Defending ‘the Worst’: An interview with the lawyer of an accused terrorist

Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz

Cmdr. Walter Ruiz of the U.S. Navy serves as legal counsel to Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, 45, a defendant in the military commissions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for his alleged role in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The charges against Mr. al-Hawsawi, a citizen of Saudi Arabia, include conspiracy to commit terrorism and murder in violation of the law of war. He was reportedly taken into custody by the United States in 2003 and transferred to Guantánamo Bay in 2006. The interview, edited for length and clarity, took place on Nov. 14, 2013, in New York City.

Where was your client detained between 2003 and 2006?

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I know, but I can’t tell you because it’s prohibited by classification restrictions.

Is his detention prior to 2006 relevant to the current case?

It’s critically important. This is a death penalty prosecution. In these cases, we are charged with providing the fact-finder or jury with all of the facts necessary to make a determination between life and death. The conditions of confinement of any prisoner are very relevant and necessary.

It’s also critically important because if any information obtained during that period of time was obtained through the use of torture or coercive measures, we have to litigate the reliability of a statement and whether it can ultimately be admissible in court.

Where is your client currently held in Guantánamo Bay?

Mr. al-Hawsawi is housed at a high-security detention facility that I have never seen. Our legal team actually filed a motion to gain access to that facility and to stay overnight because we thought it was important to see where he sleeps, where he eats and what conditions he lives in. The military judge granted our motion, in part. I’m waiting to make that visit until I receive records and help from an expert from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Technically, I am never supposed to discuss Mr. al-Hawsawi and the prison facility by name together because that is supposed to be classified—although I often see it in media reports. [Editor’s Note: That facility is known as Camp Seven, or Camp Platinum.]

I know very little about his family. It is a very sensitive subject. One of his biggest concerns, of course, with someone like me, a representative of the Department of Defense in uniform, is that any harm would come to his family.

At the beginning, there was a great deal of mistrust in our relationship, which was understandable because of the differences in our backgrounds, upbringings and religious traditions. Over a period of time, however, the relationship has evolved. I respect him as a human being, and I think he feels the same way.

What have you learned about Mr. al-Hawsawi as a person?

He is shockingly normal. Many people have an impression of him as “the worst of the worst,” the personification of evil. When I have sat across from him, time after time, for over three and a half years, I have not seen it. He has never been disrespectful, vicious or vindictive. He is soft-spoken and mild-mannered. He is a person who loves, fears and has pain. At the end of the day, he is a human being.

What is his religious background?

He is a very pious man. In a normal day of legal meetings, he typically prays at least three times. Islam is a central tenet in his life that guides every decision that he makes.

We have had pointed conversations about Islam—some genuine questions of interest and some about differences, where I pointedly asked, “Why is this?”

The sincerity with which Mr. al-Hawsawi approaches his faith is striking to me because it’s not what you necessarily see portrayed in the public eye, which is unfortunate. Islam can be portrayed as a religion of hatred or a cause for killing anyone who is an infidel. In fact that is not his approach. The sincerity with which he pursues his connection with Allah is the sincerity with which I would like to approach my own spirituality.

You are an officer in the U.S. military. Your client is accused of fighting against the United States. How is it even possible to establish a relationship with him?

My approach is to treat him like every other person I represent. When I first met him I asked him to judge me based on the things I said and the actions I took, as opposed to the clothing or the uniform I wore. And I promised him that I would not treat him based on my own preconceived notions of somebody from his background or religious tradition or alleged association with a group like Al Qaeda. I would treat him with respect, listen to him and respond honestly, even if I believed it wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

Some family members of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks are invited to attend the legal hearings in Guantánamo Bay. Have you met with any of them?
 
I’ve met just about every group of family members down in Guantánamo Bay willing to meet with us. I have also met with family members here in New York, and we have forged relationships based on friendship and trust.
 
Overall, I find the family members to be remarkable human beings. Despite a great deal of grief and pain, many of them push for a legal process that is fair, truly just and consistent with our values as Americans. They are concerned about torture. At times they have been encouraging of my work, to do it zealously and professionally, which is an amazing and remarkable testament to the human capacity to overcome grief and pain and have the vision to see the much larger picture.
 

I spoke with some family members who were very upset with what they saw as the “delay tactics” of the defense team.

