GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- An Afghan detainee pleaded for his freedom Thursday before the first military review tribunal partially opened to observers, saying he had a Taliban-issued rifle but never fought against Americans.
The 31-year-old detainee in orange garb sat before the three-member panel, hands bound and feet chained to a metal ring in the floor, as he spoke quietly through a Pashto interpreter.
"I surrendered myself to Americans because I believed Americans are for human rights," he said. "I had never heard Americans mistreated anybody in the past."
It was the ninth review hearing since the process began a week ago, but for the first time journalists were allowed in for part of the session. The hearings are meant to evaluate whether some 585 men being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay should be held as "enemy combatants," or if they should be freed.
The hearings are the first opportunity detainees have had to plead their cases since the prison camp was set up in late 2001 to house people captured in the war on terror. But human rights lawyers criticize the hearings as a sham, pointing out that the detainees are not allowed lawyers and saying the officers hearing cases can't be considered impartial.
Thursday's hearing took place in a windowless 10-foot-by-20-foot room in a trailer at the camp.
The detainee -- a slight man with a long, dark beard who could not be identified under the military's rules for the media -- glanced at panel members and three journalists wearing yellow media badges. Other reporters watched through a two-way mirror.
"If you are arresting everybody with the name of Taliban it doesn't mean they are all against Americans," he said. "I wasn't going to fight anyone."
"There should be a difference between someone who surrenders himself and someone who fights against Americans. I surrendered myself," said the man, who claimed he had been in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz when he heard there would be a surrender arrangement and turned himself in to a Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek strongman, who was a central figure in the Northern Alliance which, with U.S. backing, ousted the Taliban.
Asked by a tribunal recorder whether the prisoner had surrendered in a car with a Taliban leader, he said "yes." The prisoner had asked to call an unidentified witness, but the military ruled it wouldn't be relevant to deciding whether he was properly held as an "enemy combatant."
The detainee agreed that he had a Kalashnikov rifle issued to him by the Taliban, but said it was given to him "forcefully." "They were giving to everybody," he said.
The military said the man was a soldier and Taliban member since 1997 and went to Kunduz to fight the Northern Alliance. He said he had once been hospitalized for injuries in an air bombardment and had gone to Kunduz "hoping to earn some money."
When fighting began, "I heard from somebody on the radio that Americans are coming to Afghanistan to get Osama."
The detainee, who has been held at Guantanamo for two and a half years, repeated an oath to God before testifying. He initially asked about the hearing's purpose, asking "will you release me or keep me here?"
He said he has nothing against Americans. "I am happy the Americans are rebuilding my country," he said.
After an hour of the proceedings that were open to some members of the press, the hearings were closed to review classified information.
The review panels have the power to reverse assessments that some detainees are "enemy combatants," a classification that unlike prisoners of war, allots the detainees fewer legal protections.
The process is separate from upcoming military commissions where prisoners will face charges, a trial and possible sentences, which could include the death penalty.
Since the detention mission began here nearly three years ago, detainees have been held and accused of links to Afghanistan's fallen Taliban regime or the al-Qaida terror network. But some observers have said that some common foot soldiers, particularly from Afghanistan, have been caught up in the sweep and held there for months. More than 100 people have been released or transferred from the camp.
Each detainee is being assigned a military officer as a "personal representative" for the reviews. Defense lawyers argue that officer is acting as a government agent and not impartial.
The military convened the Combatant Status Review Tribunals in response to a Supreme Court ruling in June that prisoners have a right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts. It is not clear, however, if the reviews meet the court's requirements.
So far, five detainees -- three Yemenis, one Saudi and one Moroccan -- have refused to appear before the panels, insisting they are unfair.
"It has nothing to do with justice," said lawyer Najeeb Al-Nauimi, a former justice minister of Qatar who says he is representing more than 100 detainees.
Military officials say cases heard so far include those of an Algerian who has threatened to kill Americans if freed, and one of a Yemeni who signed an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Both attended their hearings on Friday and Saturday, as did a third on Wednesday whose nationality wasn't immediately released.
Recommendations by the review tribunals have yet to be announced. Initial results should be given by next week, said Navy Secretary Gordon England, who observed the panels on Wednesday.
It is unlikely the tribunals would result in the freeing of many of the prisoners because each case already has been examined repeatedly, England said.
Reporters are not allowed to release the identities of the prisoners or take photos during the hearings, and the military maintains that because the proceedings are administrative, they are not obliged to make detainees' names public.
The U.S. government has said it will not allow lawyers in review hearings, but it is accepting applications for security clearances to allow attorneys who have pending court challenges to see their clients.