HACKENSACK, N.J. — A law student traveled to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba recently to observe pretrial hearings for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others accused of planning the 9/11 attacks.
Jason Stern, a Seton Hall University School of Law student, is undertaking the trip as part of a program at the college that considers the legal proceedings surrounding detainees, among other issues.
"I think this is a unique opportunity for me to bring back my findings to the general public," said the 26-year-old, who has also traveled to Haiti and Guatemala on human rights fact-finding missions. "I think as lawyers we owe it to people to not only seek the truth but bring the truth to the American public. And I think that's probably a primary responsibility I have during this trip, to make sure I'm accurately portraying what's going on and I'm digesting it and offering it to people in a meaningful way."
The trip was organized through the law school's Center for Policy and Research, which was established seven years ago when students began reviewing more than 100,000 public government records tied to intelligence and interrogation practices of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The school says that the Guantanamo Reports, which have been widely cited and published throughout the world, established among other things that many of the detainees did not belong at the base.
"The center's purpose is to read and analyze documents to determine and sift through facts to find patterns," said Mark Denbeaux, a professor of law and director of the center at the Newark school. The center focuses on three key areas: intelligence and interrogation, national security, and forensics.
Arrangements were made by law school faculty for students to obtain non-governmental organization observer status to attend hearings at the base. Students have been traveling there for about five days at a time for the past two years, Denbeaux said.
"Every time there is a military commission hearing, we're there," Denbeaux said. Between 15 and 20 law students are expected to attend this year depending on the number of hearings that are held, he said.
The students send daily dispatches to Denbeaux and write up reports when they return. All of the reports will be compiled and eventually published, Denbeaux said.
Stern, a third-year law student who grew up in Paramus and now lives in Newark, was selected by Denbeaux because of his talent and involvement in several center projects. Stern is finishing a project with several other students that has uncovered 31 identified countries who are participating in the global war on terror — by providing troops or fly-over rights, for example — but many more are participating anonymously.
"He's discovered as many as half the countries who are allies on the global war on terror are anonymous because of their own choice," Denbeaux explained.
On an extensive tour of the courthouse complex given by a colonel and officer in charge, Stern learned how detainees arrived and in which cells they will be held. Questions were taken, he said.
"We asked about their thoughts on the benefits of trying the detainees in a military hearing versus a civilian hearing," Stern wrote to Denbeaux. "They told us that the jury is more educated, that the atmosphere is one of 'no-nonsense,' and that there is a greater level of professionalism amongst the lawyers. They said that these things, together, justify the hearings at Guantanamo."
Stern said he expected return this weekend.
"I'll bring my background as a researcher and studying civil rights law to this week," he said.