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Secret hearings for top 9/11 suspects

Times Staff Writer

U.S. military officials held secret administrative hearings at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for at least three terrorism suspects, including two alleged planners of the Sept. 11 attacks, a first step in determining whether they should be tried before a military commission.

Pentagon spokesmen announced that a combatant status review tribunal hearing for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, perhaps the most well-known Al Qaeda suspect in U.S. custody, was held Saturday. On Friday, the military held hearings for Abu Faraj Libbi and Ramzi Binalshibh. A fourth hearing for an unspecified suspect was to have been held Monday.

A combatant status review tribunal determines whether a detainee is an “enemy combatant.” Once foreign detainees are so classified, they may be charged and tried before a military commission.

U.S. officials have accused Mohammed of planning the Sept. 11 attacks with the help of Binalshibh. A Kuwaiti-born militant of Pakistani descent, Mohammed claimed to have brought the idea for a multi-plane suicide hijacking plot to Al Qaeda in the mid-1990s after a similar scheme was thwarted by Philippine authorities, U.S. officials have said. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mohammed became Al Qaeda’s operational commander, overseeing several attacks before his capture in Pakistan in March 2003.

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Libbi, a Libyan, reportedly succeeded Mohammed as the No. 3 leader of Al Qaeda. The most wanted man in Pakistan at one time, he allegedly masterminded two attempts to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, announced Monday that one of the three suspects did not attend his hearing, but defense officials would not say who attended the hearings, and who refused. Detainees are not required to attend.

There are about 385 detainees being held at Guantanamo.

Mohammed, Libbi and Binalshibh were among 14 detainees transferred last year from CIA custody to the U.S.-run detention center at Guantanamo. The Pentagon announced this month that hearings for the 14 would be held over the next few weeks.

The Pentagon began holding the review tribunals in July 2004, as the result of a Supreme Court decision. Most detainees are designated as enemy combatants before they are formally charged with crimes. But the review tribunals themselves are considered administrative procedures and the detainees are not allowed lawyers. Instead, each is provided a military “personal representative” who assists in preparing his case.

Each detainee is given one review tribunal. But each year, detainees may appear before an Administrative Review Board, which determines whether a detainee is still an enemy combatant. The tribunals and review boards, in addition to formal trials by a military commission, all are proceedings instituted by the Bush administration after Sept. 11 and modified by Congress, and have been the subject of lengthy court disputes.

The first wave of 558 tribunals, held from July 2004 to March 2005, were open to the media, but the Pentagon decided to close the new tribunals for the 14 detainees formerly held by the CIA. Defense officials said they expected to release redacted transcripts of the hearings and unclassified summaries of the evidence against those inmates by the end of the week.

It is unclear what information will be removed from the released transcripts, but defense officials have said information about ongoing investigations or operations could be censored. It also is possible the Pentagon will take out allegations of mistreatment, especially if the detainees raise issues about classified CIA interrogation methods.

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Under the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, detainees are allowed to request a review of the status tribunals by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. But the court has not yet heard such a case. Rather than appealing the review results, defense lawyers have been petitioning the courts to win broader habeas corpus rights for their clients.

A second law, the 2006 Military Commissions Act, restricted habeas corpus rights of Guantanamo detainees. Though the appellate court upheld those provisions, a Supreme Court challenge is expected.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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