Archive for June, 2007

International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the day that the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment came into force. Since 1998, it has been marked by the UN as the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, although there is, alas, little to celebrate.

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated today, “The International Day in Support of Victims of Torture is an occasion to highlight the unambiguous and absolute prohibition on torture and all forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. It is also an opportunity to express solidarity with the suffering of torture victims and their families, and to reaffirm the need for a global commitment to rehabilitate all victims of all such abuse.” He noted, however, that “even after two decades, this instrument falls well short of universal ratification,” and there was little joy to be gained from his observation that “This is also the first year that the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance – another milestone in the struggle to eliminate torture – has been open for signature.”

Whilst it’s clearly intolerable that so many of the signatories to the Convention still routinely engage in torture, it’s particularly distressing to note that many Western countries, who still regular criticize other countries for human rights violations, are also backsliding to tyranny: a coalition of the willing, led by the United States, who are defying their obligations by embracing torture and facilitating “Enforced Disappearances” via the process known as “extraordinary rendition” – either directly, in the case of the US, or indirectly, in the case of the UK and the many other countries who are complicit in the “rendition” programme.

To understand the true ramifications of torture, beyond the vile propaganda of Fox’s 24 and our own fear-mongering governments, visit the website of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture for 24 hours in the life of a torture survivor, a poignant slideshow featuring an Iranian torture survivor and his reflections on his experiences, and click here for extracts from the diary of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident falsely imprisoned in Guantánamo, describing his torture in Morocco, where he was “rendered” for that express purpose by representatives of the US government.

For more on US torture policies, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

Dick Cheney: more horrors from the ‘Vice-President for Torture’

Dick CheneyRequired reading this week is Barton Gellman and Jo Becker’s four-part series on Dick Cheney for the Washington Post, which highlights the Vice President’s role as the malevolent power behind the American imperial throne. While this is not exactly news to anyone with an inquiring mind, the authors –- in interviews with over 200 people who have worked for or against Cheney over the years –- have assembled some compelling new information to add to the already extensive list of the VP’s crimes. The first and second articles (published Sunday and Monday) recount, as the authors describe it, “Cheney’s campaign to magnify presidential war-making authority, arguably his most important legacy.”

Of particular interest are the passages which spell out, often more explicitly than previously reported, the role played by Cheney and his coterie of close advisors –- in particular, his long-time legal advisor and chief counsel David Addington, White House deputy counsel Timothy Flanigan and Justice Department lawyer John Yoo –- in the creation of five documents underpinning the administration’s response to 9/11, which, in various ways, sought to grant unfettered executive power to the President and attempted to discard international laws regarding the torture and abuse of prisoners. These were: the Authorization for Use of Military Force (18 September 2001), a secret memorandum authorizing the warrantless surveillance of communications to and from the United States (25 September 2001), Military Order No 1, authorizing the creation of “Military Commissions” to try al-Qaeda suspects and their accomplices (13 November 2001), the memorandum of 25 January 2002, referring to the Geneva Conventions as “quaint,” which surfaced in a Presidential announcement, on 6 February 2002, that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters captured on the battlefield, and the notorious “Torture Memo” of 1 August 2002, which sought to redefine torture as nothing less than organ failure or death.

To set the scene for the legal coup d’etat that took place in 2001 and 2002, Gellman and Becker describe the impromptu war cabinet in the bunker beneath the White House, where, on 11 September 2001, while the President was in Florida, reading ‘The Pet Goat’ to a group of children, Cheney impassively watched the aftermath of the attacks and then –- ignoring national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and State Department officials, who were in the room with him –- summoned Addington to begin “contemplating the founding question of the legal revolution to come: What extraordinary powers will the president need for his response?” By that evening, Flanigan had also been recruited, and Yoo was soon to follow.

Gellman and Becker point out that it was Flanigan, with advice from Yoo, who drafted the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which gave the President the authority “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001” –- and they add a comment from Yoo (who, unlike Cheney and Addington, agreed to be interviewed), explaining that “they used the broadest possible language because ‘this war was so different, you can’t predict what might come up’.” In fact, as the authors point out, they “knew very well what would come next: the interception –- without a warrant –- of communications to and from the United States.” Although warrantless communications intercepts had been forbidden by federal law since 1978, Gellman and Becker point out that they were “justified, in secret, as ‘incident to’ the authority Congress had just granted” the President, in a memorandum that Yoo finalized on 25 September.

Completely bypassing Congress and the courts, the surveillance memo marked the first, but by no means the last occasion when Cheney and his advisors cut potential objectors out of the loop. Foremost among the first wave of the excluded was John Bellinger, the ranking national security lawyer in the White House, who reported to Condoleezza Rice. Bellinger should, in theory, have been included in all discussions about surveillance, but according to a senior government lawyer cited by Gellman and Becker, he was regarded with “open contempt” by Addington.

While Cheney had been working behind the scenes in the drafting of these documents –- fulfilling the nickname “Backseat,” which he had been given by secret service officials –- Gellman and Becker describe how, on 13 November 2001, under the cover of his regular weekly meeting with the President, he played the leading role in circulating and gaining approval for the presidential order –- Military Order No 1 –- which stripped foreign terror suspects of access to any courts, authorized their indefinite imprisonment without charge, and also authorized the creation of “Military Commissions,” before which they could be tried using secret evidence. Approved within an hour by only two other figures in the White House –- associate counsel Bradford Berenson, and deputy staff secretary Stuart Bowen, whose objections that it had to be seen by other Presidential advisors were only dropped after “rapid, urgent persuasion” that the President “was standing by to sign and that the order was too sensitive to delay” –- the order’s swift and unprecedented passage bore all the hallmarks of Cheney’s preferred modus operandi: that of an ultra-secretive control freak who, while serving the President, was actually running the show himself.

Based on an opinion written by John Yoo on 6 November –- that the President did not need approval from Congress or the federal courts for his actions –- the draft for Military Order No 1 sidelined Attorney General John Ashcroft, who, we are told, angrily confronted Cheney –- to no avail –- on November 10, after learning that the draft “gave the Justice Department no role in choosing which alleged terrorists would be tried,” and completely bypassed both Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, and Condoleezza Rice. Gellman and Becker report that Powell asked, “What the hell just happened?” after seeing news of the order announced that evening on CNN. In addition, Cheney made sure that his own role was concealed: the draft that was passed to Berenson in the White House –- previously approved by Addington and Flanigan –- made no mention whatsoever of his role in its creation.

With the President’s right to capture and imprison anyone apparently guaranteed, Cheney and his advisers turned their attention to the treatment of prisoners. Cheney’s opening gambit, the day after Bush signed Military Order No 1, was to tell the US Chamber of Commerce that terrorists do not “deserve to be treated as prisoners of war.” The authors point out, however, that this was a decision that the President had not yet made, and that it was another ten weeks before he “ratified the policy that Cheney had declared”; namely, that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters captured on the battlefield.

