Retired general to oversee military tribunals

Pentagon takes final steps before charging, trying Guantanamo detainees

December 31, 2003|By Esther Schrader | Esther Schrader,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon took a step closer yesterday to holding military trials for suspected terrorists held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, appointing a retired Army general to oversee the tribunals and a four-member review panel to hear appeals of cases.

John D. Altenburg Jr., a former senior Army lawyer and two-star general, was chosen for the job. As "appointing authority" for the tribunals, he would approve charges against detainees, refer cases to trial and negotiate any conflicts during trials.

None of the 660 suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo has been charged, but the first case is expected soon. The appointments yesterday were the last major procedural steps planned before one or more suspects is charged and brought to trial in what would be the United States' first use of military tribunals since World War II.

Altenburg was assistant judge advocate general for the Army when he retired in 2002. Since June, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has overseen the tribunal process.

The Pentagon announcement comes amid growing pressure from human rights organizations to put the prisoners on trial, release them or at least say what is planned for them.

Critics complain that the open-ended, indefinite detentions have led to a deterioration in the prisoners' health and dozens of suicide attempts at the prison, set up shortly after the start of the war in Afghanistan in October 2001.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that terrorist suspects held in secret U.S. custody on non-U.S. territory deserve access to lawyers and the American legal system.

The U.S. Supreme Court already has agreed to decide whether U.S. courts have jurisdiction over the "detention of foreign nationals captured abroad ... and incarcerated" at Guantanamo.

Some have been held for as long as two years at Guantanamo, without access to lawyers or family. The Pentagon contends that the base is technically on international soil.

The four members of the review panel named by the Pentagon are Griffin B. Bell, former attorney general in the Carter administration and federal appeals judge; Edward G. Biester, a former congressman and judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County, Pa.; William T. Coleman Jr., U.S. secretary of transportation in the Ford administration; and Frank Williams, chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, who was an Army captain during the Vietnam War.

The four are to serve two years and will be temporarily commissioned as Army major generals, the Pentagon said. Others may be named to the review panel later. They will select from among themselves the three members who will hear specific appeals.

The Pentagon also named Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Hemingway as Altenburg's legal adviser. Hemingway retired in 1996 and was recalled to active duty last summer. He has served as a staff judge advocate at several levels in the Air Force and was a senior judge on the Air Force Court of Military Review as well as director of the Air Force Judiciary.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said military trials will be as open to public scrutiny as possible without compromising classified information or protected witnesses.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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