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Listening in on Detainee Hearings

Since 2004, the U.S. military has been holding tribunals to determine whether the suspected terrorists held at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are enemy combatants. The hearings are closed to the public and have been widely criticized as flawed and unfair.

NPR has obtained audio recordings of some of the tribunals from lawyers for six of the detainees. Some of the detainees' voices were heard earlier in a story on Morning Edition. Now, we listen in on the hearing for another detainee, Mohamed Nechla.

Nechla's hearing took place on the afternoon of Oct. 19, 2004. An Algerian by birth, Nechla had been held at the military detention camp for almost three years. He had been interrogated but never charged. The tribunal was his opportunity to hear and address some of the accusations against him.

In the recordings, Nechla is heard telling the military panel that in the fall of 2001, he and five other Algerians were arrested in Bosnia on suspicion of plotting to blow up the U.S. and British embassies in Sarajevo. The six men had lived in Bosnia for about a decade, were married and had children. Nechla says the men spent three months in prison, until Bosnia's Supreme Court acquitted them and ordered their release from jail.

"When we came out of prison, we were surprised that we were handed over to the American forces that are present in Bosnia," Nechla said. "We were bound by our hands and our feet, and we were treated the worst treatment. For 36 hours without food, sleep, water or anything."

At his tribunal, Nechla heard the accusations against him: that he is a suspected terrorist with ties to an Algerian armed Islamic group, and that he is suspected of having links to al-Qaida. Other allegations against Nechla include having an alias.

Nechla asks for four witnesses to appear at his hearing. Three are other Guantanamo detainees with whom he was arrested. The fourth is his supervisor at the Red Crescent Society in Bosnia. The tribunal president says there's been a problem locating the supervisor in Sarajevo.

The military panel questions Nechla about his schooling, his friends, work and the organizations he belonged to. The panel asks him if he was associated with al-Qaida or had ever traveled to Afghanistan. Nechla professes his innocence regularly to the military officers, and he challenges them on the tribunal process. Only a small fraction of the detainees who went before the tribunal have been found not to be enemy combatants.

"So I just want to ask, have you found anyone innocent yet?'" Nechla asks through a translator. "And if you haven't, there's no need for these tribunals. Just say everyone is an enemy combatant."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.