Archive for September, 2007

Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession

In another resounding demonstration of the importance of legally constituted checks and balances on executive power in the United States, the Associated Press, after filing a request to the Pentagon under the Freedom of Information Act, has secured 58 transcripts from the latest round of annual Administrative Review Boards at Guantánamo, convened to assess whether the detainees still pose a threat to the US, or if they are still presumed to have ongoing “intelligence value.”

This is just the latest in a series of important actions undertaken by the AP with regard to Guantánamo. Previously, the agency secured the right to reproduce 60 habeas petitions, and obtained the 517 Summaries of Evidence for the Combatant Status Review Tribunals held at Guantánamo. Used to assess whether the detainees had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” these documents were analyzed by Mark and Joshua Denbeaux of Seton Hall Law School to produce a ground-breaking report in February 2006, which demonstrated that, according to the government’s own allegations, only 8 percent of the detainees were accused of having any kind of affiliation with al-Qaeda, 55 percent were not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the US or its allies, and 86 percent were not captured by US forces, but by their Pakistani and Afghan allies, at a time when the Americans were making bounty payments, equivalent to an average worker’s lifetime salary, for the delivery of al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.

Subsequent revelations have done little to suggest that even these lowly figures are reliable, and the recent testimony of Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who was involved in compiling the “evidence” for the CSRTs, has been particularly damaging to the government’s case. Abraham declared that the gathering of materials for use in the tribunals was severely flawed, and frequently consisted of intelligence “of a generalized nature –- often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status,” and concluded that the whole system was geared towards rubber-stamping the detainees’ prior designation as “enemy combatants.”

A CSRT Notice is read to a detainee in Guantanamo in July 2004

A CSRT Notice is read to a detainee at Guantánamo in July 2004.

In spring 2006, the AP secured its greatest victory, after taking the government to court over its refusal to reveal the names and nationalities of the Guantánamo detainees, as well as 8,000 pages of transcripts from their CSRTs and the first round of ARBs. A treasure trove of information (though not necessarily in the way that Donald Rumsfeld had in mind when he declared, in December 2001, that the first prisoners captured crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan “should be a treasure trove” of intelligence leads), these documents not only revealed –- for the first time in four years, scandalously –- who was actually held in Guantánamo, but also provided, through the transcripts, the first opportunity for the detainees to tell their stories to the world.

Although the tribunals and review boards were –- and are –- as monstrously illegal as the rest of the Guantánamo regime, with lawyers excluded from the hearings and decisions based largely on secret evidence obtained through torture, coercion and bribery, the information contained in the transcripts was so compelling that, when cross-referenced with the detainees’ names and arranged chronologically, it provided the basis for my forthcoming book, The Guantánamo Files, which unveils the story of Guantánamo and the majority of its detainees for the first time.

The latest batch of documents secured by the AP have just been released to the public by the Department of Defense, and it would, I think, be fair to say that they are the second most important set of documents relating to Guantánamo that have been released by the Pentagon (following the spring 2006 documents described above). As well as containing the 58 transcripts from the Second Round of the ARBs, the documents also include, for the first time, the ”evidence” –- in the form of the Unclassified Summaries of Evidence so heavily criticized by Stephen Abraham –- for all the CSRTs with the names of the detainees included (they were previously redacted), as well as all the Unclassified Summaries for both rounds of the ARBs. Also included are transcripts of the habeas corpus petitions of 179 detainees, and the whole set of documents is indexed so thoroughly that it appears, implausibly, to have been compiled as a testament to the importance of Freedom of Information legislation, with the aim of facilitating a greater understanding of Guantánamo and its detainees than has previously been possible.

These documents will provide lawyers, human rights activists and researchers with an invaluable base from which to gain at least a glimpse into the lives of the many dozens of detainees without legal representation, who have never taken part in any tribunals or review boards and whose stories were hitherto completely unknown. More crucially, perhaps, they will also enable critics of the regime to follow the ways in which additional allegations –- produced under dubious circumstances in countless interrogations both at Guantánamo and in secret prisons –- have mounted up against the detainees during the long years of their illegal imprisonment.

