By Sarah Mehta, Aryeh Neier Fellow, ACLU Human Rights Program
Yesterday opened with the selection of jurors (the process called "voir dire") who will sentence Noor Uthman Muhammed, the Sudanese detainee who accepted a guilty plea Tuesday morning. Noor pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorist networks, on account of his involvement at a training camp in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2000. Reports have suggested that under a sealed plea deal, Muhammed will serve three more years at Guantánamo, in addition to the over eight years he has already spent in U.S. detention.
Prosecutor Navy Lt. Cmdr. Arthur Gaston opened: "Terrorists are not born. They are made…. Noor Uthman Muhammed has made hundreds of them," and continued to explain how Muhammed had already admitted to his participation in the development and operations of a training camp in Afghanistan.
Previewing the evidence to be introduced to the panel in the coming days, Maj. Weirick told panelists, "You're going to hear about the training…you're going to hear about indoctrination…you're going to hear about some of the terrorists this camp produced."
After a break so Muhammed could perform afternoon prayers, we returned to court for the defense counsel's opening statement (slightly delayed when an overhead announcement from "cellbusters" informed us that someone had brought a cell phone in, which was followed by a hilarious search of the court and observation room for the offending instrument).
Howard Cabot, Muhammed's civilian defense attorney, began by acknowledging that the subject matter of this case is "difficult" but argued that this case cannot be about the other, more infamous suspected terrorists. Rather, Cabot said, this case is about a low-level functionary whose assistance to terrorist suspects is mainly speculative. Explaining Muhammed's participation in the camp, Cabot said, "He messed up, he messed up bad but no matter what you decide today, Noor will continue to pay for his mistakes for the rest of his life."
For the first time since I've arrived at Guantánamo Bay, I heard about who Noor Uthman Muhammed is. The defense painted a picture of Muhammed as a "religious man of limited education" who left an impoverished family and community 17 years ago to go to Afghanistan, where he was "a low-level functionary — cooking, running errands, teaching others how to use small arms." However, said the defense, "being a member of al-Qaeda is something Noor never bought into." According to the defense, Muhammed never joined al-Qaeda and he never planned or carried out an attack on the U.S.
This sentencing hearing is the only opportunity for the public to find out what the evidence against Muhammed actually consists of, and it is his only opportunity to counter the story the government has been telling about him for years. After nearly nine years of detention without a trial on the merits of his case, Muhammed gave up on getting a fair trial in the military commissions. Now that he's given up on fighting his case, this is his only opportunity to have his story told.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated the prosecutor who gave the opening statement was Maj. James Weirick. That was incorrect. The opening statement was made by Navy Lt. Cmdr. Arthur Gaston.