By KELLY STADELMAN
WINFIELD -- During the heart of the basketball season, Putnam County prosecutor Mark Sorsaia spent a week sitting in a courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with Al-Qaeda terrorists instead of in the Hurricane High School gym cheering for his son, Henry.
“It was probably one of the most interesting experiences of my legal career,” he said. “I can’t say it was fun, but it was fascinating.”
Sorsaia was selected by the government to travel to Cuba and observe the military commission court trial for two Al-Qaeda terrorists, Abd al-Rahim Hussein Muhammed Abdu Al-Nashiri and Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed Haza al Darbi.
“I was the former vice president for the National District Attorneys Association, and that put me on the first list,” he said. “I got a phone call and was asked if I wanted to be on another list of the prosecutors to go to Guantanamo, and I said I would.”
Sorsaia left Andrews Air Force Base for Cuba on Feb. 16 with a group of 11 other civilian observers. He was the only prosecutor in a group that included defense attorneys, ACLU individuals, freelance writers and people from the Judicial Watch organization.
After landing at the U.S. military base near Guantanamo Bay, a ferry took Sorsaia across an inlet to “Camp Justice,” a place he would call home for seven days.
“It was a secured area with courtrooms, and there was an Army base like you would see in Afghanistan, a base camp with tents,” he said. “I stayed in a tent for a week with several other guys. It was like being in the Army. There is a latrine tent and a shower tent.”
Sorsaia said prior to going to Cuba he did some homework on the military commission court proceedings and the two terrorists.
According to the Office of Military Commission, Nashiri is charged with “perfidy, murder in violation of the law of war, attempted murder in violation of the law of war, terrorism, conspiracy, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, attacking civilians, attacking civilian objects, and hazarding a vessel. The charges arise out of an attempted attack on the USS Cole in October 2000.
“Darbi is charged with conspiracy, attacking civilian objects, hazarding a vessel, terrorism, attempt, and aiding the enemy. The charges stem from an attempt to carry out terrorist attacks against shipping vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and off the coast of Yemen, and a completed terrorist attack against the French oil tanker, MV Limburg.” Darbi worked for Nashiri.
In the year following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration started capturing and imprisoning Al-Qaeda terrorists, Sorsaia explained. During interrogation the CIA used waterboarding techniques on many of the war criminals to get information.
“The Bush administration decided to send them to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and prosecute those that could be prosecuted and detain those that couldn’t,” he said. “This was a unique situation because for the first time in history the U.S. kept the enemy combatants.”
When President Obama took office he hoped to close the Guantanamo Bay prison due to the controversy surrounding the techniques the CIA used to gather intelligence. However, there wasn’t another facility to house the war criminals and the prison remained open.
Five years ago Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2009. The act created the military commission that combined military and civilian criminal code and prosecuting procedures for terrorists, Sorsaia said.
“They created this court for the purpose of dealing with the detainees,” he explained. “It is my understanding that under the military commission act that the government wanted to open up the proceedings for some transparency.”
Sorsaia said that transparency was one of the main reasons he was there observing the proceedings.
“If the government is successful in executing Nashiri, the government understands in today’s world there is going to be a debate,” he said. “The debate is going to be did the United States railroad this guy, torture this guy, execute this guy without a fair trial?
“The government is going to have to defend its actions, so what they do is have people like me there to observe.”
On Monday, Feb. 17, Sorsaia woke up at 5 a.m. ate breakfast and was seated in the military courtroom by 8 a.m. He planned to do the same thing on Tuesday but Nashiri had different plans.
“Nashiri’s lawyer gets up and says ‘I got into a fight with my client and my client wants to fire me’ and the judge just stops and looks,” Sorsaia said. “We get into the debate about should he get another lawyer, should he not get another lawyer.
“If he fires the lawyer it is going to delay things for months. I’m angry because I went to Guantanamo to watch this then on Tuesday he wants to fire his lawyer.”
The judge gave everyone the afternoon off to see if something could be worked out.
“So my soldier friends took me to the beach,” he said. “It was beautiful.”
Being the only prosecutor allowed Sorsaia to spend time with Gen. Mark Martin and the other members of the prosecution team.
“I was very impressed with the prosecution lawyers,” he said. “We would talk and they would ask me questions, ‘Well, did you ever have this happen to you?’
“What was really surprising to me was there was a lot of things in play that I have a lot of experience on.”
The trial did continue throughout the remainder of the week. Sorsaia said he experienced a range of emotions while observing.
“Sometimes I found it interesting,” he said. “I found it legally fascinating, the issues and debates as a lawyer especially and as a state prosecutor. Sometimes I got angry, sad and disgusted. But I guess that is the nature of criminal ligation.
“But when you are sitting in the room with Al-Qaeda, people that are accused of being Al-Qaeda terrorists that did what they did and remember 9-11, it is kind of a strange experience and you see victims of the families there.”
Stadelman is president of The Putnam Standard. Find The Putnam Standard at www.theputnamstandard.com.