I traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to serve as an NGO Observer to view hearings for the military commission case against Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, or Nashwar al Tamir as the defense calls him. I am representing the IU McKinney School of Law’s Program on International Human Rights Law, and am joined by five other observers representing four organizations and one other law school.
The flight down here was on a chartered Miami Airlines plane lasting just over 3 hours. Once we debarked from the plane we got in a van and drove onto a ferry that crosses to the windward side of the bay.
First Day of Court
Last time I came down here in September 2015, Hadi only had military counsel, unlike the other military commission defendants who had both private and military attorneys. At the hearing I viewed, he fired his chief defense attorney to make way for a private attorney. Today, I immediately noted that in addition to several different military counsel, he had a private attorney as well.
In addition to the 6 NGO observers in the courtroom gallery, a number of family members from two servicemen killed in Afghanistan in 2003 were also present.
Just before the start of the session, everyone in the gallery was made known about the approximate forty-second delay from the action in the actual courtroom to the audio and visual feed on the four monitors visible from the gallery. This delay is supposed to prevent those in the gallery from hearing potentially classified information. Practically speaking, the delay makes it almost useless to watch the actual happenings in the courtroom. This is especially prevalent when the hearing comes to a conclusion in the actual courtroom but is still going on the monitors that we can hear and see in the gallery. At the conclusion, everyone stands in the courtroom and we in the gallery are given the “all rise,” but the hearing hasn’t finished yet on the monitors. Despite this, watching and listening exclusively on the monitors causes little issue.
Morning Court Session
Four items were on the docket for the week, in addition to the deposition of al Darbi, a defendant in another military commission who agreed to testify against Hadi and al Nashari.
The session began with the judge giving a brief rundown of the meting (called an 802 conference) that occurred on Sunday evening between the judge, prosecution (trial counsel), and defense. The private attorney then spoke of several issues relating to the defense’s initial objection of the deposition, the camera angles for the deposition to be conducted this week, the defense team not receiving transcripts from al-Darbi’s deposition from a previous case, and the prosecution’s Friday afternoon delivery of thirty-five exhibits the defense claims to have had no knowledge of. Another issue the private counsel addressed was an issue of attorney-client confidentiality between al-Darbi and his counsel.
After those initial concerns and responses by the prosecution, the judge heard arguments on the first motion, Appellate Exhibit (AE) 091. This motion, like many of the most recent filings, is not available to be viewed by the public on the Office of Military Commission’s official website. Therefore, we could only go off what was said about it during the session.
In this motion, the defense requested the court compel the prosecution to allow their client to use a laptop to be able to view the 31,000-33,000 pages of documentary evidence.
The defense argued their client’s ability to access these documents in an electronic format would allow him to have meaningful access to the courts and facilitate effective assistance of counsel. The defense also argued that because of the massive amounts of documents, he has limited ability to store documents in his cell.
One member of the prosecution, Navy Lieutenant Commander David Lincoln, argued that Hadi should not be given a laptop due to security concerns, that he has six defense counsel that can represent him effectively in court without a laptop, and that he does not have the constitutional right to a laptop.
The second motion, AE 70CCC was only partially argued, limited by the potential for classified materials. This motion seeks to compel discovery of unredacted statements of Ahmed al-Darbi, a detainee who has traded his release from Guantanamo in exchange for testimony in several cases.
AE 085 is a motion to dismiss the charges, in which the defense argues that Congress lacks the authority under the Constitution to limit the jurisdiction of the law of war military commissions to non-citizens. This motion was not heard as the defense requested to hold off on having it argued before the commission.
A Shortened Court Session
The two motions discussed above were argued before lunch break. Shortly after finishing arguments for the second motion, the all of the attorneys and judge had a meeting, presumably in his chambers. The judge then dismissed the court for lunch. After the court reconvened for the afternoon session, the judge announced that the court was going to close the hearing to the public. The remaining motion, AE 070FFF and portions of the second motion, AE 070CCC were to be argued in a closed session due to concerns about classified material.
Accordingly, all of the victims and NGOs had to leave the courtroom and were done in court for the day. Our NGO escort informed us afterwards that we would have a chance to talk with the Chief Prosecutor after the conclusion of the closed session.
Meeting with Chief Prosecutor, Brigadier General Martins
The last time I traveled to GTMO in 2015, I had the pleasure of meeting the Chief Prosecutor of Military Commissions, Brigadier General Mark Martins when he sat down with all the NGO observers for a Q&A session. This time, he remembered me at the terminal in Andrews on Sunday and we briefly exchanged pleasantries.
We met him again for a Q&A session after the closed session on Monday. He was as gracious as he was last time. His intellect, legal knowledge, and scholarly demeanor are most impressive. The NGOs asked insightful and tough questions. He answered each with candor showing his firm belief in the rule of law.
I come away with the impression that he is unlikely to say anything other than that his personnel are doing the best job they can do under limiting circumstances. He seems to recognize that there are issues with how the proceedings occur. However, he is the best position to know the effort his staff exerts in trying the cases within the framework of the system they are given.
The military commission system is deeply adversarial. So far we have only heard one side. We are greatly interested in hearing the perspective of the defense counsel when we are given the chance.
Tyler J. Smith, J.D., LL.M.
Member, Military Commission Observation Project
Program in International Human Rights Law
Indiana University McKinney School of Law