Tent city built at Gitmo to hold joint trials
By Michael Melia - The Associated Press
Posted : Friday Sep 7, 2007 16:57:55 EDT

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The U.S. is erecting tents at Guantanamo Bay where the military plans to hold war-crime tribunals for detainees beginning as early as March, officials said Thursday, marking a step back from previous plans to build a more expensive permanent structure.

The legal tent city is being built at a cost of $10 million to $12 million on an unused runway at the U.S. Naval Base in southeast Cuba. It will allow the military to hold six simultaneous trials.

Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the chief military prosecutor, said many terror suspects could be tried together using the same evidence — including some of the 15 “high-value” detainees. About 80 of the 340 detainees at Guantanamo are expected to be charged.

Construction is expected to be finished by March.

“As soon as it’s ready, we’ll have cases to put in it,” said Davis, the Pentagon’s lead prosecutor for military tribunals.

The new compound will include about 100 tents shaped like Quonset huts to house and feed tribunal personnel, nongovernmental organizations and journalists during the commissions.

The blueprint is a shadow of the permanent facility that the Pentagon proposed building last year at a cost of up to $125 million but scrapped after an outcry from Congress.

The Indiana Air National Guard’s construction unit has been putting up the tents, which can be packed up moved following the tribunals, Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon said.

“The courtroom and complex are expeditionary in nature to minimize startup costs for high-value detainee trials,” Gordon said.

With a major legal challenge of the tribunal system pending, critics argued the U.S. military should not count on more trials taking place at the embattled detention center.

“It’s outrageous the U.S. government would go ahead with the reconstitution of courtrooms given that our friends and allies around the world and here in the U.S. are calling for the closure of Guantanamo,” said Wells Dixon, an attorney who represents several detainees.

The Pentagon’s efforts to prosecute detainees have stalled since military judges in June dismissed cases against two terror suspects.

Before they can be prosecuted before military commissions, the law requires they be deemed “unlawful enemy combatants.” But panels at Guantanamo Bay had earlier determined they were simply “enemy combatants.”

If a three-judge military appeals court that heard the case last month upholds the dismissals, the Pentagon might have to redo status tribunals for dozens of detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Davis said he hopes to begin filing new charges against detainees once the issue is resolved.

Separately, the Pentagon announced Thursday that 16 Saudis were transferred from Guantanamo to their homeland. Several large transfers to Saudi Arabia since May 2006 have reduced the number of Saudi detainees, once among the largest contingents at Guantanamo, to fewer than 40.

About 340 detainees remain in Guantanamo on suspicion of links to terrorism, al-Qaida or the Taliban. Most have been held for years without being charged.