While a struggle over the treatment of prisoners raged within the administration, Gellman and Becker reveal that, shortly after Guantánamo opened, a CIA delegation came to the White House to explain, as John Yoo put it, that they were “going to have some real difficulties getting actionable intelligence from detainees,” if interrogators were obliged to confine themselves to treatment permitted by the Geneva Conventions. It was, said Yoo, “the first time that the issue of interrogations” surfaced among high-ranking White House officials, and Gellman and Becker explain that, “From that moment, well before previous accounts have suggested, Cheney turned his attention to the practical business of crushing a captive’s will to resist.” It was, they reveal, Addington who then wrote the notorious memorandum dismissing the Geneva Conventions as “quaint” –- to which the rather less articulate Alberto Gonzales put his name –- in which the Conventions’ “strict limits on questioning of enemy prisoners” were seen as hindering attempts “to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists,” and it was Addington who, two weeks later, provided the President with the words for his deliberately vague promise, on 6 February, that detainees would be treated “humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles” of the Geneva Conventions.

The pinnacle of Cheney’s revolutionary sadism was the “Torture Memo” of August 2002, and Gellman and Becker once more bring new information to bear on its development, confirming the suspicions of those who have studied this period closely that the new “no limits” policy actually came into being after the capture of Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad on 28 March 2002. John Yoo explained that he was summoned to the White House after CIA officers asked “what the legal limits on interrogation are.” The resulting opinion –- that the definition of torture could be reinterpreted to mean suffering that was “equivalent in intensity” to the pain of organ failure or death –- was issued on 1 August, signed by assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee and widely credited to Yoo, but in conversation with Gellman and Becker, Yoo revealed that Addington, Flanigan and Gonzales had all contributed to the opinion, and that Addington was responsible for another of the memo’s radical claims: that, as Commander in Chief, the President could authorize torture if he felt that it was necessary, and that Congress “may no more regulate the President’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.”

Yoo also confirmed that a second opinion was signed off on 1 August, which, unlike the first –- leaked after the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004 –- has never been made public, and an unnamed source cited by the authors explained that it contained a long list of techniques approved for use by the CIA, which included waterboarding, but apparently drew the line at threatening to bury a prisoner alive.

The final twist in the dirty saga of how Cheney and his advisors brought torture out of the closet and into the mainstream is, surprisingly, provided by John Yoo, who admitted to Gellman and Becker that he “verbally warned” lawyers for Bush, Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld that “it would be a risky policy to permit military interrogators to use the harshest techniques, because the armed services, vastly larger than the CIA, could overuse the tools or exceed the limits.” “I always thought that only the CIA should do this,” he said, “but people at the White House and at DoD felt differently.”

With even Yoo admitting doubts, the spotlight on torture’s advocates remains firmly fixed not only on the semi-invisible Dick Cheney, but also on the even less visible figure of David Addington. Gonzales, throughout, is dismissed as a fool, Bush is barely visible, and Flanigan, who left the White House in December 2002, dropped off the radar after taking up commercial work and becoming embroiled in the Jack Abramoff scandal, which scuppered his nomination as deputy Attorney General in 2005, but Gellman and Becker’s exposure of the roles played by Cheney and Addington in rebranding the United States as a torture-wielding dictatorship will hopefully encourage a few more of their fellow citizens to scrutinize the power behind the President’s fading throne.

For more on Guantánamo and US torture policies, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

For more on Dick Cheney’s role in the Military Commissions and the detention of prisoners in the “War on Terror,” see the following articles: The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, Silence on war crimes as the US election campaign ends, Why Guantánamo Must Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Parts One and Two).

Dick Cheney: invisible tyrant

Dick: The Man Who Is PresidentFor the background on Dick Cheney’s rise to power, I recommend John Nichols’ Dick: The Man Who Is President (New Press, 2004), published in paperback in 2005 as The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney. This is a review that I wrote for the website Nth Position:

The man at the heart of investigative reporter John Nichols’ powerful and disturbing portrait of the Vice-President of the United States –- a man here revealed as the true power behind George W. Bush’s façade; the CEO of the USA; the most powerful man in the world –- is, astonishingly, almost invisible. Despite having a CV that apparently explains his rise to power –- as an aide to three presidents, the youngest ever White House chief of staff, the second most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives, a cabinet secretary and the CEO of a giant corporation –- Dick Cheney is a “shadowy Zelig figure” with a “Wizard of Oz-like penchant for remaining behind the curtains of authority”. In his introduction, helpfully entitled “The evil genius in the corner”, Nichols reveals that Cheney’s pursuit of anonymity has been so unrelenting that Secret Service officials used to call him “Backseat”.

“Backseat” launched his political career inauspiciously, “holding the button bag” for the governor of Wisconsin while the civil rights movement raged, and while his contemporaries were occupying student campuses. His early life was undistinguished. He dropped out of Yale, ran up a few drink-driving offenses, and strenuously avoided the Vietnam draft, deferring it on four occasions. Nichols notes, acidly, that his first child was born “Precisely nine months and two days after Selective Service eliminated special protections [from the draft] for childless married men”.

Handing out badges for a state governor may have been a humble start, but it was sufficient to get Cheney to Washington, working for moderate Republican senator Bill Steiger. He then met rising star Donald Rumsfeld, who so impressed Richard Nixon that the President soon employed him as a counselor in the White Horse. Cheney got to go along too, and Nichols points out that he immediately began studying Nixon’s tactics. He was already planning for the distant future, admiring in particular the President’s “moves to make the executive branch the dominant player in the federal government”.

Just before Watergate, Cheney got lucky again. Rumsfeld –- now suspected of being “slimy” and of having “liberal” tendencies –- was transferred to NATO, and Cheney took a job with a firm advising investment banks. As neither was implicated in the fallout from the Watergate scandal, they were soon back in the White House, this time working for Gerald Ford, with Rumsfeld as chief of staff and Cheney as his deputy. Together the two men removed obstacles to power. Robert Hartman, a moderate who was close to the President –- and who correctly identified them as “the little Praetorians” –- was sidelined, Henry Kissinger was demoted, and when they managed to obtain the resignation of defense secretary James Schlesinger, Rumsfeld took over his job and Cheney –- by default –- became the youngest ever White House chief of staff.

One of his occasional disasters followed. As the man directly responsible for the electoral campaign that failed to get Ford re-elected, he should have been damaged goods politically, but with his cloak of invisibility intact he simply retreated back to Wyoming –- his bolt-hole on the few occasions when his rise to power was temporarily put on hold –- where he duly resurfaced a few year later as a Congressman.

