[Professor Elizabeth Hillman is one of the nation's foremost experts on military law and military justice. She flew into Guantanamo Bay yesterday as an observer for the National Institute of Military Justice and will be blogging whenever she gets a chance. -- Ed.]
Yesterday was Day One at Guantanamo Bay for me -- but more like Day 2,900 for Noor Uthman Mohammed, who has been held here for nearly eight years. He's one of about 183 prisoners remaining of the 779 detainees at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Noor (his preferred name), a citizen of Sudan captured in Pakistan in March 2002, has been charged with providing material support to international terrorist organizations for his role in training camps run by al Qaeda and others. This week, the United States held hearings related to his prosecution before a military commission.
I'm here as a non-governmental organization (NGO) observer for the National Institute of Military Justice, a non-profit committed to advancing the fair administration of military justice and fostering improved public understanding of the military justice system. NIMJ has been sending observers to the Guantanamo hearings since October 2008, hoping to provide a unique window on the new military commissions, a substrate of American military justice in the post-9/11 world.
Early yesterday morning, I joined dozens of others-- defense counsel, prosecutors, paralegals, commission staff, journalists (French and Brazilian as well as American), and NGO observers from Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First--in the passenger terminal at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. After a few hours of waiting, we boarded a Delta airbus 319 for the three-and-a-half hour flight. I could see the mountains of the main island, open water, and buildings on the far side of the bay when banked sharply to avoid Cuban airspace and landed on a U.S. airstrip. After a ferry to the side of the bay, our Marine Corps escort -- a charming, can-do lieutanant--helped get me and the other NGO observers settled into a tent in Camp Justice.
It's hard to describe how GITMO feels upon first glance. The color of the ocean, the beauty of the bay and the dramatic clouds above it, the mountains of Cuba visible over the horizon were in such contrast to the sense of foreboding evoked by the starkness of the concrete-and-concertina-wire style of the buildings, the intensity of the security measures. And, of course, the knowledge that a notorious prison complex was just past the beach where the road that I ran along this morning stopped. I felt a sense of dread as we sat in a truck with our escort and watched the plane we'd come in on fly away.
In my next post, I’ll write about the hearing this morning and Noor, the detainee whose fate rests with a military commission. But yesterday, I was struck by the juxtaposition of a post-modern naval base on such an undeveloped island, a contrast evident at virtually every turn. To wit: Yesterday we went to Taco Bell for lunch and found a restaurant that looked exactly as it would in the states --the same items on the menu, the same font on its signs, the same uniform on its employees. But it didn’t have any tacos, the rueful cashier explained. They were out of taco shells, and taco sauce, and a few other things. Even lunch at GITMO is not quite what it seems.