Thursday, April 8, 2010

Beth Hillman's Journal From Gitmo -- Installment Three

Lawyer Island

There are a lot of lawyers at Camp Justice. Two were NGO observers with whom I shared a tent, both human rights advocates and both terrific lawyers. Andrea Prasow, now senior counsel in Human Rights Watch's Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program, proved an essential guide to all things GITMO. Andrea was assistant counsel in Hamdan, the only contested military commission to date, which brought her to the island for many weeks while she was a defense attorney with the Office of Military Commissions. [The other lawyer pictured is Daphne Eviatar, senior associate for Human Rights First. --Ed.] But most of the attorneys present were directly involved in the cases now underway. They were defense counsel and prosecutors in the Noor and other detainee cases, on base to review classified documents, some of which can only be viewed in SCIFs (sensitive compartmented information facilities, deemed secure enough for not just secret, but really really secret documents) during the discovery process or meet with clients. In Courtroom 2 during the Noor hearing, there were four prosecutors and two defense counsel (the defense team was two attorneys short; more on that later).

The remoteness of the prison at GITMO makes the process of trying detainees at military commission very pricey. Lawyers, judges, court reporters, interpreters, journalists, and observers must travel to the base, either by military airlift or commercial flights, both of which are limited. They must be processed through layer upon layer of security, must endure the delays that are inevitable with such intense screening, must cease most of their other work (since cell phones don't work and internet access is spotty) during their time on base. Hearings can be held in Washington, D.C., or via conference call in some instances, but anything requiring the presence of the accused involves a journey to the island for a large party of military and civilian personnel drawn from distant homes and workplaces.

The base facilities are makeshift, austere but comfortable (so long as you don't think about the banana rats when the tent flaps in the night). Visual reminders of the grim need for security, however, are everywhere: barriers, barbed wire, guard towers, bright lights, threatening signs. The tent city in which we were housed consisted of rows of half-barrel wood-and-tarp structures with beds and furniture. In ours, three sets of two beds were separated with plywood dividing walls, and electric outlets galore made it easy to plug in computers (through which we would connect to the internet, at least some of the time) and cell phones (which were useful as alarm clocks, if not communications devices). With a massive compressor outside and big, flexible plastic ducts with round holes cut in them for circulation, the tent roared with air conditioning. Light came from bare light bulbs above each bed. We were grateful for a refrigerator and coffee maker (and a/c, however loud) as well as the gracious military personnel who managed the Camp Justice facilities.

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