Obama Keeping Military Tribunals With New Legal Rights: Critics Aren’t Impressed

May 15, 2009

(ChattahBox)—President Obama is expected to announce on Friday, a new set of legal protections for the Bush-era military tribunals created to try high profile terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay.

Despite revamping the much criticized tribunal system, offering legal rights to defendants approaching those available under civilian U.S. federal courts, critics charge the changes don’t go far enough, saying in effect, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

Only a small number of Guantanamo detainees, estimated at 20, would be tried before the revamped military tribunal, with the remainder of detainees tried in U.S. civilian federal courts. Others will be released into the custody of other governments or held in federal prisons indefinitely in the United States.

The military tribunals created by President Bush, received harsh criticism for the secret “star chamber” hearings that bypassed traditional appellate review and federal rules of evidence. The Bush administration claimed the secret tribunals were necessary to protect national security. Military tribunals had not been implemented since World War II.

When Obama came into office, he suspended the military tribunals that he criticized during his campaign, saying they violated detainees’ legal rights, and issued an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay within a year.

The Obama administration has been conducting a 120-day review of the military tribunal system, apparently arriving at the decision to retain the tribunals on a limited basis with additional legal protections for defendants.

Some of the legal protections expected to be added, are restrictions on the use of hearsay evidence, prohibiting evidence obtained from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including waterboarding and greater rights in choosing their own military counsel.

Despite the additional legal protections, human rights groups contend the tribunals are still a stain on the nation’s criminal justice system. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement through attorney Jonathan Hafetz deriding Obama’s modifications: “…this will not cure the commissions or provide them with legitimacy…”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, praised President Obama’s decision to retain the military tribunals with modifications, believing it would strengthen U.S. detention policies.

The military trials will be suspended for an additional four months as the Obama administration completes its overhaul of the unusual legal system. Detainees’ trials under the tribunal that are not completed by the closing date of Guantanamo in January of next year, would be transferred to U.S civilian federal courts with full legal rights.

The terror suspects to be tried under the military tribunal, include five suspects accused of involvement in the September 11, 2001, attacks and Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi accused of plotting to attack a ship in the Strait of Hormuz.

Only three Guantanamo detainees have been convicted in the military tribunal system since it was created in 2001.

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