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Military panels to review Gitmo detainees

From Mike Mount
CNN Washington Bureau

A detainee rests in his cell in this June 30 photo reviewed by U.S. military officials.
Supreme Court
Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (Cuba)
Department of Defense

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Military officers next week will begin meeting with the more than 600 prisoners being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to determine the legality of their detentions, Pentagon officials said Friday.

Called Combatant Status Review Tribunals, the three-member panels are a response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June.

That court decision gave "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo the right to challenge their detentions in federal court.

But the panels are not a part of the federal court system, and that is part of the reason opponents of the review tribunals say they don't satisfy the high court's order.

Several groups are challenging the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists.

"The [Department of Defense] takes the view that all of the detainees have already been determined to be enemy combatants by using a definition of the term different from the courts, and that it may exercise its discretion to release some of them," said Barbara Olshansky of the Center for Constitutional Rights, an organization representing several of the detainees.

There will be three review tribunals with three military officers sitting on each. The tribunal will conduct one-time-only reviews to determine whether a detainee is correctly being held as an enemy combatant.

If a panel determines a detainee is not an an enemy combatant, the the case will be sent to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who will work with the secretary of state to arrange that detainee's trip back to his home country, officials said.

Detainees judged to still be a threat to the United States would remain in detention.

Reviews will occur at Gitmo, with each team striving to complete 72 cases per week.

Detainees will have access to interpreters and military assistants -- not lawyers -- to help in their cases.

Pentagon officials said Friday that the military assistants would have to pass any information received from detainees to the tribunal officials.

"The Supreme Court ruling requires access to legal representation. This process is elaborate window dressing and an attempt to subvert that ruling and the rule of law," said Jeffrey E. Fogel, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The panels will apply only to foreign nationals held at Guantanamo, Pentagon officials said. Most of those imprisoned on the naval station's grounds are captives from the war in Afghanistan. About a dozen of the Guantanamo detainees are accused of participating in terrorist attacks or of being members of al Qaeda.

Pentagon officials said the review panels will eventually be open to the media. But the first few are likely to start before coverage guidelines are settled.

The Supreme Court ruled in late June that U.S. citizens and foreign nationals held as terror suspects in military custody have the right to challenge their detentions.

In reviewing the constitutionality of the administration's war on terror policies, the justices upheld the right of the executive branch to hold such suspects.

The military notified the detainees of their rights during the past week, officials said.

About 95 percent of the detainees reacted positively to the notification, meaning they were interested in going through the process, Pentagon officials said.

Five percent of the detainees were not pleased and did not acknowledge the notifications, said Pentagon officials.

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