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Penn Law hosts screening, Q&A session around "The Response"

November 01, 2011
The Response discussion panel
Thomas Wilner, Morris Davis, Sig Libowitz, Peter Riegert

By Kathryn Siegel C’12

On Thursday, October 28 in the Haaga Classroom of Gittis Hall, Penn Law hosted a public screening of the short film The Response, a re-enactment of a Guantanamo Bay military tribunal based on actual transcripts from Combatant Status Review Tribunals, followed by a Q&A session with the film’s writer/producer Sig Libowitz, actor Peter Riegert, along with former military lawyers Thomas Wilner and Col. Morris Davis.

Writer and producer Sig Libowitz said he was inspired to create the film after reading one page of such a transcript in a University of Maryland School of Law classroom.

“Sometimes you get struck by something you found and have to follow it,” he said. He went on to uncover thousands of transcript pages which, coupled with discussions with military lawyers, formed the basis of the screenplay. The Response was “shortlisted for an Academy Award,” according to event organizer Jean Yin L’12, and is currently being screened across the United States and in Europe, including showings at the Pentagon and West Point Academy.

The movie consists of two parts. The first half depicts the detainee’s public hearing, where he faces accusations of bombing a U.S. Embassy building. The detainee, Ph.D. engineer Hassan Ali Al-Aqar, played by Aasif Mandvi, denies involvement but points out the flaws of the tribunal process. Namely, that he is denied a lawyer and access to the confidential evidence being used against him.

The second half portrays the three judges’ private discussion, in which they reflect on the fairness of the process and weigh the risks of clearing the detainee. Colonel Carol Simms, played by Kate Mulgrew, argues that the case is strong enough to hold him further. The remaining judges – Colonel Jefferson, played by Riegert, and Captain Miller, played by Libowitz – distrust the evidence that may have been extracted through torture. They also feel uneasy about passing judgment on a man so unable to defend himself. Jefferson ultimately deems him innocent, Simms deems him a threat, and the movie ends with Miller sitting alone, head bent, unsure of what to do.

When the final credits wrapped, Libowitz and Riegert, along with former military lawyers Thomas Wilner and Colonel Morris Davis, took questions from the audience. Wilner formerly represented Guantanamo detainees in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Col. Davis is the former Chief Prosecutor for the Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay.

The Response discussion panel
Thomas Wilner, Morris Davis, Sig Libowitz, Peter Riegert

The four panelists discussed the injustice of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. According to Col. Davis, tribunals finding a detainee to be innocent were often done over until judges reached the opposite verdict.

“It was an Alice in Wonderland type environment,” he says. “We’ve created this process that runs from the law.”

Riegert, who had a recurring role in The Sopranos and also appeared in the movie Animal House, compared a scene in that film to the government’s approach to Guantanamo.

“The fraternity [in Animal House] appears in front of a Greek council, and Dean Wormer gets so frustrated that he throws them off campus. [Likewise,] the administration didn’t know how to deal with Guantanamo, so they threw away the law,” he asserted.

Guantanamo held 775 detainees at its maximum. According to Wilner, many of those were captured in Pakistan, away from the actual crime sites located in Afghanistan, and were not originally arrested by U.S. troops. This left room for coincidental evidence and false testimony. Most of the 775 have been released, but 171 still remain. Of those, 89 have been absolutely cleared, but remain imprisoned.

In response to a question from an audience member, Col. Davis stated that there is a 10 percent rate of recidivist action among those released from Guantanamo, but not all are necessarily acts of violence.

“It could be something as simple as writing an op-ed about against Guantanamo,” Davis said. Therefore, he explained, it is impossible to know the extent to which harsh treatment at the site spurred former prisoners to terrorist acts.

According to Wilner, “this issue goes to the heart and soul of the nation. What binds us together are the principles of freedom and justice in a court of law.”

Libowitz echoes the responsibility of upholding justice. “Lawyers created Guantanamo, and lawyers have the power to undo it.”