Archive for August, 2007

Lofti Lagha, Guantánamo detainee from Tunisia, says US forces abused him

Back in June, I was the first journalist to cover the story of Lofti Lagha, one of two Tunisians repatriated from Guantánamo, who faced an uncertain future in the country of his birth. While fears that his fellow countryman, Abdullah bin Omar, would face torture on his return to Tunisia (which were confirmed in July), the fate of Lagha was impossible to predict. Like hundreds of other Guantánamo detainees, he had spent over five years in US custody without charge, without trial, and without ever meeting a lawyer who could tell something of his story to the outside world.

Seven weeks after his return to Tunisia, Lagha has finally been allowed to meet with a lawyer, Samir Ben Amor. He has not spoken about his treatment since his return –- although Ben Amor noted that he is “expected to go on trial in Tunisia later this year” and “could face up to six years in prison” if convicted on charges of “associating with a terrorist group” –- and Ben Amor did not elaborate on the conflict between Lagha’s claims that he was working for the missionary organization Jamaat-al-Tablighi and did not take up arms against anyone in Afghanistan, and the Americans’ allegations that he was involved with terrorism, saying only that his client “had travelled to Afghanistan in early 2001 from Italy, where he had settled as an illegal immigrant and become a devout Muslim.” The Associated Press, which reported on Lagha’s meeting with Ben Amor, added that, prior to his arrest on the Pakistani border, he “was in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, at the height of a US-led military campaign that ousted the Taliban regime, although it was not immediately clear why he was there.”

What Lagha has spoken about, however, is the brutal treatment he received in Afghanistan at the hands of US forces, telling his lawyer, “My hands and feet were frozen from the glacial cold,” and explaining that, after three months in a hospital in Pakistan, he was handed over to the US military, who took him to their prison at Bagram airbase, north of Kabul. According to Ben Amor, “It was there that US medics told Lagha it was necessary to amputate his frostbitten fingers, contradicting Pakistani doctors who had said he didn’t need an operation.” Ben Amor added that “Lagha vehemently opposed the procedure, but was drugged one night and woke the next day to find his fingers had been amputated, leaving only his thumbs. When he woke up, he claims he was beaten and kicked by US soldiers.”

Nearly six years after he was first captured, Lagha remains a mystery. With little prospect that he will receive a fair trial in Tunisia, this latest news –- of enforced and unnecessary amputations by the US authorities, which, it should be noted, have been reported by many other prisoners, both in Afghanistan and Guantánamo –- does nothing to indicate that there has ever been any justice in his treatment.

Bagram airbase

Bagram airbase.

For more on Guantánamo, the Tunisian detainees, and the horrors of Bagram prison, 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.

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

Isa al-Murbati, the last Bahraini in Guantánamo, returns home (and a former Taliban minister returns to Afghanistan)

Hot on the heels of a declassified report from Guantánamo detainee Isa al-Murbati’s lawyer Joshua Colangelo-Bryan about conditions in the prison comes the news that al-Murbati, the last of six Bahraini detainees in Guantánamo, has returned home.

In Gulf Daily News, Geoffrey Bew reports that al-Murbati, a former grocer, who is married with five children, arrived in Bahrain at 10 pm on August 8, and “was whisked straight to the Public Prosecution in Manama for a roughly three-hour debriefing, where he was greeted by family members, including his eldest and youngest sons, MPs, supporters and friends.” His youngest son, seven-year old Ebrahim, who was just a baby when he last saw his father, held a bouquet of flowers for his father, and said, “It is the first time I will to speak to my father. I am very happy.” Al-Murbati’s eldest son, 17-year old Ali, was “trembling with emotion as he declared the family’s delight,” and said, “I am so happy. I feel so good. I cannot believe it. We heard he was coming home, but could not believe it.” After the debriefing, al-Murbati returned to his home, where he was reunited with his wife and his two daughters.

Ebrahim al-Murbati

Isa al-Murbati’s youngest son Ebrahim awaits his father’s return.

Bew also reports that MP Mohammed Khalid, who helped campaign for the release of all the Bahraini detainees, said that it was “a great day,” but added that “the next push would be for compensation.” “I am very happy with today’s event,” he said. “This is the last page in the Guantánamo Bay chapter. Now we want compensation for all the Bahrainis who have come home.”

Although al-Murbati’s release certainly does close a chapter of Guantánamo’s history, the story of the Bahrainis reflects, in a microcosm, almost every injustice that has been perpetrated by the US authorities in its pursuit of retaliation for the events of 9/11. All reported harrowing abuse in US detention, both in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, but while the story of joint Saudi-Bahraini national Juma al-Dossari (released last month) received extensive media coverage, rather less has been devoted to the stories told by the other five men. As Isa al-Murbati savors his reunion with his family, I thought that this might be an appropriate occasion to review some of the key events from the five years and eight months that he spent without charge or trial in US custody.

From the moment of his capture, al-Murbati –- along with all the other Bahrainis –- was treated with appalling brutality. In conversations in Guantánamo with his lawyers, which were later declassified by the US authorities, he explained that, at the US prison in Kandahar airbase, he was “shackled to a pole outside in very cold weather,” and that, “every hour, US military personnel threw cold water on [him] while he was shackled to the pole.” He added that this took place every night for a week, and also explained that on one occasion he was taken to an area away from the other prisoners, because Red Cross representatives were visiting the camp, and the authorities did not want them to see him.

In Guantánamo, he was subjected to random acts of brutality by various guards. On one occasion, his head was forced into a toilet while it was flushed, and on another occasion, after returning from an interrogation, when he put his shackled hands through the slot in the cell door so that the shackles could be removed as they were usually, “the sergeant grabbed the belt that is attached to the shackles and pulled it violently, even putting his foot against the cell door to create greater leverage. This caused his hands and forearms to be pulled through and against the small metal slot, causing significant injury.” When his lawyers met him shortly after this incident, “he was wearing a cast due to the injuries he suffered.”

Al-Murbati was also one of at least a hundred detainees who, during the period from November 2002 to March 2004, when Major General Geoffrey Miller was in charge of the prison, were “softened up” for interrogation by being held in isolation –- for days and sometimes for weeks –- in cells in which, while shackled in painful “stress positions,” and left alone until they were forced to soil themselves, they were also subjected to extreme temperature manipulation, and to loud music and noise.

Recounting his experiences of this period, al-Murbati reported that he was repeatedly held in a cell in which the air conditioning had been turned off, so that it was almost unbearably hot, and also explained that on several occasions the floor was “treated with a mixture of water and a powerful cleaning agent,” which was then thrown on his face and body, “causing great irritation” and making it difficult to breathe. On other occasions, he was played songs that “had Arabic language lyrics praising Jesus Christ,” and at other times “very loud music and white noise was played through six speakers arranged close to [his] head” for twelve hours, and “multiple flashing strobe lights were used as well,” which were so strong that he “had to keep his eyes closed.” He also reported that, on another occasion, he was “forced to sit shackled in the urine of another detainee,” and that he “had a mop soaked in the urine wiped all over his body and face.”

Even after Miller’s departure from Guantánamo –- when he took his Pentagon-sanctioned approach to “setting the conditions” for interrogation to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, with repulsive results that shocked the world when photos were released in April 2004 –- al-Murbati’s torment continued. In 2005, he took part in a widespread hunger strike. Force-fed on various occasions from September 2005 to January 2006, his weight (which had been 193 pounds when he arrived from Afghanistan in June 2002) at one point plummeted to just 119 pounds. After being forced off his hunger strike, he was held in Camp 1 –- reserved for detainees who were considered to be particularly dangerous, or to have significant intelligence value –- and, as Colangelo-Bryan reported, spent his last months in Guantánamo in the isolation of Camp 6, modeled on American Supermax prisons, but with all the frills –- such as mixing with other detainees, watching television, or receiving family visits –- removed.

As he resumes his life in Bahrain, and tries to put his years of torture and abuse behind him, I can only wish him peace.

***

As well as releasing Isa al-Murbati, the US authorities also released five Afghans. In common with the general fog that surrounds the release of Afghans from Guantánamo (at least since the early days of Guantánamo, when reporters filed regular reports on the released prisoners from Kabul), the identities of four of these men are unknown, although a reliable source informs me that one of them is Abdul Razak Iktiar Mohammed, a former Minister of Commerce in the Taliban government. According to his lawyers, Mohammed “had nothing to do with military affairs or fighting,” “did not oppose the United States or the Afghan forces, and insist[ed] that he would never do so,” and, after the fall of the Taliban, “supported himself by working as a farmer on his land, growing almonds and spices.” He said that he “believed that President Karzai had pardoned former Taliban civilian officials,” and that therefore he “had no reason to leave the country.”

It remains to be seen whether the other Afghans’ names will be revealed, and whether the men will be freed on arrival in Afghanistan, or transferred for continued detention to a newly-refurbished wing of the Pul-i-Charki prison in Kabul, where, apparently, several prisoners from the US authorities’ secretive prison at Bagram airbase have already been moved.

This article draws on passages from 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 American Torture.

