Geoffrey Robertson: Don't let's pretend this is a court of law

This is not a trial but a long military execution of men who devoutly wish to be executed

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Clemenceau's aphorism that "military justice is to justice as military music is to music" is reflected in the jarring discord from "Camp Justice", the absurdly named court complex at Guantanamo where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and others are on trial for perpetrating 9/11. Despite President Obama's best intentions, this spectacle is not a trial at all but rather a prolonged military execution of men who devoutly wish to be executed.

The fundamental definition of a court is that its judges should be independent and impartial. But these military officers are soldiers employed by the same department of state as the military prosecutors. The officers must decide between the prosecutors and the declared enemies in the dock, whose cohorts have tried to kill their soldier comrades in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the presiding officer has served.

There can be no pretence that this is a court of law, as Obama recognised by promising to close Guantanamo and have the KSM case heard by a real judge and a civilian jury in New York. But this caused political panic, either from fear of having the defendants physically present on the US mainland or from fear that a fair trial might result in someone being acquitted. So the lengthy charade at "Camp Justice" has commenced.

The pity of it is that there are real issues of guilt or innocence that demand impartial judgment. The confessions of the much waterboarded KSM are doubtful not only because they have been procured by torture but because he is a boastful liar who admitted at his last hearing that, "I wish to be martyr for a long time".

The defendants originally wanted to plead guilty and become martyrs as quickly as possible but have now been given the opportunity to discredit the proceedings as well. They have adopted the "Charles I gambit" of not recognising the court – and because its judges lack independence, this body is, indeed, unrecognisable as a court. These ploys would be seen as pathetic play-acting if they were practised in a real court.

There can be no doubt that the lawyers and officials involved in this military exercise will do their best to be fair and will wrestle with questions about the admissibility of torture and hearsay evidence. But the crowning irony comes from America's obsession with the death penalty. These defendants want nothing more than to be killed mid-jihad, by Americans, because, in their perverted belief system, this provides their fast track to Paradise. What they dread most is having to spend the rest of their lives on a prison farm in upstate New York. The ultimate absurdity of "Camp Justice" is that, at serious cost to America's reputation, that country is in the process of giving its worst enemies exactly what they want.

Geoffrey Robertson QC is a former UN appeal judge and the author of 'Crimes Against Humanity'

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