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Judge tackles terrorism in Guantanamo Bay

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By Richard Byrne Reilly
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The sea is warm, the weather almost perfect. The only problem is the neighbors - nearly 500 suspected al-Qaida and other terrorist suspects living a short distance away.

Bethel Park District Judge Robert Wyda began a one-year deployment in February to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to work on cases against the nearly 500 terror suspects being held at Camp Delta. He works six days a week, as a commander in the Naval Reserves Judge Advocate General Corps.

"This is about as close to the front lines on the war on terror as you can get, and what scares me about the nature of this enemy is that it will someday cause my 14-year-old son to have to go to a foreign shore and fight," Wyda, 44, said in a telephone interview. "We've never had an enemy like this in our history, one that would rather die for their cause than fight."

"The question is, how do you deal with an enemy that actually wants to die?" he said.

Commission hearings occur once a month at the tightly guarded Camp Delta. Wyda, who attends as an observer, is primarily responsible for analyzing evidence on terror suspects captured in Afghanistan and presenting his findings to the U.S. Defense Department's Criminal Investigative Task Force.

"It's very challenging. My job is to advise the investigating agents on their investigations," Wyda said. "The tribunal involves not just the four branches of the military, but also the other agencies in the national security community."

Camp Delta houses 490 terror suspects from 40 countries. No new detainees have arrived on the island since October 2004, said Guantanamo Bay Joint Task Force spokesman Lt. Col. Jeremy Martin.

Retired senior magistrate district judges will fill in for Wyda until he returns, said Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Joseph James, who knows Wyda well. James said he supports Wyda's mission, but will be happy to see him return.

"He's very popular. We look forward to getting him back on the bench in Bethel Park," James said.

This is Wyda's second stint in the reserves since President Bush ordered attacks against the Taliban in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001. Wyda spent four months in Afghanistan in 2003, presenting findings to criminal investigators about suspected terrorists captured by coalition forces.

Wyda's current mission is more sobering, he said.

"I thought Afghanistan was a glamorous adventure. It was exciting. It was something as a Navy lawyer I was privileged to be a part of. Gitmo is still an adventure, but the glamor is gone. The excitement has given way to steady determination to get the job done and go home," Wyda said.

Wyda was elected district judge in 2000 and re-elected to a second six-year term in January. He previously worked seven years as an Allegheny County assistant district attorney and as an assistant court administrator for legal affairs in Common Pleas Court. He earned a law degree from Duquesne University.

Bethel Park police Chief John Mackey said many people in the community support the work Wyda is doing. He and Wyda have worked closely on drug cases, favoring treatment over jail time for first-time offenders.

"Rob is a dynamic guy. He's a lot of fun. Of course we miss him," Mackey said.

The military informed Wyda three days before Christmas that he was being recalled to active duty. The news stunned Wyda, who sat his wife down to break the news. As he began to explain his new mission, his wife cut him off, telling him that any news regarding the deployment would have to wait until after Christmas, Wyda said. They have two children.

"Sitting on a rock with 500 terrorists in your backyard is not fun," Wyda said. "But the time here goes by quickly. Everybody is in the same boat. And most of us are thankful we're here. It could be worse."

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