At Guantánamo, journalists are told not to photograph the barbed wire. Really. Photo: POV Productions
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - Arriving on a clear, humid August day, we're struck by the base's aesthetic, a combo of winning-bid-contractor minimalism and high-humidity Caribbean rustiness.
Although it's the oldest overseas U.S. Navy base, established in 1898, Guantánamo has a "we're ready to abandon it on a moment's notice" feel. Forgetting, and burying, what happened here will prove more difficult.
We're here for the controversial pretrial of Canadian Omar Khadr - replete with charges of torture, indefinite incarceration and detention of a minor in violation of international conventions. Khadr was charged when he was 15 for the murder of U.S. Delta Force soldier Christopher Speers during a firefight in Afghanistan in 2001.
(We will discover in October that the judge has put off the start of Khadr's military trial until January 26 - just six days after a new U.S. president is installed in the White House. But will this misbegotten process occur at all, given that both contenders for the Oval Offce have pledged to shut down the Guantánamo prison? Meanwhile, the newly re-elected government of Stephen Harper has reaffirmed its opposition to repatriating Khadr, against the wishes of the three opposition parties.)
* * *
It doesn't take long after getting oriented to realize that the war going on in this place is a public relations one. Officials are working hard against all odds to convince journalists that the military commission trial is fair.
This is quite a feat given that Omar Khadr is heading into a courtroom despite international conventions on child soldiers and without a full investigation of charges that he was interrogated without access to legal counsel and under torture.
He is the only Western citizen among Guantánamo's 265 detainees. European and Austrialian governments have fought for and won repatriation of their citizens. It's an indictment of our government that he's still here.
There's enough to absorb in the convolutions of this case without the confusion of the setting's stark contrasts: the ugly base and the beautiful Cuban coastline; the peaceful, blue sky and the screaming Navy jets; overtly friendly and smiling uniformed public affairs officers who are really "minders."
At the media centre, we're briefed and told we can't take pictures of the airport, the coastline, barbed wire, two large white balls on top of a hill, any radio towers or anything else the military deems top secret. Reporters risk arrest and imprisonment if they violate these rules.
You can't shoot the barbed wire? Really? But we're at Guantánamo. No radar domes or antennas of any kind? That's the hardest rule of all to follow, since the place is littered with them.
The minders are assigned to us 24/7 - except when we shower or retire to our tents, that is. It's annoying, since ours is privy to our political arguments at O'Kelly's, an Irish-themed pub that serves deep-fried pickles and chicken wings.
Guantánamo, it turns out, isn't just a prison camp, but a small town of 10,000 inhabitants on 11,650 hectares. There are no main streets, but there's a mini-mall with a supermarket/department store, a McDonald's, Subway, KFC, a bowling alley, A&W, a cinema, a church, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and some specialty restaurants.
We figure the soldiers will be universally Republican, but we find they have varying opinions. One young African American says he'll be voting for Barack Obama. A female soldier from the South sings the praises of Sarah Palin.
When I diss the would-be vice-president, she sticks her nose back in her book, Is There a Right to Remain Silent?, a legal discourse on whether coercive interrogation is permissible in the post-9/11 world, written by right-winger Alan Dershowitz.
Being military, these soldiers are not really wired to answer queries. Our questions are met with "That's above my pay grade" and "I didn't need to know so they didn't tell me."
Although there are constant reminders that we're on a military base, confronting evidence of the ongoing wars is a shock. Adjacent to the latrines tent is a square box that serves as a refrigerator for bottled water. But when we examine it more closely, we realize it's not a water cooler at all but a portable morgue with five shelves on each side for corpses. The word "Mortuary" is still faintly legible on the side.
The court itself is a bland, boxy 1950ish structure with the unlikely nickname Camp Justice. A squad of military snipers in and around the building are in full combat armour.
* * *
Omar Khadr flips through a National Geographic given him by one of the guards, holding the mag up close since he only has partial sight in one eye, the result of a shrapnel wound. Sometimes he sits with his head cradled in his hands, his tall, gaunt body slumped over the table.
He has a full beard and wears a white jumpsuit, the colour assigned prisoners who are deemed compliant. He's listless, uninterested.
This morning, Khadr refused to meet with his American military lawyer, Lieutenant Commander William "Bill" Kuebler, a setback for Kuebler, who needs Khadr's cooperation to score an independent psychiatric evaluation. He's trying to show that statements attributed to the young Canadian were made during interrogations that involved sleep deprivation, physical abuse and threats.
But lawyers spend most of this day arguing over which witnesses to certify for trial. After an hour and a half, I find myself nodding off.
The judge, Army Colonel Patrick Parrish, a serious and attentive man with a rail-thin build, wears his no- nonsense attitude on his sleeve as he spars with both attorneys. Paradoxically, those who actually attend the trial find their opinion of the proceedings rising. Everyone, that is, but Khadr, who seems to have given up: no respect and no faith.
But it is all totally surreal. The U.S. government has its agenda: sell the military commissions as legitimate. In military terms, it's FUBAR - fucked up beyond all recognition.3
Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine are Toronto-based journalists and documentary filmmakers whose films include Junket Whore, The Frank Truth, Citizen Black and Manufacturing Dissent.
Chronology of a conspiracy?
JULY 2002 Fifteen-year-old Omar Khadr is arrested following a firefight in Afghanistan in which a U.S. army medic is killed.
OCTOBER 2002 Khadr is sent to Guantánamo Bay.
FEBRUARY 2005 His lawyers reveal that CSIS officials have interrogated Khadr. Newly declassified U.S. documents show he has complained of abuse and torture.
AUGUST 2005 A federal court judge rules that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms extends to Khadr and that CSIS must cease its interrogations.
NOVEMBER 2005 Khadr is charged with conspiracy and with killing Army Medic Christopher Speer with a hand grenade.
JUNE 2007 Military judge drops charges against Khadr, saying military commissions can only try "unlawful enemy combatants."
SEPTEMBER 2007 An appeal panel reinstates the charges.
MARCH 2008 Khadr's lawyers release an affidavit saying he was abused and threatened with rape.
• His lawyers release documents showing that the grenade that killed Speer may have been thrown by someone else.
MAY 2008 The military judge is unexpectedly dismissed and replaced after ordering prosecutors to provide records of Khadr's detention.
• The Supreme Court of Canada rules that Canadian agents acted illegally when they interrogated Khadr and orders CSIS and Foreign Affairs documents turned over to Khadr's lawyers.
• A soldier's diary that surfaces in court documents says Khadr wasn't the sole survivor of the firefight, creating doubt about whether Khadr threw the grenade.
JULY 2008 Video of CSIS agents questioning a crying, distraught Khadr is made public by court order.
OCTOBER 2008 Military judge delays Khadr trial until January 26, 2009. A lawyer for the Canadian government reaffirms in court that the government will not demand the repatriation of Khadr, saying it has done enough to protect his rights.