Blog of Rights

August 23, 2004

By Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director, ACLU at 12:30am
Today's activities at Gitmo were full of tension.

We boarded the bus at 7:40 A.M., with the 50-plus members of the media, to travel to the other side of the base by boat. However, before we could do so, the representatives from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch and I were barred from boarding the boat. We had not been given our security credentials even though we arrived on Saturday and now we were told that we couldn't go aboard the very same boat with the very same group of people we had traveled with yesterday.

After a fuss, we were finally allowed on the boat and transported to the other side, though we were immediately separated from the group of journalists. The access to the press building and press briefings that were granted to us the day before was now revoked. Maybe it had a lot to do with the questions we asked? .

After being shuttled back across the bay and then back again, it became clear that the Non-Governmental Organizations, now including Human Rights First and the American Bar Association, were not going to be granted access in the manner similar to the media. Realizing that we were being run-around and stonewalled, we submitted a written statement requesting access to the presiding officer of the military commissions, translators and law clerks, and to prosecution counsel. All of these requests were denied. We also requested briefings or visits to Camp Delta, the medical facilities, to the interrogation rooms and to the Combatant Status Review tribunals. These were also denied.

We gave a press briefing to members of the media addressing our concerns, and a joint statement protesting this denial of access can be found on the ACLU website.

We did manage, however, to meet for several hours with the defense counsel of the four men who will be brought before the military commissions this week. These men and women are the only bright spots in this otherwise dismal set of circumstances. Most of them are military officials with extensive experience in military justice matters. They are the true Davids to the government's Goliath. Our briefing revealed the inadequacy of their resources as compared to the prosecution, the inadequate language translation services, and their limited ability to confer with and represent their clients.

Some of the accused are suffering physically and emotionally, and while the lawyering of the defense counsel will surely be as good as the system can muster, it is clear that the odds are very much against them.

The defense counsel are men and women in uniform who believe passionately in the system of justice and some basic American values - so much so, that they are willing to vigorously defend the rights of some of the most hated defendants in America. They are the only ray of hope in a system of justice that is simply broken and cannot be fixed. While I am sure they will do their best before these military commissions, the finest legal minds in the world can't fix the fact that the rules as now constructed are unfair and fundamentally un-American.

Finally, a word about the battle between the Gitmo officials and the media, which you might see in a papers over the next couple of days. Unbelievably, the presiding officer of the military commissions informed the media at the end of the day that, in the event that classified information was revealed during the commissions this week, the military would seize the notebooks of the reporters to redact that classified information. (FYI, all of us who are here have agreed to basic ground-rules, including one that says we can't disclose classified information if revealed during the commissions.)

But the fact that the presiding officer believed that he could casually collect the notebooks of the U.S. and international media and return them when he was done with them left many breathless. He later backtracked when he heard of the fury in the pressroom.

It's midnight and it's hard to get to sleep. I leave you with this parting thought. The open question that has begun to form in my mind is this: will this ill-conceived system of second-class justice proceed as the government hopes, with all of its current structural flaws and inadequacies, or will it all begin to unravel and collapse because it is unworkable and because they are still making up the rules as they go along? Either way, this is not America at her best. I hope one of us can get some sleep.

I'll check in with you tomorrow.

Anthony

P.S. I received some of your questions about the personal "representatives" in the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. We've been asking a lot of questions about these reps and have asked to observe a CSRT. I don't know if they have in fact turned over inculpatory evidence but I'll ask. I can't, however, promise I'll get answer.

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