WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon's refusal to allow human rights groups to monitor upcoming military trials of prisoners held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was sharply criticized today by three leading human rights advocacy organizations.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Human Rights First sent a joint letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last week to protest the Pentagon's decision and ask it to reconsider. Both HRW and Human Rights First are based in the United States.
Detainees sit in a holding area at a US naval base in Guantanamo Bay. (AFP/US Navy/File/Shane T. Mccoy)
According to the groups, the Pentagon said that it intended to reserve seating only for selected members of the press and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
"The Defense Department wants to control who can talk to the journalists covering the trials," said Wendy Patten, HRW's U.S. advocacy director. "The Pentagon has imposed a gag rule on defense lawyers, who can only speak to the press with permission from the military. Now it wants to shut out experienced trial observers who could provide the public with independent analysis," she added.
A Pentagon spokesman denied that was the motive, insisting the decision was dictated by the lack of space available.
"It is expected that limited courtroom seating and other logistical issues will preclude attendance by many who desire to observe military commission proceedings," the spokesman told OneWorld. "In other words, space is at a premium."
He added that a lottery was conducted for seats that will be allocated to members of the press and that the media who were selected will be announced soon. He added that space will also be made available for diplomats or consular officials from the countries of the detainees who face trial.
"We indicated to these folks," the spokesman, referring to the three human rights groups, "that should we find that we are able to accommodate them, we would keep their request in mind."
The rights groups said that the decision to exclude them, like many of the other decisions surrounding plans for the military commission, as well as the prolonged detention without charges of more than 600 foreigners detained in Afghanistan and several other countries on suspicion of terrorism or membership in Al Qaeda or the Taliban, will likely prove embarrassing and fuel concerns that the defendants are not being treated fairly.
All three groups have longstanding experience in monitoring controversial trials, including trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and assessing the extent to which they meet or fail to meet international standards.
In their Feb. 20 letter the three groups argued that their presence "will be critical to demonstrating that the commission process is open and to evaluating whether it meets international fair trial standards."
By attending the commission, they said Tuesday, they could provide the public with independent and informed analysis. By denying them access, however, journalists covering the trial will have to rely only on military officials present for the proceedings.
Under the current commission rules, neither civilian nor military defense lawyers are permitted to speak to the press without permission from the presiding military officers who may also determine the scope of those conversations. Defense lawyers may also be prohibited from saying anything about closed portions of the trials, even if their statements do not deal with classified or even sensitive information.
While the ICRC also has longstanding experience as an observer of any proceedings that involve the Geneva Conventions, its comments are ordinarily conveyed privately and confidentially to the interested authorities.
"The U.S., in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights, annually criticizes other governments for failing to accommodate trial monitors," said Alex Arriaga of Amnesty International USA. "Allowing media coverage while pleading insufficient space for human rights groups smacks of fear of informed criticism, and will only fuel the perception that tribunals will be show trials."
Coincidentally, the latest annual edition of the Country Reports are due to be released here Wednesday.
The groups also charged that the Pentagon's pretext for excluding them for reasons of space was disingenuous. The size of the courtroom, or any overflow room with video access, they said, is a limiting factor in any trial. But the decision to exclude a whole category of observers with internationally recognized expertise in monitoring trials made little sense, particularly because they, like the press could be chosen through a pool or lottery process.
Moreover, the logistical and other challenges arising from the Pentagon's choice to hold the commission at Guantanamo Bay were "problems of the Bush administration's own making."
"These space constraints are being used as a pretext to keep out groups who have been critical of the commissions," said Elisa Massimino, who heads Human Rights First's Washington office. "The Pentagon used its promise that the trials would be open to the public to reassure people that the trials would be fair. But now it appears 'open' doesn't really mean open. It means 'open only to hand-picked press and not to anyone who's been critical.'"
The three groups wrote separately to the Pentagon beginning last May to request access to the base to observe the proceedings. Amnesty received a response in January; while HRW received one in February. Human Rights First has not yet received any reply, the groups said.
No commissions have been scheduled for the roughly 650 people who are currently being held at the base. Last Thursday, British officials disclosed that five of the prisoners who hold British citizenship will soon be transferred to their custody, while a Danish national is also supposed to be returned to Denmark, although Danish authorities have said they have no grounds for keeping him in custody.
A number of Saudi prisoners have reportedly been repatriated over the last 18 months on the condition that they remain in custody there, while a number of Afghan and Pakistani prisoners, including several children, have also been repatriated after their interrogators concluded they were harmless or had been picked up by mistake.
Two weeks ago, senior Defense officials said they planned to set up a panel to review the cases of longer-term prisoners on an annual basis to determine whether they remained a threat to the United States. This "quasi-parole board," however, will not take the place of the military tribunals.
The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in April on whether the detainees can be held at Guantanamo Bay can be denied basic constitutional protections, including the right to a court review of why they are being held.
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