Cheney’s time in the House of Representatives revealed his political instincts to be as rabidly reactionary as ever. In his ten years in Congress, he was consistently one of the House’s most right-wing members. He voted against the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. He voted against nutrition programs for children, against the Equal Rights Amendment and against a call for the release of Nelson Mandela. Nichols talked to Mandela, who recalled that “when the notoriously secretive and closeted Dick Cheney was forced to record his true sentiments, he stood consistently on the side of the most reactionary, racist and repulsive forces on the planet”, an opinion echoed by Robert Hartman, who commented that “whenever his private ideology was exposed, he appeared somewhat to the right of Ford, Rumsfeld, or, for that matter, Genghis Khan”.

Despite his voting record, Cheney has only once –- after his nomination as vice-presidential candidate in 2000 –- been called to account for his right-wing tendencies. Nichols blames the media, suggesting that the widespread ignorance regarding Cheney’s ideological extremism is “ample evidence of the collapse of serious journalism in the United States”, although it’s also clear that the illusion that Cheney managed to project shielded him from the critical gaze of most of his fellow senators. Time and again the Dick Cheney that colleagues on both sides of the House recall was, in the words of an article in a Philadelphia newspaper, a “friendly, gentlemanly candidate”, and one, moreover, who was “not an ideologue”.

Protected by this widespread inability on the part of others to see beyond his cordial front, Cheney assiduously pursued his own interests. He took a seat on the committee responsible for mining and drilling issues, where he “began collecting substantial campaign donations from the oil and gas industries”. He also chaired the Policy Committee, doing boring but essential work in the most vital link between Congress and the White House, where, despite serving in the House of Representatives, he continued to prepare for future office by fighting “to undermine the ability of the legislative branch to hold the executive accountable”.

Cheney got lucky again when George Bush was elected, landing the job of defense secretary when the President’s first choice, John Tower, turned out to be an “unhinged alcoholic”. It was in this position that his ambitions finally began to be fulfilled. Nichols observes that, as the last defense secretary of the Cold War era, Cheney was “handed a unique opportunity to guide not just the US, but the world away from the brink of nuclear holocaust, away from excessive military spending that was bankrupting superpowers and client states alike, and away from the fear-mongering that had manipulated the peoples of the planet into seeing one another as threats rather than as neighbors”.

Cheney, of course, was not for peace. While Colin Powell talked of “running out of enemies”, Cheney saw them everywhere. And he not only wanted enemies; he wanted to profit from them too. He was one of the chief architects of the radical neo-conservative manifesto, the 1992 Defence Planning Guidance –- which later resurfaced as the Project for the New American Century –- in which it was stated that “In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve US and western access to the region’s oil”.

So it was that, in the face of demands for a “peace dividend”, Cheney managed to hold onto the defense budget. Although obliged to cut the numbers of soldiers to save costs, he arranged for the military’s logistical operations to be privatized, handing $210 billion to contractors whose CEOs were close friends. One of the chief beneficiaries of Cheney’s generosity with the public purse was Halliburton. Nichols points out that Cheney arranged for Brown and Root Services, a Halliburton subsidiary, to be paid $8.9 million to produce reports nominating itself to take over military operations, and in the years that followed the gravy train began to roll, delivering billions of dollars to Halliburton and other companies run by Cheney’s cronies. When Bush unexpectedly lost the presidential election to Bill Clinton, Cheney simply moved to Halliburton, where, in his five years as CEO, he collected a salary totalling $44 million, while Halliburton continued to cash in on the reforms that he himself had pushed through Congress, receiving contracts from the Clinton administration totaling $2.2 billion for operations in the Balkans, and even $109 million for the disastrous campaign in Somalia.

The last stage in this extraordinary story begins with the complex and patient maneuvering that led to Cheney’s nomination as vice-presidential candidate. He insinuated himself into the heart of the Bush family as early as 1995, when George W. Bush became governor of Texas, and he was on hand when the plan to groom him as a presidential candidate first emerged. As Bush Junior’s ineptitude first became apparent –- Nichols quotes a memorable interview in which he was unable to name the leaders of Pakistan, India, Taiwan and Chechnya –- Cheney was the man that Bush Senior approached to find a suitable vice-presidential candidate to be “in charge of the kid’s government”. Typically, Cheney whittled away at the prospective candidates, finding fault with all of them, until finally, as he had planned all along, George W. Bush was astonished to discover that “the best candidate might be sitting next to me”.

Since coming to power Cheney’s commitment to his agenda has been unwavering. As soon as victory was confirmed, he rented an office in Washington and began drafting policies and securing top-ranking positions for his long-standing allies. Rumsfeld went to defense, and other neo-conservatives were drafted into positions of power and authority: Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon, John Bolton as an undersecretary of state, and John Ashcroft as the attorney general. Blatantly disregarding any potential conflicts of interest, Cheney headed the National Energy Policy Development Group, appointing all 63 members, all of whom came from industry, and pushed through a new energy policy that proposed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, to build 1,300 new coal-fired power plants, to provide $33 billion in subsidies and tax cuts to encourage increased nuclear, oil and coal production, and to lay 18,000 miles of fuel pipeline “across what remained of the American wilderness”.

Companies in which Cheney is a board member –- including Morgan Stanley, Lockheed Martin and Procter and Gamble –- have all benefited from his new position, as have generous donors to the Republican cause –- including super-corrupt energy giant Enron –- and he continues to hold stock options in Halliburton that are worth over $10 million, and every year since 2000 has received “deferred salary payments” that are almost the same as his “official” salary as VP. Moreover, the market he created has continued to grow. In 2002, it was worth $150 billion to outside contractors, and in 2003, after the Vice-President managed to secure $87 billion “to maintain the occupation of Iraq and other military adventures abroad”, Halliburton’s contracts in Iraq alone were worth $11 billion.

Regime change in Iraq –- for oil, money and power –- was something that Cheney had first proposed to George Bush Senior during the 1991 Gulf War –- when it was turned down –- but it was an idea that he clung to over the following years. The events of September 11, 2001 finally allowed him to reinstate his violent dream, even though, as Nichols comments, “It was going to be a tough connection to make. Osama bin Laden and his followers hated Saddam Hussein, a secularist whose government included Christians and women, and Saddam feared the fanatical religionists as he did all movements that might organize opposition to his oppressive regime”.

Undeterred, Cheney insisted, with monotonous regularity, that Saddam had “a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda organization”, that he had reconstituted chemical weapons programs, and that he was trying to produce nuclear weapons. He also insisted that Iraq had been involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and that suicide pilot Mohammed Atta had met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague. When no evidence whatsoever emerged to support any of Cheney’s claims –- even after his regular and unprecedented visits to the CIA, where he was known to demand, “Why doesn’t your intelligence support what we know is out there?” –- he turned to an “independent intelligence unit” that Rumsfeld had conveniently established in the Pentagon, where the spurious case for war was safe from dissenting voices.

