US: Major step towards 'terror' trials

The United States has named a retired army general to supervise US military trials of foreign terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

    About 660 people are held at Guantanamo Bay without charge

    Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld named John Altenburg, who served as an army lawyer for 28 years, to oversee the process, including approving charges against defendants and approving plea agreements.


    Rumsfeld also named two former cabinet members and two sitting judges to hear appeals.


    Officials said these were the last major steps before criminal charges were brought against suspects.


    About 660 people, mostly captured in Afghanistan, are held at Guantanamo without being charged.


    The trials, to be held before panels called military commissions, will be the first of their kind staged by the US since World War Two.


    Former attorney general Griffin Bell and former transportation secretary William Coleman were named to serve on review panels to hear appeals to any convictions or sentences.


    Bell served in President Jimmy Carter's cabinet from 1977-79. Coleman served under President Gerald Ford from 1975-77.


    Review panel


    Also named as review panel members were Frank Williams, chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and former US Rep Edward Biester, a Bucks County, Pennsylvania judge.


    All four are civilians and will be commissioned as major generals in the Army for two years.


    "We wanted to preserve the military nature of the decision-making process," one official said.


    One or two more review panel members may be named, officials added.


    The Pentagon said three-member review panels might consider appeals by defendants, prosecutors and nations whose citizens were being tried.




    Human rights groups and legal activists have criticised the trial rules as being designed to produce convictions.


    "I believe the backgrounds of the four review panel members that we announced today, including the fact that they are civilians, does add to the independence of the review panel process," a senior defence official said.


    The official rejected the need for civilian courts to hear appeals.


    "I think what we have right now is a complete, fair, stand-alone procedure," the official said.



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