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GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — In a dramatic moment during the third day of military commission hearings, Yemeni defendant Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul told the commission panel selected to decide his fate that he is a member of al Qaeda. Bahlul, an alleged al Qaeda propagandist accused of making recruiting videos for the terrorist organization and serving as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, made the statement while requesting that he be allowed to represent himself before the military commission. In his native Arabic, Bahlul proclaimed, “I’d like the judge to understand � and the members of the panel, and the prosecution, and the defense team, that until this point does not represent me, and the visitors and if it’s being viewed by media channels, the people watching as well, and all the people of the entire globe to know that . . . I am from al Qaeda and the relationship between me and September 11 is. �” At that point, presiding officer Army Col. Peter Brownback III interrupted Bahlul and instructed the panel to disregard the defendant’s statement. Under military commission rules, prosecutors may seek to formally introduce the statement into evidence at a later time, says Navy Lt. Susan McGarvey, a spokeswoman for the military commission process. The sole standard for admission of evidence to a military commission is that it have probative value to a reasonable person. Bahlul entered the courtroom wearing a roomy polo shirt, khaki pants and slip-on sneakers. He sat before the panel with his assigned military lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Philip Sundel, and a defense team translator. Bahlul, who is 36 years old, was clean-shaven and had streaks of cortisone on his face to treat an irritation. Bahlul remained seated when people in the courtroom rose as the commission entered and exited, but seemed engaged and animated throughout the proceeding. According to several Arabic speakers in the courtroom, the real-time translation of Bahlul’s remarks included several striking errors. One experienced Arabic linguist who was watching the hearing said Bahlul indicated that his confession was not made under coercion from the U.S. government. In court, the declaration was translated as, “I testify that the American government is under no pressure.” At another point, Bahlul referenced secular law and Islamic religious law, or Shariah. The phrase was translated as civil and local law. “The translation completely distorted the meaning of what the defendant was trying to say,” says Sam Zia-Zarifi, an observer representing Human Rights Watch. But Bahlul’s request to represent himself was crystal clear. Brownback responded by reading from the military commission procedures. “The answer is no, you’re not allowed to represent yourself,” he said. But later Brownback seemed to relent, engaging Bahlul in a dialogue about his education and understanding of the law. He agreed to forward Bahlul’s verbal request along with legal briefs from either side to the appointing authority for a determination. In addition, Bahlul asked that the commission consider allowing him to retain a Yemeni lawyer as part of his legal team if his request to represent himself is denied. He stated that if he is not allowed to represent himself, he does not wish to attend proceedings. Bahlul’s case has been stayed pending a decision. Military commission rules state that defendants “must be represented at all relevant times by detailed [military] defense counsel.” It was the second stunning development in as many days. On Wednesday, civilian criminal defense lawyer Joshua Dratel, representing Australian detainee David Hicks, argued that presiding officer Brownback should be removed from the panel because of a close friendship with the official who appointed him to his post and who will ultimately review the panel’s findings. Dratel wants Brownback, as well as three other commission members and the alternate member, disqualified from his client’s case. He also raised concerns about the ability of commission members to hear evidence and render judgments in multiple detainee cases at the same time. Hicks — accused of training with al Qaeda and fighting against coalition forces in Afghanistan — pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit war crimes, murder by an unprivileged belligerent, and aiding the enemy. His trial is set to begin Jan. 10. Hicks’ defense lawyers intend to file 17 separate motions to dismiss the case, arguing that the military commission process violates the U.S. Constitution, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and the Geneva Conventions, as well as other provisions of international and domestic law. Among the group’s specific concerns is that Brownback, a retired military judge and the only panel member with legal training, may influence the decisions of other commission members. “In your experience as a military judge, would you ever let an attorney sitting on a jury express an opinion as a lawyer on the law to the jury?” Dratel asked Brownback. “No, I wouldn’t,” Brownback answered. “Isn’t that what we have here?” Dratel countered. Dratel also questioned Brownback about his close friendship with John Altenburg Jr., the military commission appointing authority. Altenburg, a retired Army judge advocate general, and Brownback met when both were stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the early 1990s. Brownback served as chief circuit judge, and Altenburg served as the installation’s top legal adviser. Brownback’s wife, also an Army officer, worked for Altenburg. When Brownback retired in 1999, Altenburg presided over the formal retirement ceremony and was the primary speaker at Brownback’s roast. Two years later, Brownback spoke at Altenburg’s retirement. Brownback was recalled to active duty for the commission; Altenburg serves in his current capacity as a civilian. “I think John Altenburg wants me to preside over a full and fair trial of these people. I base that on four years of close, close observation of him and my knowledge of him,” Brownback said. But Dratel said Altenburg’s selection of Brownback out of a pool of more than 30 candidates for presiding officer creates the appearance of impropriety. Brownback agreed to forward the challenge to Altenburg for a decision in accordance with the military commission rules. Wednesday’s proceedings included a formal reading of the charges against Hicks, questioning of the five commission members and alternate by both prosecution and defense, and a closed session to discuss classified information. The defense team also challenged panel members Marine Corps Col. R. Thomas Bright and Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy Toomey, both of whom served in Afghanistan in support of U.S. operations at the time of Hicks’ capture. Dratel suggested that both officers would be better suited as witnesses than as judges and fact-finders. Hicks’ lawyers are also seeking to remove commission member Marine Corps Col. Jack Sparks Jr., who served as commanding officer of a reservist killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Army Lt. Col. Curt Cooper, who reported strong emotions related to the attacks. Lead prosecutor Marine Corps Lt. Col. Kurt Brubaker objected. “September 11 had a huge impact on the U.S. military. It’s hard to find a panel not impacted by the attacks of September 11,” Brubaker said. “That is not the appropriate standard.” The only panel member the defense did not seek to disqualify was Air Force Col. Christopher Bogdan, who served as the commander of a unit arming unmanned aircraft with Hellfire missiles during U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Vanessa Blum is a reporter for Legal Times , a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

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