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Reporting from Guantanamo Bay: Commission Hearing in Limbo

Reporting from Guantanamo Bay

I am a recent graduate of the Indiana University McKinney School of Law (IU McKinney) and I am a representative of the IU McKinney Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP).

I traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba this weekend to monitor hearings in a U.S. military commission against an alleged high-level member of al-Qaeda who is charged with war crimes.

My mission at Guantanamo is to attend, monitor, be seen, analyze, critique and report on the proceedings of the defendant, Mr. Nashwan al-Tamir / Abd Hadi al Iraqi (hereinafter “Nashwan / Hadi”).  More about the MCOP and Nashwan / Hadi may be read through my earlier blog posts found here.

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The NGO Observer tents in Camp Justice where I reside at Guantanamo.

The Only Thing Constant in Guantanamo

Three fellow non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives join me this week in Guantanamo.

On Monday morning (24 September 2018), my fellow NGO representatives and I walked from our residence tents located in Camp Justice to the courthouse complex, about one hundred yards away.

I observed heavy equipment mobilizing around the courthouse complex as we walked.  While I presume this equipment is being employed pursuant to a series of multi-million dollar expansions proposed for Guantanamo under the Trump administration in 2018, I cannot say with certainty.

After passing through a series of security checks to gain entry into the courtroom site, we joined media representatives and military personnel in the Guantanamo courtroom viewing gallery where we would watch the proceedings.

I entered the gallery around 8:30 a.m. and observed a nearly-empty courtroom behind a double-paned glass wall separating the gallery from the well of the courtroom.  Only a few uniformed military personnel sat along the right-hand courtroom wall, while another conducted mic checks throughout.  I observed a 40-second delay between the live activities within the courtroom, the sound emitting from the gallery speakers, and the images displayed on five closed circuit televisions (CCTVs) mounted within the gallery.  I learned to expect this delay through the Know Before You Go To Guantanamo Bay guide, and have since been informed by one of my escorts that the delay seeks to ensure that classified information is not released into to the gallery, and in turn to the public at large.

At 8:57 a.m., a U.S. Army internal security officer briefed those of us in the gallery on proper gallery decorum and standard emergency protocol.  He informed us that we were visible to the rest of the court attendees, that we were otherwise visible through gallery cameras, and that we were not to cause any distractions during the hearing.  He told us that we were free to exit the gallery during proceedings (or during recess), but that we should take our personal belongings with us when we left.  He told us that the Office of Military Commissions (OMC) would not assume responsibility for our possessions, and that all materials left in the gallery after court ended would be destroyed.  The courtroom remained nearly-empty during this time, with only a few military personnel moving throughout.

At 9:02 a.m., another Army internal security officer informed us that the day’s scheduled hearing was delayed indefinitely, “if it is to occur at all”.  He told us that we were free to exit the court site and return later should the hearing be rescheduled.  As we exited the gallery, I confirmed with the announcing officer that Nashwan / Hadi was not present at the court site.  I began to accept the possibility that I may not have a chance to monitor live proceedings while at Guantanamo.

My fellow NGO representatives and I remained near the court site as directed while we waited to receive further updates on the now delayed proceedings.  By 12:00 p.m. (noon), we had yet to hear anything, and I became restless.  Clamoring for news, I fruitlessly searched through various web resources, including the Office of Military Commissions (OMC) website, and the Miami Herald, which commonly features articles published by Ms. Carol Rosenberg.  Ms. Rosenberg is an award-winning and widely-published reporter of Guantanamo happenings, and was among the media representatives present with me in the courtroom gallery when the delay was announced.

At 2:30 p.m., our escorts received notice that the hearings would continue, and that we should immediately return to the courtroom gallery.  However, upon our return, we discovered that proceedings were yet again delayed, this time until 4:00 p.m.

“The only thing constant in Guantanamo is change,” one of my escorts declared with a chuckle.

Commission Hearing Resumes

Finally, at 4:03 p.m., the recently detailed Marine Lt. Col. Michael Libretto took the bench for the first time as the presiding military judge over the Nashwan / Hadi case.  Mr. Adam Thurschwell spoke as the lead defense attorney for Nashwan / Hadi, while Mr. Vaughn Spencer spoke as the prosecuting attorney for the U.S. Government.

Libretto began the Monday 24 September 2018 hearing by stating that Nashwan / Hadi would not be present for the day’s proceedings.  Libretto said that today’s proceedings were delayed because Nashwan / Hadi “refused to attend…and refused to expressly waive his presence via a written waiver.”

Next, Libretto stated that a recently detailed U.S. Army Senior Medical Officer or “SMO” (whose duties began on 17 September 2018) conducted a medical examination of Nashwan / Hadi following Nashwan’s / Hadi’s “refusal” to attend.  Libretto then stated that that today’s hearing was being held “for the limited purpose of hearing testimony from the [SMO]”.

