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Torture, secrecy on Guantanamo hearings menu

WASHINGTON: The specter of torture and the veil of secrecy will loom large over a new series of hearings starting Monday at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the accused plotters of the September 11 attacks.

It will mark the second appearance for the self-proclaimed mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and his four co-defendants before the special tribunal known as military commissions on the US naval base.

The preliminary hearings designed to pave the way for the "trial of the century" will take place all week at the outpost in southeastern Cuba after being postponed more than two months so that the defendants could observe the holy month of Ramadan and due to an Internet outage and a storm.

"One of the major issues that will be decided is whether the US Constitution, which governs all cases in the US, also applies to Guantanamo Bay or whether Guantanamo Bay is a sort of legal black hole as it's been described," said James Connell.

He is representing Mohammed's Pakistani nephew Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, also known as Ammar al-Baluchi.

At issue are the torture and abuse the five men said they suffered at the hands of US authorities, and the classified status that President Barack Obama's administration says covers details of the suspects' treatment, citing national security concerns.

Among the petitions that will be examined during the five days of hearings are government motions to "protect against disclosure of national security information" and to "protect unclassified discovery material where disclosure would be detrimental to the public interest."

With prosecutors refusing to reveal information deemed classified and holding parts of the debates behind closed doors, the American Civil Liberties Union rights group and 14 media groups are calling for complete transparency.

"The public has the right to see the proceedings," said Connell.

Cheryl Bormann, who is defending Walid bin Attash of Yemen, agreed that the hearings should be part of an "open process, a fair process, a transparent process."

"The government shouldn't be able to hide behind classification issues," she added.

"If this is going to be a trial about what happened on 9/11... only the truth should come out and not the US government's spin on the truth until they opened the process; right now, it's just their spin."

Because of the men's treatment at the CIA's secret prisons where they were held prior to their 2006 transfer to Guantanamo, "there's a presumptive classification about everything our clients say to us, even the most inaccurate things," said James Harrington, attorney for Yemeni Ramzi Binalshibh.

All documents and other communication between lawyers and their clients are subject to censorship.

"That's a clear violation of our rights as lawyers, (we should) be able to talk about things without interference, or Big Brother looking over your shoulder at everything you do," Harrington told AFP.

Journalists and a select number of members of the public follow the proceedings from behind soundproof glass, and the audio only reaches them after a 40-second delay.

The delay allows a military censor to blur statements whose content is deemed a threat to national security.

ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi stressed that the court has to prove that the 40-second delay abides by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and the press.

"We don't think they can meet that requirement because of the fact that it is publicly known how the defendants were tortured and where they were held abroad," she said.

"The government has no legitimate basis to seek to prevent the public from hearing the defendants' testimony about torture and detention."

When the five defendants were formally charged in May, they had defied military justice by refusing to respond to questions, regularly unrolling their prayer rugs to perform their daily prayers and making odd outbursts.

They have requested permission to appear in the attire of their choice.

Mohammed wanted to wear military-style camouflage clothes to court but prison officials denied the request as inappropriate, Pentagon documents showed.

Others wanted to wear traditional Afghan caps and vests, while others sought to don one of Guantanamo's infamous orange jumpsuits to court.

The judge presiding over the hearings will indicate whether he considers the attire to be a propaganda tool.

 

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