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U.S.: Use Courts-Martial Rules for Military Commissions

In a letter released today, Human Rights Watch urged Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to draw on basic standards of U.S. military justice to address serious flaws in the President's order establishing military commissions.

Human Rights Watch said the Defense Department should base its rules for the proposed commissions on those governing general courts-martial under the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"The President's order authorizing the military commissions is deeply flawed. It flouts basic due process protections, and provides abusive governments a virtual 'code of misconduct'," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Using the U.S. military's rules for general courts-martial would address many of the concerns in the presidential order."

The rules for general courts-martial in the U.S. include numerous due process safeguards, including the requirement of public proceedings and provisions protecting the right of the accused to counsel of choice, to cross-examine witnesses, to not be forced to confess or testify against himself, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, to have guilt established beyond reasonable doubt, and to appellate review of convictions.

The death penalty cannot be imposed except by unanimous vote. Many of these fundamental protections were not provided for in the President's November 13 order authorizing use of military commissions. The order, however, does not preclude the Defense Department from incorporating these necessary elements of a fair trial.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Department of Defense to narrow the jurisdiction of military commissions to persons engaged in armed conflict against the United States who are being tried for violations of the laws of war. The President's order permits the commissions to try a much broader range of people, including civilians living in the U.S.

"Military commissions should be used only when absolutely necessary," said Roth. "There is no justification for turning over to military commissions persons who could and should be tried for their crimes in U.S. courts."

A Comparison between the Proposed U.S. Military Commissions and U.S. General Courts-Martial can be found here.

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