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Parties Still Working Behind the Scenes on Military Commissions

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 8, 2005 – Though the four war crimes cases before the military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are on hold pending the outcome of a federal court decision, prosecutors, defense teams and other officials are still hard at work behind the scenes to ensure the process runs smoothly.

Since August 2004, when the U.S. military held the first commission hearings since World War II, officials have worked to address issues that came up during those hearings.

Chief issues that surfaced during the August hearings included concerns about the quality of translation in the courtroom and staffing levels of the defense teams. Officials say they have made improvements in both those arenas.

Navy Lt. Susan McGarvey, a military attorney and spokeswoman for the Office of Military Commissions, explained that OMC officials have been working with the civilian contractor that provides translation services to better define the scope of work for courtroom translations.

McGarvey said she believes attorneys for both sides were much happier with the quality of translation during additional hearings that were held in November.

Since then, officials at Guantanamo Bay have made technological improvements in the courtroom that will further ensure high-quality translations in any future hearings.

Officials have added a translation booth in the corner of the courtroom that will allow three translators to work together to ensure accuracy and let them swap primary-translating duties as frequently as needed to prevent fatigue.

"Accuracy is a primary concern," said Air Force Col. Terrance Holliday, public affairs officer for the Office of Military Commissions.

The defense staffing issues have been resolved for now as well, said Air Force Col. Will Gunn, chief defense counsel for the OMC. "Until recently," he said, "each defense team had at least two attorneys and one paralegal assigned." For the August hearings, none of the teams was staffed at this level.

Now, only one defense team, the team defending Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, an admitted al Qaeda member originally from Yemen, is short a defense attorney. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Philip Sundel, one of al Bahlul's defense attorneys, left the military recently and officials are working to find a replacement, Gunn said.

Gunn said he is now working with the office of appointing authority John D. Altenburg Jr., to see that additional attorneys are assigned to the defense counsel's office this summer.

"Once recent significant improvement in the area of manning is that the deputy secretary of defense has authorized more personnel for all of the Office of Military Commissions, including the Office of the Chief Defense Counsel," Gunn said. "Now that we have the authorizations, we have to fill them."

But while the individual cases are in abeyance, a legal term meaning "temporarily suspended," defense and prosecuting attorneys continue to work on their cases.

"There's always constant preparation on the cases that are in front of them," McGarvey said. "And then additionally for the prosecution teams, they can be preparing other cases as well -- getting them ready, working out the investigations."

Gunn said defense attorneys have traveled to such far-flung locales as Sudan, Australia, Pakistan and Afghanistan "to pursue evidence and talk to witnesses."

Defense attorneys also continue to file motions in U.S. courts on behalf of their clients. For example, Gunn said, since the November hearings Air Force Lt. Col. Sharon Shaffer has filed an action in the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces asking that court to intervene in the case of her client, Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi, who is accused of being an accountant and paymaster for al Qaeda during the 1990s.

Besides efforts by attorneys on both sides, officials with the Office of Military Commissions have continued to improve the courtroom and other facilities at Guantanamo Bay.

The closed-circuit television system that sends video and audio feed to a nearby media center has been upgraded to provide reporters with a clearer picture of what goes on in the courtroom. Only a handful of reporters are allowed into the courtroom during hearings because of space and security concerns. But additional media representatives are accommodated in a separate media center, where they can watch the proceedings in real time.

The sound system was improved by adding more microphones throughout the room. During the August hearings, microphones were only on the attorneys' desks, limiting the attorneys' movements.

"Now, if the counsel walks away from the desk, we can still pick (the voice) up," Holliday said of the new audio system.

The video system has been upgraded as well. Previously video was only available through two cameras, giving those watching from the media center a limited view of the proceedings. Now, five cameras give a much-expanded view of the courtroom.

Holliday explained that these improvements are important because everything having to do with the military commissions process is "like a fishbowl," being watched carefully by the media and representatives of nongovernmental organizations.

"You want to make certain that anybody who looks at this thing understands that we're doing the right thing for everybody," he said. "Obviously everybody walks away with a different opinion as to what they've seen. But as far as the Office of Military Commissions is concerned, nobody should have to second-guess that we've done the right thing here."

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