A federal judge today halted the Guantánamo Bay trial of a Yemeni prisoner suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda, ruling that the special military tribunals like the one the suspect is facing at the naval base in Cuba are contrary to principles of American justice.
The ruling, handed down this afternoon by Judge James Robertson of Federal District Court in Washington, halted the trial of the suspect, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the moment news of it reached the military authorities at the base.
Judge Robertson sharply rebuked the Bush administration for its position that because the several hundred Guantánamo detainees have been classified as “enemy combatants,” they are not entitled to the protections normally given to prisoners of war.
“The government has asserted a position starkly different from the positions and behavior of the United States in previous conflicts, one that can only weaken the United States’ own ability to demand application of the Geneva Conventions to Americans captured during armed conflicts abroad,” the judge wrote in his 47-page opinion.
Judge Robertson said lawyers who follow the Guantánamo cases have found “examples of the way other governments have already begun to cite the United States’ Guantánamo policy to justify their own repressive policies.”
Mr. Hamdan was captured in Afghanistan late in 2001 during the American military campaign to oust the Taliban following the terror attacks of Sept. 11. In 2003, the Defense Department announced that he had been found suitable for trial by special military commission because he was suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda “or was otherwise involved in terrorism directed against the United States.”
But Judge Robertson said today that there is a built-in unfairness in the special military tribunals, which, unlike regular courts-martial, severely limit a defendant’s access to evidence being used to try him. The Bush administration has defended such secrecy procedures on national-security grounds, but the judge was not persuaded.
“A tribunal set up to try, possibly convict, and punish a person accused of crime that is configured in advance to permit the introduction of evidence and the testimony of witnesses out of the presence of the accused is indeed substantively different from a regularly convened court-martial,” the judge wrote.