In less than one month, I am scheduled to fly to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to monitor U.S. Military Commission hearings in the case against Mr. Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is charged with war crimes associated with the bombing of the USS Cole off the Coast of Yemen on October 12, 2000, that killed and wounded dozens of U.S. sailors (more on Mr. al-Nashiri in future blog posts).
I am expected to be in Guantanamo from 23-30 July 2022, traveling from Indianapolis to the Washington, D.C. area, where the plane to Guantanamo departs from Joint Base Andrews (formerly Andrews Air Force Base).
This blog post covers my experiences learning about, applying for, and notice of nomination to travel to Guantanamo Bay.
Learning about Guantanamo Bay and the Indiana University McKinney School of Law Military Commission Observation Project
In the 2021 summer, I met Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steven David through the Indiana Conference on Legal Education Opportunity (ICLEO) Fellowship. ICLEO is a scholarship program for incoming minority or educationally disadvantaged Indiana law school students who wish to practice law in Indiana. ICLEO includes a six-week summer session, where participants take introductory classes with law school professors (we took contracts, property, legal writing, and criminal procedure), and meet with Indiana lawyers, Federal Judges, and Indiana Supreme Court Justices.
Justice David, who is set to retire from the Supreme Court this year, avidly supported our ICLEO class. He has had an extensive and impressive career as an attorney, Judge, Justice, and military officer. In the military, Justice David served as Chief Defense Counsel at Guantanamo Bay. He spoke to me and my fellow ICLEO’s about the importance of a constitutionally guaranteed defense and encouraged us throughout the summer to use law school as a chance to step out of our comfort zones and experience as much as we can. One experience that IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law offers is the chance to be an observer through the Military Commission Observation Project, which is part of the Program in International Human Rights Law (PIHRL). As soon as Justice David told us of this opportunity, I knew I wanted to apply.
I am a 1L at Indiana University McKinney School of Law. I was born and raised on the near eastside of Indianapolis, and have lived in the Chicago suburbs, Jennerstown, PA, and Knoxville, TN. I’m married to another current IU student, and we live in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indy.
My upbringing taught me to put others before myself whenever possible. During high school and shortly after high school graduation in 2009, I was drawn to human rights issues, especially those concerning incarcerated people, refugees, and immigrants. In 2017, I obtained a bachelor’s degree in Philanthropic Studies from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). I served a year with AmeriCorps in their Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program at the John Boner Neighborhood Center on the near eastside of Indianapolis, a neighborhood with high rates of formerly incarcerated individuals, unemployment, food insecurity, and violent crime. With AmeriCorps, I worked as the Communications Coordinator for the IndyEast Promise Zone, a federal program started under the Obama Administration to increase public and private investment in struggling areas throughout the United States.
After my year of service with AmeriCorps, I got a job as a case manager with Marion County Community Corrections in 2018. I wanted to be close to people in the criminal justice system, to find out what their wants and needs were. In 2019 I became the case manager overseeing people finishing out prison terms at a work release facility.
In 2020 I joined the Court Team of Marion County Community Corrections and spent my days in Marion County Superior Courts making recommendations during hearings on violations of Community Corrections. Violations are the result of failing to abide by Community Corrections rules, which are set out in a contract and rulebook signed by everyone sentenced to either home detention or work release. Violations also result from new arrests or absconding from home detention or the work release facility. At hearings on violations, the Court wants to know what the nature of the violation was, how much time the individual has served on the program (home detention/work release), how much time they have remaining in their sentence, and what Community Corrections thinks the appropriate result of the violation should be (a short jail sanction, revocation to prison, immediate return to community corrections with new conditions, or some other solution tailored to the individual’s situation). While working at Community Corrections, I became aware of shortcomings of our local criminal justice system, as well as the socioeconomic and addiction struggles of much of the incarcerated population. But more than anything, it taught me that every individual human must be treated with dignity and respect if there is ever going to be a chance of changing the behavior of incarcerated people from criminal thoughts and behavioral patterns to thoughts and patterns that are socially acceptable. My experiences in the courtroom in particular showed me that lawyers have the power to make a difference in the lives of the people for whom they advocate.
In 2020, I began studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), prepared my application materials for law school, gathered letters of recommendation, and applied to the Doctor of Jurisprudence (J.D.) program at McKinney School of Law. I was notified of early acceptance to the J.D. program in November of 2020.
I chose law school as a path to change our systems of governance in a way that alleviates suffering and uplifts society.
Application and nomination for Guantanamo travel
Professor George Edwards is the Director of the Program in International Human Rights Law at McKinney School of Law. In the fall of 2021, Professor Edwards sent an email to the student body providing information about the Military Commission Observation Project at Guantanamo Bay with a link to the application website and I applied. In my application, I wrote about the importance of transparency at Guantanamo Bay to encourage faith in our democratic system of law and justice across the United States and the world. I was determined to do my part to shed light on the system, and to show the good and the bad, the things that work and the things that need to be improved upon.
