For Alexandra Stupple ‘13, her upcoming trip to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, allows her to see history in the making. And indeed, it is some of the most controversial history of our modern era of terrorism.
Stupple, 36, is part of a team of observers sent by the National Institute for Military Justice (NIMJ), the ACLU and other NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) to watch pre-trial hearings of Abd al-Nashiri, the senior Al Qaeda lieutenant alleged to be the mastermind behind the deadly suicide bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000.
One law professor who has reported for Harper’s Magazine from Guantanamo has called al-Nashiri’s upcoming trial before a military commission on the Cuban base “the most significant to come before a military court since high functionaries of the Third Reich stood trial in occupied Germany.”
Provost & Academic Dean Elizabeth L. Hillman, who teaches military law, is president of NIMJ. Hillman nominated Stupple, a UC Hastings graduate who was a student in Hillman’s class, to the all-volunteer observer force. It is a perk that goes to few law students or recent graduates; most observer slots are snapped up by practicing lawyers and other activists. But because the brief that Stupple worked on for NIMJ in her military law class and because Stupple made herself available at short notice to attend the hearing, Stupple is the second in her class to go to Guantanamo Bay, or “Gitmo,” as it has been dubbed. Ryan Williams ’12 traveled performed a similar role in April 2012.
“Alex was a superb student and she’s well-prepared to translate the proceedings at GITMO to an audience that will never have a chance to see firsthand what goes on there. Observing the military commission process through the lens of military justice is like looking through glass block; you can barely make out what’s happening in a lengthy and distorted process. Military commissions follow rules that are a far cry from U.S. court-martial that we studied in our military law class."
Stupple, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, where her parents taught English, and later lived in China, was captivated by the opportunity as soon as she learned of it.
“Professor Hillman mentioned it in class, and Ryan and I immediately volunteered. I couldn’t imagine not wanting to go. It’s a historical event, on par with the Nuremberg trials and that of Slobodan Milošević. It’s a very rare opportunity.”
Stupple went on to take Terrorism and the Law with Professor Aaron Rappaport and Jonathan Schmidt, and, with two other UC Hastings students, wrote an amicus brief for NIMJ in US v Behenna for the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces. Behenna, a U.S. Army lieutenant serving north of Baghdad, shot and killed a detainee during an unauthorized interrogation. He was charged with murder and convicted. Stupple’s amicus argued that the prosecution did not turn over information favorable to the defense in a timely manner.
The military commission proceedings Stupple will attend have drawn a press pool and observers from around the world, and are documented by famed war artist Steven Mumford, whose work is at turns deeply visceral, eerie, and pastoral. They take place in a windowless aluminum structure described as looking like a Costco. The proceedings are on a 40-second tape-delay, so a judge can screen material to protect national security interests. The judge is a military judge, and the prosecutor in the case is a Judge Advocate General (JAG). Stupple will watch the proceedings during the day, taking notes, and file a report each evening for the National Institute on Military Justice.
al-Nashiri is one of the few men in Guantanamo to be charged with a crime. Most of the detainees are being held as “enemy combatants” and have not been charged with war crimes. At its height, GITMO held nearly 800 men. It has been plagued by allegations of inhumane conditions, torture--including waterboarding, hunger strikes involving force-feeding of detainees, and numerous detainee suicides.
al-Nashiri’s lawyer is a civilian criminal defense attorney from Indianapolis, Richard Kammen, who keeps a small gray stuffed toy marsupial on the defense table and wears a pin depicting a kangaroo where most lawmakers wear their American flag pin. “It seems to me he enjoys challenging the government,” Stupple said.
Supporters of the camp and its practices argue that certain protections of the Third Geneva Convention do not apply to Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters. The CIA has admitted al-Nashiri has been subjected to waterboarding, Stupple said. “Conditions at GITMO and the U.S.’s approach to justice for detainees remains one of the most hotly debated human rights issues of our generation,” Stupple said.
To prepare for her post, Stupple has been reading reports from other independent observers, and is studying the Military Commission Rules of Evidence and other academic articles about military justice.
Stupple will take a commercial flight to Washington, D.C. and then board a military transport jet from Andrews Air Base to Cuba. She will stay for six days in MASH-style six-person tents and eat at the mess hall with guards and other enlisted personnel. “I know there is a Taco Bell and a beach. I don’t know if we are allowed to go to the beach.”
The tents and Quonset huts are “super cold,” she said she’s been told. “The military loves their air conditioning. They told me to bring a lot of sweatshirts.” She paused. “I just can’t imagine any of it not being weird.”
This is the most exotic destination Stupple has visited. “I’ve traveled a lot, but this is a chance to go to a really strange place that not a lot of people get to go. I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve only been to court in San Francisco.”
“It’s the chance of a lifetime.”