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Defendant at Guantanamo Bay Says He Is an Al Qaeda Member

Times Staff Writer

A Yemeni prisoner confessed to being a member of Al Qaeda during a preliminary hearing before a military commission Thursday, but was cut off in mid-sentence by the presiding official and was not allowed to complete his statement.

In a show-stopping moment in the third day of military hearings for suspected terrorists, Ali Hamza Ahamad Sulayman al Bahlul said in Arabic: “People of the entire globe, know that I testify that the American government put me under no pressure. I am from Al Qaeda and the relationship between me and Sept 11th ... “

Bahlul was halted by retired Army Col. Peter Brownback III, who told his four fellow commission members serving as judges to disregard the statement. Brownback said the trial had not reached the stage at which the detainee could offer a plea and said it was unclear whether Bahlul would be represented by an attorney and therefore should not issue a plea. It was not clear what purpose Bahlul had in making the announcement.

At a briefing in Washington, Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Hemingway, the chief Pentagon legal advisor on the commissions, said that if it was later determined that Bahlul’s statement had prejudiced the panel, Brownback could convene another commission. The detainee faces a possible life sentence on a charge of conspiracy to commit war crimes.

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He is the third detainee to face a preliminary hearing before the military commission, which began considering charges against some of the 585 detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay this week. The commission hears charges against a fourth detainee today.

Bahlul, 36, has said he does not want representation by an attorney appointed by the U.S. military and would prefer to represent himself. Brownback first said that rules would not allow detainees to represent themselves, but later said he would pass the question on to retired Army Maj. Gen. John D. Altenburg Jr., head of the Pentagon Office of Military Commissions.

But the hearing also was beset by translation problems, which left it unclear what Bahlul was trying to say.

The official commission translation had Bahlul prefacing his confession by saying: “The decision is the evidence.... I testify that the American government is under no pressure ... “

Outside court, a translator for another defendant and an Arab journalist both asserted that Bahlul actually said, “Confession is the highest form of evidence.... People of the entire globe know that I testify that the American government put me under no pressure ... “

At a separate proceeding across the base to determine whether a Moroccan was lawfully being held as an enemy combatant, the accused man argued with a government translator over whether he said that he went on a pilgrimage to Afghanistan or that he had moved there.

The translation difficulties and confusion over hearing rules angered some observers.

“What we saw this morning was really a clash of issues of translation and a lack of identifiable procedure,” Jumana Musa of Amnesty International said. “When a trial proceeds as it did this morning, it really calls into question the entire process.”

For the second day, defense lawyers stopped the hearing because of complaints over translation errors. A translator was dismissed for the day Tuesday after a defense lawyer complained that his client “can’t understand a thing the translator is saying.” In one case, a translator used the phrase “United States or its allies” when the questioner referred to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance.

Arabic includes a broad variety of dialects that in some cases are so distinct that Arab speakers cannot understand one another.

Bahlul’s Pentagon-appointed lawyers, Navy Cmdr. Philip Sundel and Army Maj. Mark Bridges, said that after months of trying to get their Yemeni translator approved, they accepted an alternate who had military approval. They ended up firing that person for incompetence.

Critics said that the translation issues suggested that confessions and witness statements made to military investigators and used as evidence against the detainees might be unreliable -- an issue that defense lawyers were expected to raise.

“We have to wonder who are the other translators who are doing the interrogations,” observer Sam Zia-Zarifi of Human Rights Watch said.

The legal and translation difficulties perplexed observers and underscored the difficulties of crafting a justice system from scratch. The military commission process was authorized by President Bush in 2001 to try prisoners from the war in Afghanistan. It is based loosely on a brand of military justice last used in World War II. With little legal precedent and a structure that requires only that the presiding officer be a lawyer, the panel of five members and one alternate was left exploring new ground.

“What occurred in court today indicates some confusion where a body of law is not historically complete, where there is no precedent to rely on,” said Neal Sonnett, an observer with the American Bar Assn.

The translation problems are particularly nettlesome because only the court reporter retains a recording of the proceedings, and a military spokesman, Col. David McWilliams, said no recording would be publicly released, even for historical purposes.


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