US & Canada

A visit to Guantanamo's secretive Camp 7

In this pool photo of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin and reviewed by the US Department of Defense, accused 11 September co-conspirators Ammar al Baluchi, center left, and Ramzi Binalshibh, right, confer with their lawyers during pretrial hearings at the Guantanamo 19 August 2013
Image caption al-Baluchi (rear row, in white turban) and Connell confer at a pre-trial hearing

The suspects in the September 2001 attacks on the US are being kept in a mysterious jail at Guantanamo Bay. The BBC's Tara McKelvey spoke to the first lawyer to visit a prisoner there.

James Connell, a defence lawyer for Ammar al-Baluchi, a detainee who has been charged with co-ordinating the September 2001 attacks, rode in a military vehicle with darkened windows in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, last week.

He was taken to a secretive place, Camp 7, a facility where Mr Baluchi and other men who have been accused of the terrorist attacks, are held. Many of these detainees had been previously held, and interrogated, by people who work for the Central Intelligence Agency.

The tribunal system at Guantanamo is notoriously guarded, and its current prison, Camp 7, is in some ways a symbol of a legal system that is blocked off from the world, literally and metaphorically.

Journalists are not allowed to visit Camp 7, which opened in 2006. Only a few outsiders are permitted to enter, and the facility remains shrouded in mystery.

By most any measure, Camp 7 sounds intimidating.

In February 2009, US Adm Patrick Walsh, now-retired vice-chief of naval operations, said Camp 7 was similar to a "super-max" prison.

Mr Connell is the first lawyer to visit his client there.

He says what he saw was disturbing, so much so that he plans to file a pre-trial motion about the conditions of Mr Baluchi's confinement.

'Open as possible'

Image caption Photos at Guantanamo are reviewed by the US military before publication

At the same time, the fact that Mr Connell was allowed to visit Camp 7 shows that things at Guantanamo are not entirely hidden from the outside world.

Brig Gen Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor of the tribunals, says that he is trying to increase the level of information that people have about the legal proceedings against Mr Baluchi and the other men.

"The process that we're dealing with here is going to be as open as possible," Gen Martins says.

At some point, Mr Connell and Gen Martins will both try to convince the military judge, Col James Pohl, of the merits of their arguments on one of the most important issues at Guantanamo: the trial of Mr Baluchi and the other al-Qaeda leaders.

Mr Baluchi, 35, also known as Abd al-Aziz Ali, is the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the September 2001 attacks.

According to Joint Task Force Guantanamo documents dated December 2006, Mr Baluchi was one of the planners of the terrorist attacks.

Mr Baluchi continued to plan terrorist attacks up to the day he was captured in Karachi, Pakistan, in April 2003, the documents say.

During the raid, Pakistani officials seized 330lb (150kg) of explosives and bomb-making materials.

Mr Baluchi and Mr Mohammed, as well as the other accused men, Ramzi Binalshibh, Walid bin Attash and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, have pleaded not guilty.

Gen Martins, 53, will say that Mr Baluchi and the other men should be put to death. Mr Connell will defend Mr Baluchi.

'He's funny'

At this point, however, the trial is an abstraction. The lawyers are now consumed not with questions of justice, but with procedural issues including questions regarding security clearances, during a week-long pre-trial hearing.

They also disagree about scheduling. Gen Martins says that the trial should start in September 2014.

When Mr Connell hears that date, he is standing in an old aeroplane hangar, a dusty place has been turned into a media centre. He laughs loudly, as if he were an actor on stage.

The lawyers held duelling press conferences early in the week.

Gen Martins's conference was indoors and air-conditioned. Mr Connell spoke outside the room, near a plastic picnic table - and sweated.

The trial, whenever it starts, may go on for years. In the meantime one thing is clear: Mr Connell and Gen Martins are equally determined to get the upper hand, both in the military courtroom and in the court of public opinion. They are well prepared.

Gen Martins, who has dark hair flecked with grey and a crooked nose, says he has been reading "a lot of court papers", as well as John Fabian Witt's Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History.

The general studied economics and political philosophy while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. ("I have a real soft spot for England," he says.)

A bald, barrel-chested 42-year-old with pale-blue eyes, Mr Connell studied law at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

Years ago he defended John Allen Muhammad, the Washington sniper who, along with an accomplice, killed 10 people in 2002. Mr Connell was at the Virginia state prison when he was executed in 2009.

His current client, Mr Baluchi, is also difficult. "He is not very popular," Mr Connell says.

Inside the courtroom in Guantanamo, Mr Baluchi, who has long eyelashes and thick eyebrows, wears white clothes and black trainers with cotton socks. He strokes his beard and he seems in good spirits.

At one point, an alarm in the courtroom goes off, and the judge tells everyone to turn off their cell phones. Mr Baluchi pats his chest and hips, as if looking for his phone.

"He's funny," says Mr Connell. The idea that the detainee, held under super-max conditions at Camp 7, would have managed to bring in a phone is absurd.

"He takes the proceedings seriously, but he sees the light moments as well," says Mr Connell.

9/11 families

Image caption The accused 9/11 plotters will be tried in a courtroom at the base

Mr Baluchi sits with the other accused men in a row on the side of the courtroom. In the back of the room, behind a thick pane of glass, people who lost family members in the September 2001 attacks watch the proceedings.

Two people - a dark-haired woman wearing a double strand of pearls and a black dress, and her friend, wearing a khaki skirt and a white blouse - are visiting Guantanamo for the first time.

Convincing people in the courtroom - and in other places, too - that Mr Baluchi deserves a fair trial is one of the hardest parts of Mr Connell's job.

The lawyer went to see Mr Baluchi at Camp 7 with two experts, a "forensics guy" and a medical professional.

"This was the first time that I had ever seen him in the closest thing he has to a home," he says.

"It reminded me that he's a real person with a real home and a real family - and deserves to be treated like a human being."

Mr Connell spent 12 hours at the facility. The cells are air-conditioned, he says, but beyond that he can reveal almost nothing about the place.

Still, as he explains, "we documented everything that we could".

He and his colleagues have submitted notes, along with photographs and diagrams, "for classification review".

Mr Connell hopes to use the documents to convince the judge that Mr Baluchi has been treated poorly and deserves a lighter sentence. There is precedent for this kind of decision in a military court.

Pte First Class Bradley Manning, the soldier who leaked classified material, was given a 112-day credit on his sentence because a military judge determined his treatment in a military jail had been unlawful. His final sentence has not been set.

Gen Martins, however, sees the situation differently. He says that conditions at Camp 7 are decent.

"We take very seriously humane standards," he says. "We believe that we are complying with the Geneva Conventions."

So do other defence department officials.

"The US Government takes very seriously its obligation to provide humane care and custody of detainees, consistent with the Geneva Conventions. Defence counsel have an obligation to zealously defend their clients," said Lt Col Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, in a written statement.

Mr Connell is planning to file a motion on behalf of his client in the next several weeks. At that point the question of how Mr Baluchi is being treated, as well as what should be kept secret at Guantanamo, and what should be revealed, is likely to be raised.

And the two sides will have another chance to argue.

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