Now here’s a problem that anyone with half a brain could have seen coming. Today the second trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo — in other words, the second US “war crimes” trial since the Second World War, following the underwhelming trial of Salim Hamdan this summer — opened not with a bang, and not even with a whimper, but with complete silence.
The defendant, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a 39-year old Yemeni, is accused of working as al-Qaeda’s “media director” and being a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. He has, moreover, accepted in pre-trial hearings that he is a member of al-Qaeda, and his prosecution should, therefore, have been an opportunity for the administration to demonstrate that the “War on Terror” — for the most part, a brutal, law-shredding fishing expedition — has at least produced one success for the Commissions’ architects (Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff David Addington) to trumpet before next week’s Presidential elections.
Ali Hamza al-Bahlul (far left) holds up a sign saying “boycott” at his Military Commission hearing on May 7, 2008. Courtroom sketch by Janet Hamlin.
Unfortunately for the administration, this rosy picture has been soured by al-Bahlul’s refusal to take part in his trial. As the court convened today, he sat in silence as his appointed military defense lawyer, Maj. David Frakt, announced that al-Bahlul was boycotting the trial, and that he had two specific reasons: firstly, because the judge had repeatedly denied his requests to represent himself, and secondly because he did not wish to be represented by a military lawyer.
Noting that he was obliged to respect his client’s wishes, Maj. Frakt then asked to be relieved, and when the judge, Air Force Col. Ronald Gregory, refused, he declared that he too was unable to participate. “I will be joining Mr. al-Bahlul’s boycott of the proceedings,” he said, “standing mute at the table.” He then refused to answer any further questions from Col. Gregory.
In response, Col. Gregory attempted to argue that Maj. Frakt was “obliged to participate,” as the Associated Press described it, and insisted, “The commission will not proceed with an empty defense table.” However, he then appeared to concede that it was not in his power to force Maj. Frakt to represent al-Bahlul, and determined to proceed with a trial based solely on evidence provided by the prosecution, even though this will do nothing to convince any objective observer that justice will be seen to be done.
What’s particularly bizarre about this empty trial is that the government should have known that this was what would happen. Ever since al-Bahlul was first put forward for trial by Military Commission (in the trials’ first incarnation, which was struck down as illegal by the Supreme Court in June 2006), he has tried to represent himself, and has boycotted the proceedings when prevented from doing so. Back in 2005, this prompted a crisis for his military-appointed lawyer, Army Maj. Tom Fleener, who was obliged to represent him under the Commissions’ rules at the time.
Speaking to GQ last summer, Maj. Fleener explained, “The concept of compelled representation has always bothered the crap out of me. You just don’t force lawyers on people. You don’t represent someone against his will. It’s never, ever, ever done.” Sean Flynn of GQ then explained, “The reason it’s never done is that it undermines the concept of a fair trial. When a man’s life or liberty is at stake, he gets to decide who will speak for him. That’s the way American courts work, have always worked. To eliminate that right is to begin to transform a trial into a pageant.”
Maj. Fleener, like his colleague, Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, who was assigned to represent a similarly uncooperative prisoner, Ghassan al-Sharbi (and who is now the lawyer for Omar Khadr), knew that the Commissions were in fact nothing more than a pageant. As Fleener explained to Flynn, “I hated the fact, still hate the fact, that we were making up a trial system to convict people after we’d already decided they’re guilty. I hated that as a country we were doing that. I didn’t like the fact that we were violating the rule of law, and that what we were doing as a country was just … wrong.”
The two men, united by their considered opinion of the Commissions, and of the unpleasant role into which they had been thrust, held long conversations about the trials. “Over time,” Kuebler explained, “we figured out we’re the linchpin in this process. They want to have these bizarre trials, they don’t want to let the defendant see secret evidence — so the one thing they need is us. The government wanted this attorney-client thing to work. They really did. It’s an important part of the show.”
Fleener added, “Only the government benefits if we do a bang-up job. The administration believes the commission process will ultimately justify the detentions. They know they can’t just hold people; they don’t want to take the political heat. So they rigged the rule of law. And because it’s rigged, the only thing that’s in play is the appearance.” And as Flynn added, “the detainees know it, which is why they don’t want to go along with a charade.”
Fleener continued: “At the end of the day, that’s how these guys look at it: ‘If I’m going to get a life sentence — or a death sentence — I’d rather get one in this weird, disgusting system that everyone knows is a weird, disgusting system than have some military lawyer up there dancing and juicing it up and making it look like it’s not rigged.’”