The only disappointment is that the documents relating to the decisions made by the review boards about whether to release detainees, or to continue to hold them, are so heavily redacted as to be all but useless, but even on this point other documents –- the “Indexes to Transfer and Release Decisions” –- provide invaluable, and previously concealed information about who has been released, and, more crucially, about the many dozens of detainees –- at least 70, according to my first analysis –- who have been cleared for release through the ARBs but are still held at Guantánamo because the US government cannot reach a satisfactory agreement with their home governments (as in the cases of the Yemenis), or is unwilling to return them to regimes where, ironically, after years of lawless and brutal detention in US custody, they face the prospect of torture or other ill-treatment. While information about who has been cleared is made available to individual detainees’ lawyers, the value of these documents is that they enable this information to be extended to those particularly vulnerable individuals without legal representation.

Mohammed al-Qahtani

Of particular interest, for now, are the transcripts of the ARBs, especially as the AP trailed the release of the documents with a series of press releases over the weekend, picking out a few stories that contain important information. Chief amongst these is the transcript of the review board hearing of Mohammed al-Qahtani, one of several men presumed to be the intended “20th hijacker” on 9/11. Al-Qahtani’s story has been widely reported, particularly in 2005 when Time obtained a day-to-day transcript of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” to which he was subjected over a 50-day period from November 2002 to January 2003, when he was, amongst other things, interrogated and kept awake for 20 hours a day on most days, stripped naked, sexually humiliated, and forced to bark like a dog.

Although al-Qahtani’s lawyer reported in March 2006 that he had recanted his confession, the transcript of his ARB hearing is the first time that he has denied the 9/11 allegations in person, telling his review board, “this is the first statement I am making of my own free will and without coercion or under the threat of torture,” and stating, “I am a businessman, a peaceful man. I have no connection to terrorism, violence or fighters.” Refuting allegations that he admitted traveling to Afghanistan in 2001, that he attended a training camp, and that met Osama bin Laden and agreed to participate in a “martyr mission” for al-Qaeda, al-Qahtani said that the statements were not true and that he had only admitted to them while he was being “tortured” at Guantánamo, and included his allegations of torture in a statement that was read out to the board.

Ayman Batarfi

In other press releases over the weekend, Andrew O. Selsky and Ben Fox of the AP focused on the story of Ayman Batarfi, a Yemeni doctor caught up in the failed Tora Bora campaign, in November and December 2001, when the US military allowed Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and numerous other senior figures in al-Qaeda and the Taliban to escape across the unguarded Pakistani border.

An Afghan soldier sits in the entrance of one of the Tora Bora caves

An Afghan soldier sits in the entrance of one of the Tora Bora caves in December 2001.

Explaining that he was not a terrorist but had been caught up with al-Qaeda in the Tora Bora mountains in November 2001, Batarfi said that he met Osama bin Laden in the mountains, to explain to him that the defense of Tora Bora was a lost cause, because “Most of all the total guns in the Tora Bora area was 16 Kalashnikovs and there are 200 people.” He noted, however, that bin Laden “did not prepare himself for Tora Bora and to be frank he didn’t care about anyone but himself. He came for a day to visit the area and we talked to him and we wanted to leave this area. He said he didn’t know where to go himself and the second day he escaped and was gone.” Abandoned in the mountains, Batarfi said that he struggled to tend to the wounded and dying, who were overwhelmed by American air power. “I was out of medicine and I had a lot of casualties,” he explained. “I did a hand amputation by a knife and I did a finger amputation with scissors, and if someone was injured badly I was just operating on the table.”

The bombing of Tora Bora

The bombing of Tora Bora, as photographed by a member of the US Special Forces team, led by Gary Berntsen.

Batarfi’s story is not widely known, although I was able to cover it in depth in my book because he has taken part in previous tribunals and review boards. As a result, I was more interested in uncovering the stories of other detainees whose voices had, until these documents were released, not been heard at all despite having spent over five and half years in US custody. Although these men are not strictly “ghost” prisoners –- because their names and nationalities were released under duress last year, as opposed to the thousands of unknown, unrepresented and unreported prisoners held in Afghanistan, Iraq and other undisclosed locations –- there is still something deeply disturbing about the fact that, after all this time, in which they have been held without charge or trial, in conditions of almost total isolation that would be difficult for even the most hardened of convicted criminals on the US mainland to endure, the voices of these men are being heard for the first time.

