Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba – More than 14 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, one of those accused of plotting the horrific acts has finally taken the stand in a military court in Guantanamo Bay.
Ramzi bin al Shibh, a 43-year-old Yemeni, is the first defendant to testify in the case. He said in pretrial hearings on Wednesday that guards at the ultra-secretive Camp 7 detention facility for high-value detainees were disrupting his sleep and day-time activities with noises and vibrations pumped into his cell and other locations.
“Make all my life terrible, upside down,” Bin al Shibh responded in heavily accented but clear English when his lead civilian attorney, James Harrington, asked him about the effects of the alleged disturbances.
Bin al Shibh is accused of helping the German cell of hijackers prepare for the attacks, among other charges. He said that noise and vibrations were also part of the torture he endured at CIA black sites from 2002 through his transfer to Guantanamo Bay in September 2006.
He has made the complaints about noise and vibrations for years. Though the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, has not taken a position whether the disturbances were happening, he issued a written order in November directing the government, including the guard force, “not to subject Mr. Bin al Shibh to disruptive and harassing noises and vibrations” in the camp, the attorney-client meeting rooms and the holding cell outside court. The order was posted on the outside of Bin al Shibh’s Camp 7 cell.
Wednesday’s testimony came in support of a motion filed by Harrington, a name partner in the Buffalo, N.Y.-based criminal defense firm Harrington & Mahoney, to show cause why the government and guard force should not be held in contempt. Bin al Shibh said some guards indicated to him they did not care about the order.
“This will drive you crazy,” Bin al Shibh testified.
The government has denied the disturbances are taking place and suggested that Bin al Shibh may need medication. Pohl ruled last fall that Bin al Shibh was competent to stand trial.
During cross-examination, Bin al Shibh rejected suggestions by prosecutor Clay Trivett that the sounds may not be happening or perhaps are natural sounds from pipes or other sources. Trivett also raised the idea that Bin al Shibh was lying to harass the guard force and to continue his jihad against the United States; the witness acknowledged that he views himself as an enemy of the U.S. He also acknowledged making abusive statements, such as calling female guards “sluts,” and breaking security cameras.
Trivett asked Bin al Shibh if he remembers his dreams when he sleeps, to which the witness answered “sometimes.”
“Do you dream about the people killed on Sept. 11th?” Trivett asked.
Pohl sustained Harrington’s objection before Bin al Shibh could answer.
Testimony Triggers Courtroom’s Flashing Red Light
The day before, Harrington had asked if his client would be allowed to testify from the defense table. Pohl refused and on Wednesday ordered the guards to take him to the witness stand “without shackles,” like other witnesses.
During more than two hours of testimony, Bin al Shibh said that he knew the sounds and vibrations were intentional disturbances due to the similarities of his experiences at the CIA black sites.
At 10:08 a.m. the courtroom’s red security light – controlled by the judge and the security officer to stop the proceedings if classified information may be coming out – began flashing. The video monitor switched to a “Please Stand By” message and all observers were ushered out of the viewing gallery for about a minute before open proceedings resumed.
The 40-second time delay on the audio feed prevents observers from knowing the content of the testimony that triggered the red light. The last audio to reach the gallery involved Bin al Shibh starting to compare structural characteristics of the black sites with Camp 7.
Bin al Shibh said that the noises take different forms – from banging on the walls of his cell to buzzing – while the vibrations feel like “sitting in a car with the engine on.” He said it’s common for the guard force to wake him swiftly after he appears to fall asleep.
Harrington focused a series of questions on how the disturbances affect Bin al Shibh's ability to participate in his defense. The defendant said that disruptions occur as he tries to work on his case and that they get worse in the days before and during legal meetings and commission sessions. He said he has cancelled legal meetings and decided not to go to court as a result of his sleep deprivation and anxiety.
Bin al Shibh testified that he has not voluntarily taken any drugs for emotional or mental health issues at Guantanamo Bay. He described the first psychiatrist he met after arriving here as a “war criminal” and a “monster” for giving him injections that more or less kept him in bed at all times – all as punishment, he believes, for not cooperating with the government against his fellow detainees.
“Worst time in my life,” he said. “Worse than the black sites.”
He said he took pill versions of the medication only to avoid the injections, and was allowed to stop altogether at some point in late 2007 or early 2008. Under cross-examination by Trivett, Bin al Shibh acknowledged that while he may not have complained about noises and vibrations during this period, he was “completely dead.”
Trivett also elicited detailed testimony from Bin al Shibh about the workings of the detention facility. In the defendant’s view, the facility is a giant machine that allows guards to send noises and vibrations to almost any area, including cells, meeting rooms, recreation areas and the media room. He said he did not feel them in court or on the van rides there.
In redirect examination, Harrington started to ask his client about why he believed it is the guard force who carried out the disturbances as opposed to the CIA.
“Maybe the CIA is still at Camp 7, nobody knows,” Bin al Shibh responded, though Pohl cut the line of questioning short.
In the October pretrial sessions, Harrington had raised the possibility of an outside agency playing a role in the disturbances; the parties repeatedly made reference to a top-secret program – never discussed in open court – that would be relevant to a defendant’s ability to represent himself. (Another defendant, Walid bin Attash, had asked Pohl to give him more information on self-representation.)
Harrington told Pohl on Oct. 25 that maybe the guard force didn’t know what was being done to his client: “[The sounds and vibrations] may be very sophisticated. They may be very low level. They may be just enough to set him off, just the same kind of things that happened to him years ago.”
Pohl did not rule Wednesday on the defense motion to show cause why the government and guard force should not be held in contempt over the disturbances. Prosecutors contend in their response motion that the entire objection is a waste of government resources.