Trial looms for 17-year Guantanamo detainee in Indonesia attacks

Hearings scheduled before military court after Hambali held for years before charges filed over Bali bombings, Jakarta hotel attack.

Encep Nurjamen, also known as Hambali, pictured at Guantanamo in a white robe and short, greying beard
Hambali has been held in Guantanamo since 2006 [File: Federal Public Defender's Office via AP]

Medan, Indonesia – Conditions at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp have been described to Al Jazeera as “not great, but not horrific” by the lawyer of Indonesian detainee Encep Nurjaman, alias Hambali, who has been held in the facility operated by the United States for 17 years.

Hambali is due back in court on Monday on charges of masterminding a series of deadly attacks in Indonesia that killed American citizens and targeted US interests, including the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 200 people, and the JW Marriott hotel attack in 2003 in Jakarta, in which 11 people died.

Two Malaysians, Mohammed Nazir Bin Lep and Mohammed Farik Bin Amin, will be tried alongside Hambali before a military commission.

In legal documents seen by Al Jazeera, the US government alleges that Hambali “murdered 211 persons, seriously injured at least 31 other persons, and committed multiple other offenses under the law of war”.

Detainees held at Guantanamo, a US naval base on the Caribbean island of Cuba, are deemed “enemy combatants” by US authorities and tried in military courts that deny them the constitutional rights of those tried on US soil.

Even after more than 20 years of operations, little is known about the lives of the people held in Guantanamo. Members of the media are not allowed to speak to the detainees directly and must apply for special clearance to attend hearings held by the military commissions, only some of which are “open to the public”.

Other than attending the hearings in person, media may only observe legal proceedings at Guantanamo via a secure video link at Fort Meade, a military installation in Maryland, which also requires clearance.

Al Jazeera has been trying to interview Hambali for nearly a year, sending questions to his legal team about his life in the camp. The defence team is led by James Hodes, who has represented him for three years.

Hodes told Al Jazeera that many lawyers who represent detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo work for the US Department of Defense but many are also “recruited from civilian life to work on these cases”. Some are contractors who are paid by the government but not employees of the government, he said.

“My impressions gleaned, not necessarily from conversations with my client, are that the detainees are still subject to certain limitations but that Hambali and the other detainees have the ability to pray and have the ability to exercise their right to freedom of religion,” Hodes said.

“It is also my understanding that Hambali was doing his best to observe Ramadan, was fasting at the camp and was allowed to do that,” the lawyer added.

James Hodes, who leads Hambali's defence team. He's wearing a suit and tie and sitting in an office.
James Hodes heads Hambali’s defence team at Guantanamo [File: Alex Brandon/AP]

In previous years, former detainees have alleged they were not allowed to observe the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

Hambali was captured in Ayutthaya, Thailand, in 2003 before being taken to alleged CIA black sites in Morocco and Romania where he was tortured, according to a 2014 US Senate Intelligence Committee Report, popularly known as the Torture Report.

He was transferred in 2006 to Guantanamo, which once held nearly 800 people, and is one of only 30 still there.

Of those remaining, 12 have been charged with crimes, including Hambali and his two co-defendants.

The US government has long been accused of placing the facility outside the law and undermining detainees’ fair trial rights.

“The truth is that it is a complex question of history and politics,” human rights lawyer and national security scholar Michel Paradis, who has also represented Guantanamo detainees, told Al Jazeera. “The government has contended that Guantanamo is a foreign country for the purposes of US law.”

He said that means the applicability of basic things, like due process under the US Constitution, is unclear on the principle that US laws generally do not apply overseas.

“So when it comes to the rights to a fair trial under the US Constitution, it remains an open question whether the military commissions are behaving lawfully or whether any conviction obtained in violation of those fair trial guarantees is going to be treated as a nullity when it gets to federal court,” Paradis said.

Hambali and his legal team have always denied that he knew of the Bali bomb plot in advance.

Those directly involved in the attack have told Al Jazeera that, as far as they were aware, the bombings were planned by senior Jemaah Islamiyah members Ali Ghufron and Imam Samudra. Both men were executed in Indonesia in 2008 after being found guilty of masterminding the bombings along with a third Jemaah Islamiyah member, Amrozi.

Men and women pray as they remember those who were killed in the Bali bombings 20 years ago
People remember the victims of the Bali bombings on the 20th anniversary of the attack in October. Hambali has been charged over his alleged role in the attack [File: Nyoman Hendra Wibowo/Antara via Reuters]

In 2021, the US government formally charged Hambali, Bin Lep and Bin Amin although they have rarely appeared in court since after sessions meant to take place last year were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is thought that Hambali himself contracted the virus at the end of January after what sources described to Al Jazeera as “a massive outbreak” among the detainees.

A good cook

Over the years, Guantanamo has faced scrutiny over the inhumane treatment of detainees, including the use of torture techniques such as sensory deprivation, particularly at Camp 7, which was closed in 2021 over concerns about the state of the building, which reportedly overflowed with sewage and suffered from repeated power cuts.

Detainees now are held in Camp 5 and Camp 6, the latter for so-called low-value detainees and the former for high-value detainees, a designation given to prisoners who went through the CIA’s torture programme.

Many of those men are getting old and have health problems exacerbated by the abuse they have endured over decades.

Patrick Hamilton, the head of delegation for the US and Canada at the International Committee of the Red Cross, said on Friday that for those still confined at Guantanamo the “physical and mental health needs are growing and becoming increasingly challenging”.

Hodes said he believes that life at Guantanamo had become slightly less rigid since Camp 7’s closure and detainees were now given a certain element of autonomy regarding meals and allowed to observe religious occasions.

“My impression is that they receive food on a regular basis from the galley,” he said. “The government is making every effort, we believe, to make sure that the food is halal.”

“I believe that Hambali is able to recondition the food and use some of the raw ingredients to make Indonesian dishes. By all accounts, it is well known around the camp that Hambali is a good cook.”

The hearings held from Monday will focus on issues that include finding appropriate interpreters for the defendants as well as alleged delays from the prosecution team in the discovery process, during which evidence is supposed to be exchanged between the prosecution and defence.

For as yet unexplained reasons, the hearings, originally scheduled to last for two weeks into early May, have been reduced to a single week.

Hodes told Al Jazeera that he had not been informed of the reason for the change.

For their part, Indonesian authorities have said Hambali is not considered an Indonesian citizen because he was travelling on a Spanish passport when he was arrested in Thailand.

In 2016, the then-coordinating political, legal and security affairs minister, Luhut Pandjaitan, said Indonesia had no plans to repatriate Hambali from Guantanamo.

In the meantime, Hodes said Hambali is trying to live as normal a life as possible within the confines of his situation.

“My understanding is that he is doing his best to exercise and that he has access to items such as exercise bikes in the camp,” he said.

“It is a truth that he is attempting to live with dignity in an awful situation.”

Source: Al Jazeera