SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Guantanamo officials are working on plans to provide a courtroom, a prison and an execution chamber if the order comes to try terror suspects at the base in Cuba, the mission commander said.
Although no new directive has been given and no plan has been approved, a handful of experts are looking at what it will take to try, imprison and, if need be, execute detainees accused of links to Afghanistan's fallen Taliban regime or to the Al Qaeda terror network.
"We have a number of plans that we work for short-term and long-term strategies but that's all they are — plans," Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller said in a telephone interview Monday.
Isolated on Cuba's eastern tip and out of the jurisdiction of U.S. civilian courts, Guantanamo (search) is a likely location for U.S. military trials.
Last month, officials named Army Col. Frederic Borch III the chief prosecutor and Air Force Col. Will Gunn as chief defense lawyer for the proposed trials. The Pentagon has listed 18 war crimes and eight other offenses that could be tried, including terrorist acts, and has issued rules for the tribunals.
Borch said he was looking at prosecuting at least 10 possible cases before a tribunal.
Some 680 detainees from 42 countries are in Guantanamo, categorized as unlawful combatants by the U.S. government. It has refused demands from human rights organizations to recognize them as prisoners of war (search).
They have no constitutional rights as non-U.S. citizens being held outside U.S. territory, and none have been formally charged or allowed access to attorneys.
The cases would be decided by a panel of three to seven military officers who act as both judge and jury. Convictions could be handed down by a majority vote; a decision to sentence a defendant to death would have to be unanimous.
Some civil liberties advocates have criticized the process.
"Any further movement in the direction of trying these men in commissions that could have the power to carry out death sentences is cause for great concern," Vienna Colucci of Amnesty International's (search) Washington D.C. office said Monday.
Miller said renovations on a building being considered as a courtroom began in March and likely will be completed next month. The building is being rewired and could be used as a courthouse with facilities for media and military officers.
There also are plans to build a permanent modular detention facility, to imprison detainees who might be sentenced to indefinite terms, and an execution chamber should any be sentenced to death, he said.
"We're getting ready so we won't be starting from scratch," Miller said, speaking while on a visit to Washington D.C.
About five people have been drafting several plans for the last six months, he said. It was unclear how much money it would take to sustain such a permanent mission.
After the detention center opened in January 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld called the detainees "among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth." But, after lengthy interrogation, many are thought to be low-level former Taliban fighters and unlikely prospects for commission trials.