Officials Working on Commissions Translation Issues
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Aug. 26, 2004 Officials are resolving translation issues when they are raised, assured a senior official with the commissions today.
This week has been an opportunity for the world to see that the military commissions process here is open and transparent, Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hemingway said during a Pentagon press conference.
"I think that the public has been able to see that these proceedings are open, they're transparent, that counsel on both sides are capable, and that the government is doing everything that we possibly can to see to it that any issues regarding translation are appropriately resolved,"
Hemingway is legal adviser to the appointing authority for the Office of Military Commissions. Today's press conference was open to reporters in the Pentagon and broadcast live to media at the hearings in Guantanamo Bay. Reporters here were able to ask questions by phone.
Many questions from reporters in Guantanamo Bay focused on concerns about the quality of translation being provided. At least twice during commission hearings this week reporters witnessed incidents in which there were translation problems.
During the Aug. 24 hearing for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, an Arabic translator was replaced mid-hearing because Hamdan couldn't understand what she was saying. In today's hearing for Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, a translator working for the defense team offered a correction to a translation entered into the official record.
Other problems today were noted by outside observers. Arab-speaking media watching via closed-circuit television from a media center pointed out several. In one instance, several uses of the word "confession" became "decision" in the official transcript. An Arab-speaking attorney representing Human Rights Watch, an organization here to observe the tribunals, told other reporters in the courtroom of the same mistakes.
Hemingway said that's why the defense is assigned a translator. "Each one of the accused has a linguist with them who is privileged to object immediately whenever they find problems with translation," he said.
Translators at Guantanamo Bay are provided through several contracts with civilian corporations. A spokesman for the Office of Administrative Review for Detained Enemy Combatants said translators here are carefully vetted, and whenever a problem is brought up, the situation is dealt with.
Arab-speaking and other media have seen other problems with translation here as well. During the week, American and international media have been offered opportunities to witness first hand a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, a separate proceeding designed just to ensure each detainee is properly classified as an enemy combatant.
At a hearing Aug. 25, two Arab-speaking media representatives, one an American and another a British citizen, raised immediate objections when they noticed a translator saying something far different from what the detainee actually said. At one point the detainee said he had traveled to Chechnya, and the translator reported he had joined a cult.
Unknown to the reporters, a second translator had been watching from outside the room and immediately raised the same objections to another official. An OARDEC spokesman said later this proves the system works.
"We are committed to ensuring the system is fair," the spokesman said. "And language issues are taken seriously." He said that when problems with a translation are raised, a tribunal would be reconvened with another translator.
"We are always interested in making certain that we have accurate translations," Hemingway said during his press conference. "If we find that we need to enhance the capabilities, then we'll try to enhance those capabilities."