Inside Gitmo: America's Shame

The 9/11 trial will, if it happens at all, take place on a patch of dust in the Caribbean, within a high-security facility you can enter only with a notebook and pen (and just one pen), and observe from behind a wall of triple-thick glass. Anyone who wishes to attend will have to first be approved by the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions, the entity in charge of the offshore war court at Guantanamo Bay. It takes three hours and 20 minutes to fly to Guantanamo via military charter from Andrews Air Force Base. A 20-minute ferry ride then takes visitors from Gitmo's airport across the bay to Camp Justice, an almost $12 million tent city built on an abandoned airstrip and housing the heavily fortified maze of trailers, fences and concertina wire known as the "Expeditionary Legal Complex," or ELC, where proceedings are held in a prefab building known as Courtroom II. During proceedings, every word that is spoken is heard in the visitor's gallery after being filtered through speakers on a 40-second delay, which enables a judge to ensure nothing classified slips out. There are no laptops, phones or recording devices allowed in the ELC, and no cameras. Also: no sleeveless shirts or open-toed shoes.

This fortress, which will be disassembled and shipped back stateside if and when Guantanamo ever closes, was constructed in 2008 to try the military's "high-value prisoners," of which there are currently 14, only five of whom – accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-plotters – arguably matter to most Americans. Hearings for the "9/11 Five" can be dramatic events, during which the accused have spontaneously knelt on the floor and prayed, and engaged in other acts of open defiance, requesting during their 2012 arraignment, for example, that the entire 87-page charge sheet be read aloud, a process that took almost three hours. At the start of this same hearing, defendant Walid bin Attash was wheeled into the court in restraints, minus his prosthetic leg. Only after bin Attash "promised to stay on his best behavior" was the fake leg reattached.

On September 21st, 2015, about 40 members of the mobile war court convened at Camp Justice for pretrial hearings in the case of Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, an alleged Taliban commander and Al Qaeda leader who virtually no one has ever heard of, and who had nothing to do with 9/11 or any other spectacular act of terrorism. This makes him far more representative of the majority of Guantanamo's inmates, all largely anonymous figures who may or may not have terrorist ties, but wound up at Gitmo after fighting with the Taliban, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A former Iraqi Army soldier who fled to Afghanistan in 1991, Hadi is accused of traditional war crimes, leading attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2004, among them.

This January will begin the 15th year since the first prisoners of the War on Terror – who the U.S. government referred to then, as now, as "detainees" – began arriving at this scrubby and perpetually broiling U.S.-controlled naval base on the southeast coast of Cuba. Of the 780 original captives, 538 were released by President Bush before he left office. Though President Obama, who has released 135 men, has said he intends to close Guantanamo before he leaves office, as of this writing, 107 prisoners remain interned on the island, at an annual per-inmate cost of roughly $3.4 million. The annual cost of housing an inmate at a federal or military prison, by contrast, is about $78,000. Forty-eight men have been cleared for release, many of them during the Bush administration. Forty-nine are in the purgatorial state known as "indefinite detention," including roughly 30 men the government says cannot be tried but are too dangerous to release. Just 10 prisoners, all "high value," a euphemism for those formerly imprisoned by the CIA, are facing legal proceedings. Three have already been convicted, two with guilty pleas. Seven are currently on trial, though the prosecution of the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing has been frozen indefinitely, and the 9/11 trial has been mired in delays since the men were arraigned in 2012...


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