"Journalists Are the Eyes of the World" on Guantanamo

by Sheila Carapico | published March 5, 2014 - 10:58am

Lisa Hajjar’s spring lecture tour, entitled “Let’s Go to Guantánamo! An On-the-Ground Perspective on the Military Commissions,” explores secret renditions, black sites, torture, suppression of evidence, clandestineness and what it means to provide “legal counsel” to detainees in the post-September 11 “war on terror” in the absence of procedural fairness or public scrutiny.

Credentialed as a journalist writing for Middle East Report, editorial committee member Lisa Hajjar has traveled to Cuba four times to observe military commission hearings for detainees in the Guantánamo Bay complex. In 2010 she followed and reported on the case of Omar Khadr, al-Qaeda’s “child soldier,” a Canadian who was 15 when he was taken into custody in 2002. As she observed in a critical historical overview of war crimes tribunals entitled “From Nuremberg to Guantánamo: International Law and American Power Politics,” US practices at the offshore site deviate substantially from international law.

In December 2013 Hajjar joined a small press contingent and some victims’ family members to witness the important but mostly secret court proceedings for five high-value September 11 suspects including the purported mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Muhammad.

This week Hajjar brought a slide show and hard-hitting reportage to audiences at the University of Richmond and the University of Mary Washington. Visual images mixing snapshots from Hajjar’s cellphone and original artwork from courtroom sketch artists Steve Mumford, Molly Crabapple and Janet Hamlin show what is allowed to be photographed or drawn. They are rare, poignant glimpses of the prison and the courtroom. Yet they are also, by definition, a small part of the big picture. In the name of security, there is tight censorship at the prison complex, as well as limitations on access to the proceedings and an overall atmosphere of obscurity. Hajjar’s commentary emphasizes what is missing from the visual, documentary, testimonial and court records. The Guantánamo site was “selected originally for and continues to operate under a very thick layer of secrecy,” she said. “Many of the aspects of working, living, visiting Guantánamo are classified.”

In particular, Hajjar’s analysis cites about one hundred interviews with military and civilian lawyers. The civilians volunteered their expensive time and committed corporate resources to defending Guantánamo detainees accused of involvement in terrorism. Their testimonials highlight the suppression of evidence, including the destruction of videotapes, and the suspension of rules of due process. Reflecting the collective but often confidential views of this professional cadre of legal practitioners dedicated to the rule of law, Hajjar declares it a “travesty of justice.” 

Most passionately, the presentation expresses the outrage that anyone fully informed about the saga of the Guantánamo detainees -- the guilty as well as the innocent -- would feel. The palpable anger centers on the illegal, indefensible, but undeniable torture of men -- whether guilty or innocent -- taken into custody by America’s Central Intelligence Agency. 

The prosecution of perpetrators of mass murder is a serious legal matter. Adherence to prohibitions against cruel and unusual interrogation methods and freedom of information are also crucial to American and international conceptions of humanitarian law. As Hajjar quotes Ramzi Kassem, lawyer for one of the accused, Ahmed al-Darbi, “Inside GTMO it’s Kafkaesque, outside it’s Orwellian.”

Watch the full video of Hajjar's presentation here.

Image: Ammar al-Baluchi, allegedly the man whose torture is depicted in the opening scenes of Zero Dark Thirty. (Janet Hamlin)

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