For a week in October 2016, I had the most extraordinary experience of my academic life, certainly one of the most extraordinary experiences of my whole life. I traveled to the Guantanamo Naval Station, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to monitor the U.S. Military Commission case against five alleged masterminds of the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I was nominated to represent the Military Commission Observation Project of the Indiana University McKinney School of Law. Our Indiana program, sponsored by the McKinney Program in International Human Rights Law, is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that is permitted to send law students, faculty, staff and graduates to Guantanamo to monitor hearings.
Flying to the island
Our flight from Andrews Joint Base, near Washington DC, to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was originally scheduled to depart on Saturday, October 8. For reasons that are not very clear to me (click here for more details), a large plane flew for Guantanamo Bay but left at least two groups of people behind – member of the media and 13 NGO representatives, including me. The NGOs flight was postponed until Monday, October 10. That meant that we had to spend two nights in hotels near Andrews, at our own expense.
The original Saturday flight was supposed to be operated as a charter by a regular commercial airline (like United, or American Airlines). Usually, the regular flights carry virtually all Guantanamo Bay participants, including the defense counsel, the prosecution, the judge and the judge’s staff, the media, victims and victims’ family members, interpreters and translators, IT personnel, and other personnel. Everybody travels together on the same plane, arrives at Guantanamo Bay at the same time, and have an equal amount of time on the ground at Guantanamo Bay to prepare for the hearings.
The Pentagon hired a Jetstream 31, 15 seat private jet to transport the NGOs on Monday morning. The trip from Andrews to Guantanamo on Saturday’s commercial flight took around 3 hours. Our trip on Monday on the Jetstream took over 9 hours, including one layover in Georgetown, SC and one in Opa-Locka, FL. The last leg on the Jetstream, which had no toilet on board, lasted 3 hours. Tough.
We arrived at Guantanamo (“on island”, as they call it) around 8 pm on Monday, and had to hurry to catch the ferry from the landing strip to the main part of the Guantanamo base, otherwise we would need to wait another full hour – until 9 pm – for the next ferry.
We finally made it to Camp Justice, our “tent city” where we would live for the next week. We NGOs left all our stuff in the tents we were housed and went directly to the security area where they made our security badges. After that, it was so late that the only place open for food on island was the Guantanamo Bay MacDonald’s. The tiredness and hunger prevented any complaints. After we ate, the military escorts took us to our tents. I knew we would be housed in tents, but I confess I underestimated what this entailed. The tent and other facilities were extremely simple.
The tents were simple and, to keep iguanas and banana rats away, extremely cold.
The first full day
Those who wanted to have breakfast at the Galley, which is the cafeteria where soldiers on base eat, should be ready standing outside the tents at 6:15 am. Worth it. Excellent breakfast for $ 3.45.
The hearings were scheduled to start at 9 am. So, after breakfast, our Pentagon escorts met the NGOs at 8:00. Even though the walk to the courtroom takes only about 5 minutes, we had to go early so we could go through several security checks, much more extensive than security at any U.S. airport.
After we entered the courtroom, I went to my assigned seat in the Courtroom Viewing Gallery, which is in the back of the courtroom. Between the gallery and the actual courtroom there is a double-pained bullet proof glass. The NGOs, media, victims and victim’s family members watch it from the gallery, where the sound from the courtroom is transmitted with 40 seconds delay, in case any classified information is mentioned. My seat was directly behind the five alleged masterminds of the 9-11 attack. Unbelievable. We were seated only a few feet behind 5 men who allegedly perpetrated one of the greatest crimes in history – the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The hearing lasts from Tuesday to Friday, though some of the hearings contained classified information and those portions were closed to NGOs, media, and victims and their families. Memories of this week in courtroom include arguments about torture, debates about a joint defense agreement (the 5 defense teams agreeing on some points), documents seized by jailers, depositions by closed-circuit transmission, one accused acting in his own defense, the defendants’ prayer ritual in the courtroom, extraordinary arguments on novel topics, and even a few jokes between the judge and the counsels. The hearings are still in the pre-trial phase, though the World Trade Center attack happened over 15 years ago (11 September 2001), and these 5 defendants were arraigned 5 years ago (2011).
To be able to write faster I made all my annotations in Portuguese, my first language. I brought around thirty pages of written records, which I am willing to organize and publish. Thanks to the Indiana University McKinney School of Law’s Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual I was able to follow more appropriately all the procedures.
At the end of the hearings on the first day of the week, the family members of victim’s, who were seated on the right side of the gallery, walked to the left side and stopped right behind the defendants, just in front of my seat. A family member held the picture of her youngest sister against the glass, pointing in the direction of the defendants, who would walk towards us as they were escorted out of the courtroom. This was a very sad and tense moment.
I left the Guantanamo Bay feeling conflicted. That beautiful place facing the Caribbean blue sea carries sadness and shame. Much needs to be done to reach justice, fair trial, and transparency. My mission is not done. I realized it has just begun. I consider myself a fortunate person to be afforded an opportunity to be the eyes and the ears of the outside world in Guantanamo Bay. Keep tuned! I will publish more!