Visiting Guantanamo – Bret I. Parker

Bret I. Parker

Spring 2015

One Sunday afternoon in February, I boarded a chartered plane that left Andrews Air Force Base filled with prosecutors, defense attorneys, court personnel, reporters, and “observers.” We were headed to the Guantanamo Bay naval base to attend military tribunal hearings in the trial of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri for crimes related to, among other things, the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.

I was traveling on behalf of the City Bar, which is one of the official non-governmental observers of the trials being held at Guantanamo and has been sending observers since 2012. This observer work is coordinated by our City Bar’s Military Affairs & Justice Committee. During my trip, the observers spent the whole week together, along with our omnipresent (and extremely helpful) military escorts, sleeping on cots in large tents, using the latrine and shower house about 500 yards from our tents, and eating in the cafeteria on the naval base. Each morning we would walk to the “courthouse”—which was more like a trailer with incredible security— and watch the proceedings with other members of the viewing public, including victims’ family members, the media, and others. We were all separated from the proceedings by soundproof glass so we could watch the proceedings live, but the audio was on a delay to allow government officials to prevent us from hearing testimony that was deemed to contain classified information.

Why do we observe these hearings? Back in 2002, the City Bar analyzed then-President Bush’s Military Order for terrorism prosecution and expressed concern about the scope of the prosecutions of individuals apprehended far from the battlefield, and about significant procedural deficiencies in military tribunals. The City Bar urged maintenance of transparency in order to uphold the rule of law. In 2010, the City Bar expressed “profound concern” about legislation that would terminate funding for the transfer of non-citizens to the United States for any purpose, consequently prohibiting Guantanamo inmates from being tried in U.S. courts for charges related to the attacks of 9/11. In 2013, the Military Affairs & Justice Committee reiterated its opposition to Guantanamo trials in a letter to President Obama requesting the base’s closure. The letter called the base “a serious threat to our national security.” Despite the City Bar’s official opposition to trials at the base, the Military Affairs & Justice Committee has been active in observing and commenting on military tribunals there.

While I agree with the City Bar’s position that these individuals should be tried in U.S. courts, I also appreciate the role we play by serving as a public watchdog of the proceedings and was relieved to see that the defense counsel in Nashiri’s case appeared to be some of the best litigators I have ever seen. And the judge, despite being an Air Force colonel, appeared to show no favoritism to either side and, in fact, issued a significant ruling in favor of the defense. (See this article.)

At the end of the week, I returned to the States with a deep appreciation for the role the New York City Bar Association plays in trying to maintain the rule of law by observing the hearings at Guantanamo. The work of our Military Affairs & Justice Committee epitomizes the unique and exciting opportunities available to City Bar members who want to make a difference in the world.