If there was any doubt left that Cheney was the power behind the throne, this should have been demolished when he emerged briefly from the shadows –- as he had for a whole week in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 –- to run things personally. On this occasion he appeared on live TV in March 2003 to make the official case for war, running through the conspiracy theories and assuring the American public that the Iraqi people would “welcome us as liberators”. And if even this was not enough, final confirmation was provided by Paul O’Neill, a Cheney appointee to the Treasury who had resigned in disgust. O’Neill found a White House in which Cheney –- the leader –- had embraced “brazen ideology” that was “not penetrable by facts”, while Bush –- sidelined and stupefied –- was “like a blind man in a room of deaf people”.

This is a book that I’d urge anyone vaguely interested in the baleful powers that shape the modern world to buy. It is, as Studs Terkel has commented, “A farce noir, lethally funny. A revelatory work”. What Nichols can’t explain, of course, is what happened to shape a mild-mannered young man called Dick Cheney into a power-crazed fanatic. Significantly, the only poignant moments in the entire book are when Nichols describes Cheney’s parents. Both were staunch Democrats, and his father, who worked for the Soil Conservation Service, followed the visionary lead of its founder, Hugh Hammond Bennett, who declared that “no man should have the right, legally or otherwise, to recklessly or wilfully destroy or unnecessarily waste any resources on which public welfare is dependent”.

What did Cheney think when, in 2000, his father pointedly told him, “you can’t take my vote for granted?”

What does Dick Cheney see when he looks in the mirror?

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

A Tunisian in Guantánamo: the story of Lofti Lagha, Prisoner 660

Overlooked in the reports about Guantánamo detainee Abdullah bin Omar, a Tunisian who, on Sunday, was sent back to the country of his birth, where there are fears that he will be subjected to torture and abuse, is the story of the other Tunisian who, shackled and bound, shared a US plane with him. Unlike bin Omar, who was represented by lawyers who have done their best to publicize his case, there was no one to speak out for 38-year old Lofti Lagha, and no way of knowing if he too faces persecution on his return. Even his identity has so far remained concealed, revealed neither by the US or Tunisian authorities.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, in June 2004, that the prisoners in Guantánamo had the right to challenge their detention in the US courts (a right that was taken away by Congress last October), around 200 detainees availed themselves of this hard-won opportunity, but for some reason –- either because he did not trust American lawyers, or because he found no way of establishing contact –- Lofti Lagha was not one of them. Like hundreds of other men in Guantánamo without legal representation, the only people he met for five and a half years who were not part of the US administration that imprisoned him without charge or trial were, on occasion, representatives of the Red Cross, and, almost certainly, representatives of the intelligence services of his home country – in his case, a secretive, repressive regime dominated, for 20 years, by the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Although Lagha was not one of Guantánamo’s completely voiceless prisoners –- a dubious accolade reserved for 22 detainees whose names, reprinted from lists released by the Pentagon last year, can be found on page after page of the internet, but for whom no story whatsoever has been reported –- all that exists in the public domain to mark his 2,000-day imprisonment are three pages of notes from the Unclassified Summary of Evidence for his Administrative Review Board hearing in 2005 –- convened to assess whether he should still be regarded as an “enemy combatant” –- which, like his earlier tribunal, he did not attend.

What can be gleaned from this jumble of biographical details, conflicting claims and unsubstantiated allegations masquerading as evidence is that Lagha served in the Tunisian army as a young man, and then, allegedly, “stole a boat to enter Italy illegally with an Egyptian and another Tunisian,” where he used a false ID card. In Milan, where he seems to have settled, it was claimed that he “associated with various Tunisians” at a cultural center (which is hardly surprising), and that “among those who frequented the cultural center” was “at least one individual that belonged to a terrorist network that ensures financial support to terrorist groups while also actively recruiting for Osama bin Laden-sponsored training camps in Afghanistan.”

It was also noted that he “frequented elements of the Jamaat-al-Tablighi” (sic). A vast worldwide missionary organization with millions of members, Jamaat-al-Tablighi –- founded in India in the 1920s –- declares itself non-political but has caused concern in the West because of its rigorous conservatism, although none of the criticism levelled at it has come close to the hyperbole used in Guantánamo, where, as in the “evidence” against Lagha, it is regularly described as “a Pakistan-based Islamic missionary organization,” which is “used as a cover to mask travel and activities of terrorists including al-Qaeda.”

Moving on to Lagha’s reasons for leaving Italy, it was alleged that he travelled to Afghanistan in early 2001, when he was “sent by the head of a terrorist network for military training,” although it was also alleged that he travelled in April 2001 “after being inspired to perform jihad” by a recruiter at a mosque in Italy, and it was also claimed that he travelled with a companion who was a “member of a terrorist network and a convicted terrorist.” According to US military intelligence, his Italian contact put him in touch with a Tunisian in the eastern city of Jalalabad, who had previously run the Durunta training camp, and this man in turn introduced him to two other Tunisians, a “reported” member of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and another connected to Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, an Afghan militia commanded by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a renegade warlord heavily funded by the Americans in the 1980s, but now described as a terrorist who “ran terrorist training camps in Afghanistan” and “staged attacks in an attempt to force US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.”

Captured after crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001, it was alleged that, after his arrest, Lagha “told others that he was coming from the mountains of Tora Bora,” although this does not prove that he was in Tora Bora with Osama bin Laden’s men, and it may be that, like countless others (many of whom are still in Guantánamo), he was passing through the mountains on his way to Pakistan. The most risible allegation of all was that he “saw members of the Taliban while in Afghanistan,” a predicament that only a blind man could avoid.

Lagha’s own explanation for his presence in Afghanistan is found in a section of the “evidence” described as “factors favouring release or transfer,” in which it was noted that he said that he went to Afghanistan as a tourist, that he spent his time “fishing and recreating” in Jalalabad, and that once the war started he left Afghanistan. He insisted that he never trained in a camp in Afghanistan, never took up arms against the Americans or anybody else, and added that he “thinks al-Qaeda’s belief system strange and that they are not good.”

Extracting reasons for his release from the garbled semi-narrative presented by the US authorities is, of course, all but impossible. Were his acquaintances really whom the authorities said they were, or was the whole story revealed as a tissue of lies? Did he, perhaps, rat on his fellows to escape Guantánamo, or did the authorities let him go because they concluded that they had drained him of all possible intelligence value? We may never know. What can be stated with absolute certainty, however, is that attempting to glimpse a flicker of the truth through a fog of innuendo is a poor substitute, after five and a half years, for an older, swifter, and far more effective system: a court of law, with proper charges, transparent evidence, prosecution and defense attorneys, and a judge and a jury.

Note: the Pentagon refers to Lagha as Lufti bin Swei Lagha.

For more on Guantánamo, and the stories of the Tunisian detainees, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

A detainee in Guantanamo

Published as a CounterPunch exclusive.

[Note: Mr. Lagha’s first name is spelled incorrectly. It is “Lotfi” not “Lofti.”]

