GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA (AFP) – The United States is laying plans to try 60 to 80 Al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects for war crimes at this remote naval base starting as early as mid 2007, senior US defense officials said.
It is unclear whether the biggest fish here — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and 13 other top Al-Qaeda captives brought here September 5 from secret CIA detention centers — will be among those tried.
Even so, if the trials by special military commissions survive legal challenges that doomed an earlier attempt to try “war on terror” detainees, they will be on a scale comparable to the Nazi war crimes trials held at Nuremburg after World War II.
Cully Stimson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee operations, told reporters “about 60 to 80 defendants” are expected to go on trial.
“Assuming people are charged with war crimes, my understanding is arraignments and trials could start as early as next summer,” he said.
“There will be a group that will be prosecuted,” he said. “More will be transferred. It’s the very high value detainees, the very dangerous detainees who are the most difficult cases.”
“The Office of Military commissions will investigate the detainees. I assume they will include the 14. They will decide who will be charged,” Stimson added.
The 14 will first face a military panel that will review their status as enemy combatants, in what may provide the first public glimpse of the captured Al-Qaeda leaders.
Brigadier General Edward Leacock, the deputy commander of the joint task force that runs detention operations at Guantanamo, said the suspects were “in excellent health.”
There had been no incidents since their arrival at Guantanamo, he said, adding: “They have been very compliant.”
The military commissions were authorized by a law signed earlier this month by President George W. Bush after the Supreme Court rejected an earlier administration attempt to establish a similar system of special military commissions.
Stimson said a manual for court martials under military commissions have to be developed and new investigations conducted before charges will be brought against any detainees, which will give the military some time to prepare.
Guantanamo has only one court room and scant accomodations even for visiting military personnel, much less for the hundreds of lawyers, paralegals, journalists and others expected to descend on the base if trials get off the ground.
“The logistics end of it is pretty significant,” said Leacock. “That’s one of the big things we need to address right now. What does it take to support and operate commissions the next couple of years, maybe two years?”
The preparations include proposals for the construction of a new judicial complex with five to 10 court rooms to handle multiple trials by special military commissions, he said.
Several sites for the complex were under consideration, he said, including an airfield that is no longer in use because its runway is too short for modern aircraft.
Lying in tropical, iguana-infested isolation at the mouth of Guantanano Bay on the southeastern tip of Cuba, the base is cut off from the rest of the island by high fences, land mines and Cold War-era animosities.
That has made it an ideal place for the detention camps that now hold some 454 Taliban and al-Qaeda suspects, but also a logistical challenge for high profile trials that are certain to draw intense international scrutiny.
“Gitmo doesn’t have a Home Depot,” said Leacock, a reference to the popular US hardware chain. “So if you want to build something, there’s a process for getting material, supplies and equipment down here.”
“We have a barge that comes down here every other week. On that barge they bring all our supplies.”
“The joke around here is if you don’t got it, it’s on the barge,” he said.