Note:

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

ISN 52: Isa al-Murbati (Bahrain)
ISN 1043: Abdul Razak Iktiar Mohammed (Abdul Razaq) (Afghan)

The four Afghans whose identities were unknown at the time of their release are as follows:

ISN 532: Mohammed Sharif (see Website Extras 8)
ISN 848: Amin Ullah (to be described in a forthcoming online chapter)
ISN 943: Abdul Ghani (to be described in a forthcoming online chapter)
ISN 1004: Mohammed Yacoub (see Website Extras 7)

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, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; 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).

Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed)

An article by New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer is always a cause for celebration, and her latest, The Black Sites, is no exception. Beginning with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s “confession” four months ago, during his tribunal in Guantánamo, that “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl in the city of Karachi, Pakistan,” Mayer reveals that Mariane Pearl, the widow of the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter, received a call from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, before the US released the transcript of the tribunal, in which Gonzales told her that the Justice Department was “about to announce some good news” –- that KSM (Mohammed) had “confessed to killing her husband.” Mayer reports that, unlike four years before, shortly after KSM’s capture, when Condoleezza Rice had rung her to tell her the same news, but in secret, “Gonzales’s announcement seemed like a publicity stunt.” Pearl asked him if he had proof; he said that he did, but was unable to share it. “It’s not enough for officials to call me and say they believe it,” she told Mayer. “You need evidence.”

Daniel PearlPearl’s doubts were shared by many others. In the first instance, another man, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, had been convicted of the murder in 2002 –- and had then been subjected to so many delays in his proposed execution that experts on Pakistan had concluded that he was being protected by the government because of his ties with the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service. In addition, those who knew the case well doubted the truth of KSM’s confession. Asra Nomani, a former colleague of Daniel Pearl, said, “I don’t think this confession resolves the case. You can’t have justice from one person’s confession, especially under such unusual circumstances. To me, it’s not convincing.” She added, “I called all the investigators. They weren’t just skeptical –- they didn’t believe it.” Special Agent Randall Bennett, the head of security for the US consulate in Karachi when Pearl was killed, said that “KSM’s name never came up” when he was interviewing Ahmed Sheikh’s convicted accomplices, Robert Baer, a former CIA officer, said, “My old colleagues say with one-hundred-per-cent certainty that it was not KSM who killed Pearl,” another government official said, “The fear is that KSM is covering up for others, and that these people will be released,” and Judea Pearl, Daniel’s father, said, “Something is fishy. There are a lot of unanswered questions. KSM can say he killed Jesus –- he has nothing to lose.”

From here –- having sown compelling doubts about the validity of KSM’s testimony (as I also highlighted in a recent article) –- Mayer proceeds to investigate why KSM’s testimony was so suspect, delving into the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA in its many “black sites” around the world. Despite a robust defense of the techniques by, amongst others, CIA director General Michael Hayden, who has called them an “irreplaceable” tool for combating terrorism, and President Bush, who has claimed that they have led to the foiling of at least ten plots since 9/11, Mayer points out that the number of plots in which KSM claimed involvement –- 31 in total –- is “an improbable number, even for a high-level terrorist,” and adds that Colonel Dwight Sullivan, “the top defense lawyer at the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, which is expected eventually to try Mohammed for war crimes,” told her that his “serial confessions” were “a textbook example of why we shouldn’t allow coercive methods.”

Although Sullivan’s criticisms undoubtedly carry weight, the administration’s “black sites” program is so secretive that –- with the exception of the testimonies of prisoners who were held by mistake, and have subsequently been released, and a few held in Guantánamo who have managed to relate stories to their lawyers (discussed in detail in The Guantánamo Files) –- very little is known about it. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat in the House of Representatives, and a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, told Mayer, “We talk to the authorities about these detainees, but, of course, they’re not going to come out and tell us that they beat the living daylights out of someone.” He recalled his attempts to find out more about KSM, after learning of his capture in 2003. For more than three years, he said, “I could never pinpoint anything.” After finally receiving some classified briefings on his interrogations, he said that he “[couldn’t] go into details” about what he found out about KSM’s treatment, but explained that “even if it wasn’t torture, as the Administration claims, ‘it ain’t right, either. Something went wrong.’”

In seeking out new information about the “black sites,” however, Mayer manages to get close to an extraordinary classified document: a report on the 14 “high-value” detainees –- including KSM, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh –- who were transferred from the “black sites” to Guantánamo in September 2006. The report was compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only non-military and non-governmental personnel to have met the 14 men since they were captured, between two and five years ago. She notes that “The public affairs office at the CIA and officials at the congressional intelligence oversight committees would not even acknowledge the existence of the report,” and –- after pointing out that some of the few people to have seen it include Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, the Secretary of State’s legal adviser John Bellinger III, CIA director Michael Hayden, CIA general counsel John Rizzo, and some members of the Senate and House intelligence oversight committees –- comments, acutely:

Confidentiality may be particularly stringent in this case. Congressional and other Washington sources familiar with the report said that it harshly criticized the CIA’s practices. One of the sources said that the Red Cross described the agency’s detention and interrogation methods as tantamount to torture, and declared that American officials responsible for the abusive treatment could have committed serious crimes. The source said the report warned that these officials may have committed “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions, and may have violated the US Torture Act, which Congress passed in 1994. The conclusions of the Red Cross, which is known for its credibility and caution, could have potentially devastating legal ramifications.

Such are the concerns about the legality of the CIA’s program that a former CIA officer, who “supports the agency’s detention and interrogation policies,” told Mayer that he was worried that, if the full story ever surfaced, “agency personnel could face criminal prosecution.” He added that, within the agency, there was a “high level of anxiety about political retribution” for the interrogation program, and explained that, if congressional hearings were to take place, “several guys expect to be thrown under the bus.” He also said that a number of officers had “taken out professional liability insurance, to help with potential legal fees.”

Moving on to the mechanics of the program, Mayer returns to September 17, 2001, when the President authorized the CIA to create paramilitary teams to hunt, capture, detain, or kill designated terrorists almost anywhere in the world. Noting that the agency had “virtually no trained interrogators,” she cites a former officer who confirmed that, at first, the agency was “crippled by its lack of expertise.” “It began right away, in Afghanistan, on the fly,” he said. “They invented the program of interrogation with people who had no understanding of al-Qaeda or the Arab world.” Under pressure from the White House, and in particular from Vice President Dick Cheney, the officer scoured the archives, and was “particularly impressed” with the Phoenix Program, from the Vietnam War, which, despite his enthusiasm, has been described as “a program of state-sanctioned torture and murder.” A. B. Krongard, the CIA’s executive director from 2001 to 2004, also explained that “the agency turned to ‘everyone we could, including our friends in Arab cultures,’ for interrogation advice, among them those in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia,” all of which, as Mayer notes, are regularly criticized by the State Department for human rights abuses.

After explaining that the CIA knew even less about running prisons than it did about hostile interrogations, and quoting Tyler Drumheller, a former chief of European operations, who blamed former director George Tenet, saying that the entire program was “the legacy of a director who never said no to anybody,” Mayer reports that, according to the former officer, many CIA officials had misgivings. “A lot of us knew this would be a can of worms,” he said. “We warned them, ‘It’s going to become an atrocious mess.’” No one, he pointed out, had thought through what he called “the disposal plan”: “What are you going to do with these people? The utility of someone like KSM is, at most, six months to a year. You exhaust them. Then what? It would have been better if we had executed them.”

Execution, however, was not what the CIA had in mind. Instead, lacking any in-house expertise, the agency turned to retired military psychologists, trained in the Special Forces’ secret SERE program (“Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape”), which taught soldiers how to survive torture, should they ever be captured by their enemies, by simulating torture, “including waterboarding (simulated drowning), sleep deprivation, isolation, exposure to temperature extremes, enclosure in tiny spaces, bombardment with agonizing sounds, and religious and sexual humiliation.” Despite some opposition from within the CIA, others were impressed that professors were on board who could, in theory at least, justify what the agency was doing.

Brought in to work on Abu Zubaydah, one of the first supposedly significant al-Qaeda figures in US custody (he was captured in March 2002), Mayer writes that a European official who was familiar with the program noted that the “professors” were “very arrogant, and pro-torture. They sought to render the detainees vulnerable –- to break down all of their senses. It takes a psychologist trained in this to understand these rupturing experiences.” She also reports that “Zubaydah told the Red Cross that he was not only waterboarded, as has been previously reported; he was also kept for a prolonged period in a cage, known as a ‘dog box,’ which was so small that he could not stand.” Describing the tactics used by James Mitchell, one of the psychologists (although Mitchell himself disputed the account), army interrogator Steve Kleinman said that reducing a detainee to a state of “learned helplessness” was “his whole paradigm.” Under Mitchell’s guidance, he said, the program “starts with isolation. Then they eliminate the prisoners’ ability to forecast the future –- when their next meal is, when they can go to the bathroom. It creates dread and dependency.” He added, crucially, “It was the KGB model. But the KGB used it to get people who had turned against the state to confess falsely. The KGB wasn’t after intelligence.”