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the eleven prisoners released from February to June 2009, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here).

Guantánamo not closing after all: 777th detainee arrives from Afghanistan

Demonstrating either that the administration’s left hand does not know what the right hand is doing –- which would be apt –- or, more probably, that they don’t give a damn what anyone thinks, the foolish rumors of Guantánamo’s imminent closure, which I mocked here this morning, were comprehensively swept away a few hours later when the Department of Defense announced that it had transferred a brand-new detainee –- “a dangerous terror suspect” –- from Afghanistan to Guantánamo.

Guantánamo’s 777th detainee is Haroon al-Afghani, who, according to the DoD, was “captured as a result of our ongoing efforts in the Global War on Terror.” The DoD also declared that he was “known to be associated with high-level militants in Afghanistan, and has admitted to serving as a courier for al-Qaeda Senior Leadership (AQSL),” and reported that there was “significant information available” that he was a senior commander of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), an anti-US militia led by renegade Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who, ironically, was one of the major recipients of billions of dollars of American money in the 1980s, which was channeled to him through his supporters in Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI. According to the DoD, al-Afghani “commanded multiple HIG terrorist cells that conducted improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in Nangahar Province” (centered on Jalalabad) and “is assessed to have had regular contact with senior AQ [al-Qaeda] and HIG leadership.”

No details of al-Afghani’s capture were provided –- either the date or the location –- probably to prevent the kind of furore that arose after senior al-Qaeda operative Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi was transferred to Guantánamo in April, when the administration let slip that he had been held for several months by the CIA –- in one of the secret prisons that the President declared empty on 6 September 2006 –- but from the DoD’s comment that he “admitted serving as a courier for al-Qaeda,” it’s clear that wasn’t picked up yesterday, and probable that he was held for some time in one of the many US-run prisons in Afghanistan.

Expect months to go by before we learn any more, when he will go through a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT), which will confirm that he was an “enemy combatant” –- as designated by the President when he was captured –- so that he can progress to trial by Military Commission, if –- and it’s a big if –- the administration can actually breathe life into their Frankenstein-like substitution for a real court of law.

For more on Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

Notes on Guantánamo & the ‘War on Terror’ (22 June)

Who’s woken up to reality?

In a must-read article on Salon, Imperial presidency declared null and void, Sidney Blumenthal, former Clinton adviser and perspicacious commentator on the brutal follies of the Bush administration, tantalizingly points out that “one of the key framers” of the “war paradigm” –- the President’s post-9/11 power-grab, which gave him dictatorial powers, as wartime commander in chief, to make and enforce laws as he saw fit –- “confesses that he has abandoned his belief in the whole doctrine, though he refuses to say so publicly. If he were to speak up, given his seminal role in formulating the policy and stature among the Federalist Society cadres that run it, his rejection would have a shattering impact … But this figure remains careful to disclose his disillusionment with his own handiwork only in off-the-record conversations.”

Blumenthal also writes of “another Bush legal official, even now at the commanding heights of power,” who “admits that the administration’s policies are largely discredited. In its defense, he says without a hint of irony or sarcasm, ‘Not everything we’ve done has been illegal’.”

This is progress, of course (to put it mildly), but now we need NAMES …

Habeas denied: it’s official

On Wednesday, as reported by SCOTUSblog, Think Progress and almost no one else, DC Circuit judges, “after pondering the issue for more than two months … refused to delay any longer putting into effect its decision that Guantánamo Bay detainees have lost all rights to pursue habeas challenges to their prolonged imprisonment.” Habeas? Who cares? With the recent collapse of the Military Commissions, this latest abject surrender to the tyranny of last October’s Military Commissions Act leaves the 379 men still alive in Guantánamo’s isolation cells with no rights whatsoever, their fate entirely subject to the whims of the President.

Let’s forget, shall we, what Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his majority opinion in Rasul v. Bush, way back in June 2004:

Executive imprisonment has been considered oppressive and lawless since John, at Runnymede, pledged that no free man should be imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed or exiled save by the judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. The judges of England developed the writ of habeas corpus largely to preserve these immunities from executive restraint.

Passing the buck

Meanwhile, the Miami Herald, in Capitol Hill struggles with closing Gitmo, reports on State Department legal adviser John Bellinger’s testimony before the US Helsinki Commission (on Security and Cooperation in Europe), in which he admitted, “We fully and acutely realize Guantánamo has become a lightning rod for criticism around the world,” but added, “Everyone will agree these people need to be detained –- somewhere.” Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings –- the chair of the Commission and a former judge who was impeached for corruption and perjury –- then weighed in with a suggestion of his own. “Guantánamo has to be closed, over and out,” Hastings declared. “But if Europe isn’t prepared to stand up and take their share, I believe they ought to mute some of their criticism.”

Fine words, Sir, but remind me again: what exactly was Europe’s role when Messrs Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Gonzales concocted the aberrant extra-legal experiment that is Guantánamo in the first place?

When the pot calls the kettle black

From Bangladesh, where released Guantánamo prisoner Mubarak Hashim –- arrested in a Pakistani street for no reason in December 2001 –- recently described how he was subjected to electric shocks and held naked in a freezing cold cell during his five years in Guantánamo, comes a perceptive letter in the Daily Star quoting US ambassador Patricia Butenis –- soon to depart for Baghdad, of all places –- saying, “Deaths in custody, mistreatment of the detainees, lack of clarity on who gets arrested and why, and so-called ‘secret detentions’ are all unacceptable.” The letter writer adds that these comments “will earn her the gratitude of the whole sane world who will no doubt applaud her courage –- provided, of course, that the quote refers to Guantánamo Bay. However, if it is a remark on Bangladesh, then one can only ignore her for being a part of the usual myopic vision exhibited by recent US governments.”


For more on Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

“Guantánamo to close”? Did I miss something? Is Dick Cheney dead?

As wild rumors of Guantánamo’s imminent closure spread like a mutant virus through the world’s media, courtesy of the Associated Press –- with Time’s White House Likely Closing Gitmo gaining my award as the most audacious of the hundreds of headlines parroting the AP’s original release –- my own take is that the only conceivable way that Guantánamo will be closing soon –- with the remaining 379 prisoners transferred to US custody on the mainland –- is if Dick Cheney is actually dead, and no one has bothered to tell us.

While life still beats in Cheney’s body I cannot imagine that he would countenance transferring prisoners to the mainland, where they would be unbearably close to hordes of interfering lawyers and their outrageous demands for habeas corpus rights and due process. The Military Commissions may have taken a massive hit two weeks ago, but the whole purpose of last autumn’s Military Commissions Act –- reestablishing the Commissions and stripping the Guantánamo detainees of their habeas rights –- was to ensure that the only kind of court that any of the detainees would ever face would be of the kangaroo variety: one that guaranteed that they would be found guilty of whatever they were accused of –- regardless of whether these accusations came from the coercion or torture of themselves or others –- and that neither they nor their lawyers would be allowed to demonstrate, in any way whatsoever, that coercion or torture had ever been used.

