THE BLOG

A Diary From Guantanamo Bay

20/09/2013 15:49 BST | Updated 20/11/2013 10:12 GMT

I land at Guantanamo Bay Airport but my luggage does not. Aware that the chance of it being tracked down and then re-routed to a high security military base in Cuba is slim, I resign myself to spending a week in the clothes I left London in. To compound this, my accommodation consists of communal showers and toilets and a tent shared with six others that is kept close to freezing in order to deter insects.

However, I did not come to Guantanamo for the luxury, but as part of a delegation observing the 9/11 military tribunals. Much is riding on the outcome of this trial. If military courts can provide justice in such a high-profile case, they could be used more widely in the future. If it were to collapse, the tribunals would likely be discredited permanently.

Security on site is as relentless as expected. Barbed wire fences surround our walk to the courtroom. Inside, all electronic equipment is prohibited and observers sit behind soundproof glass with the audio feed on delay in case classified information is discussed. Observers can take notes, but sketching or even any kind of idle scribbling is prohibited. An unsuspecting observer has a page of her notes removed in no time flat for breaching this protocol.

Attention is of course focussed on the five accused. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 plot's mastermind, wears military fatigues which oddly camouflages him among the soldiers sitting nearby. His rotundness suggests he has abstained from Guantanamo's ongoing hunger strike, but otherwise he seems engaged and happy to talk to anyone within earshot.

Progress in court is slow. Defence lawyers are determined to challenge every aspect of the trial's very foundations; recess is arranged to fit in around detainees praying; hours are lost trying to ascertain whether the toothache that has led to one detainee's absence violates his legal rights. Guantanamo Bay was the venue for courtroom thriller 'A Few Good Men', but anyone expecting Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson-esque fireworks would leave disappointed.

If proceedings in the day occasionally drag, evenings prove livelier. After all, Guantanamo Bay is essentially just a regular American town: there are shops, an open air cinema, a frisbee golf course, a radio station (tagline: 'Rockin' in Fidel's Backyard') and even wind turbines. Dining options are limited: there are alternatives to McDonalds and Subway, but it is hard to avoid becoming overly familiar with both.

The existence of an Irish bar, O'Kelly's, proves conclusively that there actually is one everywhere. Karaoke night here provides an opportunity to sing. I decline, though many do not. I regret having missed last year's 'Gitmo's Got Talent' event.

By day, the hearings rumble on. After one particularly punishing court session, the government's chief prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark Martins, invites the delegation I am part of to meet in private in order to answer any questions about the trial.

As much of the delegation are from human rights groups and implacably opposed to military commissions, the questioning is tough; although the way the room is set up - with no tables, and chairs placed in a semi-circle - make it feel more like a Guantanamo self-help group than an interrogation.

Martins is a very convincing advocate of US policy. However, I sense that few minds are changed. Most in the delegation see military commissions as unfair, lacking transparency and an affront to the American justice system. I see competent defence lawyers, an impartial judge, a sharply adversarial process and a determination for justice to be done.

Nothing is easy in Guantanamo, and attempts to leave the island do not disappoint. The plane to take us back to America does not turn up on time, and a beleaguered military representative informs us that there are not enough meals on board for all passengers. A vote is taken: stay a few more hours and get fed, or leave now and go hungry.

We take off shortly after.

Back in the US, I jump in a cab with two of those who lost loved ones on 9/11. They, along with several others tragically affected by that day, had been invited to view the hearings. It gives one final reminder why what is happening at Guantanamo matters so much: the catharsis that only a trial, and formal recognition of the crimes committed that day, can provide.

The victims' stories are so tragic that they are almost impossible to listen to. However, most of them seem remarkably serene. As NATO withdraws from Afghanistan and al-Qaeda continues to wreak havoc around the world, I wonder whether the rage of the rest of us has dissipated rather too quickly.