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Back in session: courts-martial return to Incirlik

A gavel rests on the judge’s bench in the courtroom of the 39th Air Base Wing legal office at Nov. 14, 2019, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. The Incirlik community recently witnessed its first U.S. Air Force court-martial since 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Magbanua)

A gavel rests on the judge’s bench in the courtroom of the 39th Air Base Wing legal office at Nov. 14, 2019, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. The Incirlik community recently witnessed its first U.S. Air Force court-martial since 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Magbanua)

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey --

Not an open seat was found in the courtroom on the morning of Nov. 12, 2019. Curious spectators flocked to the legal office hoping to watch the trial.

Meanwhile, security forces Airmen guarded the entrance, inspecting the visitors and ensuring nobody disturbed the peace.

Such were the proceedings of the first U.S. Air Force court-martial at Incirlik since 2015.

“Our courtroom was packed—with standing room only for all three days of the trial,” said Capt. Alexandra Fleszar, who serves as the chief of military justice at the 39th Air Base Wing legal office. “Regardless of the outcome, holding the trial where an alleged crime occurred is a visible reminder to everyone present that you are responsible for your behavior, and that there are consequences for criminal conduct.”

Fleszar briefly explained why courts-martial have not taken place at Incirlik for several years, citing logistical and safety concerns since the air base transitioned into a dependent-restricted assignment. Until this recent court-martial, trials for cases at Incirlik have been conducted at other bases around Europe.

Now that logistical issues have been solved, the path is clear for courts-martial to be held once again at Incirlik, Fleszar added.

“With our current posture, we are now certain we are able to safely travel all the various individuals associated with a court-martial into and out of Turkey,” she said. “Bringing courts back to Incirlik helps us ensure the fair, swift and impartial administration of justice. When a crime is alleged, our society values seeking the truth while protecting the rights afforded to everyone under the law. One of those rights is to have the justice process move quickly, so that the stress of going through an investigation and trial does not weigh (too heavily) on everyone involved—both the victim and accused.”

Courts-martial proceed similarly to civilian trials: following an investigation by law enforcement, an initial hearing takes place to determine whether there is probable cause to believe if a crime occurred and if the accused committed that crime. Then the trial convenes to determine whether or not the accused committed the crime beyond reasonable doubt. Here, the prosecution and defense teams exchange their arguments and call in witnesses to provide their testimonies. The prosecution also presents evidence, which the defense is tasked to counter.

Fleszar mentioned a feature unique to military trials: Special Victims Councils, which attend the courts-martial to protect victims’ rights.

In this particular court-martial, the defendant was being tried for sexual assault—a crime punishable by dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and a possible maximum sentence of life in prison according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Many of the witnesses for this case have already left Incirlik since the alleged incident took place, but were called back to testify.

“There are a lot of moving parts when working the logistics of any court-martial, but witness travel is (especially) huge,” said Staff Sgt. Steven Washington, an Area Defense Council paralegal. “If even one witness is unable to travel for any reason … it could potentially delay the entire court-martial. We had military members and civilians travel from all over the world to be present for this trial.”

As the trial progressed, the audience watched in dead silence while both legal teams cross-examined the witnesses. The lucky few who were able to grab seats described the proceedings as “tense, interesting, gripping and akin to a cinematic drama.”

One of the attendees said the silence was so compelling one could hear a pin drop and it made him hesitant to even move.

Then came the judgement day, when the final arguments were made and the judge made a verdict. The judge ordered the defendant and his team to rise as he read out the verdict: not guilty.

Senior Master Sgt. Jason Delacruz, one of the audience members, described his experience watching the trial as insightful, adding that it serves as a reminder to live honestly and take care of each other.

“Valuable lessons learned that we all can take back to our Airmen would be that having integrity and living by our Air Force core values is paramount,” said Delacruz, who serves as the 39th Communications Squadron first sergeant. “As supervisors, friends and wingmen we need to continue to provide support to our Airmen as they go through this process. Trials are not a fast process, and both sides (along with their families) are affected. We need to continuously reach out and support as needed.”

As the judge adjourned the court-martial, he emphasized the importance of integrity and left the now-acquitted defendant with sharp warning: let this be a wake-up call.

It was a sobering message not just for those in the hot-seat, but for all who witnessed the trial.

Fleszar welcomes members of the community to observe courts-martial whenever they convene, saying there are lessons to learn and benefits to reap from witnessing the military justice process.

“With few exceptions, courts-martial are open to the public,” she said. “We encourage those interested in the military justice process to come observe courts here in the future. In the broader scheme of our Incirlik community, the overall point is to take care of each other in a professional manner and always hold yourself to Air Force standards and values. Because the ultimate goal is to reduce crime—both here and Air Force-wide.”