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The Pentagon has refused to allow three leading human rights groups to attend and observe military commission trials of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

In a letter sent last week to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Amnesty International, Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) and Human Rights Watch protested their exclusion from the proceedings and urged the U.S. government to rethink its position.

Despite the Bush administration's promise that the commissions would be open to the public, the Pentagon has refused to grant any of these organizations permission to attend the proceedings. Over the last month, the Department of Defense has responded to written requests from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, with a brief statement that it intended only to provide seating for select members of the press and for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

“The Defense Department wants to control who can talk to the journalists covering the trials,” said Wendy Patten, U.S. advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Pentagon has imposed a gag rule on defense lawyers, who can only speak to the press with the military’s permission. Now it wants to shut out experienced trial observers who could provide the public with independent analysis.”

The three human rights groups have been deeply involved in monitoring sensitive trials, including trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and assessing them against international standards. By attending the commissions, they could provide the public with independent and informed analysis of the trials. With the Pentagon’s decision to deny access to human rights groups, however, journalists covering the trials will be able to talk only to military officials about the proceedings.

Under the current commission rules, neither civilian nor military defense lawyers can speak to the press unless they have received prior permission from the military officials in charge of the proceedings. Even if permission is granted, it may be limited to certain topics. In addition, defense lawyers are prohibited from saying anything about closed portions of the trials, even if their statements would not reveal classified or sensitive information. The ICRC, an independent humanitarian organization that monitors compliance with the Geneva Conventions, is unlikely to offer public comment on the trials because it operates through confidential communications with governments.

“The U.S., in the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights, annually criticizes other governments for failing to accommodate trial monitors,” said Alex Arriaga, director of government relations at Amnesty International USA. “Allowing media coverage while pleading insufficient space for human rights groups smacks of fear of informed criticism, and will only fuel the perception that tribunals will be show trials.”

In its written response, the Department of Defense refused to allow Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to attend the military commissions on the basis of “limited courtroom seating and other logistical issues.”

The size of the courtroom, or any overflow room with video access, is a limiting factor in any trial. However, the human rights groups pointed out that such factors should not be used as a pretext to exclude a whole category of observers with internationally recognized expertise in trial monitoring. Even acknowledging the unique difficulties caused by holding the commissions at the U.S. naval base in Cuba—a problem of the Bush administration’s own making—the government should not be allowed to select observers in an effort to control coverage of these internationally significant trials.

Courtroom seating for independent human rights groups could be handled through a pool process, just as the Pentagon is currently putting in place for the media.

“These space constraints are being used as a pretext to keep out groups who have been critical of the commissions,” said Elisa Massimino, Washington Director of Human Rights First. “The Pentagon used its promise that the trials would be open to the public to reassure people that the trials would be fair. But now it appears ‘open’ doesn't really mean open. It means ‘open only to hand-picked press and not to anyone who’s been critical.’”

The three organizations wrote separately to the Pentagon beginning in May 2003 to request access to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in order to observe the military commission proceedings. Each group followed up with its request in writing or by phone. Amnesty International received a response in January, and Human Rights Watch in February. Human Rights First has still not received any reply.

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