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A family feud over the fate of Guantanamo

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Williams is a Times staff writer.

Foes and supporters of the Guantanamo prisons and tribunal have stepped up the debate over the fate of the controversial operations by enlisting relatives of Sept. 11 victims in an ideological duel.

Thirty-one family members of victims announced in a letter distributed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union that they considered the Bush administration’s prosecution of terrorism suspects here unconstitutional and politically motivated.

Their statement in support of President-elect Barack Obama’s vow to close Guantanamo came after emotional appeals made Monday by nine relatives selected by the Pentagon and brought here to witness proceedings against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other alleged Sept. 11 plotters.

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Several of the family members who were whisked in and out of Guantanamo over a three-day period said they had been told Obama might be persuaded to continue the trials now that he was privy to intelligence about the national security value of the tribunal.

“I would like to see this continue on as smoothly as possible,” said Vaughn Hoglan, whose nephew Mark Bingham died in the crash of United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. “I feel they’re being treated very fairly.”

Hamilton Peterson, whose father and stepmother died in the same crash as Bingham, said, “Guantanamo Bay seems to be daubed with the same dark brush” as Abu Ghraib prison, which he said was unfair.

Peterson expressed confidence that Obama would come to understand the logic of retaining the prison and carrying on the prosecution of the alleged Sept. 11 perpetrators.

The Pentagon didn’t coach the family members to speak in defense of Guantanamo, said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey D. Gordon, who organized a news conference with the relatives. But he conceded that as an advocate for Guantanamo, it crossed his mind that the family members could provide an influential voice in the debate.

Defense lawyers and human rights groups described the news conference as propaganda and an exploitation of the relatives’ suffering.

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Thomas Durkin, a civilian defense lawyer for Yemeni suspect Ramzi Binalshibh, called the presentation of grieving family members praising the tribunal an attempt at “political blackmail” to force Obama to retreat from his promise to close the court and prisons.

The ACLU, which has campaigned to close Guantanamo since the first terrorism suspects arrived in January 2002, distributed the letter signed by 31 different relatives saying the views expressed Monday were “not necessarily representative of all victims’ families.”

“Many of us do not believe these military commissions to be fair, in accordance with American values, or capable of achieving the justice that 9/11 family members and all Americans deserve,” the letter said.

“We believe that the secretive and unconstitutional nature of these proceedings deprive us of the right to know the full truth about what happened on 9/11,” the letter added.

Robin Theurkauf, whose husband died in the World Trade Center, said she was never offered a chance to take part in the “lottery” the Pentagon said it conducted to select family members for the trip. Flights to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay are limited, as are accommodations, which Gordon cited as reasons for the small delegation.

“I was kind of annoyed when I found out this opportunity was being offered to some and not others, based on their political beliefs,” said Theurkauf, a Yale University professor of international relations who has been critical of Guantanamo.

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She said she wanted to see the men accused of masterminding the deaths of her husband and nearly 3,000 others, even though she considers the tribunal illegitimate and opposes the death penalty that the five suspects face.

Michael J. Berrigan, deputy chief defense counsel for the tribunal, said the Pentagon’s arrangements to bring supportive family members to Guantanamo raised questions about political motives.

“I think it’s absolutely appropriate to have victims’ families witness trials and justice being done. But I don’t think justice is being done here,” said Berrigan, who said he preferred to try terrorism suspects in U.S. courts that complied with the Constitution and Geneva Conventions.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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