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The Road to Death at Guantánamo

A graphic reading "Close Gitmo"
A graphic reading "Close Gitmo"
Zachary Katznelson,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU National Security Project
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November 8, 2011

Tomorrow, we start down the dark path to a possible execution in Guantánamo. As the Supreme Court has long said, death is different. Putting someone on trial for his life requires — at a bare minimum — a rigorously fair process if even the appearance of legitimacy is to be maintained. Nowhere will that be clearer than in the first Guantánamo military commission death penalty case, that of Abd al-Rahim Hussayn Muhammad al-Nashiri, who was held secretly for years by the CIA, and — as the government has admitted — tortured.

On Wednesday, Mr. al-Nashiri will appear before the world for the first time since he was seized more than eight years ago. He will stand up and state whether he pleads guilty or innocent to planning the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. Should he be found guilty, he may be executed. But the Guantánamo military commission he will appear before will not provide justice for him, for the U.S.S. Cole victims, or for Americans anywhere. I will be at Guantánamo tomorrow to observe the proceedings for the ACLU.

John Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, claimed in a speech at Harvard on September 16, 2011 that “reformed military commissions… provide all of the core protections that are necessary to ensure a fair trial.” But if that is the case — if the basic structure of a Guantánamo military commission is the same as a civilian court — why is a Guantánamo military commission necessary at all? After all, a U.S.S. Cole indictment sits waiting in federal court.

The answer comes from Brennan as well: real differences do remain between a commission and a federal trial. Among them are the admissibility of hearsay, on which the government plans to rely heavily in this case, and the admissibility of coerced evidence. As Mr. Brennan conceded, those are “differences that can determine whether a prosecution is more likely to succeed or fail.” Put another way, the Obama Administration has chosen a Guantánamo military commission for Mr. Al-Nashiri because they think the rules of evidence there are lax enough that they are certain to win. It is hard to make the argument that you are in favor of the rule of law when you make decisions based on the rule of victory.

But the flaws of the Guantánamo military commissions are such that any victory will be years in the making — and may well prove pyrrhic. Since this is a system designed entirely from scratch, there is virtually no legal history testing its contours. Unresolved legal clouds loom. Can a Guantánamo military commission try someone for crimes, like those alleged here, that took place before September 11, 2001? A Guantánamo military commission has jurisdiction only over war crimes, but were we at war before 9/11? If not, the power of the Guantánamo commission to hear this case vanishes. Was one of the key charges against Mr. al-Nashiri, conspiracy, a war crime at the time Mr. al-Nashiri was allegedly acting? Four of the eight Supreme Court justices who have considered this have said no. If it was not a war crime, did Congress violate the Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution when in 2006 it retroactively made it one? Is it legitimate to use evidence that is the poisonous fruit of coercion? Even if the coerced statement itself is thrown out, can the prosecution still use information that was gathered only thanks to that coercion, such as the names of possible witnesses?

In all likelihood, it will take years for the Supreme Court to resolve these issues. Keep in mind that federal death penalty cases usually take two to two and a half years. And this is far from a usual case. The usual criminal defendant has not been tortured and secreted away for years by the government. The usual criminal case does not involve legal questions about whether the court has the power to hear the case at all. The usual criminal prosecution does not require flying the judge, lawyers, and court staff hundreds or thousands of miles every time there is a hearing. The discovery process alone will likely consume all of 2012, especially if — as expected — the government resists disclosing much of the evidence Mr. al-Nashiri’s lawyers will request, most critically anything to do with Mr. al-Nashiri’s torture in the CIA’s secret prison system. A trial may be years away.

There is far more at stake than Mr. al-Nashiri’s fate. The debate about Guantánamo military commissions versus federal courts is not just one of rhetoric, inflamed by the upcoming elections. It is one of real consequences. Some of our European allies —Germany, Sweden, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic, to name a few — refuse to cooperate with us on terrorism cases if intelligence being shared or a suspected terrorist being extradited is going to end up before a Guantánamo military commission. That lack of cooperation is one reason why even the CIA’s former General Counsel John Rizzo favors federal court trials for terrorism suspects. How many other allies will withhold cooperation in fighting terrorism if we do not get this right? Are we willing to risk our allies’ cooperation — and our own reputation for fairness — for the sake of putting one individual to death?

Stay tuned for more updates from Guantánamo this week.

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