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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

U.S. Drops War Crimes Charges against Guantanamo Detainees

The Pentagon official in charge of prosecutions at Guantanamo on Tuesday dismissed war-charges against five detainees, the latest setback to the government’s military commission system.

The official, Susan J. Crawford, has broad power over the military commission tribunals, including the power to dismiss charges, but she does not have to provide public explanations for her decisions and did not on Tuesday.

But a statement from her office said the charges against the five were dismissed without prejudice, which means “the government can raise the charges again at a later time.”

After the decision was announced, Col. Lawrence J. Morris, the chief military prosecutor, said that supervising lawyers in his office had asked Ms. Crawford to withdraw the charges. He said all five would be resubmitted after a review of their files, which had been handled by a prosecutor who left the office after questioning the judicial fairness at Guantanamo.

The best known of the five detainees is Binyam Mohammed, a former British resident who claimed harsh torture methods had been used against him. Government officials have accused him of taking part in a plan to attack the United States with a radioactive dirty bomb.

The Bush administration has long said that it would like to close the detention camp, where 255 detainees are being held on the naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But officials have said in recent days that no action would likely be taken before the end of Mr. Bush’s term in January. One reason they cited was uncertainty about how legal cases against the remaining detainees would be handled inside the United States.

Ms. Crawford also dismissed without prejudice charges that had been presented to her against four other detainees: Noor Uthman Muhammed, Sufyiam Barhoumi, Ghassan Abdullah al Sharbi, and Jabran Said Bin al Qahtani.

All five cases had been handled by Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a military prosecutor who stepped down from his position in September, saying publicly that there were systemic problems in the prosecution that raised ethical issues. Colonel Vandeveld, an Army reserve officer and the latest person to quit the prosecutor’s office in Guantanamo, said the prosecutors did not fully comply with rules that require that they turn over any information that might help the defense.

Colonel Morris has denied that Colonel Vandeveld’s departure was related to a dispute about complying with legal rules for the proper handling of cases.

“I don’t want to unduly attribute responsibility to him,” Colonel Morris said of reviewing the files handled by Colonel Vandeveld. “We have found that there is more work to be done on all these cases.” He said he had recently appointed new prosecutors to each of the cases.

But detainees’ lawyers cast the decision to withdraw the charges as the latest in a series of difficulties government lawyers have had in pressing cases against Guantanamo detainees.

“My impression is it is just a mess, and the floor is collapsing underneath them,” said Clare Algar, the executive director of Reprieve, an international legal organization that represent many detainees including Binyam Mohammed.

REad full story here. [Brooks Holland]

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