Many Issues Raised in First Week of Commissions Hearings
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Aug. 27, 2004 As the first week of military commissions hearings here comes to a close, officials on all sides are working hard to resolve issues that came to light during the proceedings.
Four war on terrorism detainees appeared before a panel here this week in the first commissions convened by the U.S. military since World War II.
"Not only are we using a form of tribunal that hasn't been used since World War II, we're also holding these proceedings in an isolated location," said Army Col. David McWilliams, public affairs chief for the military commissions. "Not only are we having our legal experts work within a system that hasn't been used for a while, but we're doing it in a place where we're having to move everything to the location of the proceeding."
McWilliams explained that everything from the computers and copy machines, the panel members, media members, and trial lawyers had to be shipped into Guantanamo. He estimated the cost to move and sustain people and resources here this week at between $300,000 and $500,000.
Issues surrounding the quality of courtroom translation and resourcing the defense teams appeared during the week's hearings, and officials pledged those issues would be dealt with.
One change in procedures was evident already today. After translation problems in two separate hearings earlier in the week, presiding officer Army Col. Peter Brownback today gave additional instructions to the courtroom translators about their duties and responsibilities. He also reminded all commission officers to speak slowly and clearly to ease the translation efforts.
In a news conference after today's hearing, McWilliams said Brownback's remarks were a positive development. It's important to see the "emphasis on translation and care with translation," he said.
Still, Air Force Lt. Col. Sharon Shaffer, military-appointed defense counsel for Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, said after her client's hearing this morning that he had been "very, very disappointed with the translation."
Qosi said during the hearing, through a translator, that he speaks some English but would prefer to have a translator present. Shaffer later said her client told her "half of what was said was broken up" and had missing words.
She said they chose not to make an issue of it today because Qosi understood what was going on. But for the eventual trial, she said, "it's going to be very vital that every word be accurate."
The other major issue highlighted this week that officials are striving to address is a personnel-resource shortage for some of the defense teams. Shafer is the only person on her client's defense team. And Aug. 24, Navy Lt. Cdr. Charlie Swift, the government-appointed attorney for Yemeni national Salim Ahmed Hamdan, noted he has asked for but been denied an assistant defense counsel. Swift has been assigned a military paralegal to assist him with research.
During his hearing, when Brownback asked Hamdan if he accepted the defense counsel appointed to him, he asked for an assistant for Swift. "I need attorney Swift to represent me, and I need an assistant with him, as well," Hamdan told the presiding officer through an interpreter.
During each day of the hearings this week, the prosecution teams consistently had two or three attorneys at their table.
Air Force Col. Will Gunn, the chief defense counsel for military commissions, said he's hoping to add more military attorneys to the defense team soon. In April, the military services were tasked to nominate attorneys to serve as defense counsel.
Gunn is reviewing the qualifications of nine attorneys from within the Army, Navy and Air Force. The Marine Corps asked to be relieved of the requirement for operational reasons, Gunn said. He said he and the trial attorneys would soon begin interviewing the candidates.
The colonel said he would only accept candidates who are "supremely well- qualified." The individuals must be volunteers and must be available to accept the assignment, he said. He added that selecting and assigning additional members of the defense team is his "highest priority."
Army Col. Bob Swann, the chief prosecutor for the military commissions, said today that ensuring the defense is properly resourced is a priority for him, as well. He explained that unbalanced resources between the defense and prosecution could conceivably be used as evidence to call the procedures unfair.
"I want to be able to say the cases will be sustained on appeal," he said.
International observers have charged the militarycommissions process won't be fair because some of the hearings might be closed to the defendants. The government has said such measures might be necessary to protect national security.
Swann also said today he intends to make the process as open as possible. "My job is to make this a full and fair process," he said. "To me, 'full and fair' means those individuals have access to the information against them."
The colonel said he's confident his team will be able to prosecute the cases openly. "I intend to keep every one of those cases open unless absolutely necessary," he said.
McWilliams noted hard-working people at all levels would be addressing all issues raised during this week. On balance, he said, the legal proceedings held were "rounded, but need to be refined."
"We need to ensure we're comfortable with translation, but I think the legal process did exactly what it needed to do," he said. "It allowed for zealous defense under public scrutiny."
The colonel said he believes that scrutiny is important.
"It's a process that was prepared to be started," he said, "to officially begin putting things on the record and to start moving forward with justice for those accused."