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Day One in Sunny Guantánamo

Jameel Jaffer,
Director, Knight First Amendment Institute
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October 4, 2004

This is the first of six dispatches I’ll write from Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, which I’m visiting as a representative of the ACLU. If you’ve read the dispatches sent by Anthony Romero a few weeks ago, you already know that the ACLU’s main purpose here is to monitor the military commissions that the President authorized in November 2001 to try people alleged to be Al Qaeda terrorists. This week, the commission will hear legal motions in the trial of David Matthew Hicks, an Australian accused of having fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

As the hearings don’t start until tomorrow, I thought I’d use today’s dispatch to say a little about what it’s like here at Guantánamo. I arrived last night on a tiny plane from Ft. Lauderdale. There were about ten people on the flight, including Jumana Musa from Amnesty International and a couple of people from the Australian Attorney General’s office. We were all met at the hangar by a military escort who took us to a building called the Combined Bachelor Quarters (CBQ), which is where we’re staying. Because it is on the leeward side of the base, the building is quite isolated. Most things of interest at Guantánamo — including the Commissions Building, the headquarters of the Joint Task Force, and Camp Delta (where most of the detainees are confined) — are on the windward side. Fortunately, the media are also staying at the CBQ, so we’re not as isolated as we might be.

My first thought on arriving here was that the Base is much prettier than I thought it would be. Guantánamo Bay is banked by short cliffs on one side and dense overhanging trees on the other. We took a boat to the windward side and saw pelicans and what I think were herons. (I’m told that there are also manatees.) The Base, which surrounds the Bay, is itself surrounded by low, rolling hills. You don’t immediately get the sense that you’re approaching what has become perhaps the most controversial detention camp in the world.

You do ultimately get that sense, though, from some of the restrictions that the military imposes after you arrive. We are prohibited from going anywhere on the Base without a military escort, and we are required to wear badges that say, in big red letters, “Escort Required.” We can walk unescorted up to 150 feet from the CBQ, but no further. We can’t take photographs without express permission. If we take an unauthorized photograph, our departure from Guantánamo “may be delayed while the incident is investigated.” We’re also prohibited from talking to the “migrants” — including asylum seekers — who live here on the Base.

As there were no hearings today, we spent the day getting briefings from various officials associated with the commissions. While some of the briefings were helpful — and I’ll say more about them tomorrow — it did gradually become clear that we’re going to have to fight for access to much of the information that we need. So far, the Defense Department has refused our requests for meetings with the prosecution team, with the Presiding Officer of the commission, and with the officials who oversee the confinement of individuals at Camps Delta, Echo, and Five. It has also refused our requests for access to the camps themselves. The Defense Department’s insistence that we rely on military officials for information about the camps and the detainees obviously raises questions about the government’s commitment to transparency.
This said, I’m still hopeful we’ll be able to work out at least some of these access issues over the next couple of days. We’ll be formally renewing some of our requests for access tomorrow, before the hearings begin.

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