“My father, along with many residents of the New Jersey town we are from, died on 9/11. My mother died recently, without seeing justice. It is possible that we will not see justice in my lifetime.”
—Family member of victim, September 15, 2018
“Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? You mean he is still alive and that trial hasn’t even started?”
—A colleague of mine, who is a retired senior U.S. government official, September 17, 2018
Earlier this month, as an independent observer for Human Rights First, I attended a pre-trial hearing in the Guantanamo military commission for the 9/11 suspects. The proceedings fell on the week of September 10, and it was particularly poignant to be there on the anniversary of the attacks. Seventeen years later, there is no start date for the trial of the five men accused of orchestrating the attacks, and the long-serving judge has just been replaced.
The week’s highlights included a “voir dire” of the new judge, in which he was questioned by the prosecution and defense, and a hearing on the dismissal of the former Military Commissions Convening Authority, Harvey Rishikof.
Judge Pohl, an Army colonel, announced his retirement in August and assigned Keith Parrella, a military judge with two years’ judicial experience, to replace him. Just before stepping down, Judge Pohl ordered the exclusion of statements the defendants made to FBI interrogators after their transfer from CIA secret prisons, also called “black sites,” to Guantanamo.
Lawyers for the defendants questioned incoming Judge Parrella on his limited experience as a military judge and in death penalty cases. They also raised the potential for conflict of interest, given Parella’s prior work at the Department of Justice (DOJ) as a fellow alongside several members of the 9/11 prosecution team.
They also inquired about his knowledge of “mitigation”—evidence from the defense geared to persuade the court that the defendants should not receive a death sentence. The defendants spent years in the CIA’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program. Their brutal treatment will undoubtedly be raised as a mitigating factor during any sentencing phase. Defense attorneys also questioned Parella’s ability to come up to speed on past rulings. He would have to review more than 20,000 pages of transcripts of the last six years of pre-trial proceedings.
On September 10th, all five defendants were present at the start of the day, along with their defense counsel. The new judge agreed to, among other things, allow the defendants to be unshackled (unless there was probable cause) and keep breaks in the day that coincide with the defendants’ prayer times.
On Tuesday, September 11th, all five defendants were absent in the morning. Judge Parrella set forth his findings that he possessed the requisite skills and experience to preside in the case, that his DOJ fellowship did not pose a conflict, and that he has no personal bias against the defendants or prior affiliation with the case.
Another key matter was the firing of Convening Authority Harvey Rishikof. The government argued that Rishikof was fired due to concerns about judgment, temperament, and a lack of appropriate coordination with superiors. The court heard testimony from Lieutenant Doug Newman, an investigator assigned to the office that oversees the defense teams, who described his investigation into Rishikof’s firing. Newman discussed his interviews with former Obama Administration officials, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston. According to Newman, Eggleston indicated that President Obama had become frustrated with the slow pace and cost of the process and asked for a path to move the case forward.
Defense counsel said that Rishikof had been exploring plea deals that would have taken the death penalty off the table and expedited proceedings. They questioned whether his firing constituted unlawful command influence from political appointees who sought to shape the judicial workings of the case and thus, compromise the independence of the proceedings.
Upholding both the rule of law and national security are the twin challenges facing the government in this case. The use of torture, as well as alleged government surveillance and intrusion into attorney-client conversations, may result in delays for years to come, with justice remaining elusive for the victims, their families, and the American public.
Sushma Raman is the Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and served as an independent observer representing Human Rights First. This blog does not reflect the official opinion or position of Harvard Kennedy School or the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.