Reporting from Guantanamo Bay:  Courtroom Clash and Hearing Delays

Reporting from Guantanamo Bay

I am a recent graduate of the Indiana University McKinney School of Law (IU McKinney) and I am representing 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 has been 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.

Tuesday 25 September 2018 Hearing

Photo on 9-26-18 at 5.40 PM

Me reviewing the Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual – Excerpts before the day’s commission hearing.

Tuesday’s hearing (25 September 2018) began with testimony from an Assistant Staff Judge Advocate (ASJA) of the U.S. Navy.  The ASJA testified that he provided Nashwan / Hadi notice of his right to be present during Tuesday’s hearing in accordance with Judge Libretto’s orders during the hearing on Monday (24 September 2018).  The ASJA further testified that Nashwan / Hadi declined to be present for Tuesday’s hearing, and that Nashwan / Hadi expressed feeling “medically unable to appear”.

Following a short recess, prosecuting counsel (Mr. Vaughn Spencer) and defense counsel (Mr. Adam Thurschwell) presented oral arguments regarding whether or not the week’s remaining commission hearings should proceed in Nashwan’s / Hadi’s absence.

Thurschwell argued that Nashwan / Hadi could only waive his right to appear for Tuesday’s hearing after making his first hearing appearance during this week’s commission session.  As Nashwan / Hadi did not appear for the first hearing of this week’s commission session on Monday, Thurschwell argued that it would be erroneous to continue proceedings for the week absent a valid waiver of Nashwan’s / Hadi’s right to appear for those proceedings.

In other words, Thurschwell recalled the principle of express waiver as discussed under under the Rules of Military Commissions—R.M.C. 804(c).  In practice, this principle requires the military judge (Libretto) to require the defendant (Nashwan / Hadi) to appear for the first hearing of a new hearing session (the Monday 24 September 2018 hearing).  During that first hearing, the judge must inform the defendant of his rights, including the right to not be present at future hearings for the week.  On subsequent hearing days for the week, the defendant can waive his right to be present for any hearing day during the session, in which case the court requires the defendant to sign a formal waiver stating that he is voluntarily absenting himself.  Thurschwell applied this principle to the context of Tuesday’s hearing, and argued that the court did not properly follow the practice described above.

On the other hand, Spencer argued that the Senior Medical Officer (SMO) medically cleared Nashwan / Hadi to appear in court on Tuesday, and that Nashwan / Hadi had been adequately informed of Tuesday’s hearing.  Therefore, Spencer argued, Nashwan’s / Hadi’s failure to appear for Tuesday’s hearing was a voluntary refusal.  In other words, Spencer argued that Nashwan’s / Hadi’s absence constituted a voluntary absence as discussed under R.M.C. 804(c).

Judge Libretto ruled in line with the prosecution (Spencer), stating:

Central to the commission’s analysis is whether the accused’s refusal implicates the principle of express waiver or voluntary absence.  The two principles are distinct. Express waiver, to be valid, requires an accused to be fully informed of his right to attend and the consequences of foregoing that right.  Voluntary absence, on the other hand, has no such requirement.  The absence needs only be found to be voluntary. In order to be voluntary, the accused must have known of the scheduled proceeding and intentionally missed them.

As an initial matter, this commission finds that the circumstances presented by the accused’s refusal to attend the scheduled sessions thus far this week implicate the principle of voluntary absence, not express waiver, as argued extensively by the defense.

In reaching this conclusion, Libretto held that Nashwan / Hadi had been medically cleared to appear for Tuesday’s hearing, and that appropriate accommodations had been made to allow his appearance.  Libretto therefore deemed Nashwan’s / Hadi’s absence from this hearing to be intentional, and accordingly found “the accused’s absence from this session to be voluntary and that the accused will have forfeited his right to be present if he continues to refuse to attend”.

