US defends Taliban Tribunals | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 22.03.2002
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US defends Taliban Tribunals

The US has toned down its original plans for military trials for al Qaeda fighters. But legal experts say the rules fall short of international legal norms.


Looking towards a bleak future - prisoners held at "Camp X-ray", Cuba

The food has improved, including lamb stew and honey cakes, more reading matter has been introduced and accomodations will become more comfortable in the near future.

Their situation may have improved. But despite Washington’s unveiling on Thursday of rules for future military trials for al Qaeda and Taliban captives, the future of the 300 detainees being held at the US naval Base in Guatanamo Bay is still far from clear.

The prisoners, captured during the US-led campaign against terror in Afghanistan and flown half away across the world to be locked up in chains at "Camp X-Ray", have been anxious to know just what is in store for them, US military officials said on Thursday.

Details on future military trials were disclosed by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Washington on Thursday. Rumsfeld announced plans that specified legal rights for defendants, including rules that suspects would be presumed innocent and a guilty verdict would require proof beyond a resonable doubt.

What appears to be a toned down version of the US’ original plans has been criticised by legal experts who say that some of the rules announced on Thursday fell short of international legal norms.

The limited right to appeal, lack of civilian review and the use of the death penalty have been major areas of concern for US military commissions who will be trying al Qaeda and Taliban fighters held at Guatanomo.

According to Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, "the overall architecture of the courts is likely to be problematic for many Europeans". However, he said the Bush administration had moved away from the "draconian" tone of the original rules issued last November which were met with strong criticism by western allies.

Under the new plans, two-thirds of the military panel of the military panel would be required to reach a guilty verdict, and an unanimous by the seven-meber panel would be needed to impose the death penalty. Most proceedings will be open to the media and defendants will be given a military lawyer or will be allowed a civilian lawyer at their own cost.

"Inherently discriminatory"

However, questions have risen as to why the Bush administration will nor allow defendants to appeal to a higher court such as the Court of Appeals for Armed Forces.

"Everyone has a right to appeal to a higher court, which is something found not only in the international convenant on civil and political rights but also in the Geneva Conventions", Vienna Colucci, international justice specialist from Amnesty International told Reuters.

She said the commissions were "inherently discriminatory" in that foreign nationals were under a lower standard of justice than US citizens. US Taliban fighter John Walker for example, is being tried in a federal court in Virginia, unlike fellow Taliban fighters held at the Naval Base in southeastern Cuba, who will be tried by military commissions.

The rules were developed without consulting Congress, something legal experts say contradicts seperation of powers, a centerpiece of the US constitution.

Lamb stew and pastries

Several hundred captives are being held at Guatanamo. A hunger strike among detainees was ignited last month when prisoners were prevented from wearing their own turbans. The strike, which involved up to 200 prisoners, has faded, but an underlying anxiety is still said to prevail.

Washington has faced international criticism over the US refusal to designate them as prisoners of war and over conditions in the camp. But the US insists it is teating the detainees humanely.

Conditions have improved in the recent months. The prisoners now have books in various languages, including the Koran, self-made turbans are allowed, although being subject to search, and the camp food even included lamb stew and pastries on a holy day some weeks ago. Detainees are given close medical attention.

And building has begun on a new prison block. Since their dentention four months ago, prisoners have been living in 2.5 metre by 2.5 metre sized open air cells. The new building whill have 408 cells, making room for around 2,000 captives.