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by William Fisher

Gitmo Detainees Mark Five Years in Limbo

(IPS) -- As Australian David Hicks was sentenced to seven years behind bars as the first Guantanamo detainee convicted under the Military Commissions Act, human rights groups, legal scholars and some lawmakers are condemning the entire MCA process and again challenging its constitutionality both in the courts and in Congress.

Earlier this week, Hicks, 31, pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorists. He faced life imprisonment, but it was believed that the U.S. may have struck a deal with the pro-Bush administration of Australian Prime Minister John Howard to have a lighter sentence imposed and to allow Hicks to serve his sentence in Australia. Howard is facing a tough campaign for re-election and the Hicks prosecution has become a major campaign issue. The court ruled that Hicks will serve only 9 months, and in an Australian prison.

Hicks, sometimes referred to as "the Australian Taliban," has been in custody at Guantanamo for over five years. He was seized by the U.S. military in Afghanistan in 2001 after being turned over by the Afghan Northern Alliance, a warlord-led organization that was helping the U.S. military.

In many known cases, the Alliance received bounty payments for turning over alleged terrorists and their sympathizers. The practice has resulted in the detention of a number if prisoners at Guantanamo later found to be innocent and freed. However, some of those found innocent are still being held at the Cuban base.

For most of his time in detention, Hicks was charged with no crime, and given only sporadic and restrictive access to lawyers and to his family.

Hicks' trial has been characterized as something of a legal circus, with the colonel in charge of the court leaving many with the impression that the rules and procedures of these new bodies are still unclear.

At one point in the trial, the presiding judge, Col. Ralph Kohlmann, ruled that one of Hicks' civilian lawyers, Joshua Dratel, could not represent Hicks because he had not signed a form demanded by the court saying he would conform to the regulations governing proceedings.

Dratel protested, saying he could not sign the form because the regulations governing the conduct of attorneys had not yet been formulated by the secretary of defense. He said he was not going to sign a blank cheque for his ethical obligations.

Among Judge Kohlmann's other rulings was that an assistant to Hick's military counsel, Marine Major Michael Mori, could not represent him because she was not a serving member of the military.

The judge also ruled in his own favour when Major Mori attempted to argue that judge Kohlmann was not impartial because he had not only effectively ruled against Hicks's defense team, but had also tried to schedule the hearing at a time when Hicks's civil lawyer was unavailable.

The judge refused to follow the defense's suggested schedule of hearings, saying it would mean that the trial would not get underway until 2008.

Hicks offered no plea during Monday's proceedings. But late the same night, his lawyers notified the court he would plead guilty to one of the two charges against him -- providing material support for terrorists. He entered no plea on the second charge -- that he took part in paramilitary combat with the intent of killing U.S. and Coalition troops.

As the Hicks prosecution draws to a close, the way in which it proceeded is being roundly criticized by human rights organizations, legal authorities and some lawmakers.

"David Hicks has been detained for more than five years at Guantanamo without trial and with very limited access to his family and attorneys. He claims to have been subjected to torture and other abuses while imprisoned, but lacks the critical right to habeas corpus to challenge this treatment," Mary Shaw of Amnesty International told IPS.

At the heart of that process is the Military Commissions Act (MCA), which was signed into law by President Bush on Oct. 17, 2006. The act was the second attempt by the Bush administration to strip detainees of their statutory right of access to civilian courts by using habeas corpus to question the legality of their detention.

This right has been twice affirmed by the Supreme Court, first in a landmark case, Rasul v. Bush in 2004, and later in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld in 2006. The act also allows for evidence obtained through torture -- a violation of the Geneva Conventions -- and greatly widens the scope of who the president can label an "enemy combatant."

The sentiments of Brian J. Foley, a professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law and a widely recognized constitutional lawyer, are typical of large numbers of attorneys. He told IPS, "As these 'trials' get underway, the paucity of thinking that went into their design is emerging for even the dimmest-witted to see."

"The basic problem underlying all the tribunals at Guantanamo is that the rules are rigged for easy U.S. 'victories,'" he said. "But when we let tribunals use coerced confessions and hearsay, and when we make it hard for defendants to call witnesses and cross-examine, the joke is on us. At the end of the day, we cannot know if the people the tribunals say are terrorists are really terrorists at all, or if the plots they confess to participating in are not merely fantasies."

Court cases challenging the conditions of detention have been brought by lawyers representing or being coordinated by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based legal advocacy group that has mobilized hundreds of private attorneys to defend Guantanamo detainees. The CCR has again filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the MCA, particularly of the suspension of habeas corpus. If the Supreme Court decides to hear the case again, arguments would probably be heard in the spring.

On Mar. 22, Republican Senator Arlen Specter submitted an amicus brief to the Court in support of the CCR's petition urging yet another court review.

"Congress has struggled with the important constitutional questions presented in these cases," he wrote. "The arguments have been aired and re-aired. The time is ripe for this Court to address the constitutional infirmity of the MCA's attempt to curtail the right of habeas corpus."

Sen. Specter, a former U.S. attorney, is the ranking member of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over legislation such as the MCA. He was the committee's chairman when the act was passed, but became its leading minority member when control of the Senate passed to the Democrats as a result of the 2006 election.

Specter, considered a moderate Republican, is locked in what promises to be an epic battle within the Congress to amend to MCA in order to restore habeas corpus rights to detainees through the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act of 2007.

His principal adversary is Sen. Lindsey Graham, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, and one of the principal authors of the MCA legislation. Graham maintains that no war prisoner or "enemy combatant" has ever enjoyed the right to come before a U.S. civil court to question the basis of his detention.

The proposed new law is being strongly supported by human rights groups and legal scholars.

"The military commissions are illegal under U.S. and international law for many reasons, most important that they allow the admission of evidence obtained through torture and other coercion," said a CCR spokesperson.

"This is the first military commission to be held -- out of 800 detainees, only 10 were ever designated to be charged and that number has dropped to three at present. There remain 385 men at Guantanamo that the government has never shown it had a reason to hold, who have been held indefinitely with no hope of being able to prove their innocence."

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Albion Monitor   March 31, 2007   (

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