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First War Crimes Trials Under New Law Expected by Summer

By Neil A. Lewis


The Pentagon expects to begin conducting the first war crimes trials at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, under the new military commission law by summer, senior military officials have said.

But the trials will not involve any of 14 senior Qaida operatives recently sent to Guantanamo from secret CIA custody, the officials added. Instead, military prosecutors are planning to roll out the new system by trying some of the 10 people previously charged with lesser crimes whose earlier trials were aborted when the Supreme Court struck down the previous system of military commissions as unlawful.

Prosecutors have recently begun reviewing the records in the cases of the higher-profile prisoners, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, said to be the chief planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The chief prosecutor, Col. Morris D. Davis of the Air Force, said in an interview that those cases would be “huge and complex” and would involve a team of Justice Department lawyers as well as FBI agents. Davis would not speculate on when those cases would be ready for trial.

Other Pentagon and Justice Department officials said it could be well into 2008, at the earliest, before the men believed to have been the high command structure of al-Qaida sat in the dock at Guantanamo, where they will almost certainly face the death penalty.

The anticipated dates for the resumption of the trials at Guantanamo, the first war crimes trials conducted by the United States since the end of World War II, is far slower than the pace suggested by President Bush and many who supported the measure that Congress approved to authorize the new proceedings.

Officials say no trials can proceed — indeed, no charges will be issued — until the Office of Military Commissions in the Pentagon produces a new operations manual for war crimes trials. The manual will list the elements the government needs to prove to convict a detainee for each of the possible crimes to be charged.

The trials of the senior Qaida figures may evoke images similar to those depicted in the photographs of the Nuremberg tribunals, with defendants arrayed alongside one another in the courtroom wearing headphones for the translation of the proceedings.

Officials said some Guantanamo defendants would be tried as a group facing the same wide-ranging conspiracy charges.