U.S. military tribunals anger families

Plans to try two suspects on terrorism charges lead to fair-trial concern

July 05, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - The families of two British terrorism suspects who are likely to be tried by military tribunals at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, expressed outrage yesterday at what they said was American high-handedness and flouting of international law, and added that they doubted the men would receive fair trials.

The family of a third person, an Australian, confirmed that he also had been named by the authorities. Britain and Australia were allies of the United States in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and both have urged Washington to expedite the cases against their citizens.

The British government called on the United States yesterday to conduct the tribunals with fairness on issues such as access to lawyers, standards of evidence and the right to appeal in the case of a guilty verdict.

"Clearly we want the Americans to give us assurances that the international minimum standards of fair trials will be met," a spokesman for the Foreign Office said in an interview.

The spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with government policy, said Britain would "raise the strongest possible objections" to death sentences for any prisoners found guilty.

But the government has stopped short of demanding that the two Britons selected by the Bush administration as candidates for the tribunals - Moazzam Begg, 35, and Feroz Abbasi, 23 - be returned to Britain to stand trial.

"The fact is that I can't alter the legal processes in the U.S.," Baroness Symons, a Foreign Office minister, told BBC Radio yesterday. "America has decided that they want to be the detaining power, and that they want to hold the trials there, and it is now up to us to have a very vigorous discussion with the U.S. about securing a fair trial for the individuals."

Neither the British nor the American government released the names of the six people selected to be the first prisoners likely to face the tribunals. But the families of the British prisoners on the list confirmed that they had been contacted by the authorities.

The Australian, David Hicks, is a high school dropout, former ranchhand and convert to Islam in his late 20s. He was seized by Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan more than two years ago and has been detained by the United States since then.

In an odd tug of war, U.S. officials asked Australia to take custody of him this year for prosecution at home, but Australian officials said that there was no evidence that he had violated Australian law and that they did not want him. So he remained at Guantanamo, charged with no crime.

The tribunals, whose members have not been appointed, are empowered to try non-American suspects. About 680 foreign citizens are being held without charges at Guantanamo Bay under suspicion of being members of al-Qaida or of engaging in international terrorism.

An unknown number of others are being held at undisclosed locations throughout the world.

Although the two Britons and one Australian identified yesterday do not appear to be important terrorist figures, American officials said Thursday that they believed that the first group of people charged would be low-level suspects who, in exchange for plea bargains, might be persuaded to divulge information about the workings of al-Qaida or about other, higher-level operatives.

In Birmingham, England, Azmat Begg said he had been told late Thursday night by the Foreign Office "that my son had been designated to stand trial with another five persons."

Although he said he was glad to hear news that something was happening, because his son has been held in limbo for months, he said he had grave concerns about the tribunals.

"I was very depressed, very unhappy and very much worried because the judge is from the military, the prosecution is from the military, the jury is from the military and even his solicitor is from the military," Azmat Begg told the BBC. "Everything is being done by the military, so it is not going to be a fair trial."

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