WASHINGTON - A federal judge overseeing cases against dozens of
Guantanamo Bay detainees said yesterday that he fears the public - and
the detainees themselves - will be locked out of the courtroom when
evidence in the case is scrutinized for the first time.
of detainees are awaiting hearings in a Washington federal court in the
coming months to determine whether they were properly labeled enemy
combatants and imprisoned without being charged.
Judge Richard J. Leon, who has said he wants to resolve the 24 cases
assigned to him before the next president is sworn in, urged President
Bush's administration to find a way for at least part of those cases to
be held in public.
"If it can't be done, I have great concern
that these hearings will be virtually or exclusively classified, closed
to the public and, I might add, to the detainees," Leon said.
said he would try to run a secure phone line from the military base in
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to his courtroom so the detainees can listen to
the hearing. Because prisoners are prohibited from hearing classified
information, however, that effort would be useless if the entire
hearing were classified.
Closed hearings probably would also
increase criticism from civil liberties groups who have questioned the
fairness of Guantanamo Bay proceedings for years.
Department said it would be difficult to separate classified and
unclassified information from the cases. But it will be up to the
intelligence community, not the judge or the Justice Department, to
decide what should and shouldn't be classified.
Leon is among
several judges wrestling with how to handle the Guantanamo Bay cases
after a recent Supreme Court ruling said detainees must be allowed to
challenge their imprisonment in federal courts.
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It's unclear what
those hearings will look like, however. Normally, lawyers can
cross-examine witnesses and hearsay evidence is prohibited. But since
much of the evidence in these cases comes from intelligence sources,
key witnesses won't be able to appear in court and lawyers will have a
difficult time challenging the sources of some information.
Court rules, then, are up in the air and might change from judge to judge.
"We're in uncharted territory here, all of us," Leon said.
Leon offered an initial summary of what his first hearing will look
like but said the details are still being worked out. The Justice
Department can present hearsay evidence, Leon said, but he will decide
how much weight to give it.
He said he would also decide whether
to assume that government evidence, simply because it comes from the
government, is accurate and authentic.
Though the detainees may
soon get the court hearings they've long sought, it is unclear what
will happen when they are completed.
If judges rule that
detainees are being held illegally, they can order their release. But
since they probably cannot order prisoners to be brought to US soil or
order another country to take them, the judges' authority is unclear.