Mayer establishes that the revived torture program not only revived long-established (and generally reviled) techniques –- especially extreme sensory deprivation –- which elicited “confessions” regardless of their value, but also that it was “perfected,” and run with a “mechanistic aura” that was “remarkable.” One expert familiar with the techniques explained, disturbingly:

It’s one of the most sophisticated, refined programs of torture ever. At every stage, there was a rigid attention to detail. Procedure was adhered to almost to the letter. There was top-down quality control, and such a set routine that you get to the point where you know what each detainee is going to say, because you’ve heard it before. It was almost automated. People were utterly dehumanized. People fell apart. It was the intentional and systematic infliction of great suffering masquerading as a legal process. It is just chilling.

By the time of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s capture, in March 2003, the program was already well-established. Mayer runs through his back story, and then, while acknowledging that a “complete picture of [his] time in secret detention remains elusive,” pieces together the most complete story yet. After telling him, “We’re not going to kill you. But we’re going to take you to the very brink of your death and back,” Mayer reports that the CIA took him either to its notorious “Dark Prison” in Kabul –- where dozens of Guantánamo detainees were also held –- or to the “Salt Pit,” another CIA-run facility near Kabul. In these prisons, where, in addition to the humiliations of rectal intrusions and forced nudity, prisoners were subjected to loud music 24 hours a day, and to random beatings, painful “stress positions,” persistent sleep deprivation and extremes of heat and cold (techniques which, as Mayer notes, were staples of the KGB and –- in the case of sleep deprivation –- a technique whose efficacy as torture has been noted since the 1500s), Mohammed “was placed in his own cell, where he remained naked for several days. He was questioned by an unusual number of female handlers, perhaps as an additional humiliation. He has alleged that he was attached to a dog leash, and yanked in such a way that he was propelled into the walls of his cell. Sources say that he also claimed to have been suspended from the ceiling by his arms, his toes barely touching the ground. The pressure on his wrists evidently became exceedingly painful.” He is also “said to have described being chained naked to a metal ring in his cell wall for prolonged periods in a painful crouch,” and “also claimed that he was kept alternately in suffocating heat and in a painfully cold room, where he was doused with ice water.”

The Salt Pit

The Salt Pit. Photo by Trevor Paglen, co-author, with A. C. Thompson, of Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights.

Subsequently transferred to a secret prison in Poland –- where he surmised his location because he “glimpsed Polish writing on a water bottle” –- Mohammed encountered a more sophisticated form of detention, in a prison which was, apparently, “a far more high-tech facility than the prisons in Afghanistan. The cells had hydraulic doors and air-conditioning. Multiple cameras in each cell provided video surveillance of the detainees. In some ways, the circumstances were better: the detainees were given bottled water.” Robert Grenier, the CIA’s former counterterrorism chief, tellingly told Mayer (“without confirming the existence of any black sites”), “The agency’s techniques became less aggressive as they learned the art of interrogation,” which, he added, “is an art.” Nevertheless, the torture –- whether refined or not –- continued.

A Council on Europe report described isolation for four months as “typical.” The prisoners also had “no exposure to natural light, making it impossible for them to tell if it was night or day,” and “interacted only with masked, silent guards.” According to one former detainee of an Eastern European black site, Mohammed al-Asad, “white noise was piped in constantly, although during electrical outages he could hear people crying.” According to “a source familiar with the Red Cross report,” KSM spent his time in Poland shackled and naked, except for a pair of goggles and earmuffs. In addition, the food, which was “largely tasteless, and barely enough to live on,” was “delivered sporadically, to insure that the prisoners remained temporally disoriented.” “It was all part of the conditioning,” a Council of Europe representative said. “It’s all calibrated to develop dependency.”

The CIA’s secret “black site” in Poland

The CIA’s secret “black site” in Poland.

According to a source familiar with the Red Cross report, the majority of the detainees held in Poland –- most of the 14 who were transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006 –- were waterboarded, and KSM, whose waterboarding was first revealed by ABC News in November 2005, claimed to have been waterboarded five times. Mayer reports that “two former CIA officers who are friends with one of Mohammed’s interrogators called this bravado, insisting that he was waterboarded only once,” and claimed that he “needed only to be shown the drowning equipment again before he ‘broke,’” and adds that another officer insisted that he “didn’t resist. He sang right away. He cracked real quick.” He added, “KSM was just a little doughboy. He couldn’t stand toe to toe and fight it out.” Nevertheless, despite the officer’s insistence that the CIA “kept a doctor standing by during interrogations,” and that the method was “safe and effective,” he also “admitted that it could cause lasting psychic damage to the interrogators.”

And it’s at this point, as with all Mayer’s previous articles, that her talent shines through, as she elicits comments that reveal not only that “old-fashioned” techniques of “rapport-building” are the only effective way to gain useful intelligence, but also that embracing what Dick Cheney has described as the “Dark Side” –- embracing torture –- is not only morally repugnant and shockingly unreliable, but also that it implacably corrupts and damages those who take part in it:

During interrogations, the former agency official said, officers worked in teams, watching each other behind two-way mirrors. Even with this group support, the friend said, Mohammed’s interrogator “has horrible nightmares.” He went on, “When you cross over that line of darkness, it’s hard to come back. You lose your soul. You can do your best to justify it, but it’s well outside the norm. You can’t go to that dark a place without it changing you.” He said of his friend, “He’s a good guy. It really haunts him. You are inflicting something really evil and horrible on somebody.”

Although a former CIA officer defended the program by explaining that “there was absolutely nothing done to KSM that wasn’t done to the interrogators themselves,” Mayer also notes that “the Red Cross report emphasizes that it was the simultaneous use of several techniques for extended periods that made the treatment ‘especially abusive,’” and quotes Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and an outspoken critic of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” who told her that, particularly with sensory deprivation, “there’s a point where it’s torture. You can put someone in a refrigerator and it’s torture. Everything is a matter of degree.” Mayer also quotes former CIA director George Tenet, who, writing of KSM’s apparent insistence that “he wouldn’t talk until he was given a lawyer in New York, where he assumed he would be taken,” explained, in his recent memoir At the Center of the Storm, “Had that happened, I am confident that we would have obtained none of the information he had in his head about imminent threats against the American people.” She adds, however, that opponents of the CIA’s program, recalling that Ramzi Yousef –- KSM’s nephew, and the terrorist behind the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 –- “gave a voluminous confession after being read his Miranda rights,” following his capture and rendition to the US courts (rather than an offshore gulag). “These guys are egomaniacs,” a former federal prosecutor told Mayer. “They love to talk!” This is a claim that one of the pro-torture officers also made –- “A lot of them want to talk. Their egos are unimaginable” –- but in the waterboarding scenario, as Mayer has demonstrated, the talk led only to such exaggerated claims that one of the jokes that followed KSM’s “confession” in March was that he was on the grassy knoll in 1963 and had killed John F. Kennedy.

Towards the end of the article, Mayer cites Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission and later the State Department’s top counsellor, under Condoleezza Rice, who told her that he is “not convinced that eliciting information from detainees justifies ‘physical torment.’” Last year, after leaving the government, he said, “The question would not be, ‘Did you get information that proved useful?’ Instead it would be, ‘Did you get information that could have been usefully gained only from these methods?’ My own view is that the cool, carefully considered, methodical, prolonged, and repeated subjection of captives to physical torment, and the accompanying psychological terror, is immoral.”

Noting that, under pressure, “a former top agency official” conceded that 90 per cent of the information produced by the “enhanced interrogation techniques” was “unreliable,” and that KSM, “like virtually all the top al-Qaeda prisoners held by the CIA, has claimed that, while under coercion, he lied to please his captors,” Mayer leaves the final words to the following: former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, who asked, “What are you going to do with KSM in the long run? It’s a very good question. I don’t think anyone has an answer. If you took him to any real American court, I think any judge would say there is no admissible evidence. It would be thrown out”; a federal official involved in KSM’s case, who said, “He has no history of killing with his own hands, although he’s proved happy to commit mass murder from afar,” and who, noting that “al-Qaeda’s leadership had increasingly focused on symbolic political targets,” added, “For him, it’s not personal. It’s business”; to Carl Levin, who said, “A guy as dangerous as KSM is, and half the world wonders if they can believe him –- is that what we want? Statements that can’t be believed, because people think they rely on torture?”; and to Daniel Pearl’s friend Asra Nomani: “I’m not interested in unfair justice, even for bad people. Danny was such a person of conscience. I don’t think he would have wanted all of this dirty business. I don’t think he would have wanted someone being tortured. He would have been repulsed. This is the kind of story that Danny would have investigated. He really believed in American principles.”

Note: Also published this week, and worth reading in its entirety is Leave No Marks: Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and the Risk of Criminality, a report by Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First.