Professor Edwards reached out in May 2022 asking if I was still interested in traveling to Guantanamo Bay. I couldn’t believe it! And of course, I was still interested.
Professor Edwards and I met briefly over Zoom for a face-to-face interview where Professor Edwards stressed the importance of the mission and the observer role to be unbiased and open-minded. I assured him that I could be that kind of observer. Shortly thereafter, I received confirmation from Professor Edwards that our Law School’s Military Commission Observation Project had nominated me to the Pentagon to travel to Guantanamo the week of 23-30 July 2022 for the al-Nashiri hearings regarding the bombing of the USS Cole. The preparations had begun. I learned that there were multiple other clearances that needed to occur, and that there would be significant paperwork to complete for different entities.
Professor Edwards provided me with an 18-page “Guantanamo Checklist Agreement” that is required to be turned in periodically up to the date of departure to Guantanamo Bay. The checklist is a comprehensive list of tasks that must be completed to have a successful trip to Guantanamo Bay. The checklist is divided into five sections, plus an annex:
- Continuing Obligations of Observers – Before, During, and After Travel
- Confirmation Stage – Obligations of Travelers as Travel is Being Confirmed
- Pre-Departure – Obligations of Travelers Immediately Before Departing
- During Travel – Observers’ Obligations While Traveling
- Post-Travel Obligations
The Annex provides annotated copies of the paperwork from the Pentagon that each traveler will receive that must be filled out and returned.
The checklist has sections to date and initial next to each task so that the prospective traveler can stay accountable and on schedule regarding the various obligations.
One day after Professor Edwards told me that I had been nominated to the Pentagon, the Pentagon sent me an email that confirmed my in-person observation status at Guantanamo Bay, and included the names of the other participants in the month of July 2022. The email also included information about COVID-19 requirements, a tentative flight schedule (flying out of Joint Base Andrews 23 July, flying out of Naval Station Guantanamo Bay 30 July), and guidance on how to properly fill out and return the six documents attached to the email. I received the paperwork on 19 May, and the deadline for returning the paperwork was 26 May.
The paperwork included:
- Hold Harmless Agreement
- Ground Rules
- Traveler worksheet, with personal information and emergency contact
- Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Access/ID card
- Rules for Non-Governmental Observers
- A short biography form
The Pentagon paperwork involved some fillable pdfs, one word document, multiple pdfs that had to be printed out and signed, and some paperwork that had to have a verified e-signature. I relied heavily on a fellow traveler to help me figure out how to e-sign the documents properly, as well as how to upload each document that I had printed and signed as a PDF to be sent back to Professor Edwards before sending them on to the Pentagon. It is a requirement on the checklist that all communication from the Pentagon be sent to Professor Edwards before responding to the Pentagon.
Paperwork from Indiana University
The checklist requires participants to inform the Indiana University Study Abroad Office of our upcoming travel. I emailed the Study Abroad Office and was directed to create an account on the university’s iAbroad system. iAbroad compiles all of the paperwork that students need to fill out to travel abroad through the University. There are two rounds of paperwork that need to be filled out for the trip to Guantanamo Bay. The first round of paperwork was to be filled out and returned as soon as possible, while the second round of paperwork was more comprehensive. All of the forms on iAbroad are electronic. One form links to the State Department website where the participant is asked to fill in information about the upcoming trip, provide one form of contact information, and select the nearest U.S. Embassy. When that form is complete, the participant must take a screenshot of the confirmation page and upload it to the appropriate form on iAbroad. Several forms ask the participant to review State Department materials on the destination country (Cuba) so that the participant knows the risks involved in traveling outside of the US. As of 28 June 2022, my first round of paperwork for iAbroad is complete, and all forms on the second round of paperwork are marked complete except for the “Travel Planning and Itinerary” form, which asks for information that I do not yet have, like specific information about the flights.
I created a binder with a print version of the Guantanamo Checklist to ensure that I check it frequently to stay on schedule. I will continue working on required paperwork, try and reach out to alumni observers, keep in touch with Professor Edwards, consult the Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manualand the Know Before You Go to Guantanamo Bay nformation packet, as well as study up on the al-Nashiri case and recent motions via the Office of Military Commissions website – https://www.mc.mil/CASES/MilitaryCommissions.aspx?
I feel excited, anxious, nervous, and proud. I want the trip to be successful, to learn more about the Military Commission, and to be a good observer and representative of McKinney. I am dedicated to fulfilling the observers’ mission: to attend, observe, be seen, analyze, critique, and publish materials on the military commission hearings. We are meant to be objective, independent, impartial, and non-aligned with any stakeholder group. I will share my experiences along the way in this blog.
J.D. Candidate 2025
NGO Observer, Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)
Program in International Human Rights Law (PIHRL)
Indiana University McKinney School of Law