3 officers removed from Guantanamo tribunal trying terror suspects

Pentagon official accepts defense lawyers' claims of conflicts of interest

The Nation

October 22, 2004|By John Hendren | John Hendren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon has removed three officers from a tribunal panel at Guantanamo, another snag in a controversial justice system for trials of alleged terrorists.

Retired Maj. Gen. John D. Altenburg Jr., head of the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions, agreed with defense attorneys who said the two regular panel members and one alternate had conflicts of interest that called their objectivity into question.

But Altenburg refused defense demands that he throw off two others, including the panel's judge-like presiding officer.

That leaves three on the panel, the minimum allowed to try a case under President Bush's order creating the tribunals.

The ruling marks the latest setback for a system fraught with problems. In issuing the order, Altenburg recrafted the panel that he personally approved, an acknowledgment that members had not been thoroughly vetted for the task.

The ruling followed opening hearings in August that were marked by translation problems and confusion over how to apply a fledgling brand of law for a panel that included only one lawyer. The proceedings were strongly criticized by human rights and legal observers as fundamentally unfair.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys have challenged the military tribunal system, both in the commission proceedings and in federal court in Washington, D.C.

"What that means is there is going to be a continuing controversy," said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, a nonprofit organization of attorneys who specialize in military law.

Altenburg removed two panel members who played active roles in the war in Afghanistan: Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy K. Toomey, who served in Afghanistan on a task force charged with capturing detainees who were eventually sent to Guantanamo; and Marine Col. R. Thomas Bright, a U.S. Central Command officer responsible for moving detainees from Afghanistan to Guantanamo.

"Both officers were actively involved in planning or executing sensitive operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq and are intimately familiar with the ... campaigns that resulted in the capture of the detainees who will appear before these commissions," he wrote in his ruling.

Altenburg also removed the alternate panel member, Lt. Col. Curt S. Cooper, who expressed "strong emotions" about the Sept. 11 attacks. Cooper also acknowledged that he could not describe the principal body of international law, the Geneva Convention.

Defense lawyers complained that the decision to cut the panel to three members makes things easier on the prosecution, which now has only to convince two of the three panel members to convict their clients. The lawyers wanted new panelists to replace them.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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