I have been in Guantanamo Bay Cuba since Sunday as an NGO observer as a part of Indiana University McKinney School of Law’s Program on International Human Rights Law to view the hearing session for the Military Commission case against Abd al Hadi al Iraqi (or Nashwan al Tamir).
The court session yesterday (Monday) involved several defense motions. Two were argued in the public setting, in which the NGOs and victim’s family members were allowed to be present. A third motion was not heard at all, and the fourth was heard (along with classified parts of the first) in closed session, in which all members of the public (NGOs, victims, and media) were not allowed to be present for.
Morning Deposition Session – Tuesday, 15 August 2017
The prosecution called Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi born admitted jihadist to the stand to be deposed. al-Darbi pleaded guilty and promised to testify against Hadi, but because al-Darbi hopes to be repatriated to his homeland of Saudi Arabia soon, and will not be available to testify against Hadi in person at Hadi’s trial, his deposition testimony today will be preserved to be possibly used against Hadi at his trial. Hadi al Iraqi was present for the first day of testimony. al-Darbi, wearing a gray suit, white dress shirt, and tie, sat calmly speaking with a soft even tone. Unlike in the picture to the right, he was clean-shaven, wore nicer glasses, and had short slightly gray hair.
Hadi al-Iraqi was seated at the left end of the first defense table in the courtroom wearing a white robe, white turban, and black vest. From my vantage point, I did not see if the two men looked at each other before or at any point during the testimony.
Six of us NGO observers were present in the gallery, along with several military servicemembers, family members of some of the victims, news media, and numerous military police. Veteran Guantanamo Bay military commission reporter for the Miami Herald, Carol Rosenberg published a piece a few hours after the conclusion of Tuesday’s session. That article can be viewed here.
The deposition was recorded for possible use by the prosecution at trial of Hadi al-Iraqi. al-Darbi, testifying in Arabic, but seemingly understanding some English through his interactions with the deposition officer, had the assistance of four interpreters that rotated throughout the testimony.
After several hours of foundation and background, al-Darbi identified Hadi as his former commander and stated that he recognized Had al Iraqi from a guesthouse in Afghanistan.
Presiding judge, P.S. Rubin, served as the deposition officer responsible for ruling on any raised objections. Throughout the five-hour deposition session, the defense raised many standard objections to the form of the questions the prosecutor asked and the answer elicited from al-Darbi. The defense objected to the prosecution asking leading questions, speculative answers from al-Darbi, being unclear about the time frame in which he was speaking about, and the non-relevance of large portions of his testimony.
The narrative the prosecution tried to convey, though disjointed and hard to follow at times throughout the entire morning session, painted a picture of al-Darbi as a committed (at least initially) jihadist who had numerous interactions with high-level al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, to include Osama bin Laden.
al-Darbi testified that as a young man from a troubled non-devout Muslim family, as a teenager he found reassurance, peace, and comfort at mosque. From there he became very much a believer in jihad, the highest rank of worship. He stated that to him jihad meant fighting infidels in self-defense, not giving into desires of soul, defense of home and property, and the defending of honor.
He testified that following his service in the Saudi army during 1992, with no other job in his hometown, he slowly began to find his calling as a jihadist. By 1994, he would find his first jihad fighting as part of a Bosnian Army unit against Serbian aggression towards his fellow Muslims. As a young jihadist, al-Darbi dreamt about becoming a martyr, and became depressed when he left Bosnia alive.
He stated that following his return from Bosnia, other jihadists recruited al-Darbi to go to
Afghanistan for training. By 1996, he received recommendations to finish his training at al-Qaeda camps, despite previously being unaware of al-Qaeda’s existence, but knew of Osama Bin Laden due to the prominent nature of his family. During this time he first met with Bin Laden. After several more months of training he was invited by al-Qaeda to fight with the Taliban.
Up until this point, the deposition focused on al-Darbi’s background and activities, as well as the identification of other fighters he interacted with, but made no mention, to my recollection, of Hadi al Iraqi. Much of the testimony in the afternoon finally began to focus on the nature of his interactions with Hadi.
al-Darbi testified that after he completed his training, he went to Kabul, Afghanistan. It is here at a guesthouse that he first saw Hadi al Iraqi. Despite all the training he had in advanced tactics and weaponry and his interactions with high level members of al-Qaeda, al-Darbi still appeared to be a fairly low level fighter, when he testified that his commander, Hadi al Iraqi, assigned him to be on a three-man tank crew. Al-Darbi saw Hadi on a daily basis during this period. In addition to the commander-subordinate relationship, they ate meals together while at the front lines.
One of the major purposes for the prosecution having al-Darbi even testify was to be able to positively identify the accused, Hadi al Iraqi. With all the background covered, the prosecution finally asked al-Darbi if he recognized the accused sitting at the defense table, to which he answered yes, though he looked older with a grey beard. When asked who he recognized the accused to be, he responded it was apparent to him that the accused is Hadi al Iraqi.
One of the strategies for the defense is to essentially say their client is not Hadi al Iraqi, but instead is Nashwan al-Tamir. During the deposition of al-Darbi, the prosecution specifically asked him if he ever heard Hadi al Iraqi go by any other name, or if he was aware of anybody else who had used that name. al-Darbi answered no to each of those questions and sated that he had never heard Hadi al Iraqi called Nashwan al Tamir.
This line of questioning and the questions dealing with al-Darbi’s interactions with Hadi made up a relatively small portion of the approximately four hours of today’s testimony. The prosecution introduced over 20 exhibits, most of which were photos of people he identified, other than Hadi al Iraqi. The NGOs, myself included, kept waiting for the prosecution to get to the point where al-Darbi would identify Hadi.
Unlike during a normal type of deposition when the deponent (the witness being deposed) is cross-examined immediately after direct examination, the defense will not have the opportunity to cross-examine al-Darbi at least until October. I would be interested to hear how the defense characterizes the name issue, as well as the relatively small number of interactions al-Darbi allegedly had with Hadi.
A transcript of the deposition is not available on the website of the Office of Military Commissions, and by all accounts it does not seem likely that it will be posted.
That concludes the summary of the first day of deposition of al-Darbi. The deposition will likely continue all day tomorrow. The next post will contain a summary of the day’s testimony as well as my overall thoughts on the two days.
Tyler J. Smith, J.D., LL.M.
Member, Military Commission Observation Project
Program in International Human Rights Law
Indiana University McKinney School of Law