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October 09, 2018

Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions: A Twilight Zone

At the end of September, I traveled down to Guantanamo Bay to observe the military commissions proceedings for the first time. I had been warned that it would be a paradoxical and strange experience, a warning that turned out to be alarmingly true. The proximity of complete normality to the deeply unsettling creates a twilight zone straight out of Rod Serling’s imagination.

The base itself wouldn’t seem out of place in the continental United States. It feels like a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and gossip spreads quickly. A gym, an outdoor movie theater, the beaches, and a bowling alley provide most of the entertainment for residents.

But, as an outside observer, the history of what happened in Guantanamo seemed to loom everywhere. The knowledge that Camp X-Ray—the infamous detention facility in Guantanamo where detainees were initially tortured following the attacks on September 11th —is just a few miles away hung over much of my time there. While we were not allowed to view the camp, pictures show that it’s nothing more than dilapidated cages and barbed wire now, casting an eerie shadow where it looms.

The military commissions courthouse complex itself looks like a prison from the outside. High fences, barbed wire, and sniper netting protect it from view and from unauthorized egress or ingress. On the inside, the courtroom looks familiar, even for someone who has only seen the inside of a courtroom on TV. The exceptions are the glass window separating the viewing gallery from the rest of the room and the delayed audio feed, designed to prevent any classified information from accidentally spilling and reaching the ears of observers.

The case the commissions examined last week was that of Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, an Iraqi citizen accused by the U.S. government of committing war crimes as an al Qaeda army commander. Hadi is currently recovering from recent back surgery—his fifth surgery while detained at Guantanamo. The government consistently ignored his claims of pain to the point where multiple emergency surgeries were necessary to prevent paralysis. A team of neurosurgeons had to be flown down in time to complete the first surgery just days before Hurricane Irma hit the island.

On the first day of the hearings, Hadi did not appear for the scheduled court session. We soon learned that he did not think he was well enough to come to court. Twice during the previous week, he had experienced back seizures so strong that they restricted his breathing.

Instead of concluding that back seizures and breathing difficulties would reasonably impede Hadi’s ability to attend court, Judge Libretto—newly assigned to the case on June 13, 2018—ruled that Hadi met all the requirements for “voluntary absence” from the courtroom, declaring that the hearing could proceed without him. The judge cited the fact that the detention facility’s senior medical officer had medically cleared Hadi to attend one four-hour court session. The officer had only started working with Hadi one week prior and himself stated that he was still getting to know the detainee.

Reality swiftly intruded on the proceedings when Hadi experienced more back spasms and was subsequently declared not medically fit to attend hearings for the rest of the week. For us observers, that meant our remaining three and a half days were spent exploring the other more “normal” activities on the base: the beaches, the restaurants, and the other sources of entertainment. We flew out of Guantanamo and back to our regular lives on Saturday morning, one week after we’d arrived.

But for the detainees and the rest of those working in the commissions process, this unsettling arrangement continues. Military commissions already proceed at a crawling pace, and with Hadi’s health condition, his case will continue to be impeded at every turn. Even if the cases the government is prosecuting reach final decisions, 24 people remain in indefinite detention without charge or trial. Without significant change in U.S. policy, the detainees of Guantanamo Bay will remain trapped in the twilight zone.