UN expert: Guantanamo hearings unfair


A U.N. human rights expert said Wednesday he found on a recent visit to Guantanamo Bay that the prison camp is not meeting international justice standards.

Martin Scheinin, the U.N.’s independent investigator on human rights in the fight against terrorism, has been campaigning against the Bush administration’s detention practices, military courts and interrogation techniques.

He said his visit to Guantanamo last week raised more questions about the legal framework used to prosecute detainees there.

“The hearings provided graphic illustrations of the practical difficulties in providing fair trials at a distant military base,” said Scheinin, a Finnish law professor.

About 305 detainees are held at Guantanamo, almost all of them without charges. The men suspected of links to terrorism are held as “enemy combatants” without the same rights as traditional prisoners of war.

U.S. officials said Wednesday they were disappointed by the report.

Scheinin’s finding on the legal process at Guantanamo was “in part misleading about the facts of the process, and revisits well-worn, ill-informed criticisms of military commissions hearings,” said Melanie J. Khanna, a U.S. legal adviser. “The unfortunate fact is that a large part of the report again repeats unfair and oversimplified criticisms of the United States.”

Scheinin was presenting his observations on Guantanamo to the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council as part of a wider review of U.S. practices in the fight against terrorism.

He recalled attending hearings for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden who is charged under the 2006 Military Commissions Act with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism.

He said it seemed impossible for defense lawyers to provide evidence because they were unable to call witnesses from abroad or the detention facility.

Scheinin told The Associated Press that the recent visit confirmed his findings.

In particular, he expressed concern that the Military Commissions Act – which addresses the legal rights of detainees held outside U.S. territory – was being applied to people who had been seized before the law was created.

“Doing this many years after they have originally been detained on other grounds unavoidably results in something which international law categorizes as arbitrary detention,” Scheinin said.

He also described as “very problematic” the question of the independence of the military tribunals and the use of evidence obtained by coercion.

Of the hearing he observed, Scheinin said “the military judge really did his best in difficult circumstances to strive for a fair trial, but within impossible conditions.”

In addition to observing the legal hearings, U.S. officials had invited Scheinin to visit the actual detention facilities. Scheinin said he declined that offer because he was not guaranteed unmonitored access to the detainees.

“They wanted me also to go to the detention facility but unfortunately their policy of not allowing for full access did not make it possible for me this time,” he told the AP. “I hope there will be another chance.”