Draft tribunal plan includes presumption of innocence, appeal
WASHINGTON - International terrorism suspects brought before U.S. military commissions would be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, could be sentenced to death only by a unanimous vote of the commissions' members and would have the right to an appeal, according to draft procedures for the commissions.
The proposal, which is circulating among legal officials in the Bush administration, reflects the current thinking of Pentagon lawyers about how to prosecute captured suspects. They could include the growing number of alleged al-Qaida and Taliban members held by U.S. forces, including 37 at a Marine base in Afghanistan and eight aboard the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that the Pentagon is planning to transfer such detainees to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He said that the base would not be ready for a number of weeks, however, and that there are no plans yet to hold commission proceedings there.
The draft does not include definitive language on some major issues, including exactly how, and in what forum, appeals would be heard, an administration official said Thursday. Rumsfeld must approve any final proposal. The procedures are being developed by the Defense Department's general counsel in consultation with the White House, the State Department, the Justice Department and outside experts. A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to comment on the process.
Still, the draft - major portions of which were read to The Post by an administration official - provides the most detailed indication yet of the administration's plans for the commissions. It also appears to address questions about their fairness and openness that have been raised by human rights organizations and members of Congress since President Bush authorized the commissions in a Nov. 13 military order. One administration official described the draft language as "pretty close" to final.
"Assuming that the final regulations look like (the draft), it would go a considerable distance toward meeting the concerns that have been voiced," said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, which has taken no position on the commissions. "That said, big legal issues remain, such as the precise parameters of the appeals process."
The U.S. government has not yet designated anyone to stand trial before a military commission, authorized under Bush's order for any non-U.S. citizen whom the president determines "there is reason to believe" belongs to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network or is otherwise involved in international terrorism aimed at the United States. John Walker, a U.S. citizen and Taliban fighter now being held aboard the USS Peleliu, would not be covered and could face a civilian trial.
Among the most sharply criticized aspects of Bush's Nov. 13 order were the provisions that permitted sentencing - including the application of the death penalty - by "only" a two-thirds vote of a commission and that denied a right to appeal in "any" court.
But in the draft procedures, those parts of Bush's order have apparently been interpreted as allowing room for a unanimous vote on capital punishment and for appeals to what an administration official called "an appeals body." One idea under discussion is to create a separate military review panel that would not technically be a court, a person familiar with the administration's deliberations said.
The draft says trials before the commissions will be presumed open to the public and the news media and can be closed only when a commission decides it must hear classified material.
Defendants would have a right to a military lawyer at government expense and may hire their own civilian lawyers if they choose - though civilian lawyers would need special government clearances to handle classified evidence. Defendants may see the evidence against them, cross-examine prosecution witnesses and present witnesses of their own. They will also enjoy a right not to testify.
These rules would be broadly similar to those used in the U.S. military's own courts martial, though the commissions could still admit hearsay evidence, which is normally barred in both civilian trials and courts martial.
Public opinion polls have shown widespread support for the commissions, but the expansive wording of Bush's Nov. 13 order prompted concerns among civil libertarians and many legal experts that the president had assumed broad new prosecutorial authority without any specific authorization from Congress.
Administration officials have consistently defended the president's order, noting that he was empowered to prosecute an armed conflict by a joint Congressional resolution, and that the ordinary methods of criminal prosecution could not be counted on to handle the extraordinary threat posed by the foreign-based terrorist network that destroyed the World Trade Center and badly damaged the Pentagon.