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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison, Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here) (all May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA), and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive. And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

Guantánamo: more whistleblowers condemn the tribunals

In June, when Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, an Army reservist with 26 years’ experience in military intelligence, stepped forward to complain, in the case of a Kuwaiti detainee in Guantánamo, Fawzi al-Odah, that the entire process of confirming the detainees’ status as “enemy combatants” (in the Combatant Status Review Tribunals) was severely flawed, often relying on “generic” evidence and designed solely to rubber-stamp the detainees’ prior designation as “enemy combatants,” he was feted as a hero by lawyers representing the detainees, by human rights organizations, and, refreshingly, by numerous newspapers throughout the United States (Heroism comes in many forms, for example, was the headline of an article in the Salt Lake Tribune).

Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham

Since then, despite the fact that I pointed out a month ago that he was not the only insider to criticize the process, and that dissenting opinions had been filed by an unnamed Army major in one other case at Guantánamo, and by a detainee’s Personal Representative in at least two other cases, the administration has attempted to isolate him and demean his testimony, with the Department of Justice smearing his words as “innuendo,” and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler, a Pentagon spokesman, claiming that, as a database manager, he served only a “brief stint on active duty several years ago.”

Last week, Lt. Col. Abraham visited Capitol Hill to reiterate his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. Although the story was not widely reported in the US media, the New York Times covered it, adding weight to Abraham’s statements by describing him as “the star witness.” Reporter William Glaberson, who called his testimony “spirited and enthusiastic,” noted that, after explaining that “in his database work he saw thousands of documents that were used as evidence in more than 300 of the 558 hearings conducted in 2004 and 2005,” Abraham “said he had raised frequent concerns about the fairness of the process,” but noted that “a quick result was preferred over a probing inquiry.”

He also revisited the tribunal hearing in which he took part –- that of Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan shopkeeper married to an Afghan woman –- testifying that “the three panel members all agreed that the military did not have evidence against the detainee,” and explaining, “Not only I, but the other members of the panel said, ‘This is garbage.’”

Although criticized by some Republican Representatives, and by representatives of the administration –- including his former boss, Navy Rear Adm. James M. McGarrah, who claimed that “his view was of a very narrow piece of the process,” and that the administration “had dozens of people working on information collection” –- Glaberson noted that some of the Democrats on the Congressional panel “called him a brave man and thanked him.”

In the last week, other voices have joined the growing chorus of disapproval. On Wednesday, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a petition on behalf of a Somali detainee, Mohammed Sulaymon Barre, in which they cited not only Stephen Abraham’s testimony, but also statements made by Navy Rear Adm. McGarrah. In an audacious move, the lawyers extracted two passages from a declaration made by McGarrah in May, in which he admitted that, in some cases, the military did not present all exculpatory evidence relating to the detainees.

While the first of these statements –- that “if certain information which suggested that the detainee should not be designated as an enemy combatant was duplicative,” then the “duplicative information” was sometimes not presented to the tribunals –- strikes me as rather inconclusive, the second –- that evidence which indicated that the detainee was not an “enemy combatant” may have been excluded “if it did not relate to a specific allegation being made against the detainee” –- is far more troubling, as it indicates, explicitly, that specific, and original exculpatory evidence was deliberately excluded if it tended to distract from the administration’s single-minded pursuit of its preconceived agenda.

Although other critics of the Guantánamo regime have been in the news this week –- in GQ, for example, Sean Flynn profiled military lawyers William Kuebler and Tom Fleener, who were devastatingly critical of the Military Commissions at Guantánamo –- no other whistleblowers have yet stepped forward to declare, in public, their support for Lt. Col. Abraham’s criticisms of the CSRT process.

Recently, however, Lt. Col. Abraham has received correspondence from a former colleague in OARDEC (the Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants), who provided independent confirmation of the criticisms of the CSRT process. The officer, who participated in tribunals both in Washington and Guantánamo, wrote, “Just wanted to say good luck and my recollections of the process are similar to yours. The finding of enemy combatant was expected, the finding of not an enemy combatant was looked upon as a failure of the process.”

Lt. Col. Abraham added that he met another “fellow OARDEC member,” who expressed support for his efforts, and explained that these comments “serve as independent verification of at least a portion of what I had said,” and that they “demonstrate or would tend to demonstrate that other people were and are troubled by the proceedings or a portion of them.” He added that they “respond to the claim that as the only dissenter my word should be given no regard.”

As an extra point of interest, the officer who wrote to Lt. Col. Abraham added that an “additional tidbit” that had not yet been reported was that, “after several detainees were found to be not an enemy combatant, DoD took away that option and we had to start using the term ‘no longer an enemy combatant’ for those held for no apparent reason,” an insight that vividly demonstrates the administration’s Orwellian approach to semantics. As Lt. Col. Abraham noted in a subsequent e-mail, “If the option of NOT an enemy combatant is removed, the CSRT process no longer was used to rubber-stamp prior determinations. Rather, by definition, from that point on, the status of all detainees was fixed and the only question would be whether they had somehow reformed themselves.”

While I wait for more whistleblowers to step forward, it’s worth reflecting on how much trust can be placed in an administration that, when challenged by its own employees in rigged tribunals that are manifestly unjust, reconfigures language so that no one captured in the “War on Terror” –- regardless of how they came to be in US custody, or how flimsy the “evidence” against them –- is ever innocent.

For more on Guantánamo and the tribunal process, 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.

See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the crucial testimony of Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham and other Guantánamo whistleblowers: Guantánamo whistleblowers: Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham is not the first insider to condemn the kangaroo courts (July 2007), The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), A New Guantánamo Whistleblower Steps Forward to Criticize the Tribunal Process (October 2007), Guantánamo whistleblower launches new attack on rigged tribunals (November 2007), Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history (December 2007), Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: What Happened? (December 2007), Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham addresses European Parliament (March 2008), The Supreme Court’s Guantánamo ruling: what does it mean? (June 2008), An interview with Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham (Part One) (December 2008), An interview with Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham (Part Two) (December 2008), Guantánamo: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009).

As published on the Huffington Post (as “Guantánamo: Will More Whistleblowers Step Forward, Please?”) and CounterPunch (as “Backing up Lt. Col. Abraham on Gitmo Abuse”).

Benamar Benatta: domestic victim of US injustice in the “War on Terror”

As it seems almost impossible to keep up with the many, hydra-like fronts of the US administration’s “War on Terror,” I was unaware of the story of Benamar Benatta until he wrote to me in response to an article I had written about the Algerian Guantánamo detainee Ahmed Belbacha.

Benamar Benatta

An Algerian air force lieutenant, Benatta came to the United States with other Algerian soldiers to receive military training in December 2000, but later explained that he had no intention of returning, telling a Washington Post reporter in 2003, “I had a problem with the terrorists who wanted to kill me and with the military, which was beating and torturing people. My parents knew I did not intend to come back.” After moving to New York, where he worked as a busboy, he overstayed his visa, and, with desperately unfortunate timing, sought political asylum in Canada just six days before 9/11. Detained by the Canadian authorities, he was then handed over to the US after 9/11, and was held for four years and ten months in solitary confinement in the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), a much-criticized “War on Terror” jail in Brooklyn, even though the FBI concluded, in November 2001, that he had no connection whatsoever with terrorism.

Because he had trained as an aeronautical engineer, Benatta was regarded with extreme suspicion by the authorities in charge of the MDC. According to a report on his website, “They wrote ‘WTC’ [World Trade Center] on the door of his cell. He was beaten. He was abused. He was held in conditions that the United Nations described as torture. He was forgotten.” In the Washington Post interview in 2003, he described being held in circumstances that resembled other “War on Terror” prisons, including Guantánamo. He explained that he was “placed in a solitary cell –- known by prisoners as ‘the box,’” which was “illuminated 24 hours a day,” and added that for several weeks the guards “would knock loudly on the door every half-hour to wake him up.” Deprived of access to a lawyer, to books or a television, he only ever left his cell “when FBI agents arrived to interrogate him about his job, ethnicity and religious beliefs,” and also explained that he was “forced to strip while guards mocked him.” On other occasions, he said that “guards knocked his head against the elevator wall while he was in manacles and one time pulled his waist chain so tight he had trouble breathing.“ Conditions at the MDC, which was “later criticized by the US Justice Department for its abuse of prisoners,” were also exposed in a video, from which an image is shown below.

Abuse of detainees in Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center

When Benatta’s case was finally reviewed in a US court, in September 2003, Federal Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. concluded that not only was Benatta was “undeniably deprived of his liberty” in what he called a “sham,” but that the explanations offered for the sham “bordered on ridiculousness.” As the Washington Post described it, “Schroeder found ‘damning evidence’ that INS [immigration] lawyers improperly ‘colluded’ with the FBI and federal prosecutors to use immigration procedures as a ‘subterfuge’ to ‘spirit’ Benatta to New York City.” He condemned the government for not releasing Benatta despite the fact that he was officially cleared by the FBI of any connection to terrorism, and concluded, “To keep Benatta imprisoned would be taking part in the ‘charade that has been perpetrated’ against him.”

Despite Schroeder’s condemnation of Benatta’s treatment, it took another 33 months for him to be released. As one of the few newspapers to take an interest in his story, the Washington Post reported, after he was freed in July 2006, “He was among more than 1,200 mainly Muslim men who were arrested after the [9/11] attacks and held under tight security while authorities scoured their backgrounds for links to terrorist groups. It is believed that Benatta was the last to be released, though it is difficult to be certain because of the secrecy that surrounded some of the cases.”

