WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States plans to resume the war crimes trial of an Australian Guantanamo Bay prisoner this week without waiting for a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of these military tribunals.
The Supreme Court said last week it would decide whether President George W. Bush had the power to create the military commissions to put Guantanamo prisoners on trial for war crimes. The case before the high court involves Yemeni prisoner Salim Ahmed Hamdan. The justices could find the trials unconstitutional or endorse them as legal, among other possible outcomes.
A hearing is set for Friday at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the trial of David Hicks, one of about 500 foreign terrorism suspects held at the prison. His case is to be decided by a panel of military officers, called a commission, in the first such U.S. war crimes trials since World War II.
Lawrence Di Rita, chief Pentagon spokesman, said it was possible a U.S. court could step in to prevent the trial's resumption.
Lawyers for Hicks last week asked U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to delay the proceedings in light of the Supreme Court's review. The Bush administration opposed the motion to delay the proceedings. The judge has not ruled.
"The fact is we said we'd proceed on commissions. Hicks is up. And we're going to proceed. And if we're asked not to proceed or ordered not to proceed (by a court), then we won't. That's the plan," Di Rita told reporters.
Hicks, 30, is one of nine Guantanamo prisoners to be charged, with the rest held indefinitely without charges. The U.S. government has asserted its legal right to hold Guantanamo detainees "in perpetuity." Critics decry the prison camp as a blot on America's human rights record.
AIDING THE ENEMY
Hicks, held at Guantanamo for 3-1/2 years, was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in November 2001 and was accused of being an al Qaeda fighter. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of aiding the enemy, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit war crimes.
The most recent hearing in the Hicks case was in November 2004. The Pentagon then put the case on hold following an unfavorable court ruling last year questioning the legality of the commissions.
Human rights activists and military defense lawyers have criticized the commission rules, saying they favor prosecutors, allow evidence obtained through torture and hearsay and permit no independent judicial review. The Pentagon argued the rules will provide for full and fair trials.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld travels to Australia this week for annual bilateral ministerial talks. Di Rita said he expected the military commission process to be discussed.
The Australian government has supported the commission process and refused to seek Hicks's repatriation, saying it could not bring charges against him under anti-terrorism laws introduced after he was detained.
But Australia's foreign minister said on Nov. 1 his country would investigate allegations that Hicks was beaten and sexually abused by American forces before arriving at Guantanamo, in light of statements made by his father and a former detainee.
The U.S. Senate last week voted 49-42 to deny Guantanamo detainees the right to challenge their detentions with habeas corpus petitions in federal court. But senators were expected to reconsider the matter, with Democrats planning to offer more amendments on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Vicki Allen)
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