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July 07, 2017

Sessions Visits Gitmo, but NGOs are Excluded

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday visited the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Meanwhile, non-governmental organization (NGO) observers were excluded from a hearing in the prison’s military commissions

The hearing involved Gitmo detainee Ahmed al Darbi, who pled guilty in 2014 to crimes related to the al Qaeda attack on a French oil tanker in 2002. While media were allowed to attend, NGOs, which are routinely invited to observe the hearings, were not.

The Office of Military Commissions, which coordinates observer attendance, had decided that the NGO visits were an unnecessary expense for this particular hearing, despite their participation in nearly all hearings historically. NGOs were not even notified it was taking place.

This is not the only recent example of Guantanamo officials interfering with NGOs’ ability to observe hearings. The prison officials also recently refused to grant observer access to NGO representatives who were not U.S. citizens. The order was issued without explanation, and then rescinded after NGOs protested, without actually informing NGOs of the change in policy. 

NGO observers have been part of military commission process since its beginning to ensure accountability and at least some minimal degree of transparency for what is otherwise an extremely opaque judicial process. Visits to Gitmo for NGO and media observers, who are supposed to be invited and transported to the island prison for all military commission hearings, are already heavily regimented and restricted affairs. Observers are saddled with military escorts, have no real access to any parts of the prison, and can only access the courtroom, located at “Camp Justice.”

Attorney General Sessions earlier this year voiced support for using the notorious island prison to house terrorism suspects and try them for war crimes in the military commissions. Referring to the commissions in March, Sessions said that he intended to “get this thing figured out and start using it in an effective way.”

In the same interview, Sessions disparaged the U.S. federal court system’s ability to hold terrorism-related trials, noting, “I don’t think we’re better off bringing these people to federal court in New York and trying them in federal court where they get discovery rights to find out intelligence, and get court-appointed lawyers and things of that nature.”

Hopefully on his trip to Gitmo, the Attorney General will discover that, like the federal court system he seems to think so little of, military commission defendants also have discovery rights and court-appointed lawyers. He may also find out at some point that U.S. federal courts have been far more successful than military commissions by every measure when it comes to terrorism-related trials. Federal courts have safely and efficiently handled complicated cases, even those against major terrorist figures captured overseas.

This is partly due to the clear and longstanding precedents and procedural rules for terrorism trials in federal courts, as well as effective procedures for handling classified evidence and protecting participants in sensitive trials. Federal courts are also consistently open to the public, except in exceptional circumstances when classified evidence is being discussed. This basic measure, designed to ensure the fairness and credibility of the judicial system, is sorely lacking at Guantanamo.