WASHINGTON (AP) – All 594 terrorist suspects held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be notified next week of their right to contest their detention in U.S. federal court and of their option to appear before a military panel to challenge their status as an “enemy combatant.”

Gordon England, the Navy secretary who is overseeing the process at Guantanamo Bay, told a Pentagon news conference Friday that he chose James McGarrah, a rear admiral in the Navy Reserve, to be the “convening authority” who will select the panel members, whom he called a “neutral party.”

The Pentagon had announced Wednesday that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had ordered that all Guantanamo Bay detainees be notified within 10 days of their opportunity to appear before the panels.

The purpose of the panels is limited to determining whether a detainee is properly classified as an “enemy combatant.” If not, then the detainee would be released to his home country, England said.

This is separate from a more elaborate military tribunal, which the Pentagon calls a military commission, which was established by President Bush in 2002 and is designed to conduct trials of non-American terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay. No such trials have been held yet, although the U.S. government has designated 15 people at Guantanamo Bay as eligible for trial.

The Pentagon, which has held most of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay without charges for more than two years on grounds that they are “enemy combatants” with no right to contest their detention in U.S. courts, hastily added the panel process this week in response to last week’s Supreme Court decisions that said all such detainees have a right to contest their case in a civilian court.

The Pentagon has yet to work out many details about providing detainees access to civilian courts and lawyers.

England, who visited Guantanamo Bay on Thursday, said he assumes that some detainees will choose not to appear before the military panel to challenge their “enemy combatant” status, and that the entire process can be completed within four months.

England also is overseeing a separate process at Guantanamo Bay that the Pentagon describes as annual reviews of each detainee’s case. The first of those reviews is to begin after the newly established tribunal process gets under way within a couple of weeks, England said.

The Pentagon defines an “enemy combatant” as “an individual who was part of or supporting Taliban or al-Qaida forces, or associated forces engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners” during the 2001 war in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Most of the people held at Guantanamo Bay were picked up on the battlefields in Afghanistan and have been held for questioning aimed mainly at gathering intelligence that could prevent another terrorist attack against the United States. Human rights groups have challenged the Bush administration’s position that the detainees can be held indefinitely without being charged.

The 594 people held there are from 40 countries and speak 17 different languages, England said. He said the names of those who chose to go before a military panel to challenge their status as “enemy combatants” probably will not be made public.

Each panel will be comprised of three “neutral” military officers, of which one must be a military lawyer. They will be chosen by McGarrah beginning next week. He also will chose a “personal representative” to assist each detainees in preparing for the panel, England said.

The personal representative will not be a lawyer, England said. It will be a military officer of the rank of major or higher (lieutenant commander or higher in the case of a Navy officer). None of the three is to have been involved in the detention or interrogation of the detainee.

England said the detainees who chose to appear before a panel will be allowed to call witnesses, if that is deemed a reasonable request. England said he doubted that many such requests would be deemed reasonable and that detainees instead would present written statements from witnesses.

AP-ES-07-09-04 1813EDT

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