Hani al-Khalif

They include Hani al-Khalif, a former Saudi soldier, who served with US soldiers during the first Gulf War, who maintained that he had traveled to Afghanistan in the winter of 2000 to fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, and explained, “The Taliban government is the right side to belong to because the other side has come out of the Taliban which is wrong,” and another Saudi –- who didn’t wish to be identified –- who said that he “wanted to participate in jihad for religious purposes to help people in need of food distribution,” because this would “strengthen his relationship with God,” and described how he had made the decision “because of emotion, because I saw a picture of a little baby that had dirty clothes and her hair was not combed or cut.” He insisted that “his goal was to help for two months and then return home,” but said that on arrival in Afghanistan he was tricked into attending the al-Farouq camp (a camp for Arab recruits that was affiliated with al-Qaeda), where he was dismayed to discover that it was “a terrorist training camp with political motivations, not religious goals.”

Hisham Sliti

Also included is the testimony of Hisham Sliti, a Tunisian client of the London-based legal charity Reprieve, which represents dozens of Guantánamo detainees. Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s legal director, reported Sliti’s story in his book Bad Men: Guantánamo and the Secret Prisons, in which he portrayed an affable former drug addict, imprisoned for many years in prisons in Italy and Belgium, who reminisced at length about the quality of the European prisons compared to Guantánamo. “In Italy the prison was wide open for six hours a day,” he explained. “You could have anything in your room –- I had a little fornello, a gas cooker. Can you imagine the Americans allowing that? Here, we call a plastic spoon a ‘Camp Delta Kalashnikov,’ as the soldiers think we’re going to attack them with it.”

In the first hearing that Sliti deigned to attend, he lived up to Stafford Smith’s character sketch, explaining at length his various exploits in Europe, and telling the board that he only ended up in Afghanistan because he had begun attending mosques in Belgium, where the country had been portrayed as “a clean, uncorrupted country where he could study Sharia and further his religious education,” but that what he found instead was that “I didn’t care for the country. It was very hot, dusty and [the] women were ugly. The atmosphere and environment didn’t agree with me.”

Ravil Mingazov

Another first-time testimony is that of Ravil Mingazov, the last of eight Russians in Guantánamo, who, it turns out, was actually born in Tajikistan. A former soldier in the Russian army, Mingazov explained that, although he had been honored for excellent service early in his career, he subsequently converted to Islam and fell out of favor with the KGB to such an extent that he deserted the army, left his wife and family, and fled to Afghanistan with the help of members of the Taliban-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Refuting allegations that he trained at al-Farouq, he said that he had made up these stories while imprisoned at the US airbase in Bagram, and added that he had in fact fled from the IMU, traveling to Pakistan, where he stayed at a center run by the missionary organization Jamaat-al-Tablighi in Lahore. He explained that he was captured, with 16 other Guantánamo detainees, after moving to a guest house used by university students in Faisalabad, which was, unfortunately, owned –- or otherwise connected to –- the “high-value” al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah.

Abdul Rahman al-Zahri

Sadly –- given its undiluted focus on anti-American militancy –- the only other first-time story, that of the Saudi Abdul Rahman al-Zahri, was the only one of the previously unheard voices picked up by the Associated Press, which reported that he “proudly proclaimed himself a holy warrior and ‘an enemy of the United States.’” As the AP described it, al-Zahri “praised the Sept. 11 attacks and other terrorist strikes and said they were retaliation ‘for your criminal acts and your military invasion [of] the Islamic countries.’” While this was a fair précis of his story –- although it did not mention that he was not a member of al-Qaeda, stating instead that he would have been “honored” to have been chosen as a member –- it was, as I have indicated above, unrepresentative of the majority of the stories reported in the transcripts.

On the sixth anniversary of 9/11, al-Zahri’s “confession” will no doubt assure some Americans that the Bush administration’s unprecedentedly lawless and brutal conduct over the last six years is justified, but I believe that what the majority of the documents reveal –- both through some of the examples cited above, and through the many stories of wronged men betrayed by rivals or through false intelligence that are scattered throughout the transcripts –- is exactly the opposite. From my particular perspective, as someone who has studied the stories of the detainees in depth for the last 18 months, the most heart-rending aspect of the transcripts is the confusion and despair shown by detainees who, year after year in their review boards, and often more frequently in their interrogations, have painstakingly repeated their stories ad nauseam, refuting wild and unsubstantiated allegations, and at a loss to understand why they, in particular, have been singled out for inclusion in a never-ending cycle of total isolation and evidence-free crimes.

To give just one example, the Afghan Mohammed Zahir, a 54-year old teacher who had fled to Iran during the time of the Taliban, has been telling his captors, since he was seized in 2003, that he had returned to Afghanistan to serve the new government of Hamid Karzai by teaching in a secular school, but received threatening night letters from the Taliban, who betrayed him to the Americans. “You captured me because I am an Afghan or a Muslim,” he told his review board, “but I haven’t done anything. I was teaching the children under the tree.”

