Smiles Jar in Guantanamo Court Drama

This blog is cross posted from The Huffington Post:

They don’t sit together, the five men in the Guantanamo court accused of plotting the September 11, 2001 attacks. It’s not a classic defendants together in the dock situation. Not much about these hearings is classic at all. Fourteen years after the crime in question, the military judge is making stuff up as he goes along in this unprecedented, legally dubious process.

Imagine a theatre where there are five rows facing Judge James Pohl’s podium. At the end of each row is a defendant. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) is in the first row, followed by Walid Bin Attash, then Ramzi Bin Al Shibh and Ammar al Baluchi and last is Mustafa Hawsawi. Next to each defendant sits his lawyer.

Before the hearing starts, the accused are led into the courtroom one by one, front to back, starting with KSM. Two soldiers per defendant. The guards wear blue plastic medic gloves and steer them to their seats, holding them by their shoulders and arms.

Then the guards line up along the wall nearest to the defendants and sit solemnly, hands clasped in front, unless their guy stands up, when they reflexively stand too, resulting in a curious up-down, up-down bobbing situation throughout the morning.

We NGO observers are seated at the back in a gallery with some families of the victims and others – about 40 of us in all, separated from the court by glass. A soldier reads us a list of rules before the hearings begin (“Sleeping in the gallery is prohibited and will not be tolerated.”) Signs warn us against sketching and doodling and say, “No Classified Discussion In This Area.”

The big news is that right at the start of the hearing Bin Attash says he might want to represent himself, which his civilian lawyer Cheryl Bormann says is a surprise to her. Bin Attash tries to address the court with complaints about the conditions at Guantanamo, speaking in staccato bursts that make things easier for the interpreters. “There are so many problems in the camp that take precedent over what’s happening here,” he says, claiming his treatment is like that in the black site where he was tortured.

The judge swings gently on his high-backed black chair and orders a recess. We eventually reconvene over an hour later and the issue is about what sort of conditions Bin Attash can expect if he defends himself: Will he have access to a law library and other material? Will he be able to call lawyers for advice? This all seems unlikely given his current lack of access to his attorneys.

Throughout the hearings and the recesses, the accused chitchat with their counsel and to each other. Al Shibh points out pages in a glossy magazine to al Baluchi. KSM–in a startlingly red beard – is in virtually constant conversation with those around him, his hands making small animated gestures. There’s a fair amount of smiling.

Smiling in the courtroom of terrorist trials always seems odd; shocking that those in about the most serious situation possible occasionally grin, whether it’s the lawyers, the judge, or the defendants. As a young journalist covering the 1987 appeals hearings in London of six men convicted of carrying out the biggest mass murder in British history–the 1974 IRA bombing of two pubs in Birmingham–I was
astonished to see the men passing notes to each other in the dock, sharing in jokes and giving the odd grin. I wondered how men who had been tortured and imprisoned for 13 years could find anything to joke about.

I saw it again in a Bahraini courtroom a few years ago when 20 doctors, nurses and other medics were appealing their verdicts on a range of offences, including terrorism. There was a mix of fear of consequences and laughter at the absurdity of proceedings.

It still jarred today when there was general laughter at the judge’s exasperation with both sets of lawyers (“I understand your frustration, I see it in your face,” Cheryl Bormann tells him). The issue of whether Bin Attash will be allowed to defend himself will be revisited tomorrow.

We opened at 9:03am today and finished at 11:14am. We go back again tomorrow morning.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on October 19, 2015


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