I travelled to Ft. Meade, MD to monitor a US Military Commission in the case of Al Nashiri, as I was representing the Military Commission Observation Project, of the Program in International Human Rights Law. The following are a few charges brought by the government: Murder in Violation of the Law of War and Attempted Murder in violation of the Law of War. al Nashiri is the alleged mastermind for the bombing of the USS Cole and other maritime attacks.
Indianapolis to Ft. Meade:
I chose to view the al Nashiri hearings at Ft. Meade during the week of 12/12/2016 and view via CCTV. I flew United Airlines from Indianapolis to Dulles Airport on Sunday, 12/11/2016, where I rented a car and drove an hour to Laurel, Maryland. I stayed at the Days Inn in Laurel, which is fifteen minutes (7 miles) from Ft. Meade. The hotel rates were lower in the area, so I did not mind a 15 minute drive, which is easy to navigate during rush hour.
Arrival to Visitors Center at Ft. Meade:
The hearings were originally scheduled to being at 9:00 AM on Monday, but I learned via email from Prof. Edwards, that the hearings would be delayed for two hours. It was recommended that I arrive at Ft. Meade’s visitors center two hours before the start time of the hearing, so I arrived at 9:00 A.M., so that I could pick up my Ft. Mead Badge to permit entry to the base each day. I went to the Ft. Meade Visitors Center to pickup my badge, I had two show two pieces of ID for them to Issue my Ft. Meade Credential and an easy process (since I had a background check completed through my the Observation Project prior to travel). The line was short at 9AM, but it should be expected for there to be longer lines at 7AM, since that is the time the Visitors Centers open and anyone visiting the base would need to obtain credential prior to entering. I drove through an inspection point, the entry point is directly behind the Visitors Center, which was an easy process. The guards request to see a form of ID with the permit that was obtained at the Visitors Center. The guards will randomly search vehicles, follow instructions of the guards and all will go smoothly. If you are driving a personal vehicle, the guards may request to see insurance paperwork with your credentials and ID. I was driving a rental guard, so I provided the proof of insurance that was purchased through the rental car agency. Federal Law requires that all vehicles have updated insurance coverage when on base.
Observation Day 1
The al Nashiri hearings were broadcast by CCTV into a classroom at Ft. Meade’s McGill training center. When you arrive at the training center, be prepared for security to do a quick wanding, then lock up your cell phone in a small locker in the classroom. It is advisable to leave other devices and laptops in your hotel room or the trunk of your vehicle.
I attended three days of hearings, and each day there was only one other person in the room. That person was responsible for ensuring all phones were stored in the lockers. One the large screen in the font of the classroom, I could see different views of the courtroom at different times. The camera seemed to be pointed at the person who was speaking at the time, whether it was Judge Spath (the military judge), the prosecution or defense lawyers, or the Defendant al Nashiri himself.
At the beginning of the Day 1 hearings, Judge Spath advised al Nashiri that he had the right to be present for all hearings, if he chose not to attend it would not have impact on decision-making regarding rulings to motions. al Nashiri nodded and waved to the judge suggesting that he understood these rights. al Nashiri also waived his right to have the court stop proceedings for specified times throughout the day for prayers.
Whenever I saw al Nashiri, he was sitting in a chair at the far end of the defense table, facing the court. He wore a white flowing shirt, but I was told later that he would wear the suit jacket of his interpreter, who was seated next to him throughout the hearing. Al Nashiri’s hands and legs did not appear to be cuffed, and I was told later that he was not cuffed. I could not see guards on the screen, though I was told that at all times there were at least four or five guards within several feet of al Nashiri at all times, though the guards were not visible to me. As mentioned, an interpreter was visible sitting beside al Nashiri and both wore headsets during the proceedings.
The defense called former assistant deputy of the Convening Authority. Edward Sherran to testify. The questioning by the defense focused on his role as assistant deputy and those of the advisors within the Convening Authority. The defense also called Lt. Col. Lewis, again to offer insight to actions of the Convening Authority at the time Gill was the only advisor that was qualified to work on the Al Nashiri case.
Day 2 focused on a host of motions. The first motion was by the defense, which was to compel witnesses to support the defense claim of the Convening Authority’s unlawful influence. The defense would like to compel three former Convening Authority personnel to testify – Gill, Tull and former deputy Quinn. The defense claims testimony is necessary, as the government continues to not respond with items requested in discovery motions.
The hearings then moved towards what is referenced as the “Kuwaiti Files”. The defense requests intelligence relating to the drone strikes of Al Fahdi, as there is knowledge that there was a connection between Al Fahdi and al Nashiri. The defense argued that the fact the Department of the Treasury placed Al Fahdi on a watch list for his role in the Linberg attack is evidence that there is a connection between al Nashiri and Al Fahdi, and that the evidence is relevant and necessary to a robust, effect defense of al Nashiri. The defense claims that only 20 pages has been handed over by the government, that this is insufficient and that definitely more intelligence must be available, since the U.S. would not have killed Al Fahdi in a drone strike based on 20 pages of documents. The defense argued that the motion to compel government agencies to provide evidence is necessary, as the agencies have not been forthcoming.
The court discussed that the al Nashiri case has been in the discovery phase for five years, that it is necessary to move forward in a timely manner. The remainder of the Tuesday hearing focused on the defense arguing that there would be a violation of Brady and Giglio rulings, which could lead the defense to request a mistrial. Judge Spath stated the Brady and Giglio arguments are available during the appeal process, not during the discovery phase. The defense then argued that the court should still grant the motion to compel, to ensure that a record is established and that a record is necessary for the appeals court to consider post-trial.
After a lunch recess, the afternoon hearings focused on “505” matters, which meant that there were classified hearings that were closed to the public. It became clear that Friday hearings would also be classified and closed to the public.
On Tuesday, at lunch, I found the Ft. Meade food court, that offered several food options, including – Burger King, Boston Market, Philly Steaks, and Starbucks.
Day 3, Wednesday morning hearings, were again open to the public and the Afternoon hearings were closed to cover classified matters.
In the morning, the defense raised additional motions to compel the CIA to provide information, especially relating to Black Site interrogations. The CIA claimed that tapes, containing footage of al Nashiri being exposed to enhanced interrogation techniques and these tapes were important for an adequate defense. The defense cited four other witnesses that should also be called to testify; these witnesses would provide information to the black site interrogations. One witness identified was Mitchell, who recently released a book relating to the Black Site operations.
The morning hearing was shorter than the first two days, but it was full of defense arguments as to why government agencies should be compelled to provide evidence, while the prosecution arguments that evidence relevant to the case has always been provided.
It was fascinating to observe arguments presented by both the defense and prosecution, especially in a case that has been in the discovery phase for five years. I was able to understand the motions in the proceedings, as I reviewed the case summary that is available on the Observation Project’s website and the government web site, which provides transcripts and motion history/rulings. I learned a great deal about the matter regarding enhanced interrogation techniques, which is relevant to the defense of al Nashiri and I am curious as to how the court will approach this matter. Will the court compel a witness, like Mitchell, to testify?
I look forward to the opportunity of attending more hearings in the future, as being a student in the Masters of Jurisprudence program, it was relatively easy to understand the flow of the hearings and fascinating to how a court of law is operating in Guantanamo.
Heather Wilhelmus, MJ Student,
NGO Monitor, U.S. Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)
Program in International Human Rights Law
Indiana University McKinney School of Law