’s plan, all but six of the Guantanamo detainees will be reviewed by boards of at least three military officers. The six exceptions are men whom President Bush has designated as eligible for trial by military tribunals.

Each detainee will be assigned a military officer to help him prepare for a hearing. At the hearing, the detainee will be allowed to make his case for release, and his family and home nation may submit written testimony. The hearing will be closed to the public because of national security concerns, officials said.

None of the military officers involved is required to be a lawyer. At least one of the review board’s members, however, must have intelligence experience.

Human rights activists said the rules fall short of providing the detainees with the rights they already should have.

“This really is an attempt to place a veneer of legitimacy on a policy that remains otherwise unchanged,” said Wendy Patten, U.S. advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

Vienna Colucci of Amnesty International said many of the detainees should be released because “active hostilities in Afghanistan have ended. They should be charged with a crime or released.”

After reviewing a detainee’s status, the review board will make a recommendation to a top civilian official at the Defense Department, who will be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The board’s recommendations will not be made public. If a detainee is found to no longer pose a threat or is deemed to be of no intelligence value, he could be released. Otherwise, he could remain at Guantanamo or be sent to a prison in his homeland.

The Bush administration has drawn international criticism for labeling the Guantanamo detainees as “unlawful enemy combatants,” who it says do not have to prisoner-of-war rights under the Geneva Conventions.

Officials say enemy combatants can be held as long as the war on terrorism lasts — in essence, indefinitely — to keep them from taking part in attacks.