Closing Guantánamo would shatter the viability of Cheney’s all-consuming and malevolent dream: that a brand-new judicial system, based on unfettered executive power, can be used to condemn to life imprisonment –- and perhaps even execution –- anyone that the President thinks is guilty. I’d love to discover that the whole rotten edifice is about to crumble, but I’m pretty sure that Dick Cheney’s still alive.

For more on Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

The Perils of Return: Repatriated to Torture

The Guantanamo FilesFears that the governments of both the US and the UK are conspiring to break international safeguards preventing the return of prisoners held without charge or trial to their home countries –- where they face a serious risk of torture and abuse –- have gained prominence in the last few days. On Saturday, I wrote on these pages about the case of Abdul Rauf al-Qassim, a Libyan prisoner in Guantánamo who is struggling to prevent his enforced return to the country of his birth, and on Tuesday the Pentagon announced that two Tunisian prisoners in Guantánamo, cleared for release since last year, had been returned to Tunisia on Sunday.

Zachary Katznelson, Senior Counsel at Reprieve, a London-based legal charity representing one of the Tunisians, Abdullah bin Omar, immediately denounced his client’s enforced repatriation, stating that he was “cleared by the United States –- found not to be a threat and not to have information about terrorism. But the US has not apologized and set him free after five years in Guantánamo. Instead, he has been shipped to Tunisia, where abuse and possibly torture await. What has happened to American justice? How are we any safer by sending cleared men back to notorious regimes in the dead of night?”

A 50-year old former railway engineer, bin Omar left Tunisia in 1989 because of religious persecution, and settled in Pakistan, where he was living when he was convicted by a Tunisian court, in absentia, and sentenced to 23 years in prison for belonging to Ennahda, a moderate Islamist political party and just one of the many valid organizations and worthy individuals persecuted over the last 20 years by the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He arrived in Guantánamo after being captured in Pakistan in April 2002, during a frenzied few months when all manner of innocent Arabs were rounded up in Pakistan, and was sold to the Americans for $5,000, although much of his subsequent story is unknown. He never took part in any tribunals in Guantánamo, and the US authorities only allowed Katznelson to meet him once, on 1 May 2007, when he “expressed severe concerns that were he to be returned to Tunisia, the authorities there would torture him to force him to confess or to become an informant.”

In the light of his story –- and the secretive Tunisian dictator’s well-reported history of political repression –- Katznelson was undoubtedly correct to point out that bin Omar “finds himself a guinea pig in a potentially deadly diplomatic experiment. The United States is so desperate to send people out of Guantánamo Bay, they are willing to ignore Tunisia’s horrific human rights record.” His opinion was reinforced by Jennifer Daskal, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, who noted, “the United States got diplomatic assurances from Tunisia –- a no-torture promise from a country with a documented record of torture. How are they enforced? Who is doing the monitoring?”

These are not the only cases in which the rights of prisoners cleared for release from Guantánamo are being trampled on by two administrations desperate to wash their hands of their own failings. On Saturday, the Times (in the UK) ran an affecting, if slightly misleading article about the former Guantánamo prisoner Ahmed Errachidi, who was flown back to Morocco on 27 April. A 41-year old chef, who suffers from bipolar disorder and has a history of mental breakdowns, Errachidi had been living in the UK, where he had been granted indefinite leave to remain, for 16 years, working in hotels and restaurants. However, in September 2001, with an impetuousness that is a hallmark of those suffering from the illness that afflicted him, he set off for Pakistan on a hare-brained mission to buy silver jewelry to sell in Morocco to raise money for an essential heart operation for one of his two young sons. Sidetracked by the humanitarian crisis that followed the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, he took a bus to Afghanistan –- “to help the poor children and the women, and to partake in their calamity,” as he later told his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s legal director –- but soon discovered that there was nothing he could do to help the Afghan people, and returned to Pakistan, where he was promptly captured by bounty hunters and sold to the US military for $5,000.

For the next five years and five months, Errachidi was subjected to some of the more egregious excesses of the administration’s post-9/11 detention system. First he was “rendered” back to Afghanistan and held for 19 days in the “Dark Prison,” the CIA’s vile torture dungeon near Kabul, where, as well as enduring brutal interrogations, rotten food and dirty water, prisoners were held in total darkness, hung on the walls by their wrists and blasted with music 24 hours a day. He was then transferred to the military-run prison at Kandahar airbase, where Chris Mackey, the pseudonym of a chief interrogator in Afghanistan, who later wrote a book about his experiences (The Interrogator’s War, with the journalist Greg Miller), recalled interrogating him. Regarding his mental illness as a ruse, Mackey wrote, “The only thing that gave this claim even a modicum of credibility was the fact that he managed to name the pharmacological drug he was taking.”

Bad MenAfter another 26 days at the prison in Bagram airbase, where, Errachidi said, he was “tortured and interrogated in his own hell,” because someone –- presumably another prisoner –- claimed that he had received military training at the Khaldan camp near Khost in August 2001, he was transferred to Guantánamo, where his mastery of English, and his refusal to remain silent in the face of injustice, meant that the prison authorities named him “The General.” Unable to understand that he had gained a reputation as an authority figure among the prisoners because of his language skills and his willingness to speak out about the prisoners’ treatment, the authorities concluded that his status confirmed the allegations about his “al-Qaeda training” that had been made in Afghanistan. “The cook has become the General,” Errachidi told Clive Stafford Smith, who related his story in his recent book Bad Men: Guantánamo Bay and the Secret Prisons. “In the minds of the Americans, the crack of an egg has become the explosion of a bomb.”

Held in isolation for two of his five years in Guantánamo, Errachidi was repeatedly interrogated about his alleged training in Afghanistan, even while suffering mental breakdowns. During February and March 2004, he became psychotic and was prescribed anti-psychotic drugs, but his interrogations continued, even though there was nothing to be gained from his claims that he was Jesus Christ, that Osama bin Laden was his student, and that a giant snowball was about to envelop the earth. He was only cleared for release after his lawyers found the documentation to prove that he had been working at the Westbury Hotel in London’s Bond Street when he was supposed to have been training at Khaldan.

Even then, however, Errachidi’s troubles were far from over. In February 2007, his lawyers were informed that both he and another British resident, Ahmed Belbacha, had been “approved to leave Guantánamo, after diplomatic arrangements for their departure had been made,” because they had been “cleared by a panel of military officers whose job was to determine whether a prisoner represented a threat to the US or its allies and whether there were other factors that could form the basis for continued detention, including intelligence value and any law-enforcement interest.”

