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Monday, January 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
U.S. setting up tribunals at Guantánamo base
By Stevenson Jacobs
GUANTÁNAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba Two years after the first prisoners began arriving at Guantánamo Bay following the invasion of Afghanistan, families of detainees are asking how much longer they must wait for their loved ones to be tried or released.
As the prison camp marked its second-year anniversary yesterday, the United States also faced criticism from foreign governments and human-rights groups that were questioning why hundreds of terror suspects have been held for so long without charges or legal representation.
"It is time to get our children back or for them to be tried in an impartial court," said Khalid al-Odah, a Kuwaiti whose son Fawzi, 26, was one of the first to arrive at the bleak outpost. "But nobody is listening. That is the problem."
Al-Odah is hanging his hopes on his son's release or trial on the U.S. Supreme Court, which is to hear the first appeal early this year on whether the prisoners should have access to American courts, something opposed by President Bush.
Over the past two years, U.S. officials have released 88 people held at the detention camp in eastern Cuba. But new ones have regularly been brought in, bringing the current number of detainees to around 660.
While the Bush administration has promised tribunals, it also continues to expand the prison. Eventually it will have 1,100 cells, raising further questions of what the future holds for the mission.
Some U.S. lawmakers also have raised concerns about prolonged delays in the detainees' cases. Others say holding tribunals outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts would make trials unfair.
Many critics say the United States has abandoned its judicial principles in its zeal to prevent another terrorist attack on its soil.
"You have people sitting there for two years with rights under international law being utterly ignored by the administration," said Jamie Fellner, U.S. director of Human Rights Watch.
They have been held without charge and interrogated repeatedly. Only last month were military defense lawyers assigned and only to two prisoners.
"We want to do it quickly, but we want to do it right," said Air Force Maj. John Smith, a lawyer in the office of military commissions at the Pentagon. He said the procedures now need only "tweaks and minor additions."
A retired U.S. Army general has been appointed to oversee the tribunals, which could apply the death penalty. A four-member review panel has been chosen. The desks, name plates, closed-circuit television and government seals are already in place at a building in Guantánamo. Yet no order has been given for trials to start.
The first tribunals could begin within 30 days of receiving an order, said Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, commander of the detention operation.
The detainees from 44 countries are being held on suspicion of links to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime or al-Qaida terror network, including three boys ages 13 to 15.
The indefinite detention has drawn concern from several U.S. allies including Britain, which has nine citizens at the base.
Johan Steyn, one of a panel of judges who sit in Britain's House of Lords, recently said holding the tribunals in Cuba would be a "monstrous failure of justice."
Twenty-one prisoners have attempted suicide, some multiple times and most by trying to hang themselves, officials say.
The U.S. government has denied mistreatment, noting detainees can exchange censored letters with family, are well fed and receive quality medical care.
Officials began rewarding detainees last year for good behavior and for providing information about terror cells. Miller says the amount of useful intelligence information has increased, although he has refused to talk about how the information has helped the war on terror.
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