ANALYSIS: Prosecutors defended the tribunals' merit, though the first man sentenced was no Osama bin Laden.
By William Glaberson, New York Times March 31, 2007
GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA - As the first of the war crimes cases under a new law began at Guantanamo Bay a few days ago, a military law specialist said it was a test run "to show that this plane will fly."
It was a bumpy ride.
The military commissions being convened at the U.S. naval base are special war crimes tribunals to try terrorists that do not offer the legal protections of civilian courts. One justification for the looser rules is that they will deal with the worst of the worst.
But the first man through the double doors of the heavily secured courtroom was no Osama bin Laden. He was David Hicks, a 31-year-old Australian whose lawyer described him as a ninth-grade dropout and "wannabe soldier" who ran away when the shooting started in Afghanistan.
From the start, Guantanamo, its detainees and the legal proceedings have provided enough grist to support the competing views of the detention center: a necessary mechanism for dealing with a new kind of enemy, or the embodiment of the war on terror gone awry.
Hicks' conviction with a guilty plea provides something for each side. He admitted training with Al-Qaida, guarding a Taliban tank and scouting a closed American Embassy building. But there is no evidence that he was considering a terrorist attack or capable of carrying one out. Yet he was held five years and four months before he got his day in court. And at the end of a very long day at the tribunal Friday, his sentence was nine months.
To the prosecutors and the extensive public relations apparatus assembled by the military at Guantanamo, Hicks' case proved, as one spokeswoman regularly repeated, that the military commission system offers a "fair, legitimate and transparent forum."
In the somber makeshift courtroom, the lead prosecutor of the Hicks case, Lt. Col. Kevin Chenail of the Marines, tried to portray Hicks as public enemy No. 1.
"Today in this courtroom, we are on the front lines of the global war on terror," Chenail told a panel of military officers assembled from around the globe on Friday to hear arguments on the appropriate sentence. Hicks pleaded guilty last Monday to providing material support to Al-Qaida. "The enemy is sitting at the defense table," Chenail added, gesturing to Hicks. "We are face to face with the enemy" who was "trying to kill Americans," he said.
But to some in the courtroom, the proceedings proved only that the system was rigged to show detainees that the only way out of Guantanamo was to give the prosecutors what they wanted. Not only did Hicks plead guilty, but he also signed a plea bargain in which he recanted his accusations about being abused in detention and promised not to speak to reporters for a year.
His lawyer, Marine Maj. Michael Mori, said he was speaking for his client, who he said was too nervous to speak for himself. "He wants to apologize to Australia and to the United States," Mori said during the proceedings, adding that Hicks wanted to thank members of the armed services who, he said, had treated him professionally.
Among the observers from advocacy and human rights groups here to monitor the proceedings, the plea deal Hicks reached was fresh evidence of the coercive power of this place. The plea deal included a provision that will get him into an Australian prison to serve the rest of his sentence within 60 days.
Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who is one of the regular observers in the courtroom, said the deal showed that the military commission was intended to bring cases to the conclusion the government wants. "A person here, in order to have any hope of going home," he said, "has to play by whatever rules the government sets."
Jennifer Daskal, an observer for Human Rights Watch, said after the sentencing that the unusual rule silencing Hicks for a year showed that the government's primary goal was "the protection against the disclosure of abuse."
Both sides agreed that the nine-month sentence was unexpectedly short. But there was no common interpretation of what that meant.
As developments unfolded, David H.B. McLeod, an Australian lawyer working with the defense, provided insight into Hicks' thoughts.
"He says that if he is the worst of the worst, and the person who should be put before a military commission first," McLeod said, "then the world really hasn't got much to worry about."