The Glacial Pace of Gitmo

Everyone involved with the Military Commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba this week was focused on one issue: When will it end? Whether it was the defense counsel, prosecution, the judge, victims’ families, and I assume the defendant himself, everyone at Camp Justice was fed up.

And it’s no wonder.

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused of masterminding the USS Cole bombings, has been in the detention of various United States agencies since 2002. He wasn’t formally charged with a crime until 2008. The proceedings against him didn’t start until 2011. The pace of this trial in the tropics is glacial. At Guantanamo Bay, justice isn’t being served for anyone.

The hearings this week were supposed to be held from Monday until Friday. Instead, they were held on Wednesday and Thursday morning. There is only one flight to and from Guantanamo Bay every week, so the defense team, judge, and prosecution all flew down on Monday morning, with a return flight scheduled for Saturday. There were four days to go through motions; only one and a half days were used.

Granted, spending four days on the Eastern tip of Cuba isn’t exactly a personal hardship—for those with the freedom to leave. However, this seems to happen every time hearings are scheduled. In fact, they were cancelled altogether last month. Hearings have been cancelled after charter flights have landed in Cuba, resulting in an unnecessary burden to tax payers providing housing and flights for a planeload of people. This is frustrating for those of us observing; it is intolerable for the families of victims and survivors who attend the hearings.

The new judge presiding over al-Nashiri’s case, U.S. Air Force Colonel Vance Spath, shares the same frustrations. He frequently commented on his desire to move the proceedings forward, even going so far as to chastise both sides for putting issues before the court that should have been worked out in other arenas—such as obtaining medication for the defendant on the first day when he claimed he had a stomachache. At the close of the proceedings, Colonel Spath proposed that the next hearing block last two weeks instead of one, so as to proceed more quickly. Only time will tell whether or not Colonel Spath’s tenure will implement much needed change.

Even if Colonel Spath succeeds in actually starting the trial against al-Nashiri in 2015, which many find unlikely, it doesn’t change the fact that the defendant has been in U.S. custody for over a decade and has endured intolerable cruelty and torture. The Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay are an ineffective and broken system. As Learned Defense Counsel, Rick Kammen, said: “Things that would take 20 minutes in Federal Courts take six months here.”

After observing the proceeding, I am more convinced than ever that the federal court system—where recently, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law was tried and convicted within a year—is the best place to try cases against suspected terrorists. Glacial trials should no longer be the order of the day.

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Published on November 7, 2014

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