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US changes status of 14 detainees

Suspects are now subject to a trial

WASHINGTON -- The 14 so-called high-value detainees who were transferred from secret CIA prisons to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, last year have been declared enemy combatants and are subject to trial.

The Pentagon announced the declarations yesterday.

The detainees, including suspected planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the USS Cole bombing, and the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, will now be thrust into a military trial system mired in legal challenges and hampered by lengthy delays.

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England has approved the enemy combatant designation for the 14 detainees, after reviewing recommendations from their Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which took place over the last six months. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman would not say yesterday when England made the decisions, but indicated that they were done over a period of time.

England's ruling allows the 14 suspects to be held indefinitely at the detention center and put on trial for war crimes.

But the trial system remains under challenge and it has been called into question by recent court rulings, including a decision by one military judge to throw out a case against a Guantanamo detainee over the wording of the enemy combatant designation.

That judge, Army Colonel Peter Brownback, said he had no choice but to throw out the case against Omar Khadr because he had been classified as an enemy combatant by a military panel years earlier -- and not as an alien unlawful enemy combatant.

He said the Military Commissions Act, signed by President Bush last year, says only those classified as unlawful enemy combatants can face war trials.

Asked about England's decision to declare the detainees enemy combatants and not include the word unlawful, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Commander Chito Peppler said the proceedings determine only whether detainees meet the criteria to be designated combatants. They do not distinguish between lawful and unlawful combatants.

The tribunals were created in 2004 by the Bush administration after the Supreme Court faulted the government for not giving detainees access to courts. That system was thrown out by the Supreme Court last year, prompting Congress to set up new guidelines for war crimes trials.

The Guantanamo Bay facility has come under increasing criticism from around the world, prompting calls to shut it down. Bush, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and others have said they would like to close it, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have threatened to cut its budget.