MIAMI — Some prisoners at Guantanamo are getting an opportunity to plead for their release, but journalists and observers from human rights groups won't get to hear them in what critics say is a break from past practice at the U.S. base in Cuba.
The Department of Defense is restricting access to a series of hearings that start Tuesday, requiring reporters and observers from non-governmental organizations to view the proceedings only by video link from Washington. They also will not be able to listen when prisoners held for more than a decade without charge address a committee known as the Periodic Review Board that will decide whether they can be sent back to their homeland or another country.
The Pentagon, which says it must impose restrictions for security reasons, says it will release a transcript of what the prisoner tells the board after the hearing. But, in a recently released memo, it notes that the transcript may be redacted or altered.
Neither observers, nor prisoners, will be permitted to hear the classified portion of the session.
Lawyers for human rights groups and media organizations, including The Associated Press, have been pressing for complete access to the non-classified portion, arguing that barring outside observers undermines the credibility of the proceedings.
"The detainee explaining why he doesn't pose a risk, why he should go home, that seems to be the whole point of the proceeding and we won't get to see it," said Andrea Prasow, an attorney with Human Rights Watch. "I think that's pretty outrageous."
A Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, says the government decided not to allow the media and NGOs to view the proceedings from Guantanamo because of the cost and logistical complexities of bringing outsiders to the base in southeast Cuba. The restriction on listening to prisoners speak is to maintain "reasonable security," and prevent sensitive information from getting out.
"The department is trying to provide maximum transparency and public accountability," Breasseale said.
Critics note that outside observers have been allowed to hear what prisoners have to say during previous military review boards convened in both Afghanistan and Guantanamo. At the base in Cuba, men appearing at hearings and before the war crimes tribunals over the years have proclaimed their innocence, denounced their detention and alleged abuse by their captors.
"It's a significant new restriction on the level of transparency that has been allowed until now," said David A. Schulz, a lawyer for a coalition of 14 media organizations. "You could argue that because of the extraordinary nature of the situation that it's even more important that there be maximum transparency."
Another issue raised by critics is how much the six-member Periodic Review Board will rely on information that will never be disclosed to the public. "If the bulk of the evidence against the detainee is classified, then there won't be much to see and we're all in a position, once again, of being asked to trust the government that it's doing the right thing," said Daphne Eviatar, an attorney with Human Rights First.
The board, whose members include representatives of six U.S. government agencies — including the State Department and Homeland Security — will also be in Washington, though in a separate location from journalists and NGO observers. They will determine whether prisoners designated for indefinite detention at Guantanamo can now join the list of about 80 prisoners awaiting transfer to their homeland or another country. Congress has barred sending any of the men to the United States.
The review board is a component of President Barack Obama's effort to close Guantanamo, which opened in January 2002 to hold detainees suspected of terrorism or links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and now holds 155 prisoners.
A task force set up to review the status of all prisoners concluded in January 2010 that 48 of the 240 prisoners held at the time were too dangerous to release but could not be prosecuted either because of a lack of evidence or for some other reason. These men were to be held indefinitely but receive periodic review to determine if circumstances had changed.
The number of prisoners eligible to receive a review has fluctuated. Of the original 48, two have died. Court rulings in the U.S., meanwhile, have reduced the number of prisoners who can be prosecuted by military tribunal so around 70 are now being held indefinitely and are expected to qualify for a re-evaluation at some point.
Amid a renewed Obama administration effort to close Guantanamo, the first PRB was held in November for a prisoner from Yemen, Mahmud Mujahid. No journalists were allowed to attend because the government had not resolved logistical issues, Breasseale said. The Pentagon announced Jan. 9 that the board determined the prisoner no longer posed enough of a threat to warrant keeping him at Guantanamo.
That doesn't mean he will be free anytime soon. The Obama administration has balked at sending Yemenis to their homeland because of instability there. More than 50 men from Yemen being held at Guantanamo have been cleared for transfer but are waiting for the U.S. to decide that conditions are safe enough to return them, or find a third country willing to accept them.
The next PRB, the first in which outside observers will be allowed, is Tuesday, and will be for Abdel Malik al-Rahabi, a Yemeni who was among about 30 Arab fighters detained on suspicion of serving as bodyguards to Osama bin Laden.
His case will be followed by Ghaleb Nasser, also from Yemen. His attorney, Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said she is hopeful he will be cleared for transfer, but also wary because of the hold up in sending Yemenis to their homeland. "For the process to be truly meaningful there needs to be much more transparency, they need to pick up the pace, and clearance has to mean transfer out," Kebriaei said. "It does no one any good to add to the pile of people who are cleared and not transferred."