BEIRUT: It’s an unlikely friendship: a lawyer appointed by the U.S. military, and an alleged terrorist and torture victim held in Guantanamo Bay. But David Nevin, the lead defense attorney for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who confessed to planning the Sept. 11 terror attacks, says despite exacting circumstances he and his client have developed a meaningful relationship.
In his first trip to Lebanon, Nevin spoke at the American University of Beirut this week, testifying about the “sham” justice his client and friend Mohammad is subject to at Guantanamo’s war court.
Nevin is not one to mince his words. He labeled Guantanamo a “gulag torture center” and spoke with passion and outrage about the severe injustices occurring at the detention center.
The United States government, Nevin said, decided to keep alleged terrorists at Guantanamo for two decidedly unjust reasons: “It wanted to protect the torturers ... and it thought it was going to keep them [the defendants] away from the legal processes of United States law.”
Rather than discussing the visceral, headline-making aspects of Guantanamo such as forced-feeding, alleged religious persecution and sensory deprivation, Nevin dwelled on the farcical judicial procedures at Guantanamo Bay.
He likened the war court held on the American naval base to a town full of storefronts that are just facades with nothing behind them.
Legal premises that would be considered sacrosanct on American soil have been thrown by the wayside in Guantanamo. Nevin discovered, for example, recording devices disguised as smoke detectors in the room where he meets Mohammad.
“We end up speaking in code to each other,” Nevin said. “Not because of anything improper about it but ... we have a right for these ideas to be kept private.”
During court hearings, the CIA secretly operated a “kill switch” to cut, at their discretion, audio feed of the proceedings to court spectators. “They’re deciding what the world gets to hear and what the world doesn’t get to hear,” Nevin said.
The FBI “frightened” a member of Nevin’s team into divulging privileged information about the defense. Nevin’s colleague was “taken aside” by FBI agents and questioned after attending a church service.
Perhaps most significantly, Mohammad is the victim of torture. After he was captured in Pakistan in 2003, Mohammad was held incommunicado for three years at so-called CIA “black sites” around the world.
Moreover, prior to his arrest United States security forces in Pakistan tortured two of Mohammad’s eight children, in hopes of learning where he was hiding, Niven said. “We know that ISIS tortures people, and we know that Boko Haram does terrible things, but I was under the impression that my government didn’t torture people,” Nevin said indignantly.
Any public discussion of Mohammad’s torture, which could be used in his defense, is classified by the federal government, as it could reveal details about the country’s top-secret torture program. “He has seen and felt and heard the torture. But his impressions, his recollections, his experiences, his mind is classified,” Nevin explained.
Only a few details of Mohammad’s torture have been made public, including the fact that he was subjected to waterboarding 183 times in a single month.
“This is a mock execution,” Nevin said of the waterboarding process. “They take you right to the point of dying, and the records indicate that ...” he paused, his brows furrowed.
“Well, maybe I can’t say that,” he said, checking himself abruptly.
In a conversation with The Daily Star, Nevin admitted he still wasn’t sure whether Mohammad, who he prefers to call Abu Hamza, actually trusts him.
“It’s hard to imagine that he could,” Nevin conceded.
Still, Nevin and Mohammad have struck up a friendship “in a real meaningful sense of the word.”
“He’s funny and he’s thoughtful,” Nevin said. “He likes zaatar with his cream cheese spread on a pita.”
“We bring each other gifts, such as we can,” Nevin added. Mohammad offers Nevin small tokens like tea bags, candy and food. Nevin will bring Mohammad Arabic books back from Beirut.
The letters Mohammad writes to his children read not unlike letters that Nevin wrote to his own children when they were younger, Nevin said.
After Nevin’s recent divorce, Mohammad jokingly refers to the new chapter in his lawyer’s life as “the new wife project.”
But the friendship is, by nature, asymmetrical. “I’m free to walk around,” Nevin said.