Libretto then ordered the commission to reconvene at 9:00 a.m. each remaining day this week, beginning on Wednesday (26 September 2018).  Libretto further ordered that Nashwan / Hadi be allowed opportunities to appear for each scheduled proceeding for the week.  Libretto declared that the commission would not proceed in Nashwan’s / Hadi’s absence on Wednesday or Thursday (27 September 2018).  However, Libretto explained that should Nashwan / Hadi not appear on Friday (28 September 2018), Nashwan / Hadi would be considered voluntarily absent from that hearing, and the hearing would then proceed in Nashwan’s / Hadi’s absence.

Tuesday’s hearing then recessed for the day at 1:15 p.m.

Note:  For those wishing to access the unofficial / unauthenticated transcript of the Tuesday 25 September 2018 commission hearing as published through the Office of Military Commissions (OMC) website, you may do so here.

Nashwan / Hadi Suffers Further Back Spasms Causing More Hearing Delays

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).

Ms. Carol Rosenberg (whose twitter feed I have been monitoring for updates while at Guantanamo) tweeted on 3:01 p.m. Tuesday that Nashwan / Hadi suffered more severe back spasms sometime following the day’s earlier hearing.  She then explained that “Gitmo’s prison doctor” (presumably the Army SMO, but this remains unclear) revoked Nashwan’s / Hadi’s medical clearance to be transported from his cell.

Shortly afterward at 3:05 p.m., Ms. Rosenberg tweeted that Judge Libretto cancelled the hearing scheduled for Wednesday.  Around 9:00 p.m. that evening, I learned from an NGO escort that Judge Libretto similarly canceled the hearing scheduled for Thursday as well.  It remains unclear if the hearing scheduled for Friday will proceed should Nashwan / Hadi fail to appear.


Please stay tuned for further Guantanamo updates.

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

Are you going to Guantanamo? New Manual Excerpts for NGO Observers & Others


Click this link for the full Manual — over 500 pages. Below you can download the Manual Excerpts!

If you’re going to Guantanamo Bay in January 2017, you might be interested in our new Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual: Excerpts that offers insights into:

  • what the right to a fair trial is and how a fair trial should look
  • how to assess whether a fair trial is being afforded to all Guantanamo stakeholders
  • roles & responsibilities of independent Observers sent to monitor Guantanamo hearings
  • background info on Guantanamo the military commissions
  • a schematic of the courtroom (so you can know who is who)
  • and a 76 page “Know Before You Go To Guantanamo” insert that will tell you what to expect on your flight to Cuba, the ferry ride across Guantanamo Bay from the landing strip to your Quonset Hut accommodations, base security, food (which can be quite good!), beach, boating, and of course the courtroom, the hearings, and briefings by the prosecution and defense.

In the past, the Gitmo Observer (of Indiana University McKinney School of Law) distributed Manual Excerpts to Observers after we arrived at Andrews Air Force on the morning of our flight to Cuba (or distributed at Ft. Meade, Maryland, for Observers monitoring live by secure video-link from Cuba). Observers said they wish they had had it earlier.

So, we started to e-mail the Manual Excerpts to Observers as soon as we were sent e-mail addresses of Observers scheduled to travel, and we would receive those e-mails 3 – 6 days before the scheduled departure. Observers said that they wish they had it even earlier than that, that 3 – 6 days in advance wasn’t enough time.

So now we are posting the Manual Excerpts on this site, for access by anyone interested, whether or note traveling to Guantanamo Bay (or Ft. Meade or elsewhere), but especially for those traveling to Guantanamo Bay to monitor 3 weeks of January 2017 hearings. Ideally, about 40 independent observers would travel to Gitmo this month, to fill all the slots allocated to observers.

The Defense Department has stated that it favors strong and robust transparency. Having full complements of Observers for each hearing week would help promote transparency, human rights, and the rule of law for all military commission stakeholders (with stakeholders including the defense, the prosecution, victims and their families, witnesses, the media, observers, observer escorts / minders, the public, the U.S. soldiers and others who operate the detention facilities, the military commission court staff, and others).