Yes, family members have expressed that at various times. That interaction is difficult, heart-wrenching, sad, because you still see—after all this time—their pain and lack of closure or resolution. But I absolutely understand that position. If I changed places with them, I might feel exactly the same way.

In those interactions, I just spend time listening because I think that’s mostly what they want. There isn’t anything I can say that would ultimately be meaningful because I don’t know what it’s like and, frankly, I wouldn’t want to.

In terms of the tactics, the really sad reality that we are still at this stage of legal proceedings, 11 years after Sept. 11, has absolutely nothing to do with me or the other lawyers. We have come into the picture relatively late. The delay comes from our elected officials’ inability and lack of will to do what was right from the beginning. It comes from their posturing, politicking and utilizing this case as a political football to advance politically motivated goals. When our elected officials failed to do this correctly, in accordance with established principles of law and justice, they set in motion a process that would ultimately take a very long time.

At the present time, some of the issues that we have had to litigate are not creatures of our creation, but the government’s. In one of the most illustrative examples, an intelligence agency literally reached into an American courtroom and turned it off because they didn’t like what they heard.

“Turned off” the courtroom?

There is a 45-second delay in the video and audio feed [to viewing rooms on the naval base and a few U.S. cities], so a control can “shut off” the courtroom if any classified information is disclosed. When one of the lawyers apparently said something offensive or classified, a red light started flashing and the courtroom was turned off.

The really shocking thing about the incident is that the judge didn’t hit the button, the court security officer didn’t do it, and neither knew who did. The incident created weeks of litigation and delay, even though the judge made it abundantly clear that nothing said was actually classified.

What is the strategy of the defense team? What does victory look like?

We are building a pretty strong appellate record of issues; we hope a federal court will overturn any conviction. Federal courts have repeatedly turned back the tide against encroachments on constitutional protections.

I don’t know that there can be any “victory” in such a place or such a case. Every day we show up in court to simply do the best we can. When it is all said and done, we hope there will be an honest and open assessment of Mr. al-Hawsawi’s role and culpability, if any, that results from a detached observation of facts and evidence, and not through a prism of anger, fear or vengeance.

If your client is convicted but that is overturned on appeal, I think Americans will be pretty outraged, even though he would probably not be released.

They should be outraged. They should be outraged that we’re here 11 years after the fact because we didn’t have the will to do it right the first time around. But I would hope that they would direct their outrage where I think it should be directed: at the people who ultimately created this inferior system and allowed the opportunity for such challenges to exist.

You have said that you do not view the military commissions system as legitimate. At what point does your decision to participate potentially violate your own deeply held values and professional duties? 

I wrestle with that very much. If there were a way that we could all just stop, I think we probably would. But now I have a relationship with a person who trusts me. I also have principles and ethical duties. I don’t think that removing myself is the answer; the process would still continue anyway. I think that it is better to be involved and continue to do what I think is just and truthful, and hope that in the end we can find some measure of justice.

Our government officials are trying perhaps the most important terrorism case in U.S. history in a widely criticized system. How do you hope Americans respond? 

I’ve seen exactly what I’ve hoped: the responses of family members who, despite their grief, are striving for just process; human rights organizations who have sought to preserve human dignity and human rights; civil liberties organizations who have sought greater transparency and access to information; many, many Americans who understand the balancing of civil liberties with the reality that 11 years ago there was a very grievous injury inflicted upon this country. I hope these efforts continue.

Click here for America's full coverage of the detention operations at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Vincent Gaitley
2 years 10 months ago
Fr Hansen's reportage from and about Gitmo has been interesting and praiseworthy since so many media have dropped the story. The government's prosecution of these cases has been slow, if at all, yet that doesn't bother me since the prisoners are really POWs and we are entitled to hold them until the war ends. What is annoying in this journal and some others is the guess work defining the prisoner's spirituality. Nothing can be learned from the outward visible devotions of Muslims or anyone else. Please spare us any references to the piety of these prisoners. We don't know, and can't know. All across the Middle East the pious are killing each other. And for the record, I rather think we have the right man in custody, prayerful or not, we are safer with him praying from Gitmo. Here's a prayer for a just verdict, likely a guilty one, and a swift execution, if called for.

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