Please Watch ‘The Trial’, A Powerful Video About Guantánamo’s Broken Military Commission Trial System


A screenshot, from 'The Trial,' of Ammar al-Baluchi's defense team - from the left, Alka Pradhan, James Connell and Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration. If you can help, please click on the button below to donate via PayPal.


In the long and horrendously unjust story of Guantánamo, the two key elements of America’s flight from the law since 9/11 have been the use of torture, and the imprisonment of men, indefinitely, without charge or trial. A third element is the decision to try some of these men, in a trial system ill-advisedly dragged out of the history books by former Vice President Dick Cheney and his legal adviser David Addington.

That system — the military commissions — has struggled to deliver anything resembling justice, in large part because it was designed to accept evidence produced through torture, and then to execute prisoners after cursory trials. The Supreme Court ruled this system illegal in 2006, but Congress then tweaked it and revived it, and, after Barack Obama became president, it was tweaked and revised again instead of being scrapped, as it should have been.

Throughout this whole sorry period, the US federal courts have, in contrast, proven adept at successfully prosecuting those accused of terrorism, but at Guantánamo the commissions have struggled to successfully convict anyone. Since 2008, just eight cases have gone to trial, but six were settled via plea deals, and, of the other two, one ended up with the prisoner in question (Salim Hamdan, a hapless driver for Osama bin Laden)  being released after just five months, while the other was an outrageously one-sided affair, as the prisoner in question (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a propagandist for Al-Qaeda) refused even to mount a defense. The commissions also have a history of collapsing on appeal — and with good reason, as the alleged war crimes most of the prisoners were convicted of were actually invented by Congress. For an overview of the commissions, see my article, The Full List of Prisoners Charged in the Military Commissions at Guantánamo.

Nevertheless, seven other men face military commission trials — or, more pertinently, seem to be caught up in endless pre-trial hearings, the result of, on the one hand, the defense teams asserting that a fair trial is impossible without the men’s torture being openly discussed, and, on the other, the government’s lawyers seeking to prevent this — and also doing everything in their power to derail any notion that justice might be delivered, by spying on the defense teams’ meetings with their clients, infiltrating the defense teams by hiring a spy, and generally obstructing every request for discovery or any other information vital to their ability to do their jobs properly.

Of the seven men caught up in pre-trial hearings, five are accused of involvement in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and, just a few weeks ago, a 16-minute video profiling the lawyers for one of these men, Ammar al-Baluchi, was released by the Guardian, directed by Johanna Hamilton for Field of Vision, a visual journalism film unit co-created by Laura Poitras, A.J. Schnack and Charlotte Cook, and funded by First Look Media, home of the Intercept.

The video is below, via YouTube — and you can also find it here on the Guardian’s website, and on their YouTube channel. Please also check out Field of Vision.

I’m privileged to have met with and done some work for al-Baluchi’s defense team — James Connell, Alka Pradhan and Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas, all featured in the film, who talk us through the situation al-Baluchi finds himself in, a kind of Groundhog day of injustice, in which any just resolution seems impossible.

One of the topics discussed in the film is how, for the 2012 film ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were involved with the CIA for a year, with, as Julian Borger of the Guardian explained in an article to accompany the release of ‘The Trial,’ the agency sharing details of al-Baluchi’s torture at a secret CIA “black site,” which al-Baluchi’s actual, real life lawyers “had been told were too secret to be divulged.” As Sterling Thomas said, “A movie director gets greater access than a defence counsel.” 

The Guardian’s article also highlighted, as the film shows, how, “In the pre-trial hearings, which have been underway for nearly seven years, the defence teams have been repeatedly denied access to witnesses and documentation that might cast light on their clients’ captivity prior to arriving in Guantánamo.”

As Alka Pradhan explained in the film, “This is a death penalty trial and we’re supposed to be entitled to every scrap of evidence that could be material to the case. Everywhere we go we are looking for information that we have not got from the US government, like where they may have been held, which the government has said absolutely flat out they consider to be classified and they will never tell us.’ As she added, understatedly, “That’s sort of crucial to the case.”

So welcome to the dispiritingly unjust world of Guantánamo. I hope you have time to watch the film, and to marvel at the tenacity of James Connell, Alka Pradhan and Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas, and that you’ll share it if you find it illuminating.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

19 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, promoting ‘The Trial’, by film-maker Johanna Hamilton, about the lawyers defending Ammar al-Baluchi, one of five Guantanamo prisoners accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, who is caught up in seemingly endless pre-trial hearings in the prison’s military commission trial system.

    In my introduction, I provide a summary of the commissions’ blighted and broken history, and in the film itself al-Baluchi’s tenacious legal team – James Connell, Alka Pradhan and Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas – eloquently explain how the commissions are incompatible with justice; how, for example, their meetings with the clients have been bugged, how the government planted a spy in one of the defense teams, and how prosecutors also do everything they can to prevent them having access to the information they need to defend their client properly.

    The film also examines how, shamefully, the makers of the Hollywood movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, which featured al-Baluchi’s horrendous torture, were briefed for a year by the CIA, and given information denied to his own lawyers.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    When Deborah Emin shared this, she wrote:

    I just commented on a different thread about the continued horrors happening at Guantanamo. How do I know these things since there is so little on the news about it? I know because Andy Worthington has been reporting on and advocating for the closure of this prison. I consider myself fortunate to be tagged in his posts. I confess that many times I look away because like the house demolitions of Palestinians, I can’t handle the truth. Yet, here it is. The truth about Guantanamo. The truth about American injustice. The truth about even the US film industry. How much do you want to know? Please let Andy know how valuable his work is. Thanks.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you very much for the wonderfully supportive words, Deborah – and for your sharp analysis of horrors we would rather turn away from.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Julia Igaz wrote:

    Thank you for caring and sharing Andy x

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, as always, Julia. Thanks for your interest in this ongoing horror story.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Valerie Lucznikowska wrote:

    Will the sham ever end?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    I fear not, Valerie. We’d need a president prepared to pursue trials on the US mainland, and even then someone like Abu Zubaydah would, I think, be stuck in US custody forever without charge or trial. The day Guantanamo was set up was really one of the darkest days in America’s modern history.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Hilary Homes wrote:

    I remember how surreal this story was when Raashid Williams first told me about it. It’s no less surreal now. So glad it’s finally getting more exposure.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s great that First Look Media, home of the Intercept, has set up Field of Vision, the online documentary channel that produced this film, Hilary. I must try to remember to check out their films regularly:
    And they’re on Facebook here:
    And thanks to the Guardian too, of course, for bringing it to their global audience.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Gracias, Andy

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, as ever, Natalia!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Shahela Begum wrote:

    Thanks for your work and sharing Andy. I feel the frustration these lawyers are going through, the whole process is so backward.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Shahela. Great to hear from you – and yes, thinking about it from the lawyers’ point of view is a good way of realizing quite how broken the whole system is. Years and years of work, and yet no progress – and seemingly, no way of even seeing how a trial can actually begin.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Julia Igaz wrote:

    Dark ages, barbaric and definitely agree on what your saying…. Thoughts and prayers go out to all family and friends and especially Ammar, thank you Andy Worthington for sharing 🙁 so so long, praying for Justice and freedom and closure of this Barbaric practice/facilities and impunity….. Amen

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts and your supportive words, Julia.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Marion Heads wrote:

    Thank you for sharing Andy

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Marion. Good to hear from you.

  18. Patricia says...

    Thank you for your fine work informing the public, in opposition to the deafening silence of USMSM.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for caring – and for your supportive words, Patricia.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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