Next, prosecuting counsel (Spencer) and defense counsel (Thurschwell) took turns questioning the SMO.  The crux of their questions regarded Nashwan’s / Hadi’s health concerns, and whether or not it would be reasonable for this week’s remaining commission hearings to proceed in Nashwan’s / Hadi’s absence.

Abd Hadi al Iraqi (Nashwan al Tamir)

Nashwan al Tamir / Abd Hadi al Iraqi (pictured) underwent his fifth spinal surgery within an eight-month period in May 2018 (2014 photo by the International Committee of the Red Cross).

During questioning, the SMO stated that it would be “reasonable” for Nashwan / Hadi to be transported from his cell for up to four hours at a time, but not more than once per week.  This would allow Nashwan / Hadi to meet with defense counsel, and to attend abridged commission hearings as needed.

Accordingly, Spencer asked the SMO whether or not removing Nashwan / Hadi from his cell for up to four hours as the SMO suggested would “affect his [Nashwan’s / Hadi’s] underlying medical condition in any way”.

The SMO responded, “I don’t believe so.”

Next, Thurschwell expounded upon Nashwan’s / Hadi’s health concerns through a series of questions.  Notably, Thurschwell asked the SMO whether or not Nashwan / Hadi has suffered chronic “severe upper back pain and spasms” which have at times caused Nashwan / Hadi “difficulty breathing”.  Thurschwell also characterized Nashwan’s / Hadi’s symptoms as “extreme pain, stress, and difficulty breathing”.

The SMO affirmatively acknowledged Nashwan’s / Hadi’s symptoms, and at one time declared, “He [Nashwan / Hadi] reports tightness and tension in his shoulders and in his trapezius that he says has been consistent for a long time.”

Later, Thurschwell asked the SMO if he could predict whether or not transporting Nashwan / Hadi from his cell could cause “those severe symptoms” on any particular occasion.

The SMO responded, “Those symptoms?  Not specifically.”

Finally, Thurschwell asked the SMO whether or not he has “any reason to doubt” Nashwan’s / Hadi’s reported pain or symptoms.

The SMO responded, “No.” and “I don’t.”

At 5:13 p.m., Libretto dismissed the SMO from the day’s proceedings, and stated that the commission would recess for 10 minutes.

Following the recess, Libretto issued the following order, directed commission officials to inform Nashwan / Hadi of the following order, and in turn concluded the Monday 24 September 2018 hearing:

One, that a session of the commission will commence tomorrow morning 25 September 2018 at 0900 [9:00 a.m.].

Two, pursuant to R.M.C. 804, the accused has a right to be present at the session.

Three, the senior medical officer has medically cleared the accused to travel to this commission session that is scheduled for 25 September 2018.

The commission is hereby ordering the presence of the accused at the 25 September 2018 session.

The commission will not order the use of force to compel the accused’s presence.

And finally, six, that it is possible that the commission may proceed in the accused’s absence if he refuses to attend the 25 September 2018 session.

Note:  For those wishing to access the unofficial / unauthenticated transcript of the 24 September 2018 proceedings as published through the OMC website, you may do so here.

Conclusion

My first day of monitoring hearings at Guantanamo required great patience and flexibility.

Pleased stay tuned for future updates.

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Me working in the NGO Center located near Camp Justice.

Jacob Irven, J.D. 2018
Military Commission Observation Project
Program in International Human Rights Law
Indiana University McKinney School of Law

Voter Protection Legal Fellow
Indiana Democratic Party

Jacob.Irven@gmail.com

Somali Detainee Guleed Testifies at Guantanamo Bay in 9/11 Case

Hassan Guleed - Somalia

Hassan Guleed, a detainee since 2006, testified today about “vibrations” and “noises” purportedly used to harass detainees in Guantanamo Bay’s secret Camp VII that houses “high value detainees” (HVDs)

On Thursday, 2 June 2016, I was in the courtroom at Guantanamo when an unusual rare event occurred. I was there when a detainee, named Hassan Guleed, was called to testify in open court. Guleed, who is a Somali detained at Guantanamo since 2006, testified about “vibrations”, “noises” and “smells” that allegedly have been used to harass detainee Mr. Bin al Shibh, who is one of 5 men charged with masterminding the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Below I provide some background on today’s hearings, details of the hearing, and some of my personal observations.  I am writing this entry soon after court ended today, in the middle of other activities in store for me and the other observers that the Pentagon permitted to travel to Guantanamo for this week’s hearings. I will seek to fix any misspellings or other errors later.

