On 17 October 2006, US President George W. Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act. The law, among other things, authorises the President to convene military commissions to try non-US nationals whom the US government considers to be “unlawful enemy combatants”.
Trials under the Military Commissions Act do not meet international standards. For example, this legislation:
- authorises trials by military commission which are not independent of the branches of government that have authorised and condoned human rights violations against those who will appear as defendants;
- allows military commissions to admit into evidence information obtained under cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and other unlawful practices;
- restricts the right of defendants to be represented by counsel of choice;
- discriminates on the basis of national origin. US nationals accused of the same offences would be tried by courts applying higher standards;
- allows the government to pursue and obtain death sentences after unfair trials.
Even if a detainee is acquitted by military commission, he can be returned to military detention as an “enemy combatant”, according to the government.
Justice delayed and justice denied
By October 2008, after nearly seven years of detentions at Guantanamo, only two of the more than 750 people who have been held at the base had been convicted by the US government.
Australian national David Hicks pleaded guilty under the Military Commissions Act pursuant to a pre-trial agreement that saw him released from Guantanamo to serve a short sentence in Australia.
Yemeni Salim Hamdan was the first Guantánamo detainee convicted after trial under the Military Commissions Act.
The US authorities have said that they plan to bring to trial by military commission as many as 80 of the Guantanamo detainees.
It remains to be seen whether the next US administration will continue with these trials. We will be urging it not to.
What needs to happen?
Amnesty International wants the US government to:
- repeal or substantially amend the Military Commissions Act;
- abandon military commission trials;
- release detainees at Guantanamo unless they are to be charged and tried in ordinary civilian courts in the USA,
- drop any pursuit of the death penalty;
- close Guantanamo for good.