Interview with Janet Hamlin, illustrator of Guantanamo military trials

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Since the military trials of Guantanamo detainees began in 2006, filming in the courtroom has been prohibited. What happens inside is portrayed to the outside world by the only one sketch artist — Janet Hamlin — who is allowed in the courtroom.

Hamlin, who lives in New York when she is not on the Island, is Guantanamo's most devoted sketch artist. She has been coming to the American military base in Cuba for over six years to provide the media with sketches that illustrate the court proceedings.

Whether it's a collective prayer in court by the five men accused of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks, or the freshly dyed orange beard of their professed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Hamlin is there to capture it.

Now, Hamlin has written a book that encompasses her courtroom sketches.

"Sketching Guantanamo" also includes black-and-white illustrations of everyday life on the island for journalists and the detainees in their detention camps.

Al Arabiya sat down for a chat with Hamlin after a grueling day at court where she produced over five full-scale sketches of pre-trial hearings in the 9/11 case.

Al Arabiya: How find this job and what made you stay?

Janet Hamlin: "In 2006 the AP sent me to sketch Omar Khadr who was a young Canadian detainee. They continued to send me for two more cases after that. In 2007 I continued to go as a freelancer because I felt it was a very important way to use my skills to capture history. Guantanamo is so important to me for so many reasons. I come from a military family so I understand the military viewpoint but I also lived through 9/11 and I know how it has changed our entire world. It's an important piece of history."

Al Arabiya: Who are you sketching?

Janet Hamlin: The people I am sketching are accused. Some have pleaded guilty and some have not. My goal is to capture what I'm seeing and let other people derive what they want and hopefully it's honest and as complete as possible."

Al Arabiya: One of the most famous stories about you involves Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's nose. Explain…

Janet Hamlin: In June 2008 there was an arraignment of 9/11 accused. [AA: That was the first time they were brought to court since being arrested.] It was the first time the world would see Khalid Sheikh Mohammad who claims to have masterminded 9/11 attacks. Well, he apparently --and rightfully so-- didn't like my drawing of him. I guess I had to sketch quickly and so I sketched his nose on the large size. I learned pretty soon that he had the right to actually require me to alter it until it was something he felt was more accurate before it could move out to the public. It became as big a story as the fact that they were being arraigned!

Al Arabiya: You also once conducted a sit-in at the courtroom for four hours.

Janet Hamlin: The thing about Guantanamo is that there are no cameras allowed in court, there are no or pictures allowed of the defendants .The only thing people get to see are the sketches. I went to court one day to sketch a plea deal. Majid Khan was pleading guilty to aiding a bombing in Jakarta. I completed four sketches of him, then waited for the court security officer to come out and approve the sketches. [All Janet's sketches must be approved by a military censor before they can be published and she is forbidden from drawing certain people and certain aspects of war court security] Instead, he took them to the court and showed Majid who reacted strongly and didn't want them to go out. There was no way I was going to set that precedent. I knew that if he could wield that power no sketches would go out so I refused to leave the court. I started working the phones and four hours later I reached the right people who gave me permission to move the sketches.

Al Arabiya: What are the challenges you face sketching from Guantanamo?

Janet Hamlin: The most challenging is the venue. In other courts in the U.S. you are sitting near the jury box or in first row and there is nothing between you and the defendants. Here, I am sitting in the back of the courtroom, behind soundproof glass with a 40-second sound delay. The accused are facing away from us and there are many layers between me and them. Also, there are things here that I can't draw. Whereas in federal court you can draw whatever you want and the minute you finish it, you can move it. Here I am often held up waiting for the security officer to sign-off on work before I can move it. There are also the living conditions: When I come here, (and I am rolled in with the media) we live in tents on a nonfunctional old runway, six beds to a tent. We work out of hangar and the internet is slow. I wanted to write this book so people can understand what it's like to work in this unique environment and to bring the story to the world.

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