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Gitmo Detainees Plead Innocence

The Pentagon says it will keep prisoners in Guantanamo until the war on terror is won. But inside Camp Delta, both prisoners and guards know that could be a long time.
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Hands bound and feet chained to the floor, two Afghan detainees pleaded for their freedom before U.S. military tribunals, both saying they were with Taliban forces but never fought against American troops.

The first detainee, who has been held for 2½ years, spoke quietly through a Pashto interpreter Thursday to declare he had a Taliban-issued Kalashnikov rifle but wasn't involved in battle. "I wasn't going to fight anyone," the 31-year-old said.

The other prisoner, who is 49 years old, said through an interpreter that he was a wood seller who was forced to join the Islamic militia. "The Taliban came to my house and they took me," said the man, who had a full gray beard and closely shorn hair.

The hearings, held in a windowless 10-foot-by-20-foot room in a trailer, were the ninth and 10th since the tribunal process began last week to determine whether some 585 prisoners at the U.S. military prison should continue to be held as "enemy combatants."

The hearings are the first opportunity detainees have had to formally plead their cases since they began arriving at Guantanamo in January 2002. But human rights lawyers criticize the hearings as a sham, pointing out detainees are not allowed lawyers and saying the officers hearing cases can't be considered impartial.

The detainees wore orange garb as they sat before the panels, hands and feet bound and chained to a metal ring in the floor.

Journalists were barred from releasing detainees' names or taking photos. They were allowed to see about an hour of the first hearing Thursday, and more than 30 minutes of the second before the proceedings were closed so panel members could review classified information.

The U.S. military was allowing journalists inside a review hearing for a second day Friday to observe as a three-member panel considered the case of another detainee among hundreds accused of ties to al Qaeda or the Taliban militia that used to rule Afghanistan.

During the second hearing Thursday, the 49-year-old Afghan said the Taliban forced him to go to the city of Kunduz, where he was held in a compound with an armed guard posted outside.

"We could not leave the compound," the man said. "They were sending people by numbers to fight," he said, adding that he was never called.

The detainee asked to call three witnesses to support his argument that he was forced to join the Taliban, but the tribunal president refused, saying that wasn't relevant.

Both Afghan detainees said they had surrendered to a Northern Alliance commander, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek strongman.

After surrendering, the 49-year-old said he and other captives were brought to Shiberghan, where the Northern Alliance loaded them into shipping containers and closed the doors. "In that container, some of the people died because it was too hot," he said.

The 31-year-old Afghan acknowledged he had a Taliban-issued Kalashnikov but said it was given to him "forcefully." "They were giving (rifles) to everybody," he said.

Asked by a tribunal official whether he had surrendered in a car with a Taliban leader, he said "yes."

The review panels have the power to recommend reversing assessments that detainees are "enemy combatants," a classification that gives them fewer legal protections than prisoner-of-war status. The initial decisions have yet to be announced; officials say they could be by next week.

The process is separate from military commissions that are to try an initial group of four detainees on war crimes conspiracy and other charges. Pretrial hearings for those cases are planned later this month.

The military convened the Combatant Status Review Tribunals in response to a Supreme Court ruling in June that prisoners have a right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts.

Each detainee is being assigned a military officer as a "personal representative" for the reviews. Defense lawyers argue that officer is acting as a government agent and is not impartial.

So far, five detainees — three Yemenis, one Saudi and one Moroccan — have refused to appear before the panels.

Military officials say detainees who have attended hearings include a Pakistani fighter linked to the Taliban, an Algerian who has threatened to kill Americans if freed and a Yemeni who signed an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden.