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First hearing begins for detainees held by US forces in Afghanistan

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (AP) — Four Afghans accused in bombing attacks appeared Tuesday for a preliminary hearing — the start of a legal procedure which U.S. officials say will lead to the first trial of detainees held by American forces in Afghanistan.

The hearing, which took place before three Afghan judges in a small white-walled room, was described by U.S officials as a major step in a plan to hand over control of the long-secretive detention facility at Bagram Air Field to the Afghan government.

Since the war began in 2001, detainees held in Afghanistan have had no access to lawyers. The U.S. alone decided who could be released or held indefinitely as a continued threat through a series of internal reviews by a military commission.

Tuesday's hearing also comes just a few weeks after a federal appeals court ruled that detainees held in Afghanistan cannot file suit for their release in U.S. courts — a right enjoyed by detainees in Guantanamo Bay — because Afghanistan is a war zone in the nearly nine-year fight against Taliban insurgents.

But the chaotic nature of the first court session also showed that the transition toward an Afghan role will likely be slow and messy.

The defendants, a 60-year-old farmer and his three adult sons, were ushered into an elevated booth in a corner of the courtroom. All four prisoners wore dark gray-blue tunics. The father — whose long gray beard was tinted orange from traditional henna dye — wore a brown shawl around his shoulders. Two of the sons had bloodshot eyes.

They stood as prosecutor Ghawarl, who uses only one name, read out the charges and evidence against them.

He said some of the men's fingerprints matched those on bombs found in their native Khost province, in eastern Afghanistan. A search of their house turned up a stash of Kalashnikov rifles and pistols, he added.

But the defendants spoke only a smattering of Dari, the Afghan language used in the hearing. There was no translation into their native language — Pashto — which is spoken by most of the about 830 prisoners held at the prison. There were simultaneous translations but into English for Western soldiers and journalists in the courtroom.

The four government-appointed Afghan defense lawyers objected to the lack of Pashto translation and complained they had only had a few days to review the cases.

They also argued that it is common for men in the remote mountains of eastern Afghanistan to keep a stash of weapons to protect their families and not necessarily to fight for the insurgents.

The chief judge agreed to adjourn to give the defense lawyers more time to talk to their clients and review their cases, and to enlist a Pashto translator. No new hearing date was set.

According to the indictment, 24-year-old Misri Gul was captured first in Khost in October 2009. His brother Ghazni was detained when he went to visit Misri at the detention facility in March. Then last month, U.S. forces raided their family house and arrested a third brother, 22-year-old Rahmi, and their father Bismullah.

U.S. officials have not promised a trial for every detainee. Some of those held are will likely be too high of a security threat or too valuable as intelligence assets to relinquish to the Afghan system. It is unclear how many will be granted trials.

"We're in this world between two systems," said Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the deputy commander for U.S. detention operations.

He said the problems in that first hearing should be taken in context: this is the first session and there are kinks that will have to be worked out. He said he did not have details on whether there was classified intelligence that would have to be held back from the trial.

The hearing took place in a new prison complex on the edge of Bagram, Afghanistan's main U.S. base. The prison — called the Parwan Detention Facility — opened in December and can hold up to 1,300 inmates. It replaced a smaller and more notorious prison that was inside the Bagram base.

The deaths of two Afghans at the older prison in 2002 led to prisoner abuse charges against several U.S. service members. Allegations of mistreatment have dogged the detention facility since, even after reforms improved conditions.

Still under construction are a full courthouse, lodging for court officials and an Afghan army barracks. The Americans expect to start handing over portions of the complex to the Afghans in January and continue piecemeal over about a year.

The new complex and the possibility of trials are to phase out a procedure that has damaged the reputation of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — the indefinite imprisonment of Afghans suspected of insurgent ties.