The next round of Guantanamo war crime trials will be more transparent and fair to defendants, the new chief prosecutor said Wednesday as he prepared for a resumption of the long criticized tribunals.
Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, whose resume includes stints as a field officer in Afghanistan and as an editor of the Harvard Law Review with President Barack Obama, said new rules on the use of evidence and a more open process address criticism that has bogged down the tribunals for years in legal and political challenges.
"I believe that thoughtful people looking at this process will notice the changes," Martins told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Washington. "I wouldn't be in this job if I wasn't convinced that individuals could be given a full and fair trial under law and that the outcome will be both legitimate and ultimately perceived to be legitimate."
Previously announced changes include restrictions on the use of evidence gained through coercion or torture that were part of an overhaul of the tribunals adopted by Congress and the Obama administration in 2009, although critics have said the changes do not go far enough to protect the rights of the accused.
He said other changes in the process for trials at the U.S. military base in Cuba will be included in soon-to-be-issued regulations that have yet to be disclosed.
Martins said this round of trials, which are known as military commissions, will be more transparent than in the past. For instance, relatives of people killed in the USS Cole bombing and the Sept. 11 attack will be able to watch proceedings by a video feed in the U.S. instead of having to travel to Guantanamo Bay in small groups.
Pentagon officials have also set up a separate viewing area in the Washington area for journalists and have created a new website where they say they will post more court documents, and do so more quickly, than in the past.
The changes are part of a broader effort to improve the commissions and not a result of his initiative, Martins said.
"I don't hold myself out as acting in a vacuum and being the savior of commissions and the legitimator," said the general, who returned from Afghanistan on Sept. 15 and began his first day on the job as chief prosecutor on Monday.
As chief military prosecutor, he will oversee the prosecutions and also be actively involved in trying some of the cases. Martins said he has not previously tried a capital case.
When he was a law student at Harvard, an Army captain at the time, he was on the Harvard Law Review at the same time as Obama. They spent time together but the general hesitated to say they were friends. He said he had seen the president only at a meeting with other officials in recent years.
"I like to joke that I thought he was good officer material," Martins said. "He was fit. He was driven, smart, had a knack for finding common ground. But I didn't realize his entry level position was going to be commander in chief."
This is a crucial time for the commissions.
Obama pledged as a candidate to close the Guantanamo detention center, but he couldn't because of congressional opposition to moving prisoners to the U.S. Opponents also thwarted the Obama administration's effort to move the trial of five men accused of planning and training the Sept. 11 hijackers to a civilian court in New York. The Pentagon says the jail holds about 170 detainees, which is down from a high of more than 650 in 2003.
With no closure on the horizon, the administration is preparing for a trial of Abd al-Nashiri, a Saudi of Yemeni descent who is accused of planning the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole. His arraignment is scheduled for Oct. 26 at Guantanamo on charges that include murder in violation of the laws of war for a bombing that killed 17 sailors and wounded 40. Conviction could bring the death penalty.
Al-Nashiri's trial would be the first capital case tried at Guantanamo. The second is likely to be that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack, and four co-defendants. Prosecutors have filed charges against them but the case is still under legal review.
Bryan Broyles, deputy chief defense counsel, said restrictions on the use of coerced statements lack substance because the evidence can still be used "in the interest of justice," plus prosecutors can use information indirectly derived from torture.
"That essentially makes the no use of torture meaningless in any real sense of the word," Broyles said. "Derivative evidence is the most important evidence you can get from that sort of interrogation. And that's all fair game" to be used at trial.
The distinction will be important in the al-Nashiri case. He was held in the CIA's clandestine network of prisons, where he was waterboarded and threatened with a power drill during interrogation before he was taken to Guantanamo, according to a report by the CIA's inspector general released in 2009.
Martins concedes there will always be criticism of the proceedings but insists they will ultimately be favorably judged.
"I see them as an important part of the United States commitment to using all instruments of national power and authority to counter terror networks," he said.