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Grieving in Guantanamo

In this Pentagon-approved photo Canadian Stephan Gerhardt, whose brother Ralph was killed in the 9/11 attacks, talks to journalist at Guantanamo Aug. 21, 2013. MICHELLE SHEPHARD / TORONTO STAR.

One evening, during each week of hearings for the Guantanamo prosecution of five detainees accused of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the relatives of those killed on 9/11 meet in an air-conditioned portable that passes here as the press conference room.

It is always an emotional night. It is their first - and likely only - time here. They come to see the faces of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-accused from a court viewers' gallery in the day, and then have burgers and beer at the Irish pub on the base at night, trying to process what they're experiencing.

One of the (many) surreal realities of holding what attorney general Eric Holder first called the "trial of the century" in Guantanamo is that there's no privacy. I once ran into the military judge at the supermarket, known as the NEX (Navy Exchange). Guantanamo's Chief Prosecutor Brig. Gen. Mark Martins stopped by for a hello at the aforementioned pub, O'Kelly's, on Tuesday night. And so on. As one journalist here said, it feels like you're part of a play, dressed in costume during the day and then running into each other off-stage at night.

But with relatives, who have been coming since the first appearance of the accused in 2008, there's always a respective distance. They asked to come, and were chosen in a Pentagon lottery for family members, but of course none of them want to be here.

Josephine and Alfred Acquaviva listen to a press conference October 19, 2012 with a photo of their son, Paul, 29, who was killed on 9/11. MICHELLE SHEPHARD / TORONTO STAR.


This week the first Canadian was invited, Stephan Gerhardt, whose brother Ralph was a VP at Cantor Fitzgerald in the World Trade Center Tower One. Ralph's remains have never been identified.

Gerhardt was among the four relatives, known in the acronym-obsessed military as VFM (victim family member), who chose to talk to the media Wednesday. They sat together as the 17 journalists formed a semi-circle around them.

Journalists interview family members of 9/11 victims at Guantanamo Aug. 21 in this Pentagon-approved photo. MICHELLE SHEPHARD / TORONTO STAR

"I don’t know how I feel yet… It was different seeing them in person, putting a face to a name," said Francine Kaplan, whose daughter Robin Lynne was on Flight 11. She talked of her husband, who couldn't bear to make this trip and how she'll never forget the way he screamed on the phone when she had to first tell him about their daughter's death.

All nine relatives who made the trip here had gone to the portable on Tuesday night as well - this time to meet privately with the defence lawyers.

"I thought how could anybody defend these horrible five guys that killed our families … how could they do this? I just could not comprehend these people would defend somebody that horrible and I just had to meet with them," said Kaplan. 

"And you know what, they’re really nice people. They’re doing a job. They weren’t asked to do it – well they were asked to do it – but they’re defending … well I’m sure they know they’re guilty .. but it’s a job and they’re doing it. They all asked us who we lost and we told them our story and they listened. They really did listen and I was really surprised that they were .. you know, they were nice."

A journalist asked if they had any requests for the lawyers.

"To lose," Gerhardt chimed in, as the others laughed.

Then he elaborated: "We asked them to do the best job they could because we want these people to be properly defended. We want these people to have their rights that our families were not given. .. Let them have the best defence they could get, and then lose, because then we win." 

Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm


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