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In a Dignified and Professional Manner

Alex Abdo,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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June 2, 2009

The circus-like atmosphere of the military commissions in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, carried on yesterday in top form. Although the primary issue addressed – selection of counsel for the accused – routinely arises and is professionally dealt with in federal court, the hearing today left the proceedings against Omar Khadr in tatters. When all was said and done – and most of it was said and done by the presiding judge, Colonel Parrish, who made little effort to conceal his anger and frustration with Khadr’s lawyers – the judge had slashed Khadr’s trial team of three lawyers to a provisional one, depending on the outcome of yet another hearing set for July.

The preliminary yet fundamental issue of representation for Khadr took center stage this morning amidst vitriolic infighting between the chief of the military-commissions defense office and one of the attorneys detailed from that office to represent Khadr. Although the particulars of the fight are secret, documented in a sealed filing, this much we know: the judge is not happy. And yet, shortly after criticizing Khadr’s lawyers, the judge went to some effort to praise Khadr himself: “Mr. Khadr is coming across in a dignified and professional manner and is very well spoken this morning.”

As even the judge himself recognized, however, today’s and July’s proceedings might be wasted effort. President Obama might, for example, fundamentally alter the commissions or, more modestly, change the rules regarding selection of counsel for those tried before the commissions-both possibilities mentioned by the president in his speech at the National Archives. Perhaps more significantly for Khadr’s case in particular, the president might decide not to try Khadr before a military commission at all.

These possibilities left most present at today’s hearing wondering why anyone bothered to show up, and they highlighted the essential failure of military commissions: they are ad hoc proceedings with few rules and even fewer precedents, with both rules and precedents, sparse as they are, subject to change at any time.

It is difficult to imagine such a broken-down apparatus producing just results viewed with legitimacy by the American people, or by others whose respect we also need in our fight for our principles. But the apparatus continues to churn and sputter in Khadr’s case, leaving a swath of confusion in its wake.

(More Guantanamo dispatches here.)

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