The military will review the individual cases of the 594 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to determine whether they are legally held, the government said Wednesday.
Officials described it is an attempt to prepare for expected challenges in civilian courts. The move comes in response to a Supreme Court's decision last week that said those prisoners can go before a federal judge to seek their freedom.
The Bush administration believes the military reviews will provide them some grounding when the prisoners head to court: The government can claim it was providing due process in determining whether they are legally held as an enemy combatant.
But Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights, which contend those at Guantanamo are being illegally held, said the new procedures did not provide the prisoners their full rights granted by the Supreme Court and gave no guarantees the prisoners would get a fair hearing.
A panel of three military officers with no previous connection to the prisoner will hear each prisoner's case. At least one officer will be a military lawyer.
The prisoner can choose to participate and present information in his defense, even calling witnesses; his case will be reviewed regardless of his participation.
He will be assigned a military officer, who is not a lawyer, to act as a personal representative, the officials said, and will have access to an interpreter.
The officer will have access to classified information about the prisoner. It was not immediately determined whether the officer will be required to turn over information the prisoner might disclose that could work against him, the officials said.
The panels will operate on the presumption that the government is properly detaining the prisoners. Officials did not describe what would constitute proof of an illegal detention.
"Any detainee who is determined not to be an enemy combatant will be transferred to their country of citizenship or other disposition consistent with domestic and international obligations and U.S. foreign policy, a Pentagon statement read.
Within 10 days, the prisoners will be informed of their new rights and the Supreme Court ruling in a note written in their own language, according to a memo signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that was provided to reporters.
The military has yet to work out many of the details about how it will provide detainees access to civilian courts and lawyers. The new military reviews will take place before any civilian hearing.
Officials said they expected the review panels to begin meeting soon at the Cuban base. They will be overseen by Navy Secretary Gordon England.
The newly proposed hearings are the third formal procedure announced by the military to determine the prisoners' fate. Prisoners also will have annual reviews to determine whether they are still a threat, and they could be released or sent to their home government if it is determined they are not.
Some prisoners will face military tribunals for crimes the military alleges they committed. On Wednesday, the Pentagon said President Bush has designated nine more prisoners at Guantanamo as subject to those military tribunals.
The nine have not been charged and were not identified by military officials, nor have any tribunals been scheduled. They join six others at Guantanamo whom Mr. Bush had previously designated as eligible for military tribunal.
"The president determined that there is reason to believe that each of these enemy combatants was a member of al Qaeda or was otherwise involved in terrorism directed against the United States," the Pentagon said in a statement.
The nine may have attended terrorist training camps, provided financing for al Qaeda, planned maritime terrorist attacks, made explosives or been a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, the Pentagon alleged.
Most of the Guantanamo detainees were captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan; some have been held for more than two years.
Of the 15 people now designated for military tribunals, only three have been identified and charged: David Hicks of Australia, Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul of Yemen, and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi of Sudan.
Hicks was a cowboy who converted to Islam and fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, the military alleges. Al Bahlul was a bodyguard and communications expert and al Qosi worked was an al Qaeda accountant and later served as bin Laden's bodyguard, driver and cook, the military charges. None of the three is specifically accused of killing Americans.
The Pentagon has announced a five-member tribunal would try the three suspects at Guantanamo. The trials would be the first convened by the United States in nearly 60 years.
Military tribunals are reserved for foreign-born captives and have lower standards for prosecution than in American civilian courts. Defense lawyers contend the military tribunal process is stacked against them.
The Australian government said it expects Mamdouh Habib, 48, of Sydney, to be named Thursday among the nine additional tribunal defendants.
The father of four has been held at the U.S. navy base in Cuba for two years without charge. Authorities suspect him of al Qaeda links — which he denies.
Habib's Sydney lawyer Stephen Hopper said he would use the American courts to argue the commissions are illegal.
"I don't believe the military commissions are lawful," Hopper said. "Under the international law, any military commission has to comply with the standards of normal rules of evidence. Yet these commissions say they'll allow hearsay evidence and admissions obtained under duress."
Hopper and an Australian television report Wednesday accused the United States of asking Pakistan — which arrested Habib three weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — to send Habib to Egypt, knowing he was likely to be tortured there.
The SBS "Dateline" program said Habib was tortured in Egypt for six months before he was sent to Guantanamo Bay.
The Pentagon said Thursday that it had transferred a Swedish detainee for release. No details were released. The military has released 134 detainees and transferred another 12 to be detained in other countries namely Saudi Arabia, Spain and Russia.