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Critics Accuse U.S. on Guantanamo Captives
Fri Jun 25, 2:46 PM ET - By IAN JAMES, Associated Press Writer

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - One prisoner is accused of training with al- Qaida, and two others of being aides and bodyguards to Osama bin Laden (news - web sites).

But so far none of the hundreds held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is charged with carrying out a terrorist attack, and critics are accusing the U.S. government of exaggerating the captives' importance.

The military insists senior al-Qaida operatives are held alongside rank- and-file fighters from the Afghanistan war.

But Stephen Kenny, a lawyer for Australian prisoner David Hicks, said the fact that only three are charged and with vague counts such as conspiracy to commit war crimes suggests the detainees "are not the terrorists that we were told they are."

"The people they have there are all very low-level operatives, if they are associated with al-Qaida," Kenny said. "A large number of them are innocent."

Criticism has intensified as the Supreme Court prepares a ruling expected next week on whether nearly 600 inmates should be able to appeal in civilian courts, as argued by their lawyers.

When the first 20 prisoners arrived at the naval base in January 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney called them "the worst of a very bad lot." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said they were "among the most dangerous, best- trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth."

Defense lawyers now argue there is little evidence of it.

"The government has engaged in broad, sweeping claims about people without actually applying facts," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, a lawyer for Salim Ahmed Salim Hamdan of Yemen, who has yet to be charged.

Hamdan worked as a driver for bin Laden, but Swift says he never took up arms. For five months Hamdan has been held alone in a windowless cell, Swift said.

"If the Supreme Court does not allow a U.S. court to hear my client's case, they can hold him in solitary confinement until he pleads guilty," he said.

President Bush has listed six who could go before tribunals. The first three charged could face life in prison.

Hicks, 28, a convert to Islam, is accused of training at al-Qaida camps and taking up arms against U.S.-led forces.

Charges include war crimes conspiracy, attempted murder "by an unprivileged belligerent" and aiding the enemy. Hicks isn't specifically accused of trying to kill anyone, and the attempted murder charge relates to claims he was an "illegal combatant."

"The charges are so weak," his father, Terry Hicks, said in a phone interview from Australia. "It's absolute rubbish."

Two other men face similar conspiracy charges. Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al Bahlul of Yemen is accused of being a bodyguard for al- Qaida leader bin Laden and making videos glorifying the killing of Americans.

Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi of Sudan is accused of being an al- Qaida accountant, bin Laden bodyguard and weapons smuggler. His lawyer, Air Force Lt. Col. Sharon Shaffer, says he never belonged to al- Qaida nor played any part in aggression against Americans.

The military says all three had key roles in a terrorist group. But some legal experts ask why stronger charges didn't come first.

"If you're going to start criminally charging people, you're going to choose your best card," said Thomas H. Lee, a Fordham University law professor and former Navy intelligence officer. "You have to think they don't have anything better."

The military denies overstating detainees' importance. It says other suspects include one accused of trying to become the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker, an al-Qaida member who plotted to attack oil tankers and another who designed a shoe bomb for destroying planes.

"We do have very serious individuals at Guantanamo, serious threats to the United States," said Maj. Michael Shavers.

The Pentagon (news - web sites) is starting a review process in which panels will decide on releases. Among 134 freed, Shavers said, "we know of about five that have returned to the fight" against U.S. forces.

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