How Evidence Stacks Up on Military Tribunals ; Some Say That Due-Process Protections Are Insufficient, Although the Pentagon Has Made Some Changes

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When President Bush authorized the creation of military tribunals for suspected terrorists last November, he insisted they would provide "full and fair" trials.

Exactly how full and how fair is now coming into sharper focus. And as new details are disclosed, they're only adding more fuel to an already fiery debate over the propriety of the United States seeking to carve out a special, ad hoc brand of justice for those accused of terrorism.

It remains unclear how many tribunals may ultimately be held for suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Some of the 550 detainees in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo may be transferred to their home countries for trial. Some may be designated as prisoners of war and held pending the outcome of the Afghan war. Others may be set free after interrogation and investigation.

And still others may be forced to stand trial before specially assembled tribunals of three to seven US military-service members, who - upon a unanimous vote - may order their execution.

The prospect of even a handful of military tribunals has some analysts concerned about how the world may perceive such an assertion of authority by the United States.

"It matters that justice be done and that it be seen to be done," says Allister Hodgett of Amnesty International in Washington. "It is difficult to imagine how justice will be done or be seen to be done if these military commissions operate as prescribed."

Lawyers at the Pentagon drafting the rules for tribunals have offered some modifications to address concerns of critics, such as guaranteeing a right to civilian counsel of choice, a right to examine evidence, and a right to open tribunals.

But the rules nonetheless offer no right to an appeal to an independent judicial authority, and they permit rules of evidence that are so lax that tribunals could, by a simple majority vote, agree to accept evidence and confessions obtained under torture.

Such lax rules are unacceptable in the US military-justice system, experts say.

Critics of the plan say it ignores US and international law and could establish a dangerous precedent that might condemn American military forces and civilians to identical treatment in future conflicts.

But Bush administration officials say the tribunals will help balance the need for a fair process with the need to protect the security of the nation. Supporters of the White House strategy say Osama bin Laden and his followers are stateless and lawless renegades who have disqualified themselves from the protections of the Geneva Conventions and international law through their own indiscriminately violent actions. …