Belbacha, like Errachidi, was innocent of any wrong-doing. A former professional footballer in Algeria, he had worked as an accounts clerk for a government-owned oil company, but had been repeatedly threatened by Islamic extremists. After escaping to the UK in 1999, he settled in the seaside town of Bournemouth, where he found a job as a waiter in a hotel. In autumn 2001, he took a month’s vacation to visit Damascus, Tehran and an Afghan refugee camp, but was captured in Pakistan and falsely accused of attending a training camp in Jalalabad and meeting Osama bin Laden on two occasions, even though, at the time, he was waiting to hear from the British government if his application for asylum had been successful. With a grim irony, his application was turned down, but he was granted exceptional leave to remain in the UK in June 2003, when he had already been in Guantánamo for over a year.

Despite both men’s innocence, the Foreign Office callously refused to accept them back. “We’re not making any moves with these individuals or the other British residents at Guantánamo,” a spokesman said in March. “Because they are not British citizens, we’re not providing any consular or diplomatic assistance.” When asked how he imagined they might ever be able to leave Guantánamo, the official replied, “It has got nothing to do with us.”

The outline of Errachidi’s story was well covered in the Times article, and Sean O’Neill, who interviewed him in Tangier, reported sympathetically on his long years of wrongful imprisonment. Where he was misled, however, was in accepting Errachidi’s explanation that he was now a free man. As O’Neill described it, “The Red Cross had asked him before he left Guantánamo if he would not rather stay than go back to Morocco where there was a risk of torture. He found the question insulting and says that in his homeland the police received him with kindness, courtesy and mint tea. After seven days, he was sent home to his family in Tangier.” What Errachidi failed to mention was that, before being returned to his family, he was arrested on terrorism charges and brought before a court on 2 May. Although the charges were dropped after representations by Moroccan lawyers acting on information provided by Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith told the BBC immediately afterwards that the Moroccan Interior Minister had announced that Errachidi would face new charges, relating to “membership of an unauthorized group,” in a trial that was scheduled to begin in July, and Zachary Katznelson confirmed to me on 19 June that this was still the case.

Morocco has a mixed record when it comes to dealing with its Guantánamo prisoners. Of the nine men returned prior to Errachidi, all but two are reportedly at liberty, although it has taken them many years to escape from the courts and prisons of their homeland, and there is a very real fear that Errachidi will suffer the same fate. Three of the five men transferred to Morocco in August 2004, for example, were only finally cleared of the “terrorist” charges against them in January this year, and three other men –- transferred in February 2006 and sentenced to between three and five years in prison in November 2006 for “membership of a criminal gang” and “falsifying documents” –- had to wait until last month for an appeal court to dismiss all the charges against them.

In the meantime, while Ahmed Errachidi waits to hear from the Moroccan courts, Ahmed Belbacha remains in Guantánamo, unsure whether, in the wake of the UK’s refusal to accept him, he will be returned to Algeria, where, according to Zachary Katznelson, the Algerian intelligence services have stated that they cannot ensure that he will be safe from their own personnel. In Belbacha’s case, what makes the British government’s intransigence all the more shocking is that, having insisted for five years that they would not act on behalf of British residents in Guantánamo, they had already broken their own rules, accepting the return to Britain, four weeks before Ahmed Errachidi was sent to Morocco, of Bisher al-Rawi, a 37-year old British resident from a wealthy Iraq family, who had fled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1984 and had come to Britain with his family. Having retained his Iraqi citizenship in the hope that the family might one day be able to reclaim their property in Iraq, al-Rawi –- who was kidnapped by CIA agents while undertaking a business venture in the Gambia, rendered to the “Dark Prison,” and held in Bagram and Guantánamo for over four years –- was freed because the British government could no longer disguise the fact that he had actually been working for the British intelligence services at the time of his arrest, and that –- with a callousness that beggars belief –- MI5 had, at the same time, fed false information about him to their American counterparts.

While al-Rawi has been reunited with his family, however, his business partner and fellow British resident, Jamil El-Banna, who has also been cleared for release, remains incarcerated in Guantánamo, and is yet another victim of the latest attempts by the Americans and the British to return prisoners to countries where they are at risk of torture and abuse. A 45-year old Jordanian refugee with a British wife and five children, El-Banna came to Britain in 1994 and was granted refugee status in 2000. His problems stem from the fact that, unlike al-Rawi, he refused to be enlisted by MI5, and has continued to do so in Guantánamo, where British and American agents have persistently tried to recruit him, using a mixture of bribery and threats to his family.

In an attempt to pave the way for his enforced return to Jordan, which, as in the case of Abdullah bin Omar and his home country, he left because of religious persecution, the British government has resorted to claiming that his leave to remain in the UK has expired. Last week, in a parliamentary written reply, the Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne, had the nerve to state, “Mr Banna was recognized as a refugee by the UK in 1997 and was granted indefinite leave to remain in 2000. That leave has now lapsed.” One of El-Banna’s son’s, 10-year old Anas, promptly delivered a letter to Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister-in-waiting, in which he declared, “I hope you won’t say that my Dad isn’t British so you can’t help him. My Dad was treated unfairly and kidnapped and even if he isn’t British, we, his five children, are. I hope you won’t say that my dad was away from the country for more than two years. My Dad was only out of the country because he was locked up over there.” El-Banna’s solicitor, Irene Nembhard, added, “As a refugee recognized by the UK, his status does not lapse. He has a legal entitlement to return to the UK.”

As with the cases of Abdul Rauf al-Qassim, Abdullah bin Omar, Ahmed Errachidi and Ahmed Belbacha –- and others whose stories will no doubt surface in the months to come –- it remains to be seen whether justice will triumph, when the governments of both the US and UK have so little regard for international treaties, and are dedicated, instead, to demonstrating a voracious appetite for sacrificing individuals to cover up their own mistakes.

For more on Guantánamo, “extraordinary rendition,” and the prisons at Kandahar and Bagram, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on CounterPunch.

Notes on Guantánamo & the ‘War on Terror’ (21 June)

Return to Abu Ghraib

Don’t miss Seymour Hersh’s essential article, The General’s Report, in this week’s New Yorker, based on interviews with former US army general Antonio Taguba. Ordered by the Pentagon to investigate abuses at Abu Ghraib by the 800th Military Police Brigade, Taguba was belittled by Rumsfeld and his acolytes after the report was published –- and was ultimately forced out of his job, even though he had not pointed out the culpability of senior officials because it was not in his remit. “They always shoot the messenger,” Taguba told Hersh. “To be accused of being overzealous and disloyal –- that cuts deep into me. I was being ostracized for doing what I was asked to do.”

More important is the following passage:

“From what I knew, troops just don’t take it upon themselves to initiate what they did without any form of knowledge of the higher-ups,” Taguba told me. His orders were clear, however: he was to investigate only the military police at Abu Ghraib, and not those above them in the chain of command. “These MP troops were not that creative,” he said. “Somebody was giving them guidance, but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority. I was limited to a box.”

