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Guantanamo Bay trials are ulawful, says UN human rights expert

July 01, 2008 17:44 IST

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Philip Alston, a United Nations human rights expert has said that the trial of six 'alien unlawful enemy combatants' at the Guantanamo Bay under the Military Commission Act fails to meet the basic due process standards required for a fair trial under international humanitarian and human rights law.
    
He also called on the US government to release the results of investigations and autopsies into the death of five detainees who died in 2006 and 2007.
    
Alston, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said that in the Guantanamo Bay trial, access to counsel as well as the defence's ability to obtain witnesses has been severely limited. Second- and third-hand hearsay evidence can, however, be used while the prosecution can withhold evidence from the accused.
    
Any death sentence imposed as a result of such trials would clearly violate international law, Alston said.
    
Alston also urged the US government to publish information on civilian casualties resulting from its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and to make it possible for US citizens and ordinary Afghans and Iraqis to follow the workings of the military justice system.
    
"As it stands, following a case through the military justice system is remarkably difficult, and outside observers have no basis upon which to conclude that the system is in fact operating fairly," Alston said

Although some steps have been taken to ensure accountability for killings carried out by private military contractors, more needs to be done, Alston added. "It's the Department of Justice's job to prosecute private security contractors who commit unlawful killings, but it has done next to nothing."
    
Alston, who serves in an unpaid and independent capacity, will report on his findings to the UN Human Rights Council later this year. He also slammed Alabama and Texas States of the United States for their indifferent attitude to "recognized flaws" in awarding death penalty.
    
Alston called on US Congress to enact laws that would allow federal courts to review all issues in state and federal
death penalty cases on their merits.
    
Alston voiced particular concern over Alabama officials strikingly indifferent attitude to the risk of executing innocent people.
    
Alston asked the the United States to take immediate steps to ensure that the death penalty is applied fairly and justly in states where it is practiced.
    
In a preliminary statement issued after completing an official visit to the US, where he met with federal and state officials, judges and civil society groups in Washington DC, New York, Alabama and Texas, Alston said he was disturbed by how authorities in the last two states had responded to recognized flaws in their systems.
    
"When we are talking about a situation in which innocent people have probably been executed, you would expect a greater sense of urgency about reforming the criminal justice system," Alston said.
   
"In Texas, there is at least significant recognition that reforms are needed," Alston said, noting that in Alabama officials give a range of standard responses to criticisms, "most of which are characterized by a refusal to engage with the facts."
   
"The reality is that the system is simply not designed to turn up cases of innocence, however compelling they might be," Alston said.

'It is entirely possible that Alabama has already executed innocent people, but officials would rather deny than confront flaws in the criminal justice system," Alston said.
    
Since 1973, 129 people across the US have been exonerated while waiting on death row and this number continues to grow, according to Alston.
    
Alston called for a multi-pronged strategy to reform the criminal justice systems in Alabama and Texas, starting with the immediate tackling of problems such as judicial independence and the lack of an adequate right to counsel.
    
Partisan elections for judges have placed them under popular pressure to impose and uphold death sentences whenever possible, the Special Rapporteur said.
    
"Yet the role of the judiciary is to ensure that justice is done in individual cases and to avoid the execution of innocent persons. It is not to ensure that the popular will prevail over other considerations," Alston said.

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