By Hugo Dixon

If anybody can provide a measure of legitimacy to the trials of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Brigadier General Mark Martins may be that person. Barack Obama will certainly be hoping so. Martins, who was on the Harvard Law Review with the president when they were students, has this week taken over as chief prosecutor for military commissions at a time when the highest-profile Guantanamo detainees are coming to trial. The first death penalty moved a step closer last week when a trial was ordered for Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, who allegedly planned the bombing of USS Cole in 2000. The case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is likely to follow shortly afterwards, in what some people are dubbing America’s Nuremberg trial.

The new chief prosecutor is a mixture of brain and brawn. A Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Martins is also a six-foot three-inch fitness freak. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander of the surges in both Iraq and Afghanistan and now director of the Central Intelligence Agency, describes him as a “once in a generation officer.” Martins also has a track record of tackling difficult assignments.

Guantanamo has been plagued by controversy ever since it was used as a detention camp for alleged al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in early 2002. Military commissions were established at about the same time to try some of the detainees. The Guantanamo-cum-military commissions process has, to many critics, seemed toxic not least because some detainees were subjected to waterboarding and other coercive techniques before they arrived there; many have been detained for long periods without trial; and the few who have been tried (so far it is only six) were put through a judicial system that didn’t offer the normal protections available in U.S. courts of law.

Martins only has his new job because Obama failed to close Guantanamo as he promised when he was running for office. The president’s initial plan was to release the detainees, transfer them to other countries or bring them to mainland America for trial in an ordinary federal court. But after Congress passed legislation banning him from using money from the military budget to move detainees to the mainland, the administration decided to try at least some at Guantanamo.

The role of chief prosecutor hasn’t been an easy one. Martins is the sixth person in the job in seven years. The first, Fred Borch, resigned after he was accused by three of his underlings of rigging the process so that the accused were sure to be convicted. The third chief prosecutor, Morris Davis, quit after alleging that his superior officer questioned his authority to exclude evidence obtained by waterboarding.  “It’s like a football team,” says Davis. “If you’re on your sixth coach in seven years, it is an indication of a deeper problem.”