Greetings from the Pearl of the Antilles (Cuba’s nickname). I must admit that I feel quite at home here as GTMO is very similar to most every other military base I’ve been to. The accommodations are reasonable and I hate to admit that I really like galley food. We had a bit of a delay at Andrews AFB, which is fairly normal. There was a lot of standing around and waiting, which is also normal. Our escorts were also on the flight and that gave us a chance to get to know them a bit before landing and for them to be more comfortable around us.
Our Octet of NGOs
I’m lucky in that we seem to a have a nice olio of backgrounds in this small group. There’s myself, a law professor from SMU, law students from Georgetown, UVA, Seton Hall, a D.A. from West Virginia who is heavily involved with criminal rights, and two persons from interest groups. One is Human Rights First. The other one escapes me at the moment, but he is affiliated with the University of Richmond. Four men, four women. One is a Marine Corps Officer who is finishing law school to go JAG. Another wants to focus on National Security after law school graduation.
Concerns have been made in the past that the NGOs that do attend are just there to warm seats, without a real connection or interest in the case, or to get a free vacation. I do not see that with this group. All are bright eyed, interested, and I saw many using the hours we were delayed at Andrews to peruse the Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual. It seems that everyone travelling knows each other pretty well (the same people go every time). NGOs receive 14 spots in the gallery, according to one person, so it is a shame that only 8 of us are on this trip. This brings me to my focus of the trip, which will be exploring the issue of Public Access to the hearings.
The Hearing Schedule
Monday, we had only a half day of hearings before they were classified. The gallery was only about half full of observers. Of those present, about half were in uniform. The gentleman who sat behind me was a member of the U.S. Army. I struck up a conversation with him while we were waiting on proceedings to begin. He did not know much about what he was going to be observing, so I shared my copy of the charge sheet with him. We discussed a lot of it and I also told him about the NGO mission. The hearings on Tuesday were closed and Wednesday is going to be witness examination for the issue of female guards coming into physical contact with devout Muslim detainees. Thursday should be open and Friday will be closed.
Access to the Proceedings
A lot of what I’ve seen has been that people are not informed. This concern was reiterated by several others that I spoke with. They also wish that civilians were more interested in the proceedings.
Access to Fort Meade is fairly easy. One only needs a valid driver’s license and their car registration and insurance to get onto the post. Once they are approved by gate security, the Post Theatre is accessible to observers. Of course, people are not allowed phones or recording devices, but this is the norm throughout civilian courts as well. Concerns can be raised about the lack of public theaters for observation, but conversely, there is not a public outcry for more. Accommodations have been made for the locales of the victim families, such as Fort Devins in Massachusetts, Fort Dix, etc. However, it should be noted that we are in the pre-trial motion phase. For most people, this stage is boring. I think that more accurate observations can be made once the trial phase begins as to whether there is a greater demand for places to observe.
(Margaret Baumgartner-GTMO, January 2015)