Now seeking asylum in Canada, Benatta, as described on his website, “is seeking a judicial review regarding the legality of his transfer to the United States by the Canadian Authorities, and requesting that a judicial system be implemented to protect the human rights provisions of this country’s citizens and of foreigners entitled to the protection under the constitution of Canada and under international law.”

Visit his website for more. If, like me, you haven’t had much time to look at the stories of the “1,200 mainly Muslim men” rounded up in the United States after 9/11, it’s just the tip of an uncomfortably large iceberg.

UPDATE August 7, 2009: Two years on , Benamar is still seeking justice in Canada. See “Bitter anniversary for rendition victim,” an op-ed he wrote for the Toronto Star on July 20, 2009, for more. As he explained:

Three years have passed since that day and I still do not have any credible answers about why Canada handed me to the Americans. In fact, hurtfully, the Canadian government denies doing anything wrong in my case. But the government caused my nightmare …

I have no redress for the ruination of my career, for post-traumatic stress and depression, for reliving the nightmares of my detention every time I close my eyes. In fact, I still do not even have an “I’m sorry” from the government. “I’m sorry” for throwing all the laws of the land out the window. “I’m sorry” we ruined your life.

Why hasn’t the government done the right thing in my case? Why aren’t Canadian citizens putting pressure on the government to do the right thing? Maybe the government is more concerned about protecting its image than repairing the damage. Maybe, after the horrifying case of Maher Arar, Canadians can’t accept that their government could be directly responsible for an extraordinary rendition (something reserved for more sinister nations, like the US and Syria).

But it is true. It happened. And if Canada wants to continue forward as a nation that upholds the rule of law, and if Canadians want a government that promotes human rights, there must be acknowledgement of what happened. There must be redress. And least of all, even three long years since my return to Canada, there must be an “I’m sorry.”

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.

As published on American Torture.

Deals with dictators undermined by British request for return of five Guantánamo detainees

In a resounding break with the policies of Tony Blair, the new British government, led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has announced that it has requested the return of five British residents in Guantánamo: Shaker Aamer, Jamil El-Banna, Omar Deghayes, Binyam Mohamed (aka al-Habashi) and Abdulnour Sameur. According to a Press Association report, “The Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary are seeking the release of the men who were legally resident in the UK before their detention,” and Foreign Secretary David Miliband “has written to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to formally make the request.”

Declaring that it had “reviewed its approach to the group in the light of its aim to see the closure of the center and recent steps taken by the US government to reduce the numbers of detainees held there,” the Foreign Office announced, in a statement, “The Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary have reviewed the Government’s approach to this group of individuals in light of these ongoing developments, our long-held policy aim of securing the closure of Guantánamo Bay, and the need to maintain national security. They have decided to request the release and return of the five detainees who have links to the UK as former residents, having been granted refugee status, indefinite leave or exceptional leave to remain prior to their detention.”

Although the Foreign Office “cautioned that the release and return of the men may take some time,” this is extraordinary news, and reflects a genuine break with the militant refusal of Tony Blair’s administration to fulfil its obligations to act on behalf of the British residents in Guantánamo. As Jamil El-Banna’s solicitor, Irene Nembhard, noted in June, the rights of refugees recognized by the UK are not negotiable, and all have “a legal entitlement to return to the UK.”

The struggle for the rights of the British residents in Guantánamo has a long and turbulent history. Having secured the return of nine British nationals in 2004 and 2005, the Blair government then pointedly refused to act on behalf of the British residents, arguing that it had no obligation to do so. This was in spite of evidence –- which emerged through grass-roots campaigns and, eventually, through declassified reports from lawyers representing the detainees –- that they were innocent men, who had suffered egregious human rights abuses in American custody, and who had either been sold to the Americans for bounty payments, or, more shockingly, had been betrayed to the Americans on the basis of patently false intelligence material supplied by the British intelligence services.

Briefly, the men’s stories are as follows:

Shaker Aamer

Shaker Aamer38-year old Shaker Aamer, born in Saudi Arabia, had been a British resident since 1996, and is married with five children, the youngest of whom was born after his capture. In 2001, he traveled with his family from his home in south London to Afghanistan, where he shared a house in Kabul with released British national Moazzam Begg and his family, and worked to establish a girls’ school. After 9/11 and the US-led invasion, he arranged for his family to flee Afghanistan, but was captured in Jalalabad and sold to the Northern Alliance, who in turn sold him to the Americans. Held in the notorious, CIA-run “Dark Prison” near Kabul, he was eventually transferred to Guantánamo, where his charisma, his mastery of English and his relentless campaigning on behalf of his fellow detainees led the US authorities to conclude, erroneously, that he was a major player in al-Qaeda. Since leading a short-lived “Prisoners’ Council” in the summer of 2005, which was first encouraged and then suppressed by the authorities, he has been held in solitary confinement, and has been on a hunger strike since December 2006.

Omar Deghayes

Omar Deghayes37-year old Omar Deghayes, born in Libya, arrived in the UK with his family as a teenager in 1986, after his father, a prominent trade union activist, had been tortured and murdered by Colonel Gaddafi. A law student at Wolverhampton University, he took a break from his studies in 2000 to travel to Afghanistan, where he married an Afghan woman and had a child, but was captured after crossing into Pakistan after the US-led invasion began.

Blinded in one eye during an assault by armed guards in Guantánamo, he has also been threatened by Libyan intelligence agents (who flew to Guantánamo on a CIA-chartered plane), and the justification for his continued imprisonment relies on claims that he was identified on a videotape as a Chechen militant, even though his lawyers in the UK, with the help of journalists from the BBC’s Newsnight, proved in 2005 that it was a case of mistaken identity.

Jamil El-Banna

Jamil El-Banna45-year old Jamil El-Banna, born in Jordan, arrived in the UK in 1994, and was granted asylum in 2000. Like Shaker Aamer, he is married with five children, and his youngest child was born after his capture. With Bisher al-Rawi, a British resident from Iraq, El-Banna was seized in November 2002 by US agents in the Gambia, where the two men had traveled to establish a mobile peanut-processing plant with al-Rawi’s brother Wahab.

Shockingly, they were captured after the British intelligence services provided false information to their American counterparts, claiming that both men were involved in terrorism (which they were not), neglecting to mention that al-Rawi was working for MI5 as an informer, keeping tabs on the radical cleric Abu Qatada, and ignoring the fact that both men had been informed, before their departure, that they were not under suspicion. “Rendered” to Afghanistan, and held, like Shaker Aamer, in the “Dark Prison,” they were transferred to Guantánamo in March 2003.

Binyam Mohamed

Binyam Mohammed al-Habashi29-year old Binyam Mohamed, a refugee from Ethiopia who arrived in the UK with his father in 1995, was a janitor at a mosque in west London. Captured in Pakistan in April 2002, he was then handed over to the US authorities, who, in one of the most devastatingly inept failures of intelligence in the whole of the “War on Terror,” decided that he was a major al-Qaeda terrorist, and “rendered” him first to Morocco, where he was tortured for 18 months, and repeatedly had his penis cut by razor blades, and then to their own “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan. Scheduled to face a Military Commission, his case was dropped in June 2006 after the Supreme Court ruled that the Commissions were illegal, and has not been reinstated.

Abdulnour Sameur

Abdulnour Sameur34-year old Abdulnour Sameur, an Algerian refugee, was granted asylum in April 2000, after deserting from the Algerian army, because, he said, he was “made to go in the streets and shoot innocent people.” Accused of having advance knowledge of 9/11, he explained in Guantánamo that he made this up in the US prison in Kandahar airbase, when the interrogators threatened to withhold medical treatment.

“I told them this in Kandahar during the interrogations because the interrogators were dogs,” he said. “I had an injury in my leg. I had metal sticking out of my leg and they would not clean the wound; they would not give me treatment … I just told them anything, whatever they wanted to hear because I wanted them to treat my leg. I saw other people whose legs had to be cut off. I did not want my leg to be cut off… If you were in my place, if you were in Kandahar you would have done the same thing. Just like a small child.”

Negotiations between the US and UK governments

In tracing the history of the British government’s refusal to help its residents in Guantánamo, and the shifting patterns of its relationship with the US authorities, the first major insight occurred in October 2006, when, in an article in the Guardian, Ian Cobain and Vikram Dodd revealed that, after months of secret negotiations, the US administration had offered to return “nearly all” the British residents in the summer of 2006, but the British government had refused the offer. Cobain and Dodd pointed out that senior officials not only maintained that the residents had “no legal right to return,” but also dismissed the US authorities’ demands that the prisoners be “kept under 24-hour surveillance if set free” as “unnecessary and unworkable.”

