Several months ago, from January 6th-15th, I had the opportunity to observe the U.S. Military Commission proceedings against alleged Al-Qaeda war criminal, Abdul Hadi Al-Iraqi, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
I became aware of this opportunity during the fall 2018 semester while I was enrolled in Professor Edwards’s course, International Law. Professor Edwards is the director of Indiana University McKinney School of Law’s Program in International Human Rights Law. This program has a Military Commission Observation Project that sends students, graduates, faculty and staff to Guantanamo Bay to serve as independent, objective monitors of criminal proceedings.
Abdul Al-Hadi Al-Iraqi
Since April 27, 2007 Abdul Hadi Al-Iraqi has been in custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to information provided by the Pentagon, most notably, Hadi Al-Iraqi was a key paramilitary commander in Afghanistan during the late 1990s, subsequently spear-headed attacks against US and coalition troops from 2002-2004, and touted as one of Osama bin Laden’s top global deputies.
That being said, the week or so of trials I was present to observe solely focused on the defendant’s current medical condition and the accommodations that were necessary for his cell and for his court room appearances. Since being held at Guantanamo Bay, Abdul Hadi Al-Iraqi has undergone 5 major back surgeries and suffers from chronic pain associated with the injuries.
I found myself a bit startled when I first saw Abdul Hadi Al-Iraqi enter the court room for the first time. It’s not everyday you see an alleged war criminal, or a member of Al-Qaeda in-person. Nonetheless, I was surprised at his seemingly relaxed demeanor. I had expected a much more serious atmosphere in the courtroom and in the surrounding area based on the barbed wire and extensive security screening process. However, at times Abdul Hadi Al-Iraqi could be seen smiling, laughing, and making small talk with his defense counsel and their staff.
Another interesting aspect of the Military Commissions was seeing JAG lawyers from different branches working together. The defense included Navy JAG, the Judge was Marine JAG, and there was Army JAG and US Department of Defense attorneys working for the prosecution team. The proceedings were painstakingly crisp, meticulous, and efficient. One thing was very clear: they were not going to compromise the quality and correctness of the proceedings in the name of saving time. For example, at one point in the hearings, to accommodate the defendant, the Judge created a protocol that called for a break every 30 minutes to give the defendant a chance to rest if he so wished.
Overall, it appeared as if the US government would be willing to accommodate whatever request the defense team asked just so long as they could progress through the trial and afford the defendant the opportunity to be present during his trial, given his deteriorating medical condition. In following this rigorously high standard for the proceedings, the US government was aiming to reduce the possibility that the defendant would have any grounds for appealing a conviction.
Defense Team Barbecue
On one of our last nights in Guantanamo Bay, the defense team invited us (NGOs) over for a cook-out. Not only were the burgers and dogs far better than anything we had eaten that week, it was an awesome experience to get an insight into the work that goes into preparing a defense for an alleged war criminal.
During the cookout I had the chance to chat with one of the staff members who discussed the difficulty of staying up-to-date with what information the defense team can and cannot use in their legal briefings. The staff member somewhat complained of the immense amount of evidence or information that cannot be used for national security reasons. By nature, being a case against an alleged war criminal, it involves a large amount of information that is deemed by the US government as too sensitive to be used in court because it would pose a risk to our nation’s security.
Anther highlight of the night was having the chance to speak with the lead litigator for the defense team. He was a Navy JAG Officer and a recent graduate of Harvard Law School. During our conversation he highlighted the difficulty of questioning an unwilling/non-cooperative witness and the high-level of responsibility given to first tour JAGs.
Eye Opening Experience
This opportunity certainly expanded my world view and understanding of the capabilities of the United States military. Guantanamo Bay is home to at least a sliver of every branch in the US Military umbrella and seeing them operate in unison was incredible.
Also, the US relationship with Cuba is something that I feel few Americans truly understand. During my time at Guantanamo Bay we were given a tour of the border fence that marks the separation between US soil and Cuba. This tour was given by Marine soldiers and included the history between the two nations and the current relationship.
Personally, my biggest takeaway from this experience was having the opportunity to observe great legal professions practicing the law. Whether it was questioning witnesses, cross-examination, or arguments, all of the professionals involved did a great job at preserving the quality of the hearings.
Indiana University McKinney School of Law Spring 2019 Graduate