And this:

“There was no doubt in my mind that this stuff” –- the explicit images –- “was gravitating upward. It was standard operating procedure to assume that this had to go higher. The President had to be aware of this.” He said that Rumsfeld, his senior aides, and the high-ranking generals and admirals who stood with him as he misrepresented what he knew about Abu Ghraib had failed the nation.

An eye for an eye, an ‘enemy combatant’ for an ‘enemy combatant’

Over at Tomdispatch, in Blowback, Detainee-Style, Karen J. Greenberg, the executive director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security, notes how the US administration has lost the high moral ground in the case of four Iranian-American scholars and activists held as “detainees” in Iran, and “accused of being spies and/or employees of the US government intent on fomenting dissent and disruption within Iran.”

Sounds familiar? Greenberg explains why:

In numerous ways, the US has robbed itself of the right to proclaim the very principles by which these prisoners should be defended. Though President Bush and his spokespersons may not see it, their past policies have set a trap for the government –- and for Americans generally. More than five years after setting up Guantánamo, and then implementing national security strategies based upon torture, secret prisons, and illegal detentions, the Bush administration has managed to obliterate the moral high ground they now seek to claim in relation to Iran.

And this:

At the inception of the war on terror, the Bush administration broke the very rules it now accuses the Iranians of breaking. As part of a high-stakes stand-off with countries associated with Islamic fundamentalism, it was the Bush administration that first collected individuals, some guilty of crimes, some simply swept up in the chaos –- initially off the Afghan battlefield and then off the global one. Often, they did so with very little knowledge of, or care about, whom they were rounding up. They incarcerated these prisoners for long periods without releasing their names or, often, their whereabouts; they refused to give them the established rights of prisoners of war; they defied the united protests of allies around the world; and they sought to justify this whole policy with the term “detainee.”

Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak

And on the front page of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, The Prison Poets Of Guantánamo Find a Publisher gives a welcome boost to Poems From Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, an 84-page anthology of poems by 17 Guantánamo prisoners. Edited by Marc Falkoff, an English Literature graduate, law professor and attorney for 17 Guantánamo prisoners from the Yemen, this slim but attractive volume will be published in August by the University of Iowa Press. Here’s a sample, by imprisoned al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj (translated from Arabic), describing the US authorities’ unsuccessful attempts to recruit him to spy on his al-Jazeera colleagues:

The oppressors are playing with me,
As they move freely around the world.
They ask me to spy on my countrymen,
Claiming it would be a good deed.
They offer me money and land,
And freedom to go where I please.
Their temptations seize
My attention like lightning in the sky.
But their gift is an empty snake,
Carrying hypocrisy in its mouth like venom.

For more on Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

Guantánamo: identities of released Yemenis revealed

Yesterday I reported here on the release of four Yemeni prisoners, and told the stories of two of these men: Sadeq Mohammed Said, captured after crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan after being injured in a bombing raid, who may or may not have acted as a courier for the Taliban, and Fawaz Naman Hamoud, a young man with a severe psychiatric illness, who was recruited to fight with the Taliban because he was told that “only the jihad places had magic things inside.” Today the Yemen Observer confirmed the identities of the other two: 27-year old Hani Abdu Shu’alan and 26-year old Ali Saleh.

Shu’alan, who was accused of traveling to Afghanistan in July 2001, of staying in various safe houses associated with the Taliban, and of being in Tora Bora during the US air campaign, told his tribunal that he was a student who went to Afghanistan to find a job and save money, after being told about the possibilities by a sheikh at his local mosque. He explained that he found work as a chef’s assistant near Kabul, and was only passing through Tora Bora on his way to Pakistan after the war started. He added that he traveled with many other people, and that he handed himself in to the Pakistani authorities on arrival.

Saleh did not take part in any tribunals in Guantánamo, and his story is available only through the two-page Unclassified Summary of Evidence for his Administrative Review Board –- the annual reviews set up to assess whether prisoners should still be regarded as “enemy combatants” –- in which it was alleged that he traveled to Afghanistan “in support of the jihad,” but also because, in June 2000, he “heard from friends that the Taliban … would provide a home for those who chose to live there.” It was also alleged that he joined the Taliban on 9/11 and fought with them on the front lines near Bagram, that he was present at the al-Farouq training camp when Osama bin Laden visited and gave a lecture, and that he owned some notebooks filled with pictures of weapons and tools and words in French and Arabic describing various materials used in explosives.

Whilst it’s impossible to know if any of these allegations were true, an additional allegation –- that he was “recognized by a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant” –- is one of the more worrying claims made against prisoners in general, as it has been demonstrated in many cases –- and as I discuss in depth in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison –- that these “senior al-Qaeda” figures, whether in Guantánamo itself, or in other secret prisons, may well have been shown a photo album of prisoners in Guantánamo, and asked to come up with stories about them, while being interrogated under duress.

Saleh also probably did himself no favors for many years in Guantánamo by refusing to condemn the 9/11 attacks. This is not to say that he approved of them, but those judging him noted that he “stated that he could not judge if the 9/11 terrorist attacks were wrong, because he is not an Islamic scholar, and said, ‘They were just following the directions of the scholars. That is what we do.’” Under the factors favoring release or transfer, it was reiterated that he wanted to move to Afghanistan because he was unhappy with the quality of his life and wanted to find a wife, and it was also stated that he said that he didn’t like firing a Kalashnikov.

Why these men in particular were chosen for release remains one of Guantánamo’s many mysteries. With the exception of Sadeq Said, they are not among the five men still in Guantánamo who have been cleared for release since at least 2006, although the Yemen Observer possibly shed some light on the arcane by-ways of the administration’s decision-making process by pointing out that a Yemeni security official told them, “Three of the four men were among the Yemeni detainees who met with the Yemen security delegation that visited Guantánamo last year.”

What remains clear, however, is that even with these releases, 94 Yemenis remain in Guantánamo, many of whom had no involvement whatsoever with either the Taliban or al-Qaeda. For these men –- who include humanitarian aid workers and missionaries captured in Afghanistan, and students captured in Pakistan –- the truth of their detention, behind the wall of bluster raised by the US authorities, who maintain that many are still held because their government will not cooperate fully with them regarding transfers and continued detention, may in fact have more to do with comments reported in the Unclassified Summaries of Evidence for two particular Yemeni prisoners, who were told that one of the reasons for their continued detention was because their government was not perceived as being cooperative enough in the “War on Terror.”

You’d be hard pushed to find a better demonstration that the “War on Terror” is as much about political maneuvring as it is about guilt and innocence.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.


The prisoners’ numbers (and variations on the spelling of their names) are as follows:

ISN 225: Hani Abdu Shu’alan (al-Shulan) (Yemen)
ISN 221: Ali Saleh (Ali Mohsen Saleh) (Yemen)

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the eleven prisoners released from February to June 2009, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; and January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here).

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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