Guantánamo Bay Opens an Extra Courtroom


Military staff members have yet to put a clock on a wall or stabilize the air-conditioning. Yet the Pentagon managed to open its long-delayed $4 million secondary courtroom this week and hold simultaneous hearings in adjacent chambers at Guantánamo Bay.

The step was small but significant. It meant that, if pretrial issues and housing problems are ever resolved, the war court could hold a trial in one of its four active cases without bringing the other three to a standstill.

This week’s opening put the idea to a test.

A military judge in the new courtroom heard lawyers argue motions in the 2002 Bali bombing case while the defendant, an Indonesian prisoner known as Hambali, looked on. In the original courtroom next door, a second judge presided over testimony from an F.B.I. witness in the Sept. 11, 2001, case but with two key constituencies missing.

None of the defendants accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks came to court on Tuesday morning. And the four journalists who traveled to the base on Saturday planning to cover both hearings were denied access inside on Tuesday morning.

The court spokesman notified media representatives on Monday night that none of the journalists could move back and forth between the two hearings, as court reporters routinely do.

Instead, they had to choose to observe one hearing and stay there, at least until lunch. All opted to see Mr. Hambali’s judge gavel open the hearing in the new courtroom, which was retrofitted with a gallery for the public.

Only Brig. Gen. Jackie L. Thompson Jr., an Army officer overseeing the defense teams, was allowed to observe the proceedings from both spectators’ galleries. He started off sitting in front of the four reporters at the Bali bombing case hearing, then left midmorning. He walked next door to the adjacent gallery, slid into the empty row reserved for media members and watched the Sept. 11 case hearing in progress.

The episode illustrated the difficulties of watching a proceeding live, even in the 20th year of hearings at the offshore, hybrid military-civilian court whose motto is “Fairness * Transparency * Justice.”

Transcripts of open sessions are redacted by a secret entity before they are released to the public, sometimes months later. Journalists who want to write or broadcast about the hearings need to be affiliated with a recognized organization, apply to the Pentagon, undergo a criminal-background check and meet a sponsor before dawn for a charter flight to the base. Photography at the court is forbidden, even between sessions.

Reporters must sit in specifically assigned seats at the court as they appear on a daily roster. On Tuesday, when the new court opened, a Spanish journalist was given a seat that did not have a view of the prisoner, although there were 25 empty seats in the gallery.

Reporters are monitored in court and by a civilian chaperone with a security clearance as they head to the latrine. On Tuesday morning, when the judge called his first recess at the newly opened court, a chaperone asked a reporter, “Do you need to go potty?”

War court spokesmen have described the arrangements as national security necessities.

The court has cost U.S. taxpayers around $2 billion in proceedings, planning and construction, and the prison operation that now holds 30 detainees has cost billions more. A $10 million tiny-house village of 150 single-occupancy trailers meant to house legal teams has not yet opened, but it already had a fungus problem in 2022.

In a tentative test in January, court management housed about a dozen members of the military in the units, which are on the outskirts of the court compound by a beach. But court officials will not discuss the experiment or when the rest of the units will open.

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