A suspected al Qaeda terrorist charged in a March 2002 grenade attack in Afghanistan that injured three journalists appeared Tuesday before a military tribunal to answer to charges of attacking civilians, aiding the enemy and conspiracy.
Abdul Zahir sat down at the defense table, wearing no handcuffs and appearing relaxed, inside the tribunal building perched on a hill on this U.S. military base. His U.S. military defense counsel almost immediately began asking the judge, Marine Col. Robert S. Chester, what laws he would follow in presiding over the trial. The Guantanamo Bay trials are the first military tribunals held by the U.S. military since the World War II era.
Chester, wearing a black robe over his green uniform shirt, refused to be pinned down.
"Obviously military law is going to have some application," Chester said. "I suppose we will look at military criminal law and federal criminal laws and procedures."
Pressed by the defense attorney, identified only as Army Lt. Col. Bogar, Chester would not identify what set of laws would guide the trial.
"I'm not going to speculate as to what is or what is not controlling," he said.
Critics of the military tribunals say it is a poorly planned ad hoc process.
David Scheffer, a law professor at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, said even the charge of conspiracy, for example, does not exist as a war crime. Scheffer is a former U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues.
"Technically, the government should have charged participation in a joint criminal enterprise to commit such crimes, or, if the facts merit, aiding and abetting," Scheffer told The Associated Press. "But these all generate different evidentiary requirements than does the crime of conspiracy, which may be why the government does not want to tackle those tougher standards."
Zahir served as a translator for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 1997 and then worked as a translator and money courier for Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, a commander and accountant for al Qaeda, the U.S. government said.
Later, Zahir took a more active role with al Qaeda, the U.S. government said.
In early 2002, he joined al-Iraqi to plan bomb attacks against U.S. forces and civilian foreigners in Afghanistan, the military said.
He was captured in July 2002, three months after the attack on the journalists, who were in Afghanistan covering the U.S. military operations that ousted the country's hardline Taliban rulers. The Taliban had allowed al Qaeda to maintain bases in Afghanistan before Osama bin Laden's terror group launched the Sept. 11 attacks.
Zahir is charged with working with two other terrorists in the attack against the journalists, in which a grenade was thrown through the window of their vehicle as they traveled toward Gardez. Toronto Star correspondent Kathleen Kenna suffered serious leg injuries.
Zahir, an Afghan, also was charged with producing anti-American leaflets to recruit Afghans living near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and near the U.S. military bases in Afghanistan to commit terrorist attacks against American soldiers.
Nearly 500 detainees are held at this U.S. military base in southeastern Cuba. The U.S. has filed charges against 10 of them.
The Supreme Court is considering a case by another Guantanamo bay detainee challenging the administration's plans to try him before a military tribunal that provides fewer legal protections than the civilian court system and was last used in the World War II era.