Noor Uthman Muhammed's Day in Court

Guantanamo Bay. Image by Tyler Cabot, Cuba, 2011.

Guantanamo Bay. Image by Tyler Cabot, Cuba, 2011.

He enters the room virtually alone. A half dozen large men in desert camo at his side. His wrists are not cuffed, but held firmly by the guards. White robe, white skull cap, navy jacket to keep him warm. A salt and pepper wisp of a beard on a charcoal face. He sits down softly. He looks down while the guards take their seats at his side. Then he waits, patiently. Noor Uthman Muhammed has been waiting for over eight years here at Guantanamo Bay.

In come the prosecutors in shades of olive and navy, depending on their respective branches. Navy, Marine, Air Force, Army. Plus two U.S. attorneys.

Now the defense. An army major, a navy commander, both women. A marine captain, and a civilian defense attorney — my father — who has taken the case pro bono. Howard Cabot walks over to Noor, says something, smiles. He's trying to look relaxed. He's trying to keep Noor relaxed.

Noor sits, a small man in one of the most secure rooms in the world. He is accused of being an instructor at the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2000, the so-called 70th Taliban commander. He was captured in March 2002 in an al Qaeda safe house in Pakistan with Abu Zubaydah, an alleged al Qaeda leader.

The court room is generic; it could be a conference room in any small American town. Gray office rug, rows of wooden tables for counsel, jury box to the right, media and observers sitting in the back behind soundproofed, double-paned hurricane glass.

The media and other observers will watch the proceedings live as they occur, but the audio on the CCTV monitors in their viewing room will be delayed by about thirty seconds so that an intelligence agent can blot out any unintentionally disclosed classified information. The effect is that of watching waves silently rise and crest in the courtroom — such as when the defense team stands together or a guard approaches the defendant — but having to wait a half minute to hear the wave crash.

Up until five days ago — Thursday night — it had been believed that today's proceeding would be a pre-trial jurisdictional hearing, the start of Noor's military commission trial, the first tribunal to be tried under President Obama's revamped commission rules.

But then late Thursday the media covering the trial received a vague notice: the pre-trial hearing will not take place; "other proceedings will take place."

The judge enters. Everyone stands. She looks younger than you'd expect, has shaggy brown hair. Has a calm and friendly yet serious sense about her. Within moments she clears up any uncertainty: Noor has decided to plea guilty. If the case went to trial he would face a sentence of life imprisonment. Instead, he will likely face a matter of years. The exact terms of his deal will remain sealed until sentencing later this week.

Then a parade of questions begins. The military judge — Navy Capt. Moira Modzelewski — says she needs to be convinced that Noor believes he's guilty, that Noor understands what it means to plea guilty, that Noor understands he will lose any ability to appeal his plea, and that Noor has made this decision on his own — that he wasn't coerced into pleading guilty.

For more than an hour she asks her questions slowly, so they can be translated and piped back into the headphones on Noor's ears. Her words come cleanly and simply. Noor, do you understand you give up the right to a military commission? Do you understand you give up the ability to confront witnesses called against you? Do you understand you have these rights?

Na'am, he answers, his voice soft. Yes.

Then the charges. She lays them out just as simply, a laundry list of crimes he is claiming as his own. Providing material support to terrorism… Working in the Khalden camp… Helping run the camp… Conspiracy to commit terrorism. Na'am.

Being at a meeting where senior al Qaeda officials decided to close the camp…Knowing that al Qaeda intended to bomb the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania…Knowing al Qaeda was planning 9/11, but still working at the camp. Na'am.

Then come the prospective legal consequences — another laundry list, this one of rights Noor is giving up. When he is sentenced, he will get no credit for his past confinement at Guantanamo. He gives up the right to appeal. The right to challenge his capture, imprisonment, or treatment by the U.S. The right to petition further for habeas corpus. Do you understand?

Na'am. Same voice. Quiet, calm. He speaks slowly with little emotion or intonation. It seems he says the word dozens of times.

Finally, the judge is satisfied that Noor fully understands and believes the plea he has made, and when Noor affirms that his mark — a thumbprint — next to those pleas is his own, she accepts the guilty plea. Noor rises, is escorted out by the large men. Court is adjourned.

Outside in an old military hanger now used as a media center, observers from Human Rights Watch and the National Institute for Military Justice stand surrounded by a throng of reporters. Microphones, tape recorders, TV cameras swarm. Noor plead guilty because he had no other options, they tell the reporters. The rules are rigged. It's a case of no way out. One path out: admit guilt to war crimes.

Moments later, out comes Capt. John Murphy, the lead prosecutor. The swarm moves, replants itself. He was an integral part of al Qaeda, he says. The Judge probed him and he could have contested. He did not.

The defense does not attend the briefing. They will wait until after sentencing to talk to the crowd. Tomorrow that phase begins. The defense and prosecution will make their cases for leniency and harshness. If the jury decides on a lighter sentence, Noor will get that one. But he can't get a harsher sentence than the undisclosed one agreed upon in the deal.

In a cell far away, on the far side of the naval base, Noor sits. Again, he waits.