Saturday, June 7, 2008

Guantanamo Bay's Version of Justice

In the contentious history of Guantanamo Bay, Thursday was momentous. It was the first time senior al-Qa'eda suspects had been seen in public since the September 11 attacks on America nearly seven years ago, and the first time any had been charged in a US court.

Short of capturing Osama bin Laden or his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, this was as close as America will come to submitting leading perpetrators of the worst terrorist atrocity on its soil to the rule of law.

But justice is strange at Camp Justice. No images were allowed of the courtroom exterior - a boxed structure surrounded by high fences and razor wire plonked in the middle of a disused Second World War airstrip - let alone the inside.

advertisementThe defendants, who face the death penalty, have been denied habeas corpus, but some rights were over-respected at times, most notably when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the self-confessed mastermind of the attacks, complained that the court artist's sketch contained an unflattering nose.

The greatest abnormality, however, is the three to four years the detainees spent in the legal netherworld of CIA prisons before being brought to the US naval base on Cuba, where they were held incommunicado for a further 18 months.

In the meantime, of course, Guantanamo and the ghost prisons have become symbols of American oppression and hypocrisy, and many parts of the world will have difficulty trusting a verdict issued at the controversial base.

KSM and others were detained not with justice in mind, but to gain intelligence, whatever the methods, in a new kind of war. What was done in those early years after 9/11 is burdening the belated effort to serve justice now, when sadly there is apparently a body of evidence against the accused that would have passed muster in a conventional US court.

George W. Bush and his aides decided that both protecting America and prosecuting the accused by its own newly formed rules was worth the price in lost global reputation. History may vindicate them, but for now the greatest lesson of the Guantanamo trial is that justice delayed is indeed justice denied.

Judging from the healthy appearance and sharp wits of the five defendants, five years in solitary confinement, with torture here and there, does not necessarily break a man.

Far from it: the two most senior - KSM and Ramzi bin al-Shibh - clearly remained committed to violent jihad, and welcomed the prospect of martyrdom by execution.

The proceedings quickly demonstrated that terrorists have personalities, too. KSM was bombastic and condescending. Waleed bin Attash, accused of training some of the 9/11 hijackers, was chatty and excitable.

Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, a 30-year-old Kuwaiti said to have sent £60,000 to the 19 suicidal terrorists, made the press gallery snigger. Told by the judge that US military lawyers were being provided free of charge, he snapped back that America "tortured me free of charge, too".

Even when the Pentagon is trying to treat guests well at Guantanamo Bay, it can be a mild form of torture. An unprecedented 60 members of the press were flown in from Andrews Air Force Base sitting buttock to buttock in a Hercules C130, on a five-hour flight that gave some impression of extraordinary rendition.

We were housed in tents that were comfortable enough, but the tropical night was cooled by air-conditioning units that revved up like a Sherman tank every 20 minutes. To compensate for this sleep deprivation programme, we were promised a trip to O'Kelly's Irish Pub as a farewell.

In more ways than one, Guantanamo is indeed a strange place.

[Via Telegraph]

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