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Inside the Guantánamo terror trials

Salon.com
by Carol Chodroff
May 24, 2008

As a former federal defender, I've been to countless court hearings, but Wednesday was the first time I had to take a speedboat, equipped with two M2 50-caliber machine guns, to get to court. That's because Wednesday was also my first experience with the military commissions at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, where the U.S. government is putting 15 terror suspects on trial.

The first hearing was an arraignment of Mohammad Kamin, a thin, frail Afghan, estimated to be about 30 years old, whom the United States accuses of providing material support for terrorism by receiving arms training at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan for several months in 2003.

Although Kamin was apprehended five years ago, he was not charged with a crime until March 2008. Wednesday was his first judicial hearing.

It was also the first time the judge, Air Force Col. W. Thomas Cumbie, presided over a military commission, and the first time for both the prosecutor, Maj. Omar Ashmawy, and the military defense counsel, Lt. Richard Federico, to appear at one.

The hearing was supposed to begin at 9 a.m., but Kamin apparently wanted to boycott he hearing. So Judge Cumbie signed a "forcible extraction" order authorizing guards to forcibly bring Kamin to court. Nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch are forbidden any access to the camps where detainees are held, and we were not permitted to witness Kamin's transfer from camp to court. By 11:30 a.m., Kamin was seated in handcuffs and shackles, staring at his lap, with cuts and scrapes on his neck and chin, and a swollen right eye. Cumbie said that during his forced transport that morning, Kamin was uncooperative and tried to spit on and bite one of the guards.

When given a chance to address the court, Kamin said he did not want to participate in the hearings and did not want to be represented by an attorney because he didn't believe he could get justice at Guantánamo.

"I don't accept these charges. There is no justice with me," he told the court, through an interpreter. "I am oppressed. I have been brought by force. I didn't want to come to this court. They have been cruel to me -- your strong people."

Before being transported to Guantánamo, Kamin was detained at the U.S. military base at Bagram, in Afghanistan -- which, like Guantánamo, has been criticized for its abusive treatment of prisoners. "I came from Bagram on my own will," he said. "There were a lot of problems in Bagram. They told me in Cuba they would help detainees. I didn't know things would go from bad to worse."

During the hearing, Federico, Kamin's defense counsel, said he had learned for the first time on Tuesday that authorities at Guantánamo were withholding records indicating Kamin might suffer from mental health issues.

Cumbie ordered the government to make those records available. When asked to broaden that order to include medical and dental records, the judge replied: "Let me think that one over and get back to you."

Federico raised some of the problems confronting military defense lawyers before the commission: "We are faced with huge obstacles in this system in trying to establish any kind of rapport when detainees are held for years without charge, facing very difficult situations, and their lawyers are finally sent in, wearing the same uniform as their jailers."

Federico argued he lacks the authority to represent someone who declines representation. After taking a recess to "think for a few minutes," Cumbie returned, emphasized his own qualifications as judge under the commission rules, and ordered Federico to represent Kamin -- at least for the time being.

Federico later indicated he might travel to Indiana to seek guidance from the ethics committee of his home state bar to determine his obligations in this case.

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