The Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP) of the Indiana University McKinney School of Law nominated me, and the Pentagon confirmed me, to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to monitor U.S. Military Commission hearings in the case against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks. Our Indiana project was granted non-governmental organization (NGO) status, which permits the project to send monitors (or “observers”). I am scheduled to be at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from 14 to 21 October 2017.
My role as an NGO observer is to attend, observe and be observed, analyze, critique and report on the military commissions. My goal is to provide an independent and impartial account and analysis of what I observe, inside and outside the Guantanamo courtroom.
This is my fourth scheduled trip as part of Indiana’s project, and my second trip to Guantanamo. I was originally scheduled to observe at the beginning of October in the case against Hadi al Iraqi, an alleged high-ranking member of al Qaeda, but as reported by Carol Rosenberg in the Miami Herald, the hearings were canceled due to a medical issue experienced by Hadi.
Arrival at Andrews
I arrived at Andrews Air Force Base Visitor Center where I met up with the other NGO observers at around 6:00AM. We were escorted onto the base by authorized personnel and directed where to go next to check in to our flight to Guantanamo. We checked in at
6:15AM and departed Andrews at 9:30AM.
This morning the NGOs discussed the latest news out of Guantanamo, including the sentencing of Mr. al Darbi yesterday (Friday, 13 October 2017) to 13 years in prison. In 2014, al Darbi pleaded guilty to war crimes charges, and agreed to cooperate with the government. He has already testified against two defendants in other Guantanamo cases.
We also learned on Friday that all the civilian defense lawyers for al Nashiri, who is charged with orchestrating the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, quit the representation. Here is a link to the press release by capital defense attorney, and key member of the defense Rick Kammen, from Indianapolis.
Arrival at GTMO
We arrived at Guantanamo after an uneventful flight. We were processed into Guantanamo Bay and permitted to enter the Air Terminal waiting room, where I spotted Professor George Edwards, who had been at Guantanamo for the al Darbi sentencing and who was flying back to Andrews on the plane that brought me to Guantanamo. Professor Edwards and I had a rushed moment to take photos in front of the Guantanamo Bay Air Terminal.
The 5 monitors boarded a van that took us to a ferry that would take us across the bay to the area of Guantanamo where we will live for the next week – Camp Justice – and where the courtroom is located. We were taken to a secure trailer inside the court complex to obtain our security badges, then were driven to the Navy Exchange so we could pick up food and other supplies. After, upon arriving back at the tents where we will live, we were given a chance to quickly unpack and prepare our beds.
The 5 monitors attended a BBQ hosted by the defense team of Ammar al Baluchi, who is one of the five defendants in 9/11 case. In attendance were Brigadier General John Baker, who is Chief Defense Counsel of the Military Commissions Defense Organization, Mr. James Connell, a civilian death penalty defense attorney, and various other members of the defense team, including lawyers, paralegals, and other staff.
At the BBQ, Mr. Connell gave us a rundown of the motions on the docket for this week’s hearings, which will help us prepare for our observation when the commission hearings pick back up on Monday, 16 October. We also had the opportunity to speak with BG Baker, Mr. Connell, and the rest of the defense team.
It is quite apparent to me that this defense team is invested in transparency and takes a very open, very relaxed approach when interacting with NGOs. The team stresses the importance of having NGOs at the hearings, since we are basically “the eyes and ears” of the world, apart from the media and any channels the defense team may have of sharing with the public what goes on in one of the most high-profile, otherwise inaccessible proceedings in American history.
Preparing for Monday
Court is scheduled to begin at 9:00 a.m., Monday, 16 October. Today, Sunday, the NGOs are preparing for the observation by reviewing the Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual Excerpts, reviewing motions that are on the docket, reading other relevant materials, and discussing the above. I anticipate tomorrow’s experience will be very different from hearings I observed at Guantanamo in January 2017 in the case against Nashwan al-Tamir, also known as Hadi al Iraqi.
Sheila Willard (J.D. Candidate, ’18)
NGO Monitor, U.S. Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)
Program in International Human Rights Law
Indiana University McKinney School of Law