Background

On 21 June 2013, the U.S. Military Commission hearing the case against the 5 9/11 defendants ordered the Government not to disrupt Mr. Bin al Shibhs’s cell. On 2 November 2015 the Military Commission again issued a” Do Not Subject Mr. bin al Shibh to Disruptive and Harassing Noises and Vibrations Order”.    Counsel for bin al Shibh filed a motion to hold the government in contempt because, according to bin al Shibh, the disruptions have not stopped.

Two witnesses were scheduled to testify today in support of bin al Shibh – Abu Zubaydah and Hassan Guleed.  Both witnesses are high value detainees (HVDs) who are detained in Canp VII, where bin al Shibh is detained, and which is a secret, isolated detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.  The two witnesses were purportedly fact witnesses with knowledge of the alleged continuous vibrations and noises “which are an extension of the traumatization of the torture he has experienced at the hands of the United States Government, especially during the nights leading up to a schedule hearing.”  (AE 152 LL (RBS), Emergency Motion for Show Cause why the Government, JTF Camp Commander And JTF Guard Force Members Should Not Be Held in Contempt filed 11 December 2015)

Witness Testimony

SPOILER ALERT: Abu Zubaydah did not testify.  There was only one witness, which is still more than most observers have been able to experience in-person.

The witnesses were to testify about the conditions at Camp 7, again where the witnesses and bin al Shibh are housed.  bin al Shibh has stated that he is being subjected to external sounds and vibrations while detained, even after Judge Pohl Ordered such activity, if occurring, to cease.   Hassan testified beginning at approximately 10 am. Zubaydah was scheduled to testify at 2:15 pm.

Guleed:

Hassan Guleed was the first witness.  The guards made a line, shoulder to shoulder, facing in opposite directions between the defendants and the witness as the witness walked in. I was told that the distance walked by Guleed from the entry to the witness stand is the longest he has walked without shackles since being detained in 2004. The defendants did not look around as the witness was walking in, however there appeared to be some “interaction” between the witness and the defendants when the witness was on the stand and the defendants were seated at their respective defense tables.

Mr. Harrington, Learned Counsel for bin al Shibh, conducted direct examination on Guleed.

Here is a link to a DOD Detainee Assessment on Guleed. The document, that was released in 2008,  contains some background information on Hassan Guleed.

Guleed, who has never testified in court and has never been charged with any Guantanamo Bay crimes, does not have an attorney and did not have an attorney in court with him today. Guleed refused services of an interpreter, and wanted to speak only in English.  In my opinion, language was a bit of a barrier in only a few specific instances, but overall Guleed appeared to have a good command of the English language.  Guleed noted the defendants were his “brothers”, and he called them “brothers” during his testimony.

The transcript of the testimony has been released on the Military Commission’s website.

Mr. Guleed testified that he heard noises and felt vibrations like those purportedly heard / felt by bin al Shibh.

Mr. Edward Ryan, for the government, cross-examined Guleed. It was interesting to watch.  Mr. Ryan started off on an aggressive tone which he carried throughout the cross examination.  He tried to establish that the witness was biased by asking questions which explicitly or implicitly point to the idea that Mr. Guleed considers the United States his enemy.  For example, Mr. Ryan asked if Mr. Guleed’s Kunya is his Al-Qaeda or Jihadi name.  He also specifically asked if America was Mr. Guleed’s enemy.

Red Light - GTMO

This “red light” in the Guantanamo Bay courtroom flashed twice when the witness Mr. Guleed purportedly referred to classified information about the secret Camp VII where he is housed.

During the testimonay, the court’s “Red Light” went off twice signaling that the court security officer was cutting the audio and video feed from the courtroom to the gallery where we observer were, with the cut presumably because classified information was being discussed during the testimony. The audio / video feed was turned back on after only a couple / few minutes.

A few quotes I jotted down during the hearing, copied here from the transcript on the Military Commission’s website:

Guleed: They didn’t charge nothing for me, I’m staying, only staying in the camp.  They didn’t charge anything for me against.  So I’m just waiting charge or whatever it is.  … No charge.  They don’t have nothing to charge me.  I did nothing.

Guleed on why he is testifying: There’s two things:  Helping brother, and same thing that I got a problem.  So there’s nowhere else that I can tell them.  So the people outside here…so that’s the chance for me to testify at the same time and tell my problem.
—-
Mr. Ryan: All right.  I’m going to start with vibrations.  What does that mean?

Guleen: What means vibration?

Mr. Ryan: Yeah.

Guleen: Vibration is vibration.

Mr. Ryan: Thank you.  That helps me.
—-
Mr. Ryan: Mr. Gouled, I don’t want to cut you off.  If I cut you off, please tell me so.  Okay?

Guleed: You did already.

(I have seen the last name spelled differently on several government documents)
——
Mr. Ryan: Is America your enemy?

Mr. Guleed: I’m not in Guantanamo if it’s not my enemy.

