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Gitmo sketch artist reveals 9/11 suspect's true face

Armed with pastels and charcoal pencils, Janet Hamlin has for years been the only sketch artist allowed to cover the secretive US military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay.

As such, her drawings of self-confessed 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants are the only images the public has seen of the men accused of orchestrating the 2001 attacks.

“This whole thing is historic to me, it’s a collective historical document in a way. That’s why it’s a pretty huge responsibility,” Hamlin told AFP.

Hamlin has had a coveted front-row seat for the proceedings, sitting alongside journalists and victims’ relatives behind a thick glass partition separating her from Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators, attorneys for both sides and a military judge.

Using magnifying eyeglasses, she works rapidly to capture the key moments of the special military tribunals, having been the only sketch artist to cover them since 2006. No photographers are allowed.

During a break from a recent hearing, the five men accused of being behind the attacks unfurled their prayer rugs and prostrated themselves toward Mecca, under the watchful eyes of soldiers and victims’ relatives.

Hamlin’s hand quickly drew broad strokes, capturing details such as the thick court files cluttering the tables.

During her 25 trips to Guantanamo, Hamlin has never been allowed inside the courtroom with the men she has sketched so many times. Yet she has reproduced the likeness of dozens of “war on terror” suspects in some 185 sketches.

After reaching a compromise with her military bosses, she now also sketches from a live-broadcast screen in a former courtroom located several hundred yards (meters) from the new maximum-security tribunal.

In the morning she works behind the glass partition in the courtroom, but prefers in the afternoon to draw from the screen, which helps her see finer details.

“That’s how I get the faces,” said the New Yorker, who has just published a collection of her work, “Sketching Guantanamo.”

The old courtroom allowed her to be in much closer proximity to the various players she was sketching.

Although the audio is broadcast on a 40-second delay for security reasons, Hamlin has a “full panoramic view” that allows her to see reactions and what is happening across the courtroom.

Capturing Mohammed on paper

It was through Hamlin’s drawings that the world glimpsed Mohammed’s courtroom camouflage attire, which had sparked debate with prison officials as inappropriate.

The sketches also showed the various tones of orange in the accused mastermind’s beard, dyed with spices and fruit juices.

In 2008, the infamous detainee snubbed one of Hamlin’s portraits, saying she had misrepresented his nose.

“I saw him turning, facing me, holding it, shaking his head,” Hamlin recalled.

During a break, his lawyers asked that she redo the drawing based on an old FBI photo.

“It has been challenging sometimes,” Hamlin said, noting that Guantanamo authorities on occasion ask her to erase the faces of victims or guards from her sketches.

She recalled when Pakistani detainee Majid Khan pleaded guilty last year while dressed in a Western suit, agreeing to provide information on Mohammed in exchange for a reduction in his eventual sentence.

Hamlin said he was very upset about the idea of the depictions being released.

“He claimed he didn’t realize that he was being sketched,” she said.

Hamlin argued with military authorities for four hours, accusing them of allowing the detainee to be the censor.

“You set this precedent and anybody can say no sketches,” she said.

Before Hamlin, court sketcher Art Lien was responsible for the drawings at Guantanamo. But at the time, US authorities barred him from reproducing the faces of the accused men.

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