SUDAN WATCH: Pentagon convenes Sudanese war-crime cases

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pentagon convenes Sudanese war-crime cases

From Miami Herald by Carol Rosenberg, 19 October 2009:
Pentagon convenes Sudanese war-crime cases
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- With U.S.-Sudan policy in flux, the Pentagon on Monday airlifted a planeload of lawyers and other staff to this remote base for hearings in the war court cases of two long-held Sudanese captives accused of working for al Qaeda.

Noor Uthman Mohammed, in his 40s, is up first Wednesday with a Pentagon prosecutor's request for another delay in the military commissions case that alleges he helped run a jihadist training camp in 1990s Afghanistan.

Defense lawyers, meantime, are seeking more transparency in the case that accuses their Sudanese client of conspiring with al Qaeda to support terror.

In Washington, the White House announced a renewed drive toward engagement with the now-ostracized government of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, saying it is poised to ratchet up sanctions over the genocide in Darfur or offer unspecified incentives for improving human rights there.

Bashir has been charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, a body that has multinational backing. In contrast, the Guantánamo war court here was created in the Bush years, after the 9/11 attacks, as a unilateral American institution to handle international terror cases.

Sudan's government has been on the State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list since the 90s for giving sanctuary to Osama bin Laden. Sudan responded by asking him to leave, which he did for Afghanistan.

Still, the timing of the latest diplomatic drive and U.S. military commission session appeared coincidental rather than signaling a focus on Sudan by the Defense and State Departments.

The war court airlift left Andrews Air Force Base at dawn Monday, and the 100 lawyers and other staff were en route for Wednesday's session for two Sudanese men as the White House was briefing on its new carrot or stick approach to Khartoum.

"I'd love to think my government is that organized,'' said Navy Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, defense attorney for alleged al Qaeda foot soldier Ibrahim al Qosi of Sudan, who has a hearing Wednesday, too. "But I don't believe it is, particularly on anything surrounding Guantánamo.''

Moreover, the U.S. has carved out a special relationship with Khartoum over its Guantánamo detainees, even as it has condemned it over Darfur. During the Bush administration, for example, the U.S. repatriated nine Sudanese citizens from the prison camps here, the best known among them former Al Jazeera soundman turned human rights correspondent Sami al Hajj.

Wednesday, a Sudanese lawyer will watch the hearings here via a closed-circuit feed to the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum. The U.S. has agreed to let him serve as a foreign legal adviser to the defense in the Qosi case.

Essentially, this week's session is designed to win government delays in the cases while the Obama White House considers how much, if at all, to use military commissions.

Defense attorneys for both men have asked their military judges to dismiss the charges, arguing that, after two earlier delays, the clock should run out on the cases even as the Obama administration decides what to do with them.

Obama has said he prefers classic criminal prosecutions but recognizes that commissions can be at times useful. Justice Department attorneys are now studying all six current war crimes prosecution to decide which should shift to federal courts on U.S. soil.

In tandem, Attorney General Eric Holder is overseeing a massive review of the files of all 221 foreign men held here to decide who should be sent home or resettled elsewhere under President Barack Obama's Jan. 22 order to empty the prison camps.

Only three detainees among the nearly 800 held here across the years have had full war crimes cases. Two were convicted, one on a plea bargain, and got such short sentences that they are now free -- in Australia and Yemen.

The third is serving life for working as Bin Laden's media aide and producing an al Qaeda recruiting film.

The two Sudanese cases up Wednesday also seek life sentences for each man, if convicted on allegations that they worked with al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the years before the 9/11 attacks.

Pakistani security forces captured Noor in a suspected terrorist safehouse in Faisalabad in March 2002 in a sweep that caught alleged arch-terrorist Abu Zubaydeh, who was sent to a CIA dark site while most of the other captives were sent here for interrogation.

Wednesday afternoon brings a hearing for Qosi, a 49-year-old Sudanese man whom the Pentagon at one time accused of being al Qaeda's payroll clerk.

It dropped those charges after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled former President George Bush's first war court unconstitutional, and he is now charged with supporting terror and conspiracy for allegedly serving as a bodyguard for Bin Laden in Afghanistan, a member of an al Qaeda mortar crew and supply officer at a Bin Laden's "Star of Jihad'' compound in Jalalabad.

The Pentagon notified news organizations late last week about Monday's trip from Washington to report on Wednesday's hearing.

But, the war court spokesman, Joe DellaVedova, said this week's hearing was scheduled "months ago" and cast the Sudan policy connection as unintended.

"The purpose of the continuance hearings is for the government to follow the President's Executive Order while the government completes its legal reviews of the Military Commissions cases,'' said DellaVedova. "The government believes it is in the interest of justice to pause proceedings until a forum determination is made in each commission case.'

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