Katrina Clarke | August 27, 2013 | National Post
When Canadian Stephan Gerhardt walked into a Guantanamo Bay courtroom to face five men accused of killing his brother and thousands of others in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he didn’t know if he would feel anger, hate or sadness.
Instead, “I felt nothing for them,” he said.
Mr. Gerhardt is the first Canadian to attend pretrial hearings at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base for five defendants in the Sept. 11 attacks. The co-accused prisoners, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the admitted mastermind, face charges of terrorism and almost 3,000 counts of murder for their alleged roles in planning and aiding in the attacks.
“I wanted to see these people. I wanted to see the people that were responsible for taking Ralph from us,” said Mr. Gerhardt, who is now a business owner in Washington DC. “I looked at them and [thought] these are just criminals that are in court, having their hearing.”
Mr. Gerhardt’s younger brother Ralph was murdered on Sept. 11 when hijackers flew commercial airplanes into the World Trade Centre. He worked on the 105th floor of Tower One and was 34 when he died. His remains have never been recovered.
Throughout the week, Mr. Gerhardt spent seven hours each day in a galley at the back of the courtroom. He sat with four other families whose loved ones were killed in the attacks. A lottery determined which families could attend the hearings.
The defendants sat with their backs to the victim’s families but cameras projected close-up images of the prisoners’ faces on screens.
“They were so consumed with hatred and death and destruction and the lack of value of life, you know, it just made them small people,” Mr. Gerhardt said. “They didn’t strike me as significant.”
Last week’s round of pretrial hearings involved defence lawyers’ arguments to dismiss terrorism and conspiracy charges against their clients. There was also debate over issues surrounding how classified information would be handled. Prosecutors are asking for a tentative trial date of July 2014, but the judge did not address the motion during the proceedings.
Mr. Gerhardt said he and the other families felt strongly that the men deserve a fair trial. He was glad that defence lawyers were fighting “tooth and nail” for their clients.
“We want these people to have the best defence that they can get, because when they get a ruling, I don’t want anyone to say ‘They didn’t have a good day in court, they didn’t get a fair trial,’” he said. “Granted, we want them to be found guilty…”
In terms of being the only Canadian at the pretrial hearings, he said his presence represented the global significance of the 9/11 attacks. “This was not just an American event,” he said.
His experiences on the trip, including speaking with defence lawyers about their clients, also highlighted for him the stark contrast between the philosophies of the defendants and the beliefs he was raised with in Canada.
“It’s sad that there’s so much hate and so much anger just because we’re different,” he said. “As a Canadian, I’ve never really been exposed to that because we were always such an open society and everybody was welcome.”
Mr. Gerhardt and his brother grew up in Toronto and both moved to the United States in adulthood. He describes his brother as a passionate, vibrant and smart young man who lived a good life, went shark diving and “drove a little too fast sometimes.”
Even though more than a decade has passed since the attacks, 9/11 is still fresh in his mind. “It’s something I live each day,” he said.
The pretrial hearing was a particularly personal experience and Mr. Gerhardt said he thought of his brother “constantly.”
“I always will remember him as my kid brother. You know, that wonderful friend that you have from day one who’s also a pain in the neck, but also someone you don’t want to be without.”