“What Am I Doing Here?”: Covering Al-Nashiri’s Guantanamo Trial

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, alleged mastermind behind the USS Cole bombing

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA – What am I doing here?  It’s a thought that’s been nagging at me since I was told nearly two weeks ago that I would be attending the military commission of Abd al-Rahim Hussayn Muhammad al-Nashiri in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as a non-government organization representative and one that has really hit home now that I’m sitting in the infamous naval base.

Al-Nashiri is the alleged mastermind behind the attacks on the USS Cole in October 2000 and the MV Limburg in October 2002.  Al-Nashiri is also one of fourteen high value detainees held in the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility, and the first such detainee to go through the military commission process at Guantanamo facing a possible death sentence.

It’s not that I literally don’t know what I’m going to be doing here. As an NGO representative from Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Policy & Research, I know that I’ll be watching more than 20 pre-trial motions ranging from the seemingly inane, such as the Government’s motion for a scheduling order (which is exactly what it sounds like), to an excitingly unique motion by First Amendment attorney, David A. Shulz.

Shulz’s argument is unique as he will be the first non-party attorney to make an argument before a Guantanamo Military Commission.  His argument, on behalf of a media consortium, will be to oppose the potential closing of the hearing on the defense’s motion to permit al-Nashiri to be unshackled during his meetings with his attorneys, as the shackling is said to evoke the CIA interrogations al-Nashiri faced in secret prisons. Even more interestingly, if the hearing is not closed it will likely be an opportunity to hear testimony by al-Nashiri regarding his alleged torture at the hands of the CIA.

I also know— based on some very well written articles by my Center colleagues, Kelli Stout, Lauren Winchester, Kari Panaccione, and Chrystal Loyer— generally what to expect about how things run in GTMO.  I know about the procedures of the hearing, such as the uncomfortable 40 second delay between the live hearing and the audio pumped into the viewing room.  And I know about the various idiosyncrasies of being an NGO representative on a Navy base, such as the constant presence of escorts and the various restrictions that will be imposed on us.

What I obviously I don’t know is what the specifics of the hearing will hold.  Therefore, my purpose, and the purpose of all the other NGOs, may be to simply report—and, in effect, to witness.  These military commissions are historic. And if the rule of law falls in a forest and no one hears it…?

It seems imperative that the public has a window into these proceedings, and while I’m here, I will certainly report back on the trial. Granted, I’m not a journalist.  The press is here, but their presence is shockingly sparse: only five members of the media flew down to Guantanamo to attend the hearing.  Interest in Guantanamo has waned.  My guess is that GTMO just doesn’t “sell” like it once did, so most of the media doesn’t bother.

As NGO representatives though, we have the benefit of reporting to audiences we know are still interested in these hearings.  Every one of the NGOs I’ve spoken to have told me that they are going to do some type of reporting on the hearing.  Whether its blogging, writing articles, authoring reports, acting as experts for the press, or simply discussing the case with GTMO- active co-workers, each representative is going to do some type of reporting that will help their colleagues in their own efforts to promote justice.

Some would argue however, that it’s not necessary for us to physically be in Guantanamo to see the hearing and report on it.  The next three (or more) days of hearings will be broadcast via closed circuit television to Fort Meade for media and NGO’s to watch, ostensibly precluding the necessity of a trip to Cuba.  However, while we may see and hear the same parts of the trial as our colleagues some 1,300 miles away, there are several benefits that we wouldn’t get if we were simply watching the CCTV feed.

One of the great benefits of actually traveling to GTMO is the opportunity to meet and speak with all of the different individuals who participate in one way or another at the hearing.  Our flight from Andrews Air Force Base to Guantanamo was packed.  Members of the military, press, and defense team were all crammed into the military flight from Maryland to Cuba with myself and seven fellow NGO representatives.  The only groups missing were the prosecution, who flew down earlier, and the victims’ families who were on the flight but were consistently segregated from the rest of the group.

Prior to the flight, in midair, and since we landed, many of us have taken the opportunity to get different perspectives from the various groups involved on what we’ll see and hear this week, something we would not have had the chance to do had we stayed in Maryland and something that will certainly help improve our understanding of the case.

Furthermore, our presence in Guantanamo puts pressure on the government to legitimize the Military Commission process, even if it is only by the slightest margin.  Despite the three panes of glass separating the commission from the observers or the 40 second delay between their mouths and our ears, our presence tells the government that this is important.  That people are still watching and that we still do care.

So, why am I here?

I’m here because the public needs to be here.  GTMO hasn’t gone away, just the media interest. And our society needs to have the opportunity to pull back the curtain and let the government know that we’re watching them.  That we’re still here, reporting, documenting, and chronicling, every motion and every evidentiary slight.

Nicholas Stratton is a third year student at Seton Hall Law and a Center for Policy & Research fellow.

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