Pending court ruling hangs over Guantanamo case
GUANTANAMO BAY US NAVAL BASE, Apr 5: An Afghan prisoner accused of participating in a grenade attack on a car full of civilians went before a US military tribunal at the Guantanamo naval base as participants awaited a Supreme Court ruling on the tribunal system's legitimacy.
Afghan detainee Abdul Zahir made his first appearance yesterday on charges of conspiring to commit war crimes, aiding the enemy and attacking civilians. He deferred entering a plea.
The presiding officer, Marine Col Robert Chester, seemed perplexed that Zahir had been given copies of the charges in English, Arabic and Pashto but not in his native Farsi, and ordered prosecutors to get him a copy in that language.
The Pentagon office organizing the hearing also inexplicably failed to send a Farsi translator. The court had to borrow a translator the defense attorney had brought to help him converse privately with Zahir.
The Guantanamo tribunals are the first convened by the US military since World War II. They are holding pre-trial hearings this week for four prisoners at the naval base in southeastern Cuba.
The US Supreme Court heard a challenge to the tribunals' legitimacy last month and is expected to rule in June or July on whether they can proceed.
Chester said he had read news accounts and legal briefs from the case and indicated he would comply with whatever the court ordered. ''It's above my pay grade. The Supreme Court is going to tell us what to do,'' Chester said.
The tribunals, formally called commissions, were in hiatus for all of 2005 but have convened three times so far this year, and three more sessions are scheduled through July.
The Defence Department is moving ahead because it believes the commissions are appropriate for trying those charged with violating the laws of war, a Pentagon spokeswoman said.
''We are at war,'' the chief prosecutor, Air Force Col Moe Davis, told journalists after the hearing. Davis said he was optimistic the court would uphold the tribunals but joked nonetheless that, ''I could be looking for a job come June.'' The charges say Zahir was an al Qaeda paymaster who served as a Taliban translator and was part of a group that conducted a grenade attack on a car carrying three journalists near Gardez, Afghanistan, in 2002.
Davis said Zahir himself did not throw the grenade, which seriously injured Canadian journalist Kathleen Kenna, a correspondent for the Toronto Star at the time.
Zahir is one of 10 Guantanamo prisoners charged before the military tribunals, created by US President George W Bush to try foreigners suspected of terrorism after the September 11 attacks. He faces life in prison if convicted.
He has denied involvement in the grenade attack. Zahir has told military officials he translated mundane documents such as automobile paperwork for his Taliban boss and did not know the man was involved with al Qaeda.
Zahir, a short man with a short, thick beard and dark, wavy hair, stood respectfully as Chester entered the courtroom.
His lawyer, Lt Col Thomas Bogar, asked the presiding officer about his news consumption as Bogar tried to uncover any biases that could affect the trial.
Other military defense lawyers have complained the tribunal rules keep changing and said there is no clear body of law governing them.