Pentagon terror trials to allow hearsay evidence

Freedom’s on the march. From AlJazeera, Jan. 18:

The US defence department has released new rules allowing terror suspects to be convicted and possibly executed on the basis of hearsay evidence and some coerced testimony.

The rules, which the department says are “fair”, are contained in a manual to be used for upcoming trials of terrorism suspects.

At a Pentagon briefing, Dan Dell’Orto, the deputy to the defence department’s top counsel, said the new rules will “afford all the judicial guarantees which are recognised as indispensable by civilised people”.

But the 238-page manual could spark a fresh confrontation between the Bush administration and the Democratic-led Congress over the treatment of terror suspects.

Classified information

The manual states that the defence must notify the judge if it expects to disclose classified information, allowing the government to object to any questioning of witnesses.

But the suspect would not be allowed to see any classified material used against them, and receive only an unclassified summary.

“When you’re in the middle of a war against this enemy, you need to be particularly concerned about the disclosure of that evidence”, Dell’Orto said of classified materials.

The manual prohibits the use of statements obtained through torture and “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” as prohibited by the US Constitution.

But it allows some evidence obtained through coercive interrogation techniques if obtained before December 30, 2005, and deemed reliable by a judge.

Congress and the White House also agreed last year that hearsay – evidence based on what is reported to a witness by others rather than on what they have observed for themselves – can be allowed as evidence if a judge rules the testimony reliable.

Death penalty

The manual states: “As a general matter, hearsay shall be admitted on the same terms as any evidence.”

Dell’Orto said that since both sides of the case can admit hearsay evidence, that “levels the playing field”.

In outlining the maximum punishment for various acts, the new manual includes the death penalty for people convicted of spying or taking part in a “conspiracy or joint enterprise” that kills someone.

The maximum penalty for aiding the enemy – such as providing ammunition or money – is life imprisonment.

There are almost 400 people being held at the military’s prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Thomas Hemingway, a legal adviser to the Pentagon’s office on commissions, said US officials think that with the evidence they have now, they could eventually charge 60 to 80 detainees.

The defence department is currently planning trials for at least 10.

See our last post on the torture and detainment scandal.