SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Hundreds of foreign detainees suspected of terrorist ties may soon get their first formal opportunity to argue for their release as the U.S. military prepares to begin reviewing their cases.
Military officials say the hearings, in each case to be conducted before a panel of three officers at the base in Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, where the suspects are detained, could begin as soon as Friday.
The military says the tribunals will be neutral and each detainee will be assigned an officer to represent him.
Human rights lawyers dismiss the process as a sham, saying that as members of the military, the officers can't be considered impartial.
Nearly 600 men from more than 40 countries are being held at Guantanamo, some for more than two years. With few exceptions, they have not been allowed to consult lawyers. Most have had no contact with the outside world apart from letters from home, which are subject to censor.
The military announced it would review the cases after the Supreme Court ruled June 28 that the suspects have a right to challenge their detention before American civilian courts.
Human rights lawyers have since filed lawsuits for dozens of detainees in U.S. federal court. The most recent, for three detainees from Bahrain, was filed Thursday in Washington, said New York lawyer Joshua Colangelo-Bryan.
The Pentagon says the panels are a way of preparing for court challenges and are separate from military tribunals to try detainees.
Detainees get a chance to challenge their U.S.-designated status as "enemy combatants (search)," for example by presenting written statements from witnesses. But any incriminating information a prisoner might provide to his representative could be used in a tribunal.
So far only four detainees have been charged, and the U.S. government has designated a total of 15 as eligible for trial. It's unclear how soon those trials could begin.
Navy Secretary Gordon England (search) has said the review panels could finish their work within four months.
Human Rights Watch said the creation of the panels shows the Pentagon is struggling to keep control over detainees.
"What we object to most is that they're starting with a presumption that they are enemy combatants," said Jamie Fellner, director of the group's U.S. program. "A process similar to this was what was called for two-and-a-half years ago ... when these guys were captured."
The Pentagon defines an "enemy combatant" as "an individual who was part of or supporting Taliban or Al Qaeda forces, or associated forces engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners." The military says all the detainees are suspected of links to Al Qaeda or Afghanistan's defeated Taliban regime.
Fellner said Human Rights Watch (search) has received authorization to attend tribunals, and it also will ask to attend the review panels.
The hearings are to be open to the media, but England said the first ones probably would be closed due to logistical difficulties.
Fellner said it's important all hearings be open to public scrutiny. "Justice can't be done behind closed doors," she said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only independent organization allowed to monitor the detention operation, has not said whether it will send a representative to the panels.
England has said the names of those who appear before the panels probably will not be made public.