The documents on which the Guardian article was based were witness statements from David Richmond, director general of defence and intelligence at the Foreign Office, and William Nye, director of counter-terrorism and intelligence at the Home Office. Cobain and Dodd reported that, on June 27, 2006, after a meeting between UK officials and representatives of the US State Department, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council, David Richmond wrote, “The US administration would only be willing to engage with the UK government if it sought the release and return of all the detainees who had formally resided in the UK (i.e. regardless of the quality of their links with the UK), rather than just a subset of the detainees falling in that category.”

William Nye added, “The US administration envisages measures such that the returnees cannot legally leave the UK, engage with known extremists or engage in support, promote, plan or advocate extremist or violent activity, and further have the effect of ensuring that the British authorities would be certain to know immediately of any attempt to engage in any such activity.”

Nye also declared, “I am not satisfied it would be proportionate to impose … the kind of obligations which might be necessary to satisfy the US administration.” He explained that the measures demanded by the Americans would have to be enforced by MI5 and would divert vital resources away from countering more dangerous terrorist suspects. “The use of such resources … could not be justified and would damage the protection of the UK’s national security,” he wrote, adding, crucially, that the Guantánamo prisoners “do not pose a sufficient threat to justify the devotion of the high level of resources” the US would require.

Bisher al-RawiRefusing the American offer, the British officials explained that they were only interested in the return of one resident, Bisher al-Rawi. Clinging to their story that he was “now known to have helped MI5 keep watch on Abu Qatada” –- and refusing to acknowledge, as documents released by his lawyers in March 2006 revealed, that both he and Jamil El-Banna had actually been betrayed to the Americans by British intelligence –- they remained true to their word, and al-Rawi returned safely to the UK on 30 March 2007, to be reunited with his family.

In the meantime, however, the status of three of the British residents had changed since the summer of 2006, when Washington’s “all-or-nothing” offer was turned down. In February, lawyers for Ahmed Errachidi, a Moroccan who had been working as a chef in London for 16 years, and Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian ex-footballer who had been working at a hotel in the seaside resort of Bournemouth, were informed that they had been cleared for release from Guantánamo, “after diplomatic arrangements for their departure had been made,” because a review board had determined that they no longer represented a threat to the US or its allies and no longer had any “intelligence value.” Callously, however, the British government refused to accept the men back, maintaining that, “Because they are not British citizens, we’re not providing any consular or diplomatic assistance.” On May 25, lawyers for Jamil El-Banna were informed that he too had been cleared for release. As with Errachidi and Belbacha, however, the British government refused to take him back.

Britain’s Guantánamo: Belmarsh and control orders

It was at this point that the plight of the British residents in Guantánamo coincided with the stories of those held in Britain’s own “mini-Guantánamo”: the 17 foreign prisoners –- some arrested as early as November 2001 –- who were held without charge or trial in a maximum security prison in Belmarsh, in south London, until December 2004, when the Law Lords ruled that their imprisonment was in breach of human rights law. While this immediately prompted a constitutional crisis, and right-wing commentators ranted about the need to ditch European human rights legislation, more astute observers revealed how chaotic and arbitrary the whole process had been. They noted that six of the 17 –- who included Abu Qatada and Abu Rideh, a Palestinian refugee, but who were otherwise anonymous and dehumanized, known only by initials, such as Detainee “A” –- had already been released.

In April 2004, one of these men, a Libyan known only as “D,” who was allowed to stay with his wife in Britain after judges ruled that there was no evidence that he was a terrorist, explained to the Guardian that most of the Belmarsh prisoners had become deranged and suicidal. He was speaking on the same day that another prisoner, a disabled Algerian known as “G,” was returned to his home, under strict bail conditions, because he was “too mentally ill to stay in prison.” Two others took advantage of a provision that allowed them to leave Britain. One went to Morocco, and the other to France, although the Home Office refused to explain why, if they were such a threat, neither was arrested after leaving the UK.

In response to the Law Lords’ ruling, the government refused to free the eleven men who remained in Belmarsh at the start of 2005, instead concocting a series of draconian control orders, which involved releasing them from Belmarsh but keeping them under what was essentially house arrest, with conditions that included being electronically tagged at all times, being forced to stay at home from 7 pm to 7 am, and having their passports taken away and their phone lines cut. Those who were forced to live under the orders soon complained that they were routinely woken in the middle of the night by unannounced visits from police and the security services, that they had inadequate access to mental healthcare, and that the lives of their families were ruined.

Although the control orders were widely condemned, they have, in the last two years, been extended to another 21 prisoners, including at least seven British citizens, even though six were nullified in the High Court in June 2006, when a judge ruled that they were incompatible with laws established by the European Court of Human Rights, and even though they have also proved almost impossible to enforce; at least seven suspects have absconded since August 2006, providing acres of scare-mongering fodder for the tabloid newspapers.

What’s most disturbing about the control orders, however, is not that they were designed to imprison men who had never been charged in coffin-like isolation in their own homes, but that they actually had a darker purpose, which dove-tailed horrendously with the plight of dozens of prisoners in Guantánamo –- including the British residents –- and was clearly conceived in conjunction with the US administration.

Return to torture: attempts by the US and UK governments to sidestep international treaties

This darker purpose, whereby the control orders were designed to override international treaties preventing the return of prisoners to countries where they face torture or even death –- laws that the British government, like that of the US, regards as failing to take into account the unprecedented terrors of the post-9/11 world –- was implemented by the British government in two ways. The first was to torment some control order suspects to such an extent that they would volunteer to return to their countries of origin, even though they feared appalling treatment on their return, but the second was even more direct.

In August 2005, the government rearrested Abu Qatada and eight other control order suspects (mostly Algerians), announcing that they were to be repatriated to their home countries. The figleaf for this latest abrogation from international law was a series of “memoranda of understanding,” signed with countries including Jordan and Libya, which apparently guaranteed that, “If arrested, detained or imprisoned following his return, a returned person will be afforded adequate accommodation, nourishment and medical treatment, and will be treated in a humane and proper manner, in accordance with internationally accepted standards.” What the memoranda did not make clear, however, was whether these “standards” would be those of the pre-9/11 world, or those that the Americans and the British had debased in the years since, in Guantánamo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Belmarsh. In any case, as human rights lawyers immediately contended, agreements with dictators were not worth the paper on which they were printed.

Where this new policy coincided with the wishes of the Americans was in Guantánamo. Since 2004, when the US authorities had first cleared some prisoners for release, but had concluded that they could not be sent back to their countries of origin because of fears that they would be tortured or killed, they had struggled to find a solution to this problem of their own making. At first this was a relatively principled process. Although the Americans refused to accept any of the cleared (i.e. innocent) prisoners as their own responsibility, allowing them to settle in the US, and all their major allies also refused to accept them, one country –- Albania –- was bribed sufficiently to accept five Chinese Uyghurs (persecuted Muslims from the Xinjiang province) in May 2006, and three other innocent but problematical men –- an Algerian doctor, an Egyptian cleric and an ethnic Uzbek from the former Soviet Union –- followed in November.

Unfortunately for the Americans, however, they discovered that they were holding dozens more innocent men in Guantánamo who had legitimate fears about being returned to their countries of birth, and, whether through a reticence on the part of Albania, or a desire –- as in the UK –- to smash international safeguards preventing the return of prisoners to such allies in the “War on Terror” as Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi (a formerly implacable enemy who was rehabilitated in 2004), Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the regimes in Algeria and Jordan –- all of whom have notorious secret services and torture prisons –- they decided that they, like the British, would try to break this deadlock through phony “memoranda of understanding.”

In Guantánamo, these decisions impacted directly on Ahmed Errachidi, Ahmed Belbacha and Jamil El-Banna. With the British government refusing to accept them back, the Americans decided to return them to their countries of birth instead. A month after Bisher al-Rawi returned to the UK, Ahmed Errachidi was stealthily returned to Morocco, where he was arrested on terrorism charges, which were only dropped after representations by Moroccan lawyers acting on information provided by his lawyers in the UK.

Belbacha and El-Banna, however, remained in Guantánamo, with El-Banna fearing that he would be returned to Jordan, which he had fled 13 years before because of religious persecution, and Belbacha fearing that he would be returned to Algeria, which he had fled to avoid reprisals from Islamist militants, while he was working for a government-run oil company, and where, according to his lawyers, the Algerian intelligence services stated that they could not ensure that he would be safe from their own personnel.

Sarah Teather, the feisty Liberal Democrat MP who is El-Banna’s representative in parliament, and who has campaigned tirelessly for his release, delivered a damning verdict on the government’s position, saying, “Jamil’s wife, Sabah, is very happy that he has been cleared for release, but at the same time exceedingly worried that he will be sent back to Jordan … This country gave Jamil refugee status because we accepted that he had been tortured in Jordan and that his life would be in danger were he to be returned there. What kind of process of moral decrepitude has gripped this Government that it now sees fit to risk his life by sending him to Jordan, rather than returning him to his five British children?”

Sarah Teather’s fears were well-grounded. In June, lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York –- and Edward Markey, a member of the House of Representatives –- sought to prevent the US authorities from returning a cleared Libyan prisoner in Guantánamo, Abdul Rauf al-Qassim, to his home country, because he was afraid that he would be imprisoned “for no reason” (he is still in Guantánamo at the time of writing), and his case is clearly related to attempts by the British government to do the same with two Libyans who were held without charge or trial in the UK.

