Stacked deck at Guantanamo

This editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Since when has a trial in a U.S. courtroom opened with the prosecutor voluntarily screening a video of the accused, bound, hooded and being grilled by armed and masked government agents?

What happened last week at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the Bush administration's first terrorism war-crimes tribunal, though, bears only a passing likeness to the American system of justice.

That may prove to be the one redeeming aspect of this proceeding. By exposing the justice-lite procedures implemented to try the Guantanamo detainees, this first tribunal and others to follow could lead the next White House and Congress to order a fundamental shift in the nation's anti-terror campaign.

The direction of that shift? Back toward the rule of law. How novel.

Right now, military tribunals conceived by Bush officials can consider hearsay evidence, as well as information gleaned through interrogations that amount to torture. Terrorism suspects like Salim Ahmed Hamdan — the Yemeni on trial after admitting to working as Osama bin Laden's driver — don't even enjoy a basic right against self-incrimination.

That does this nation no honor.

This trial is entering its second week even though the entire legal underpinnings of the tribunals have been called into question by the U.S. Supreme Court. Since the high court in June granted the Guantanamo detainees the right to challenge their open-ended jailing before federal judges, it makes little sense to hold Hamdan's trial.

But push ahead, the Bush administration did — with the approval of a federal judge in Washington, who said Hamdan's habeas corpus appeal of his detention had to wait until his tribunal concluded.

Well, guess what? First and foremost, there was some welcome push-back from the judge, Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred, on the issue of what might be called torture-acquired evidence. Allred excluded as evidence ”coercive“ interrogations of Hamdan in Afghanistan, saying, ”The interests of justice are not served by admitting these statements because of the highly coercive environment and conditions under which they were made.“

The jury of military officers may yet be allowed to hear evidence from other intense interrogations done at Guantanamo, but at least Allred put down a marker for justice.

The nation whose founding documents are the model for democracies the world over should already know how to win hearts and minds — and legal cases — without bending the rules.

That won't happen at Guantanamo, where suspects in the tribunals face a stacked deck.