World Politics Review Senior International Editor Guy Tayloris spending this week in Guantanamo Bay. He’ll be filing updates on thewar crimes tribunal and other developments all week. ON TUESDAY, Taylor appears on a public radio panel discussion aboutGuantanamo hosted by To The Point, a program co-produced by KCRW andPublic Radio International. For details, click here.
Flying Into a Legal Storm
U.S. NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY — On Monday, the 15-seat propeller plane carrying me here banked hard right around Cuba’s southeastern edge. As it descended through the clouds, something rare came into view: Long, thick beams of yellow, orange and green light arched down from the sky, shining what, for a moment, looked like rays of optimism on a place that for the past five years has mostly cast a gloomy shadow over the international reputation of the United States.
Maybe the rainbow was a symbol of the positive shift military officials were hoping to bring about in the way the world sees this place as the Pentagon forged ahead Monday with its new-fangled war crimes tribunals (or military commissions) for the detainees held here — some more than five years now.
After all, on Sunday, Air Force Col. Moe Davis, the man tapped by the Pentagon to lead the prosecution of a yet to be determined number of suspected terrorists had pondered aloud how he understood that, “around the world, Guantanamo, when you say the word, has a negative connotation.”
“I’m aware of the reputation around the world, these stories that have been told, and these horror tales about Guantanamo, and about military commissions,” Col. Davis had told a group of journalists. “I hope the way we conduct these commissions can change those perceptions.”
A day after Col. Davis made the remarks, military officials convened the first war crimes tribunal proceeding since the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an older version of the system halted last year on grounds that it violated both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions.
With a new, congressionally approved system now in place, things got off to a rocky start on Monday in the case of 31-year-old David Hicks, the first of some 350 detainees held here to be charged in the tribunal.
The Australian cowboy turned al-Qaida suspect, who was picked up in Afghanistan by U.S. troops after Sept. 11, 2001, found himself at they eye of the political and public relations storm that surrounds this far-flung outpost in the war on terror.
More than two-dozen journalists from major news organizations around the world — several of them Australian — were flown here over the weekend by the Pentagon as part of a last-minute junket to report on the much-anticipated Hicks hearing.
HICKS PLEADS GUILTY! … Or Does He?
Military officials had expected a brief arraignment hearing for Hicks, who according to Defense Department charging documents is accused of training in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan around the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.
But what occurred was a day of convoluted legal developments that continued well into the night, saw the dismissal of two of Hicks’ lawyers — apparently because of a misunderstanding over the tribunal’s rules — and resulted in what appeared, although nothing is set in stone, to be an agreement by Hicks just before 9 p.m. to plead guilty to providing material support for terrorists.
While a select group of journalists, human rights and civil liberties activists, and legal observers were permitted to watch the proceedings, on Monday night it remained unclear precisely what Hicks had agreed to plead guilty to.
Military officials said the parameters of the agreement that led to the plea remained to be determined, and military prosecutors and a Pentagon-appointed defense attorney for Hicks were scheduled to resolve the issue in a private meeting Tuesday, with subsequent hearings to be scheduled, if needed, later this week.
Officials said Hicks may be sentenced by weeks’ end. He is expected in the coming months to be transferred home to Australia to serve jail time, based on a prior diplomatic deal between Australia and the United States.
When Monday’s action was over, the group of human rights and civil liberties activists (also flown here by the Pentagon to observe the proceedings) stood at a podium and expressed distaste toward the process, calling it illegitimate and unfairly stacked against the detainees.
“David Hicks started the day with three lawyers and ended with one,” said Benjamin Wizner, who attended on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The American people should not be proud of what happened here today, it was a typical day in the world of military commissions,” he said.
Similar sentiments were expressed by representatives for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the latter of which called for the tribunals to be canceled, and for the suspects held here to be moved for trial to traditional U.S. courts.
For his part, Col. Davis, the prosecutor, acknowledged it was an “unpredictable,” and “long and tortuous day.”
But, he said, today “was one round in this battle and I think you need to let the process play out. I think at the end of the day, you’ll have to agree it was a fair trial.”
For Taylor’s last WPR Exclusive on Guantanamo click here.