Blog of Rights

No Defendant and No Defense at Guantánamo

By Jennifer Turner, Human Rights Researcher, Human Rights Program, ACLU at 7:14pm

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Friday morning, a determined and defiant Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al-Bahlul (PDF) appeared before the military commission. Escorted by military police holding each of his wrists, al-Bahlul wore a tan prison uniform and flip-flops. He wasn’t carrying his "boycott" sign, which he created back in January 2006 and has held during subsequent hearings. We soon realized that this was the reason for a half-hour delay in the hearing’s start time.

Al-Bahlul then took center stage in a hearing that quickly became a circus. First, al-Bahlul requested the boycott sign, on which he had written a nine-point list enumerating the "political and legal reasons" why he opposes the military commission proceedings against him. The front of the sign had been entered into evidence, but apparently not the reverse side, on which al-Bahlul had written his nine-point manifesto, and no one could produce the original, which he said had been confiscated from him after his last hearing. Al-Bahlul refused to continue without the signed document, saying it would assist him in explaining his position to the judge. Al-Bahlul then rightly pointed out "There should be an administrative regime for the court to find the paper...If such a legal document is lost, what kind of court is this?"

Criticizing the proceedings as being inherently unfair, Al-Bahlul then announced that he refuses to attend any further hearings and will not accept military defense counsel. "I do not have any trust in this legal farce," Al-Bahlul declared. "When it is the final proceeding, just let me know this is the proceeding when the verdict and sentence are announced, and I will show up. For the other sessions in between I will not be present," he announced. He gestured to his stand-by defense counsel, Maj. David Frakt, and said, "Until I hear the final verdict I don’t consider him my attorney." He stoutly added, "I am not going to talk to Major Frakt."

Al-Bahlul also told the new military judge in this case, Col. Ronald Gregory, that because fellow Yemeni Salim Hamdan had recently been convicted and sentenced, he was ready to "do some settling" of the case today to "facilitate things." It is unclear whether he meant he was prepared to plead guilty to the charges today. Al-Bahlul also asked to withdraw his habeas petition — filed on his behalf by his cousin — announcing, "The case which is put forth in the American courts in my name, I am not satisfied with it, and I don’t want it."

Before exiting the courtroom midway through the pre-trial hearing, Al-Bahlul departed with a final salvo: "You can continue your legal play."

After al-Bahlul left the courtroom, the judge appointed Maj. David Frakt defense counsel because al-Bahlul’s departure meant he had waived his right to represent himself. Maj. Frakt told the military judge that he would defend al-Bahlul "in the manner in which he desired to be defended." Afterwards, Maj. Frakt stunned the judge and observers by waiving all future pre-trial motions, including motions related to discovery of evidence, and demanded the right to a speedy trial, announcing he was ready to go directly to trial. Under the military commission’s rules, Maj. David Frakt’s request for a speedy trial could push the trial to start in 90 days.

After the hearing, Maj. Frakt told me he will not mount any defense. Because his client "does not recognize the legality or validity of the proceedings," and believes it is impossible for him to receive a fair trial in a Guantánamo military commission, Maj. Frakt explained, al-Bahlul does not want to have defense counsel do anything purporting to be on his behalf. "He thinks this circus has gone on long enough," Maj. Frakt said.

Al-Bahlul's decision to boycott is, perhaps, only a recognition of what the whole world knows — the military commissions system is designed to arrive at a guilty verdict, regardless of whether evidence was coerced or can be tested, because it lacks fundamental guarantees of fair trials and due process. The government has ensured that the regular rules don't apply, so it can hardly be surprised when criminal defendants refuse to participate in a sham process.

It also comes as no surprise that al-Bahlul rejects the military commission system as unfair. Al-Bahlul’s statement Friday criticizing the legal process as a "farce" is just the latest in a series of accusations of unfairness that have marred the proceedings in the past week.

On Thursday Judge Stephen Henley disqualified Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the military commission’s Legal Advisor to the Convening Authority, from participation in Mohammed Jawad’s case, citing excessive interference in the prosecution of commission cases (for excellent coverage, see here, here, and here). Because Brig. Gen. Hartmann pushed for charges to be brought against Jawad, (bringing Jawad "from the freezer to the frying pan, thanks to Gen. Hartmann," according to testimony by the former chief prosecutor on Wednesday), Judge Henley ordered an unprecedented top-level review of the charges against Jawad. This is the second time Brig. Gen. Hartmann has been removed from a military commission case for improper influence, as Judge Keith Allred disqualified him from further participation in Salim Hamdan’s case back in May.

Last week also brought additional testimony by Col. Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor for the military commissions, in Omar Khadr’s case. Col. Davis resigned in last October, citing political interference. He has testified in Hamdan, Jawad, and now Khadr’s hearings to criticize Brig. Gen. Hartmann’s interference with the prosecution of military commission cases, including pressuring the prosecution to get trials underway before the presidential election. On Wednesday Col. Davis repeated his famous testimony recalling his initial job interview, when the Defense Department’s chief counsel William J. Haynes II told him that the military commissions couldn’t result in acquittals because "We’ve been holding these guys for years."

Also last week another senior military official (this time a general) came forward to critique Brig. Gen. Hartmann, adding to the taint on the military commissions. Brig. Gen. Gregory J. Zanetti, deputy commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo prison camps, accused Brig. Gen. Hartmann of bullying, characterizing his approach as "Spray and pray. Charge everybody. Let’s go. Speed, speed, speed.".

Rather than providing fair, meaningful justice that reflects American principles, recent testimony in the Hamdan, Jawad and Khadr cases shows dogged pursuit of wins in these cases at all costs. The taint of political pressure and the failure to observe basic constitutional guarantees means that any verdict rendered by the military commissions will be regarded as illegitimate by the American public and overseas observers. This country deserves more than trials rushed to provide an election-year win.

The Office of Military Commissions has a new motto: "Freedom through Justice." Between the taint of political pressure in Mohammed Jawad and Salim Hamdan’s cases and the impending farce of Ali al-Bahlul’s trial, how could this kind of justice possibly not detract from our freedoms?

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