In the case of these men, a glimmer of hope was provided on April 27, when the members of the UK’s Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) delivered a stern rebuke to the callous new policies of the US and UK governments, revealing their contempt for the supposed validity of the “memorandum of understanding” with Libya by ruling that the two men could not be returned to their home country because they were at risk of torture. And just last week, in a move that may have impacted directly on the new administration’s decision to act on behalf of the remaining British residents, appeal court judges in London delivered another blow to the government, ruling that three Algerians could not be returned to their home country because they too were at risk of torture.

Elsewhere, however, fears that the “memoranda of understanding” were irredeemably flawed, and that prisoners would face horrendous ill-treatment on their return to their home countries, were brutally confirmed in the case of Abdullah bin Omar, a Tunisian prisoner who, like Abdul Rauf al-Qassim, was cleared for release from Guantánamo but was unwilling to return home. Bin Omar, who had been living in Pakistan for 13 years, was forcibly returned to his home country on June 17, despite fears that, because he had been sentenced in absentia to 23 years in prison for belonging to a moderate Islamist political party, he would be tortured on his return.

What has come to light since has confirmed what Zachary Katznelson, one of his lawyers, noted at the time of his transfer; that bin Omar was “a guinea pig in a potentially deadly diplomatic experiment.” Another of his lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith, recently explained that the US authorities had prevented him from meeting bin Omar before he was repatriated, to warn him of the sentence he had received in absentia, and reported that Tunisian human rights observers had revealed that, on his return, bin Omar was immediately imprisoned and tortured by the Tunisian authorities, who told him that if he did not agree to make false confessions about non-existent crimes, his wife and daughters would be raped.

The case of Abdullah bin Omar reveals, tragically, that the new arrangements negotiated by the British and the Americans are neither morally defensible (as his torture confirms) nor legally sound (as revealed by the verdicts of SIAC and the UK appeals court), and confirms that the fate of two groups of men –- those who are completely innocent of any wrong-doing, who have already been imprisoned in horrendous conditions in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, and others who have been imprisoned in the UK without ever being told the charges against them –- should not be the subject of such an unprincipled high-stakes lottery; one in which, literally, the outcome could either be life or death.

With the British government belatedly acknowledging its responsibilities to the British residents in Guantánamo, it seems that Jamil El-Banna will finally be liberated from the threat to send him to Jordan, that Omar Deghayes and Abdulnour Sameur will not have to face the prospect of being returned to Libya or Algeria, and that the long and brutal persecution of Binyam al-Habashi and Shaker Aamer is coming to an end. I congratulate the government on rediscovering its principles, but still fear for the many other cleared detainees in Guantánamo –- including Abdul Rauf al-Qassim and Ahmed Belbacha, whose lawyers are currently pursuing his case with the US Supreme Court –- and the control order suspects in the UK, who still have valid concerns about being returned to torture in their home countries.

For more on Guantánamo, “extraordinary rendition,” and the British residents, 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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post (as “British Government’s Request for Return of Five Residents from Guantánamo Rocks Dubious Deals with Dictators”) and American Torture.

For other articles dealing with Belmarsh, control orders, deportation bail, deportation and extradition, see   Britain’s Guantánamo: the troubling tale of Tunisian Belmarsh detainee Hedi Boudhiba, extradited, cleared and abandoned in Spain (August 2007), Guantánamo as house arrest: Britain’s law lords capitulate on control orders (November 2007), The Guantánamo Britons and Spain’s dubious extradition request (December 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: control orders renewed, as one suspect is freed (February 2008), Spanish drop “inhuman” extradition request for Guantánamo Britons (March 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), Repatriation as Russian Roulette: Will the Two Algerians Freed from Guantánamo Be Treated Fairly? (July 2008), Abu Qatada: Law Lords and Government Endorse Torture (February 2009), Ex-Guantánamo prisoner refused entry into UK, held in deportation centre (February 2009), Home Secretary ignores Court decision, kidnaps bailed men and imprisons them in Belmarsh (February 2009), Britain’s insane secret terror evidence (March 2009).

New military lawyer for Salim Hamdan condemns Military Commissions at Guantánamo

In the Miami Herald, veteran Gitmo-watcher Carol Rosenberg is the first to report on the appointment of a successor to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, the Judge Advocate’s General (JAG) lawyer, who fought a long, principled, and career-destroying battle to defend his client, Salim Hamdan, a 36-year old Yemeni who had been one of Osama bin Laden’s drivers in Afghanistan, from prosecution in the morally repugnant and legally corrupt system of Military Commissions that the administration has tried to establish at Guantánamo (for the latest blow to the regime, see here).

In an excellent profile in Vanity Fair in March, Swift outlined to Marie Brenner the egregious flaws in the Military Commissions system, as he had identified them during his first visit with Hamdan in 2004: “no right to habeas corpus, no attorney-client privilege, forced guilty pleas for charges never made public, secret and coerced evidence, juries and presiding officers picked by executive fiat, clients represented even if they declined legal counsel.”

He also succinctly described the administration’s reasons for setting up the Commissions, and explained why, with civilian lawyer Neal Katyal, he had taken Hamdan’s case to the Supreme Court, securing a momentous, if ephemeral victory in June 2006 –- before the subsequent passing of the Military Commissions Act –- in which the highest court in the land had ruled that the Commissions were illegal under long-established US laws, the Geneva Conventions, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“The whole purpose of setting up Guantánamo Bay is for torture,” Swift said. “Why do this? Because you want to escape the rule of law. There is only one thing that you want to escape the rule of law to do, and that is to question people coercively –- what some people call torture. Guantánamo and the military commissions are implements for breaking the law.” For his pains, Swift was deliberately passed over for promotion, and was forced to retire last week “under an up-or-out Pentagon system.” He has now taken a teaching post at the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, although, as Rosenberg reports, he “will continue to lead the Hamdan defense team as a civilian.”

Charles Swift

Charles Swift celebrates victory in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, June 2006.

Hamdan’s replacement is 38-year old Army Major Thomas Roughneen, “a former New Jersey prosecutor who served in Iraq during the US invasion.” With Swift, Roughneen recently met Hamdan for “more than 35 hours” at Guantánamo, and explained that he immediately “told his client about his 2003 service in US-occupied Iraq – as a US Army officer engaged in nation-building.” “I didn’t think he should learn from anyone else,” Roughneen explained. “There’s obviously a lot to overcome for a guy like me, who has been to Iraq, to convince Salim that I’m worth trusting.”

As Rosenberg noted, however, Roughneen has willingly “join[ed] a fraternity of military and civilian lawyers who have argued that President Bush’s post-9/11 war court [the Military Commissions] deny a captive fundamental US legal principles guaranteed in US civilian and military courts.” From the start, he has expressed his opposition to the system, explaining that he is “confident” that it will “collapse under high court scrutiny,” and adding, “It’s like the Titanic. You know someday the ship is going to sink. God almighty, let’s get there already.”

In the meantime, as Rosenberg describes it, Roughneen and Hamdan “have a common goal: to get [Hamdan] freed from Guantánamo and home to his native Yemen.” She added that, for the New Jersey native, who graduated from Seton Hall Law School in 1995, “his new assignment is a natural fit –- for an American soldier who has both prosecuted rapes, murders and car-jackings in New Jersey’s Essex County and promoted democracy in northern Iraq,” and Roughneen himself explained, “I think it is overreaching –- after a crime, after arrest –- to create a whole new court with new rules of evidence and new crimes.”

“The King is dead; long live the King,” seems an appropriate conclusion. If the Military Commissions are ever resuscitated, zombie-like, to insult 231 years of American law once more, it’s good to know that another hard-working and principled American is ready to stand up to resist the depredations of an administration whose notions of criminal justice owe more to Joseph Stalin than to George Washington.

For more on the Military Commissions, 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 detainee – and British resident – Ahmed Belbacha: A letter to the Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary requesting his return to the UK

The following is the text of a letter that I have just emailed to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith (smithjj@parliament.uk) and Foreign Secretary David Miliband (milibandd@parliament.uk), regarding the prospect of Ahmed Belbacha’s imminent return to Algeria, where he is at risk of torture. I’ll let you know if I receive any response, but in the meantime please feel free to adapt it and to send your own letters. For more on his story –- and the reasons why action is imperative –- please see here.

Dear Home/Foreign Secretary,

I’m writing to you with some urgency regarding the US administration’s proposal to forcibly return Guantánamo detainee –- and British resident –- Ahmed Belbacha to Algeria, the country of his birth, where, as his lawyers at Reprieve have explained, he is at risk from both the Algerian security services and the militant Islamists from whom he fled to the UK in the first place.

I am sure that you are familiar with Mr. Belbacha’s story: how he lived peacefully in the UK for two and a half years, how he was given a tip by John Prescott after the 1999 Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, for his work in helping make the deputy PM’s stay at the Highcliff Hotel more comfortable, how he was captured and sold to the Americans in late 2001 in Pakistan, where he had been on holiday, and how he was unconditionally cleared of all wrong-doing by the US authorities earlier this year.

