Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Beth Hillman's Journal From Gitmo -- Installment Two

Courtroom 2

This morning's hearing in the case of Noor Uthman Mohammed was scheduled to start at 9:00 a.m. We headed over just after 8, accompanied by our ever-present escort. NGO observers' access to GITMO is restricted; our handlers were required to be with us at all times. Our escorts were courtly and respectful, but their presence was a not-so-subtle reminder of the grim reality of being on a naval base carved out of Cuba that's also the site of a prison complex housing suspected terrorists. A sense of wariness pervades the base, notwithstanding the warm breezes and friendly smiles of so many military personnel stationed there.

We arrived early and waited (which proved to be standard operating procedure for virtually everything we did) for the hearing to begin. To get into the courtroom, we ducked under a locked gate (it was purposefully locked; it was climb over or else go under) and walked inside a secure perimeter. Then we were checked by two fully armed guards (guns, vests, helmets) and walked over to another set of guards inside another secured area. They logged our names onto a register. A third set of monitors checked our badges as we walked into the courtroom building and then directed us to our assigned seats in the gallery. We were told to hide our badges so that our names couldn't be seen (by Noor, presumably, the only detainee who appeared in the courtroom). Most military personnel also pulled their Velcro-ed uniform nametags off or placed black tape over sewn-on names. Once in our seats, we waited, unsure of what time it was because we weren't permitted to bring any cell phones, laptops, or other electronics into the gallery.

Courtroom 2, the shiny new courtroom apparently constructed -- at an estimated cost of $12 million -- to try the 9/11 defendants, boasts a soundproof gallery separated from the action by a glass wall. As we waited I watched people move about the courtroom and glanced up at the video monitors to track the action, trying to gauge how long the transmission delay was between what I could see directly and what appeared on the screens. The video and audio feed is delayed to give an official in the courtroom a chance to block any classified information that might be inadvertently disclosed. The delay has been advertised as 20 seconds; I thought it was much longer than that, perhaps a minute or so.

The delay, a much vaunted security feature of this state-of-the-art courtroom, adds to the other-worldliness that already suffuses Camp Justice. I was chatting with reporters and other spectators, perusing the briefing information provided to journalists (but not to NGO observers), when I was surprised to look up and see that Noor (of whom there seem to be no unclassified photos) had entered the courtroom. He was dressed in white and accompanied by a phalanx of six men in the digitized desert camouflage that's ubiquitous at GITMO (except for the sailors wearing digitized blue). Then the judge entered and everyone in the courtroom stood -- but those of us in the gallery hesitated, since we couldn't hear anything yet. Were we supposed to stand when we saw the judge or when we heard her announced?

At the end of the hearing, the delayed audio feed cut out just before the judge made her final comments. When she left, we had no idea what was happening. We waited, began to discuss the hearing among ourselves and wonder whether we should leave. After about fifteen minutes, one of the uniformed spectators who had walked outside and returned said the court was in a 30-minute recess. We asked, how do you know? He smiled and mimicked drawing on a cigarette. Someone had told him what was going on when he went outside for a smoke. Information can be elusive when you're a civilian on a secure military base.

During a press conference after the hearing, both Noor's civilian and military defense counsel commented on the unusual feel of the courtroom. The room is large, with acoustics that swallow the voices of advocates. Attorneys inside can sense the presence of a relatively full gallery, and can see the people behind the glass, but feel watched instead of joined by the spectators. As for Noor, we caught only a glimpse of his face, and no sound of his voice. He wore a headset for the translation feed, and the defense interpreter at his table spoke for him when the judge requested his approval to consider the motion before the court at the start of the proceeding. Noor appeared composed and attentive from our limited vantage point.

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