Proceedings Begin for Suspected Afghan Terrorist
By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service
NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, April 4, 2006 Preliminary hearings began here today for an Afghan man accused of working as a translator and accountant for al Qaeda in Afghanistan and involvement in a grenade attack that injured three journalists in March 2002.
Abdul Zahir appeared in court wearing a dress shirt and khaki pants and talked and laughed with his translator and military attorney before proceedings began.
An issue arose immediately when the presiding officer found out that written charges had been submitted to Zahir in English, Arabic and Pashtu, but Zahir's native language is Farsi. Marine Col. Robert S. Chester, the presiding officer -- akin to a judge in civilian proceedings -- ordered the prosecution to provide written charges translated into Farsi. The defense indicated they were ready to proceed, because the charges had been verbally translated for Zahir.
The defense's translator provided translation for the hearing, because a military commissions translator was not available. An audio tape of the translation will be provided to a commissions translator for verification, Chester said.
Much of today's proceedings focused on "voir dire" of Chester by the defense team. Voir dire is the questioning process used to determine the suitability of the officer to oversee a fair trial.
During questioning, Chester said that he has been and will continue to pay attention to the news, particularly looking for stories about military commissions. This is a lesson Chester said he learned from another case he's overseeing in which comments made at a news conference by the chief prosecutor led to a defense claim that the case and the defendant's reputation were damaged. After an extra hearing, Chester ruled that the comments did not affect the case.
For Zahir's case, Chester said he will pay attention to media coverage so if issues arise they can be dealt with early, and possible biases or delays in proceedings can be avoided. "Both sides are entitled to a full and fair trial," he said. "It's important when they come in here that they have an open mind about the issues they're trying to decide."
Chester, who extended a year beyond retirement to serve on the commissions, also said that international law, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and federal criminal law will be applicable to the commissions process as a whole. The procedures for military commissions are still being refined, he said, and those areas would be the natural places to look to fill in gaps.
During the hearing, Chester asked for pleas from Zahir but did not require him to answer after the defense asked for more time to prepare pleas and pretrial motions.
Zahir's attorneys will be traveling to Afghanistan to prepare for the case, and Chester told them to discuss a possible trial date while they are gone. If the prosecution and defense can't agree on a date, the commission will convene the week of July 10 to set a date, Chester said.
According to the charges against him, Zahir worked as a translator and money courier for an al Qaeda commander and accountant in 1997. In this capacity, Zahir paid salaries to al Qaeda members and bought food and supplies for a guest house run by the al Qaeda leader. Zahir was later entrusted with large sums of money to fund terrorist attacks against U.S. and coalition forces, the documents allege. Zahir also is accused of printing anti-American propaganda and being part of a grenade attack on a vehicle carrying civilian foreigners in Afghanistan in March 2002. Three journalists in the vehicle were injured.
In a news conference today, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions, said evidence that will be presented in the case will not indicate that Zahir actually threw the grenade, just that he was involved in planning the attack.