Global Policy Forum

Portable Halls of Justice Are Rising in Guantánamo


By William Glaberson

New York Times
October 14, 2007

If everything goes according to plan, trials of detainees could begin here soon in a court building now under construction next to an unused runway set against the glittering sea. But in the five-year effort to prosecute Guantánamo detainees, very little has gone according to plan. So, to be ready for all eventualities, the Pentagon's new judicial complex is portable - a prefabricated but very high-tech court building surrounded by trailers, moveable cells, concertina wire and a tent city - all of which has been shipped here in pieces that could be unplugged, disassembled and put back together somewhere else. "You can pick it up and move it," Lt. Col. James Starnes, the commander of the Air National Guard unit doing the work, said recently over the din of construction equipment cutting into the sun-baked coral.

The complex, including the tent city dubbed Camp Justice, may be the perfect architecture for the long-running limbo that is Guantánamo. Officials from President Bush on down have said they would like to close Guantánamo, yet the administration is just as eager to show progress in trying some of the 330 detainees, most of whom have been held for years without formal charges. "If there's a policy decision to move the trials somewhere else, we want to be up and running," said Col. Wendy A. Kelly, an official at the Office of Military Commissions at the Pentagon.

This year, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates rejected as "ridiculous" a plan to erect a $100 million permanent federal-court look-a-like here. The $12 million "M*A*S*H" set for the age of terror was born. The centerpiece will be the courthouse, a squat, windowless structure of corrugated metal. Though it will hardly be much to look at, it will be outfitted with the latest in trial technology: a computerized system for digital document display; wiring for hidden translators working in as many as five languages; and a 10-camera automated system to beam video of the proceedings to a press center in an aging aircraft hangar nearby. One new feature for trials expected to involve classified evidence is a plexiglass window separating the small press and spectator gallery from the floor of the courtroom. At the touch of a button, the military judge will be able to cut off the sound in the spectator section.

The tent city, complete with military cots and a recreation tent, is where some 550 court officials, lawyers, security guards and journalists from around the world are to live for weeks at a time once military commissions get under way, perhaps as soon as this spring. "I guess we'll get to see everybody's bathrobe," Colonel Kelly said. Diesel generators supply the electricity. The toilets, even for the military judges, are to be of the outdoor chemical variety, emptied periodically by truck. Showers will be fed by 3,000-gallon water tanks, and food will be shipped in three times a day from kitchens on the base. "If you're an avid camper, it'll be great," said Maj. Chad Warren, the operations officer of the construction unit, the 474th Expeditionary Civil Engineering Squadron. There is already talk about whether investigators, lawyers or even, perhaps, reporters, will be permitted alcoholic beverages inside the wire.

While these discussions are under way here, weightier debates about Guantánamo's future are playing out in Washington. At the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Sept. 26, Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, said Congress had just learned about the construction of what the Pentagon calls the Expeditionary Legal Complex at Guantánamo. "The building that's currently occurring," Mr. Harkin said, "is not consistent with the idea of closing the detention center." Mr. Gates said that while he would like to close the detention camp, "I've run into some obstacles from a variety of lawyers." He said efforts to find a way to close the camp were under way, but added, "I was unable to achieve agreement within the executive branch on how to proceed in this respect." In an interview, Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, a top official in the Office of Military Commissions, which supervises the war-crimes trial system, said the construction "shows the continued commitment to try the cases."

Lawyers involved in the Guantánamo proceedings are left to read the tea leaves. The flapping tents and the outdoor plumbing seem to be sending a signal of ambivalence, said Charles D. Swift, a retired Navy lawyer and visiting professor at Emory University School of Law who has been involved in the Guantánamo cases from the start. Professor Swift said the construction showed that some people in the government were pushing to move the military commissions along at a faster pace, more than five years after the first detainees arrived here. But, at the same time, he said, "you could walk away from this at any moment." Neal R. Sonnett, a Miami lawyer who has been an observer at Guantánamo for the American Bar Association, said given the have-court-will-travel aspect of the construction, "I would read it that there is not a high level of confidence that Guantánamo is going to be around as a detention facility." Professor Swift's client, a Yemeni detainee, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, could be one of the first to see the inside of the new court building. Prosecutors have accused him of being the Qaeda driver for Osama bin Laden. Mr. Hamdan is one of only four detainees charged under the Military Commissions Act that Congress passed last year. So far, the war-crimes case of only one detainee has been completed, and that was through a plea bargain. Efforts to prosecute the suspects have had a stop-and-start history, including the recent resignation of the chief military prosecutor after an internal turf battle and a trip to the United States Supreme Court, which last year struck down the administration's first plan for military trials here. Cases against Mr. Hamdan and the only Canadian detainee, Omar Ahmed Khadr, were thrown into disarray in June when military judges said Pentagon review tribunals had not properly classified either man as an "alien unlawful enemy combatant," a prerequisite for criminal prosecution under the 2006 law. A military appeals court later overturned that ruling in Mr. Khadr's case and an arraignment is now scheduled for Nov. 8.

With the legal landscape clear at the moment for the prosecutions to begin, the military officials said the new courthouse would ease a potential logjam of trials. Now, there is only one cramped courtroom, in an old airport building at the top of the sloping hillside that overlooks the new tent city. The new building will add an expansive courtroom that is to be set up for complex cases involving as many as five detainees at a time. Prosecutors have said they are considering filing conspiracy charges, including possible accusations against several detainees for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. If and when the trials begin, they will be held under a set of rules created especially for trying terrorism suspects. And now they will be held in a setting created especially for terrorism suspects. Technologically, the court will be state of the art, said Fredric I. Lederer, the director of the Center for Legal and Court Technology at the William and Mary School of Law in Williamsburg, Va., which is involved in the project here. Architecturally, it is beyond state of the art. "It's something new," Professor Lederer said. "We do not normally design courtrooms that can be folded up and shipped."

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