U.S. NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY — Military officials refused on Tuesday to specify where and under what conditions admitted Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is being imprisoned here. They did, however, say that many of the 390 or so other terror suspect detained in the sprawling prison complex continue to face regular interrogation sessions.
With the war crimes tribunal of Australian terror suspect David Hicks in a state of temporary limbo as prosecutors convene a series of private meetings with Hicks’ defense lawyer to hash out the details of a plea deal Hicks agreed to enter on Monday, military officials provided several journalists gathered here with a standard tour of the various prison buildings where Hicks and others have been detained since shortly after 9/11.
The tour was colored with several amusing twists, including a brief group interview with the prison camp’s librarian — a civilian contractor, who said many of the detainees are fond of reading “poetry and religious books,” but are most enthralled with Pashtun translations of the popular children’s book series, Harry Potter.
Certainly interesting. But with the case of Hicks, a small fish in the grand scheme of the U.S.-led war on terror, lingering in the background, the question on my mind was: What about that big fat fish KSM? Where is he?
“Honestly, I don’t know about that and if I did, I couldn’t say,” answered one military official as he led the other journalists and I on a tour of “Camp 5,” one of two permanent, maximum security prison buildings here, the construction of which reportedly cost the Defense Department some $70 million in recent years.
As for David Hicks, military officials said he’s currently being held in “Camp Echo,” a block of temporary holding cells where detainees go when waiting to attend hearings in the war crimes tribunal.
Hicks, whom the Pentagon has charged with various counts of providing material support to terrorists, agreed to plead guilty on Monday. A hearing is expected later this week to outline the parameters of his plea deal, as well as precisely what he is pleading guilty to.
The Pentagon charge sheet against Hicks broadly asserts that he “did, in or around Afghanistan, from in or about December 2000 through in or about December 2001, intentionally provide material support or resources to an international terrorist organization engaged in hostilities against the United States, namely al Qaeda . . .”
In addition to accusing him of going to al-Qaida training camps, an odd detail on the sheet is a paragraph that states: “On or about September 9, 2001, Hicks traveled to Pakistan to visit a friend. While at this friend’s house, Hicks watched television footage of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and expressed his approval of the attacks.”
Critics say the charges fail to clearly outline illegal acts committed by Hicks. An equally important problem, argues Hina Shamsi — a lawyer for Human Rights First that the Pentagon is allowing to witness the war crimes tribunal — centers around how the Hicks case has been “tainted by outside influence and political considerations.”
Shamsi, who is filing a blog of her observations of the tribunal on the Human Rights First Web site, says the timing of the charge against Hicks — it was announced by the Pentagon on March 1 — and even the charge’s “content seem heavily influenced by political considerations and developments in Australia.”
“Prime Minster John Howard has raised the case with top level officials in the U.S. government and there are reports that Australian officials were sent to ‘lobby’ the United States on the charges to be brought against hicks as well as the timing of those charges.”
“One of the fundamental characteristics of a trial system that is fair both in reality and perception is that it be free of outside influence.”
While Shamsi declined to speculate on the matter, journalists gathered here this week have chatted amongst themselves about the possibility that after years of inaction, Howard now seeks get the Hicks matter resolved quickly lest it fester into a politically damaging scar on his administration during the approach to elections expected in Australia next fall. Polls show most Australians want Hicks returned home to face justice.
World Politics Review Senior International Editor Guy Taylor is currently reporting from at Guantanamo. On Tuesday, he appear as a guest on a public radio panel discussion about the war crimes tribunal and prison hosted by To The Point, a program co-produced by KCRW and Public Radio International. For details, click here.