Here are the Excerpts! Please let us know if you have any suggestions for improving our Excerpts, our full Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual (over 500 pages in 2 volumes!) and our Know Before You Go To Guantanamo Guide (76 pages). Send to

[office src=”″ width=”876″ height=”688″]

Detainee Rights at Guantanamo Periodic Review Boards (PRBs)

Guantnaamo Bay - Military Commission Seal

Gitmo trials are handled through the Office of Military Commissions (OMC) —- PRBs are handled through the Periodic Review Secretariat (PRS) —

When many people think of Guantanamo Bay proceedings, they think of the U.S. Military Commissions that are set to try some detainees for war crimes. Not many think about a special type of administrative hearing through which detainees can plead for their release.

These hearings are called Periodic Review Boards (PRBs), and are rooted in an Executive Order issued by President Obama in 2011. In PRBs, detainees are permitted to argue that they do not threaten U.S. national security, and should be released from Guantanamo Bay, with either repatriation to their home countries or resettlement in a 3rd country. More about PRBs can be found here.

Detainee PRB rights

Certain detainees (not all) have rights to up to 3 “types” of PRBs, including an “initial review” (within a year of the Executive Order), a file review (every 6 months after a final determination of an initial review), and a triennial full review (every 3 years). Either the detainee will remain at GTMO following reviews, be transferred to a 3rd country, or be repatriated to his home country. Following are a list of rights to be afforded to detainees at different phases (initial review, file review, triennial review, transfer or repatriation, or remaining at GTMO:

  1. The right to a PRB (“initial review”) within one year of the Executive Order (though the first initial review was conducted 2 years after the 2011 act, with one of the last initial reviews scheduled for July 2016)
  2. The right to advance notice of the PRB, in writing and in a language the detainee understands, of the PRB
  3. The right to attend his PRBs
  4. The right to be assisted in PRB proceedings by a U.S. Government-provided personal representative who possesses the security clearances necessary for access to the information [It appears as though this representative is a “uniformed military officer” – see] [I have not yet attended a PRB, so I do not know whether the representative in fact wears a U.S. military uniform.]
  5. The right to have the Government-provided personal representative advocate on the detainee’s behalf before the PRB
  6. The right to have the Government-provided personal representative challenge the Government’s information and introduce information on behalf of the detainee.
  7. The right to retain private counsel to assist him (though at no expense to the United States)
  8. The right to have the U.S. provide him an unclassified summary of the factors and information the PRB will consider in evaluating whether the detainee meets the Executive Order standard, and this must include a summary of or substitute for classified information that is sufficient to assure a meaningful opportunity for the detainee to participate in PRB. The written summary shall be sufficiently comprehensive to provide adequate notice to the detainee of the reasons for continued detention. If a sufficient unclassified summary of classified information cannot be created, that information may not be considered by the PRB in its determination.
  9. The right to call witnesses who are reasonably available and willing to provide information that is relevant and material.
  10. The right to answer questions posed by the PRB (and presumably the right to refrain from answering questions)
  11. The right to present a written or oral statement for the PRB to consider
  12. The right to an interpreter (and presumably the right to have documents translated into a language he understands)
  13. The right to introduce relevant information, including written declarations
  14. The right to have the government provide mitigating information
  15. The right to have a PRB consisting of representatives of each of the Departments of Defense, State, Justice and Homeland Security; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
  16. The right to the PRB’s prompt determination, by consensus and in writing, as to whether the detainee’s continued detention is warranted under the Executive Order’s standard, in a language the detainee understands, within 30 days of the determination when practicable.
  17. The right to a full review every three years if the initial review is negative
  18. The right to a file review every 6 months if the initial review is negative.
  19. In “lieu of” a right to appeal a determination of the any PRB, the right to 6 month file review and 3 year full review (see above)
  20. If the detainee is determined to be no longer a threat per the Executive Order, the right to have the Secretaries of State and Defense to ensure that vigorous efforts are undertaken to identify a suitable transfer location for any such detainee, outside of the U.S.
  21. The right to have the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, obtain security and humane treatment assurances regarding any detainee to be transferred to another country, and for determining, after consultation with members of the Committee, that it is appropriate to proceed with the transfer.
  22. The right to have the Secretary of State evaluate humane treatment assurances.

For more on PRBs, please click this link.