Hamilton County: Plan to close Gitmo draws mixed reviews

Hamilton County: Plan to close Gitmo draws mixed reviews

January 22nd, 2009 by Monica Mercer in Local Regional News

The man who said he helped plan the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, expressed dismay Wednesday at President Barack Obama's request to halt war crimes trials at Guantanamo Bay, according to the Chattanooga military lawyer defending him.

"(Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) opposed the (government's) motion because he wants to 'move forward' with his case rather than 'move backward' as he seeks an early martyrdom," Army Lt. Col. Mike Acuff, a former Hamilton County public defender, said in an e-mail from Guantanamo Bay.

Yet many, including Lt. Col. Acuff, have long argued that the special prosecution rules at Guantanamo Bay, which were made legal by Congress in 2006 with the passage of the Military Commissions Act, have caused the country to move away from the Constitution's guarantee of fair and impartial trials for accused criminals.

"This country has gone wrong where we have put people in jail, changed the rules and haven't given them a quick and fair opportunity to hear their cases," Lt. Col. Acuff recently told the Times Free Press in an exclusive interview.

Mr. Obama's request Wednesday seemed to justify that argument, a move in step with his pledge to close Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. facility on the Cuban coast guarded by American Marines. Military judges quickly agreed Wednesday to a 120-day suspension of the case against Mr. Mohammed and his four codefendants, the Associated Press reported.

In Washington, the new administration circulated a draft executive order that calls for closing Guantanamo Bay, known in military circles as Gitmo, within a year and reviewing the cases of all the nearly 245 inmates still detained there. The government would release some, transfer others and put the rest such as Mr. Mohammed on trial, possibly in U.S. federal court.

Jeffrey Addicott, a retired military lawyer and director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio, said closing Gitmo is a "mistake" that could leave Americans reeling from the unintended consequences.

"My prediction is that a lot of these (suspected terrorists) will not be charged with the most serious crimes, and many of them are going to go free" if they are transferred to federal court, Mr. Addicott said.

Part of the problem, he noted, is that some evidence gained under the military commissions rules against prisoners such as Mr. Mohammed wouldn't stand in other legal venues.

Criticisms have been leveled against tactics used in the military commissions, including the "enhanced interrogation techniques," a euphemism for what some call torture. Detainees also have been held without the right to a "speedy trial," the rule in the federal courts system.

And evidence gathered through "hearsay testimony" is allowed in the military commissions, despite being illegal in the trials of prisoners on U.S. soil.

Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, however, successfully prosecuted suspected 9/11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui in 2006 in U.S. federal court, not in the military commissions at Gitmo.

Former U.S. attorney and current U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice Jr. of Chattanooga said he had discussions with Mr. McNulty about that trial, but would only say that "there were a lot of obstacles and challenges (Mr. McNulty) faced in carrying out that prosecution."

Local defense attorney and former army officer Barry Abbott praised Mr. Obama's decision, calling Gitmo a "legal quagmire" that no longer has credibility.

"From a fundamental rights perspective, the minute we do not give people basic humans rights as a society is the minute that we deny our own democratic values," Mr. Abbott said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.