I am aware that the government has persistently refused to accept the return to the UK of any of the British residents in Guantánamo, but I am also aware that an exception was made in March, in the case of Bisher al-Rawi, and I urge you to act immediately to accept the return of Mr. Belbacha to the UK. Having made an exception to your rules in the case of Mr. al-Rawi, the refusal to act on Mr. Belbacha’s behalf would, I believe, portray the new administration, of which you are a key part, in a very unfavourable light, and would suggest that the government is only prepared to act –- as in Mr. al-Rawi’s case –- when faced with the possibility of being shamed by revelations that the detainee in question was actually working for the British intelligence services.

I should add that I am also keen to see the government request the return to the UK of Jamil El-Banna, another British resident –- married with five British children –- who has also been cleared of any wrong-doing by the US authorities, but in the first instance I would be grateful to hear your response to the case of Mr. Belbacha, as the prospect of his imminent return to torture is rather more pressing.

With best wishes,
Andy Worthington

For more on Ahmed Belbacha and the other British residents in 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.

Return to torture: act now for Ahmed Belbacha, a British resident in Guantánamo

Horrible news from British human rights group Cageprisoners, which announces in a press release that Guantánamo detainee and British resident Ahmed Belbacha is to be forcibly repatriated to Algeria, the country of his birth, following refusals by a US federal judge, and by the British government, to intervene on his behalf.

Ahmed BelbachaBelbacha, who is 37 years old, is a former professional footballer. After retiring from the game, he worked as an accountant for a government-owned oil company, Sonatrach, but was called up for military service and threatened by members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the Islamist militants opposed to the government. Fearing for his safety, he fled to the UK in 1999, and settled in the seaside town of Bournemouth, where he found a job as a waiter in a hotel, and where, after being vetted by MI5, he was working during the Labour Party conference in 1999. According to a Guardian article in 2006, “His friends recall[ed] his pride at receiving a £30 tip and a personal letter of thanks from John Prescott,” after he had helped the Deputy Prime Minister during the conference.

In autumn 2001, Belbacha took a month’s vacation to visit Pakistan and an Afghan refugee camp, but was captured near Peshawar, after crossing back into Pakistan, by villagers who sold him to the Pakistani authorities. Once he was in American custody, he was transported to the prison in Kandahar airbase, where he was “repeatedly beaten,” and was then taken to Guantánamo, where he was falsely accused of attending a training camp in Jalalabad and meeting Osama bin Laden on two occasions, even though, at the time of his vacation, 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.

In February 2007, his lawyers at Reprieve (a British-based legal charity) were informed that both he and another British resident, Ahmed Errachidi –- a Moroccan-born chef who had been living in the UK for 16 years, and who was also captured in Pakistan, where he had travelled with the intention of buying jewelry to sell in Morocco to raise money for a heart operation for one of his sons –- 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.”

Despite both men’s innocence, however, 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.”

In April, Errachidi, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was returned to Morocco, where, despite fears for his safety, he was reunited with his wife and his two sons. With the help of vigorous representation on his behalf from his lawyers at Reprieve, he has so far avoided excessive impositions on his liberty, which the US administration regularly attempts to force on governments who accept returned detainees, even when it is apparent that they never did anything wrong.

Belbacha, on the other hand, is far less optimistic about his fate if he is forcibly returned to Algeria. In discussions with one of his lawyers, Zachary Katznelson, he made clear that he would prefer to remain in Guantánamo, where he is held in isolation for 22 hours a day, than returning to Algeria. As Katznelson described it, in a recent article in the Times, “He says his cell in Guantánamo is like a grave and that although it sounds crazy he would rather stay in those conditions than go back to Algeria. The fact is that he is really, really scared about what might happen to him in Algeria.” In an earlier article for the Independent, Katznelson pointed out that Islamist extremists are not the only threat to Belbacha’s safety, explaining, “The Algerian intelligence services have told Reprieve that if Ahmed returns, they cannot ensure that he will be safe –- from their own personnel.”

Last week, after hearing about proposals to return Belbacha to Algeria against his wishes, Katznelson and his colleagues at Reprieve filed an emergency motion at the US Court of Appeals in Washington DC asking for his transfer out of Guantánamo to be halted, but on Thursday, as SCOTUSblog described it, the Court “lifted a temporary stay on his impending transfer to Algeria and denied a motion to keep the case on hold while an appeal proceeds, but did order that appeal to proceed ‘on an expedited basis.’” The author added, “The order does not make clear what is to happen to Belbacha in the meantime.”

Cageprisoners explained more, pointing out that, although the judge indicated that she “would likely have granted an order barring his refoulement (illegal return) to Algeria, based on evidence presented by his lawyers,” she explained that, under the terms of the reviled Military Commissions Act passed by Congress last year, she was “powerless to prevent his forcible return to face torture.”

According to Cageprisoners, Belbacha –- and three other Algerian detainees, who have not been named –- could be returned to Algeria in the next few days. The human rights group also notes, “Diplomatic assurances from the Algerian government [that the men will be treated humanely] are highly unreliable given its past record of flagrant human rights violations. Mr. Belbacha has already suffered heavily at the hands of the United States military for over five years –- without charge or trial –- and only intervention by the Supreme Court can prevent him being forwarded for the next chapter of abuse in Algeria.” As Cageprisoners also note, “The probability of his persecution has only been enhanced by false accusations and assumptions against him coupled with the stigma that accompanies most Guantánamo returnees’ re-entry into society.” Or, as Zachary Katznelson put it, “Even though the Americans say he poses no threat, Ahmed fears that he has the stamp of Guantánamo Bay on him and he will be treated by the authorities as a terrorist if he is returned to Algeria. It is a bizarre situation because the reason he left in the first place was because the Islamist terrorists were threatening to kill him.”

Readers are urged to write to representatives of the British and American governments –- especially the British Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith (smithjj@parliament.uk), and the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice (Secretary@state.gov) –- demanding that they prevent Ahmed Belbacha’s forcible repatriation to Algeria. Further details can be found on the website of the National Guantánamo Coalition, and those who are particularly aware of the British government’s hypocrisy with regard to the British residents in Guantánamo would do well to point out to Jacqui Smith (as politely as possible) that the government’s persistent refusal to act on behalf of the British residents was completely undermined in March, when –- fearing negative publicity surrounding the British intelligence service’s complicity in the capture, “extraordinary rendition,” torture and illegal imprisonment of a man who had actually been working for them as an informer, monitoring the whereabouts of radical cleric Abu Qatada –- they accepted the return of Bisher al-Rawi, who told his harrowing story for the first time to David Rose in the Observer last week.

For more on Ahmed Belbacha and the other British residents in 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.

Isolation in Guantánamo: a report on the plight of Isa al-Murbati

A brief insight into the dehumanizing isolation that is prevalent in Guantánamo is provided in a Gulf Daily News article by Geoffrey Bew, in which, following a recent visit, US lawyer Joshua Colangelo-Bryan explained that Isa al-Murbati –- the last Bahraini in Guantánamo following the release last month of joint Bahraini-Saudi national Juma al-Dossari –- is held in almost total isolation, and is regularly prevented from sleeping and from communicating with his fellow detainees.

Isa al-MurbatiAl-Murbati has been held for over six months in Camp 6, the newest of the prison blocks at Guantánamo, where detainees, including dozens who have been cleared for release, are kept in isolation for at least 22 hours a day. Colangelo-Bryan reported that the guards in Camp 6 “run large fans,” which “sound like jet engines and prevent captives from communicating and deprive them of sleep,” and explained, “In his cell, Isa cannot see other detainees and he can barely communicate with them. He told me that it is possible to speak with his brothers through an air conditioning vent in his cell. However, to reach the vent, Isa has to stand on his cement bunk. Most often if he tries to talk to others this way, guards tell him to get off his bunk. They also threaten to take away the few items that Isa has in his cell if he does not follow their directions,” which, as Bew described it, “forces him to crouch to talk under the door, for which he is also berated if caught.”

Like all the prisoners in Guantánamo, al-Murbati, who is now 41, has never been charged with a crime, but has, nevertheless, been treated with appalling brutality by the US military and by other government agents, both in Afghanistan and Guantánamo (as I explain in detail in The Guantánamo Files). Married with five children, he was working as a grocer before setting off for Pakistan to receive medical treatment in November 2001, and has steadfastly denied the US authorities’ allegations against him –- that he travelled to Afghanistan in November 2001 with the intention of fighting, and that he trained to use an AK-47 in Kabul –- and has repeatedly pointed out that he never set foot in Afghanistan, that he was arrested by the police on arrival in Pakistan (at a time when Arabs were already beginning to attract bounty payments from the US authorities), and that his passport, which is held by the US authorities, contains a medical visa –- dated 28 October 2001 and valid for one month –- which confirms that he travelled to Pakistan for medical treatment, and that he was not planning to stay for more than a month.

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.

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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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