Guantanamo Critics Reiterate Protests as Their Trial Opens

Protesters who were arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court a few months ago are now marching from the Supreme Court to the Courthouse for their day in court.Video by Preston Keres, Edited by Anna Uhls/washingtonpost.com
By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Thirty-five people accused of staging an illegal demonstration at the Supreme Court went on trial yesterday and used the proceedings to renew their complaints about conditions at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Many of the 22 men and 13 women wore orange jumpsuits to show solidarity with detainees. They were arrested Jan. 11, accused of illegally protesting on the grounds of the Supreme Court, a misdemeanor that carries up to 60 days in jail.

The demonstration occurred on the sixth anniversary of the opening of the detention facility, which was set up to house terrorism suspects. Yesterday, the defendants continued to make political statements about the treatment of detainees as their trial began in D.C. Superior Court.

As a clerk for Judge Wendell P. Gardner Jr. took attendance, each defendant stood up, gave his or her name and spoke the name of someone they described as a Guantanamo detainee. Some of the prisoners mentioned died at the prison. The gesture was meant to give the detainees a voice in court.

Matthew Daloisio, 31, of New York said he was speaking on behalf of Yasser al-Zahrani, who died in 2006 in what the Defense Department called a coordinated suicide with two other detainees. As Daloisio spoke, several co-defendants said, "God forgive us."

Because the charges are misdemeanors punishable by less than six months in jail, the case is being heard by a judge instead of a jury.

In opening statements, prosecutors said that the case was not about freedom of speech but about disobeying police orders regarding assembly. Assistant U.S. Attorney Magdalena Acevedo said the group left the sidewalk, where demonstrations are legal, and, despite warnings, moved to the plaza of the Supreme Court, where such activities are barred by law.

"If they had stayed in the permissible area, they could have spoken as much as they wanted to," she said.

About 150 people gathered on the sidewalk during the demonstration, but only about 35 or so went to the plaza. They carried signs that said "Shut down Guantanamo" and knelt on the steps of the Supreme Court.

The protesters are a part of a group called Witness Against Torture, which has held demonstrations across the country condemning the prison. They range in age from their 20s to 70s. The group's leaders said the defendants include a hog farmer from Grinnell, Iowa, a social worker from Saratoga Springs, New York, and a legal secretary from Baltimore.

Before the trial, the group's members -- wearing the orange jumpsuits and black hoods -- marched from the Supreme Court to D.C. Superior Court.

In court, the defendants filled the jury box and the left side of the room. Their supporters filled the other side, and some in the crowd had to wait in the hallway.

The demonstrators are representing themselves, with help from lawyer Mark Goldstone, a First Amendment specialist who is acting as an adviser.

They scored a first-day victory when the judge dismissed the case against protester David Barrows of the District. Gardner said that a police officer who testified failed to identify Barrows while reviewing a police videotape of the protest. The dismissal drew cheers from the audience and a call for quiet from the judge.

The trial is expected to last two to three days.

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