Mr. Ryan: Thank you for that, but now my question is, is America your enemy? Do you believe America is your enemy?

Mr. Guleed: No, I’m not believing.  I think they’re my friend.

Mr. Ryan: You think they’re your friends?

Mr. Guleed: Yeah.

Mr. Ryan: Are you kidding right now?

Mr. Guleed: No, they give me food in my Camp VII.
—–
Mr. Ryan: Is it true that under your version of Islamic law, it’s acceptable to lie to infidels?

Mr. Guleed: My Sharia tells me that I have to tell the truth.

Mr. Ryan: To whoever is asking the questions?

Mr. Guleed: Depends.

Mr. Ryan: Okay.  Sir, in the course of your testimony today, am I correct to say that you’ve like to us many times.

Mr. Guleed: I’m not lying.

Mr. Ryan: That’s all I have, Judge.

Abu Zubaydah:

Abu Zubaydah, a high value detainee, who has not been charged and has not been seen by the “public” (press, observers) since his capture in 2002, was scheduled to testify at 2:15.  Mr. Zubaydah was transported to Camp Justice from Camp 7 over lunch and was waiting outside the courtroom.  He never entered the room, and no one in the gallery ever saw him.

Mr. Zubaydah is also being held at Camp 7 and was going to testify in support of allegations made by bin al Shibh regarding the continuous noise and vibrations at the facility.

Zubaydah was represented by counsel, Commander Patrick Flor.  Commander Flor was present in the courtroom during the hearing.  The afternoon session started with a conversation among the Military Judge, Commander Flor, Mr. Harrington, and Mr. Ryan.  The conversation ended with a decision that Zubaydah would not testify today.

An issue concerns whether any testimony by Zubaydah might incriminate him, and whether immunity could be granted so that he could testify fully without his testimony being able to be used against him should charges be filed against him.

During the discussion among the Military Judge and the lawyers, the prosecution (Mr. Ryan) noted that he would ask questions attempting to show bias in favor of the bin al Shibh.  Mr. Ryan planned on showing bias by asking questions about alleged illegal activities as well as asking about any bias against the United States, shared values with the accused, and relationships with the accused. Harrington and Flor suggested that the Judge provide immunity for the questions asked.  The Military Judge did not believe he had the authority to provide immunity, and the parties were not sure at what point the immunity would kick in.  There was also a question of what information would get struck if immunity was not given, but instead if objections were raised during cross examination.  The parties could not determine if, in that situation, both the cross and direct examination would be struck from the record, or just the cross.  It was decided that his testimony would be postponed until the next hearing. The parties were requested to file briefs with the court.

Personal Observations

All five of the 9/11 defendants were present for today’s hearing.  Today KSM, bin ‘Attash, and bin al Shibh wore cameo jackets. All of the defendants had their heads covered. al Baluchi wore a Pashtun hat. KSM and al Baluchi had “scarves” draped over their shoulders with a golden dome and the word “Palestine”.

It seems the laweyrs involved in the Zubaydah fiasco could have worked out any issues before Zubaydah arrived at the court today.  I have no experience with the substantive issues, but it does seem that bin al Shibh’s defense counsel or counsel for Zubaydah could have known the sort of questions that the prosecution was going to ask, and could have been prepared on the self-incrimination / immunity issues.  If the witness is testifying in support of a motion made by the defense, wouldn’t it only make sense that the prosecution would attack the witness’s credibility by trying to show bias?  Hindsight is 20/20 but it is possible that the parties were well aware that the immunity issue would come up and for whatever reason decided to not work out the issue prior to testimony.

There was disappointment in the gallery when the Military Judge stated Zubaydah would not testify today. I was disappointed.  However, those in the courtroom seemed un-phased.  Although I was disappointed to not have a chance to see Zubaydah in person, I am glad I was able to see and hear Guleed’s testimony live.  It is very rare to be able to see an in-person testimony during these proceedings, let alone an in-person testimony from a high value detainee.  His testimony was surprisingly entertaining, which feels odd to write given the context.  Parts of the testimony caused laughter to break out in the gallery, while other parts led to tears.

There is a book which touches on Zubaydah called Black Banners, by Ali Soufan.  I hope to listen to it on the drive to Indianapolis from Andrews Air Force Base on Saturday.

I have had some time to explore the Guantanamo Bay Naval base and will be posting about my down time experience here at Guantanamo Bay as time permits.

20160601_170134Many of the notes above are based on my memory and understanding of the 30 May 2016 hearing and related motions and transcripts. The foregoing is my opinion in my own personal capacity, and my blog posts and other comments are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Indiana University McKinney School of Law or anyone else, for that matter.

Leontiy Korolev, J.D., Indiana University McKinney School of Law

Participant, Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP), Program in International Human Rights Law (PIHRL), Indiana University McKinney School of Law