Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Briefing Paper on U.S. Military Commissions

On July 15, 2005, a U.S. federal appeals court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld overturned a November, 8, 2004 district court ruling that had resulted in the suspension of the U.S. military commissions at Guantanamo Bay.

The appellate court ruling opens the way for the resumption of the four cases currently before the commissions. To date President Bush has designated fifteen Guantanamo detainees as eligible for trial by military commission. Of those fifteen, four were formally charged in 2004 and referred for prosecution.

Human Rights Watch has raised serious due process concerns about the Guantanamo military commissions since they were first announced by President Bush in November 2001. These concerns, restated below, remain valid today.

Despite the Bush administration’s oft-repeated assurances that the “global war on terror” will affirm and protect basic human rights, the rules for the proposed commissions fall far short of international standards for a fair trial. The U.S. government has replaced the U.S. federal court and court-martial structures and procedures with a wholly new and untried system that assures Department of Defense control over the proceedings, the verdict, appellate review, and ultimately what the public can know about the trials. Such trials, if allowed to go forward, will undermine the basic rights of defendants to a fair trial. They will yield verdicts – possibly including death sentences – of questionable legitimacy, and will deliver a message worldwide that the fight against terrorism need not respect the rule of law.

Human Rights Watch has stated before, and we reiterate here, that absent significant change in the structure and rules of the military commissions, the United States would be in violation of its obligations under international law to try anyone before them. The United States should instead take all the necessary steps to ensure that those tried before military commissions receive trials that are a credit to American justice, not a stain on its history.

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