Guantanamo Commute Is A Real Trial

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Los Angeles Times
April 21, 2008
Pg. 8
For the lawyers and others involved in the war crimes tribunal, getting there and back is increasingly difficult.
By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — As more than 70 lawyers, paralegals, courtroom personnel and journalists waited to take off from Baltimore-Washington International Airport on a flight here this month, two crucial figures in the Office of Military Commissions crawled through rush-hour traffic looking for a U-Haul rental drop-off.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Domini McDonald had rented the van the previous night to ferry dozens of boxes of courtroom equipment from Andrews Air Force Base -- where the judicial airlift was initially supposed to take off -- to Baltimore-Washington, where it was moved after a 24-hour postponement.
Army Col. Wendy Kelly followed McDonald in her car, intending to drive them back to the airport once the U-haul was returned.
After stops at two outlets that no longer handled U-Hauls, Kelly called to tell the idling entourage to take off without them.
The main group arrived at Guantanamo 30 hours after assembling at Andrews. McDonald, the senior paralegal and construction liaison for the Expeditionary Legal Complex, and Kelly, the war crimes tribunal's director of operations, needed another 30 hours to catch up with the group. The two were diverted because of a landing-gear problem with the plane they boarded from an Army National Guard site in Virginia.
The aerial circus act involved in assembling the players for the war crimes tribunal proceedings has been troubled since the Pentagon first began shuttling them down here in 2004.
In December, people traveling to the U.S. Navy base in Cuba for the proceedings spent seven hours at Andrews waiting for a military plane, which was snowed in at Spokane, Wash. A replacement aircraft was found later that day, and not because the group's time was being wasted but because a plane was needed in Guantanamo to pick up a delegation of Victoria's Secret models visiting the troops. The models had been assured they would be back on the U.S. mainland that day.
"The problem with all these trips is that the commissions don't have their own budget for air travel. They have to depend on the services, and they are essentially the orphaned stepchild of the military," said Charles Swift, a retired Navy lawyer who is a visiting professor at Emory University's law school in Atlanta. He is assisting in the defense of Yemeni detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former driver.
When the court date of a Guantanamo detainee is set, the schedules of the judge, prosecutors, defenders and support staff must be coordinated so that all can travel here for the few days the tribunal will be in session.
Most of the 139 people assigned to the proceedings are based near Washington, hence the group's usual departure from Andrews. But some of them, especially journalists and pro bono civilian defense lawyers, have to travel to Washington from New York, Miami, Seattle, Los Angeles, even London.
"It wreaks havoc with an academic schedule," said Swift, who has to arrange for a substitute to teach his law class when he's away.
The travelers have begun to express concern that if the pace of the proceedings accelerates, as the Pentagon forecasts, so too will the logistical glitches and the volume of time lost in getting to Guantanamo.
Since the tribunals enacted by President Bush in November 2001 were scrapped as unconstitutional by a Supreme Court ruling in June 2006, a new congressionally approved system has been put in place. Charges have been filed against 14 of the 280 detainees still being held as "enemy combatants."
Only five of those cases are in pretrial proceedings, and defendants are boycotting three of them, which has caused further delays as military defense lawyers consult their civilian bar associations for guidance on whether they can ethically represent a client who doesn't want their assistance.
But the tribunal hierarchy plans to crank up the activity this summer with the formal charging and arraignment of six "high-value detainees." Many in the legal entourage will be spending more of their time at the tribunal -- and more time on the complicated commute.
The Guantanamo facility is expanding, with a view toward the days when the tribunal moves from episodic sessions to a calendar approximating that of a full-time courthouse.
The $12-million Expeditionary Legal Complex is nearing completion on the grounds of an old airstrip, where a retrofitted control tower and terminal have served as a courtroom since the first proceedings nearly four years ago.
The tent city and warehouse-like second courtroom were built to accommodate high-value defendants as well as increased numbers of courtroom personnel and media. Quonset huts and portable containers arrayed on a bayside runway will serve as offices and sleeping quarters.
Air Force Capt. Andre Kok, a spokesman for the commissions, confirmed that the tribunal lacked its own budget for airlifting the entourage needed for court sessions. Journalists, human rights monitors and some civilian legal volunteers pay $400 each for the flights, while the Army provides travel for commissions personnel on the charters and the "rotator" that shuttles between Ft. Belvoir, Va., and Guantanamo once a week.
"There's going to come a time when it doesn't make sense to go back and forth" between sessions, said Jamil Dakwar, a staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union based in New York. "I guess that's how they will resolve these problems."