Preparing to Travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to Observe Pre-Trial Hearings in the Case Against Five Alleged Plotters of the 9/11 World Trade Center / Pentagon Attacks

This weekend I will be traveling to Joint Base Andrews in order to board a military flight to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba to monitor the U.S. Military Commission case against the five men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

I am a third-year juris-doctor (JD) student at Indiana University McKinney School of Law and will be traveling through the Military Commissions Observation Project (MCOP). The MCOP is part of IU McKinney’s Program in International Human Rights Law (PIHRL), founded and currently directed by Professor George Edwards.

My Background and Introduction to the MCOP

I am from Waxhaw, North Carolina and graduated in 2018 from Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia with a degree in International Relations and a concentration in Peace and Justice Studies. I had always known that I wanted to pursue a career in international human rights law, and I originally choose IU McKinney for law school because of PIHRL.

Since arriving at IU McKinney in the Fall of 2018, I have taken most of the courses covering human rights and international law offered by the law school. I was first introduced to opportunities through PIHRL as a student in Professor Edwards’ International and International Criminal Law classes. My involvement with PIHRL has allowed me to have experiences with clients and practitioners before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Council. My experiences have also involved working with legal stakeholders in Guantanamo Bay and the Military Commissions Defense Organization. These experiences often involved the tumultuous past, and present, of Guantanamo Bay and the calls to ensure the right to a fair trial, the right to humane treatment, and the prohibition of torture and the associated right to receive rehabilitation.

Subsequent posts will discuss the five co-defendants in this case: Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Walid Salid Mubarek Bin ‘Attash, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Ramzi bin al Shibh, and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi. As a summer intern, I was able to work with the defense team of Mr. Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, also known as Mr. al Baluchi. Unfortunately, as my internship took place remotely during the peak of the COVID-19 lockdowns in Summer 2020, I wasn’t able to complete the internship through the Military Commissions Defense Organization with a classified security clearance. Despite my internship being undertaken in unusual circumstances, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the team, and I learned so much about the dynamics of trial, the proceedings in the 9/11 trial, and the advocacy put forth by the legal stakeholders in Guantanamo Bay. 

I am extremely fortunate that my previous experiences have allowed me to learn about the history, controversies, and nuances of Guantanamo Bay. Prior to my involvement with PIHRL, my knowledge about Guantanamo Bay was extremely limited. I had the same misconceptions as most Americans, including that Guantanamo Bay largely exists outside of controversy.

It is for this reason, as well as so many others, that I take my role as an observer so seriously. It is undoubtedly the individual responsibility of every American to learn about Guantanamo Bay and the Military Commissions. However, I think it is also the responsibility for those of us who have the ability to act as observers, to attend and objectively report on Guantanamo Bay, and to publicize the trials of the Military Commissions with the hope of informing the larger public.  

Preparation For My Role As An Observer

As an NGO observer affiliate with MCOP, my role is to attend, observe, be seen, analyze, critique, and report my observations. My role must be conducted in an independent, objective, neutral, unbiased, and open-minded manner. As an impartial observer, I have a responsibility to myself, the stakeholders of the trial, and future observers to shed my personal beliefs before walking into the hearings every day. 

Thankfully, I have several tools aiding my preparation. 

The Gitmo Observer website has allowed me to review the experiences of previous observers. The website provides access to the Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual which is an independent and objective guide for assessing human rights protections and interests of the prosecution, the defense, victims and victim’s families, witnesses, the press, the court, JTF-GTMO detention personnel, other detainees, NGO observers and other Military Commission stakeholders.

The Gitmo Observer website also offers access to the Know Before You Go To Guantanamo Bay: A Guide for Human Rights NGOs & Others Going to Gitmo to Attend U.S. Military Commissions Or For Other Purposes. The Know Before You Go guide provides guidance on all procedures and processes of attending Military Commission hearings.


To competently attend and observe, I also have to be well-informed on the current state of the trial. The Gitmo Observer website provides daily briefings, and the Office of Military Commissions makes the filings for each trial available online. I have also benefitted from the helpful reporting of Carol Rosenberg at The New York Times and various reporters at Law Dragon.

Pre-Mission Reflections

After being involved in various projects with PIHRL, and international law classes with Professor Edwards, I’ve learned that the first step observers must often ask themselves is “what is the source of international law?” This is the basis of the questions leading me into my week at Guantanamo Bay – what are the sources of domestic and international law binding on the Military Commissions and are these obligations being upheld?  As I will be attending the hearings the week after the 20th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and after the first week of hearings since February 2020, the calls for a fair and speedy trial have resurged. 

As a future international human rights lawyer, my interest is in an outcome that protects the rights of both the prisoners and victims and that the operation of the trial is consistent with domestic and international law.

Ellie Halodik, MCOP / PIHRL Affiliate

Leave a Reply