As a result, Fleener realized, as Flynn put it, that he “had to return to active duty — speciﬁcally, to represent al-Bahlul. Or more accurately, to be the lawyer al-Bahlul would try to fire, the proxy through which an alleged terrorist could attempt to preserve the right to choose his own counsel.”
Fleener’s one and only encounter with al-Bahlul was on January 11, 2006, just before a pre-trial hearing, when he explained why he didn’t wish to be represented. In the hearing, al-Bahlul explained, as he had during his only other hearing 17 months before, that he was boycotting the proceedings, and the judge, Army Col. Peter E. Brownback III, then motioned for Fleener to move up the table to represent him. The following exchange then took place:
Fleener: Sir, is this an order? Should I consider it an order?
Brownback: Do you need an order?
Fleener: I believe I do, sir.
Fleener was not being difficult for the sake of it. The problem was not just that he was being ordered to represent a client who didn’t want to be represented, which is unethical; it was also that, outside of the specific context of the Military Commissions, in the legal world outside Guantánamo to which Fleener also belonged, he could be punished for doing so. As Flynn explained, “The defendant can sue for malpractice, and the bar can impose sanctions, even take away his license to practice.” He added, “An order to represent al-Sharbi and al- Bahlul, then, would also be an order for Fleener and Kuebler to violate their professional ethics; by obeying their superiors, they risked disobeying the rules of the bar.”
This conflict was never resolved, as the Supreme Court stepped in, and Fleener and Kuebler were not required to represent al-Bahlul and al-Sharbi again. However, it was clearly such a significant problem that when the Military Commission system was revived by Congress in the fall of 2006, it included the following: “The accused shall be permitted to represent himself, as provided for by paragraph (3).”
This appeared to address the ethical dilemmas faced by Fleener and Kuebler, but as Flynn noted, “there were reasons to be skeptical, to suspect that the provision wasn’t as clear as it seemed: The ‘paragraph (3)’ it referred to was a list of caveats that allowed self-representation to be revoked if the defendant didn’t behave to the presiding officer’s liking. So what would happen if a man’s idea of representing himself was to boycott his trial? Would a lawyer be forced on him then? That wasn’t clear at all.”
What happened, as we have seen today, and as was telegraphed in May, when al-Bahlul attended a pre-trial hearing for his Military Commission (Mk. II) and again boycotted it, was that another military lawyer — this time Maj. David Frakt — would face the same dilemma faced by Maj. Fleener and Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler in 2005 and 2006, and would again insist on his right not to compromise his ethical obligations by representing an unwilling client.
The empty chair — a symbol of lop-sided justice if ever there was one — is the inevitable result, but as I stated at the beginning of this article, anyone with half a brain — or the current US administration — should have seen this coming.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.
See here for a report on Ali Hamza al-Bahlul’s sentence. And see the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the stumbling progress of the Military Commissions: The reviled Military Commissions collapse (June 2007), A bad week at Guantánamo (Commissions revived, September 2007), The curse of the Military Commissions strikes the prosecutors (September 2007), A good week at Guantánamo (chief prosecutor resigns, October 2007), The story of Mohamed Jawad (October 2007), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), African embassy bombing suspect charged (March 2008), The US military’s shameless propaganda over 9/11 trials (April 2008), Betrayals, backsliding and boycotts (May 2008), Fact Sheet: The 16 prisoners charged (May 2008), Four more charged, including Binyam Mohamed (June 2008), Afghan fantasist to face trial (June 2008), 9/11 trial defendants cry torture (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (five trials dropped, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), Guilt by Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials at Guantánamo (December 2008), Is the 9/11 trial confession an al-Qaeda coup? (December 2008), The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns Chaotic Trials (Lt. Col. Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Torture taints the case of Mohamed Jawad (January 2009), Bush Era Ends with Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009).
And for a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Obama’s Confusion Over Guantánamo Terror Trials (June 2009).
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“This appeared to address the ethical dilemmas faced by Fleener and Kuebler, but as Flynn noted, “there were reasons to be skeptical, to suspect that the provision wasn’t as clear as it seemed: The ‘paragraph (3)’ it referred to was a list of caveats that allowed self-representation to be revoked if the defendant didn’t behave to the presiding officer’s liking. So what would happen if a man’s idea of representing himself was to boycott his trial? Would a lawyer be forced on him then? That wasn’t clear at all.”
This paragraph, and the article, do not explain why the judge didn’t allow the defendant to defend himself in the first place, under the 2006 rule. Based on your article, this was not a situation where “a man’s idea of representing himself was to boycott his trial.”
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