Human Rights Groups Shut Out of Attending Guantanamo Trials

The Pentagon has refused requests of three human rights groups to attend the upcoming military tribunal trials at Guantanamo. The reason given was "limited courtroom seating and other logistical issues.”

In a letter sent last week to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Amnesty International, Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) and Human Rights Watch protested their exclusion from the proceedings and urged the U.S. government to rethink its position.

Despite the Bush administration's promise that the commissions would be open to the public, the Pentagon has refused to grant any of these organizations permission to attend the proceedings. Over the last month, the Department of Defense has responded to written requests from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, with a brief statement that it intended only to provide seating for select members of the press and for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

"The Defense Department wants to control who can talk to the journalists covering the trials,” said Wendy Patten, U.S. advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Pentagon has imposed a gag rule on defense lawyers, who can only speak to the press with the military’s permission. Now it wants to shut out experienced trial observers who could provide the public with independent analysis.”

The three human rights groups have been deeply involved in monitoring sensitive trials, including trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and assessing them against international standards. By attending the commissions, they could provide the public with independent and informed analysis of the trials. With the Pentagon’s decision to deny access to human rights groups, however, journalists covering the trials will be able to talk only to military officials about the proceedings.

The justification of courtroom space is bogus:

Courtroom seating for independent human rights groups could be handled through a pool process, just as the Pentagon is currently putting in place for the media. “These space constraints are being used as a pretext to keep out groups who have been critical of the commissions,” said Elisa Massimino, Washington Director of Human Rights First. “The Pentagon used its promise that the trials would be open to the public to reassure people that the trials would be fair. But now it appears ‘open’ doesn't really mean open. It means ‘open only to hand-picked press and not to anyone who’s been critical.’”

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