Monday, May 7, 2012

The Circus Comes to Guantanamo

The defense script for the arraignment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendants might as well have been (literally) ghost written by Abbie Hoffman.  As related by Terry McDermott in The Daily Beast:

A slow-motion circus rolled into courtroom 2 of the Expeditionary Legal Complex Saturday morning.
What had been planned as the straightforward arraignment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four codefendants on charges of conspiring to commit the Sept. 11 attacks disintegrated into dark comedy.
Judge James Pohl scolded attorneys for refusing to follow his carefully articulated script for the proceeding; lawyers argued they were not qualified to defend their clients; translators interrupted lawyers to insist they be quiet; defendants refused to answer any questions from the judge or even acknowledge they’d been asked; one interrupted the proceedings first to pray and again to shout out his fears of being attacked by members of the prosecution team; another who started the day shackled to his chair ended it by stripping to the waist to display scars he claims were inflicted by his Guantánamo guards.
Meanwhile, Mohammed, the man at the center of this storm, sat quietly in the front row, leafing through the Quran and sporting a bushy beard, newly dyed henna red. 

Every circus needs its clowns, and Cheryl Bormann, attorney for Walid Bin Attash, apparently decided to be one of them.  As reported by Jan Crawford of CBS:

In the courtroom today, Bormann wore traditional Muslim attire -- a black hijab and abaya. She urged the female military prosecutors, dressed in uniform with knee-length skirts, to consider more "appropriate" attire so the suspects won't have "fear of committing a sin under their faith."

Bormann’s transparent attempt to bootleg the dictates of Sharia law into a secular American military tribunal brings to mind a Facebook post I saw last week:  “Claiming that someone else’s marriage is against your religion is like being angry at someone for eating a doughnut because you’re on a diet.”  Bormann could have easily dealt with her client’s professed fear of sinning with a bit of attorney-client advice that would have been wise in any case:  Don’t look at the prosecutors’ legs.

Andrew Cohen offered this glum assessment of the proceedings in The Atlantic

[T]he arraignment devolved at times into farce. The defendants acted like petulant children. The military judge acted like Lance Ito. The defense attorneys, finally given their opportunity to vent publicly about the restrictions placed upon their clients, made windy speeches instead of answering questions. It's the most important tribunal in American history since Nuremberg, and if this is how it begins I dread to think of how it will end.

On “Now With Alex Wagner,” defense attorney Ron Kuby, a veteran of political trials, opined that the circus-like atmosphere was largely the result of the lack of established procedure for this tribunal, and the consequent need to “make things up as you go along.”

It didn’t have to be this way.  In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to try the defendants in a federal district court in New York City.  In response, opportunistic politicians of both parties howled their outrage and professed to be shocked, shocked that men accused of nearly 3,000 counts of murder would be tried in accordance with Article III of the United States Constitution. 

Had Holder been allowed to proceed as planned, the trial would likely have been completed by now, in accordance with well-established rules of procedure.  Instead we face the likelihood of a farcical trial sometime next year, resulting in a verdict perceived as tainted by questions regarding the legitimacy of the proceedings.  The case may prove to be one of our most painful examples yet of the perils of allowing politics to dictate the workings of justice system.

1 comment:

  1. One detail I neglected: According to reports, Ms. Bormann is not herself Muslim.