In conclusion, then, the release of these documents –- which was perhaps contrived by the Pentagon to coincide with 9/11, in the hope that they would be conveniently brushed under the carpet –- does not vindicate the government’s post-9/11 policy, when, as CIA director Cofer Black so memorably described it, “the gloves came off,” but hints rather at the true legacy of 9/11: torture, “disappearances” and a regime of secret prisons that should be anathema to those living in a country –- the United States –- that was founded on the rule of law, and that should only be able to regard itself unflinchingly as a beacon of civilized values if it returns to these foundations, insisting that those in charge of the country return to the rule of law that they have flouted so outrageously, with such damaging consequences for America’s reputation abroad, and a concomitant disregard for the rights of Americans themselves (as the hidden history of torture in the case of Jose Padilla recently showed).

In the reflected world in which America admires itself, the prisoners revealed in these transcripts should be charged with crimes and prosecuted in a recognized court of law, rather than being consigned to an extra-legal black hole, where men’s futures are dealt with in a paranoid and gullible atmosphere in which allegations obtained through torture, coercion or bribery are regarded as the truth, abuse is rife, and the presumption of innocence has been done away with completely. 9/11 was a crime –- a monstrous crime –- but it should not have provided an opportunity for the nation’s supposed defenders to embark on a counter-campaign that has ended up mocking the very values that it purported to defend.

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.

As published on CounterPunch.

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), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 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), 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: The Stories Of The 16 Saudis Just Released

Now that the time is approaching when the Supreme Court will once more decide whether the detainees at Guantánamo have the right to challenge their detention in the US courts (a right the Supreme Court gave them in June 2004, but which was snatched away from them in subsequent legislation fuelled by paranoia and Democratic inertia), the recent release of 16 Saudis provides an opportunity to reflect on how, nearly six years after 9/11, the Guantánamo detainees remain in a shocking legal limbo and in desperate need of a legally-binding assertion of their rights under US and international law.

While most media outlets have been content to treat their readers and viewers to headlines about the men’s release, backed up by very little comment or analysis, I have been able to build up a detailed picture of this latest group of men, based on the extensive research I conducted for my forthcoming book The Guantánamo Files, and through discussions with the detainees’ lawyers over the last few days.

Freed after five and a half years from the prison in which they were initially accused of being “the worst of the worst,” what the Saudis’ stories reveal most of all is the general ineptitude of the administration on all fronts –- from the circumstances of their capture, to the screening process in the US prisons in Afghanistan, to the quality of the “intelligence” gathered from them in Guantánamo –- which only serve to reinforce the need for tough action from the Supreme Court this fall.

Of the 16 men released on Thursday, not one deserved to be labeled as “the worst of the worst.” Two of the men –- Abdul Aziz al-Oshan and Abdullah al-Anazi –- recently came to prominence when poems they had written were declassified and included in Poems From Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, an anthology of Guantánamo prison poetry compiled by law professor Marc Falkoff, who represents a number of Yemeni detainees.

The poets

Al-Oshan, who marked his 28th birthday in Guantánamo the week before his release, went to Afghanistan in late September 2001, after taking his final exam at university, to find his brother Saleh (who was also captured, but released in July 2005), in order to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia. Caught up, in late November 2001, in the fall of Kunduz, the last Taliban bastion in the north of Afghanistan, he was “tied down and taken with other detainees” to Qala-i-Janghi, the mud-walled fort of General Dostum, one of the leaders of the Northern Alliance, where he survived a US-led massacre that followed an uprising by some of the prisoners.

Prisoners en route to Qala-i-Janghi

Prisoners en route to Qala-i-Janghi, November 2001.

Despite the fact that he had not been involved in any kind of military training and had not raised arms against either the Northern Alliance or the US-led coalition, he explained to his tribunal in Guantánamo that he was afraid of being tortured, because he had previously been tortured in Afghanistan. “When I was first captured,” he said, “it was the Afghani police there. They were threatening me and torturing me. If I didn’t say that I was from al-Qaeda or Taliban I was tortured. I went to Kandahar and I was tortured there. The guy was speaking English saying ‘Al-Qaeda? Taliban? Al-Qaeda? Taliban?’ Evidence of the torture is that they broke my tooth which was fixed here.” He added, “Once I arrived here, things were a little better. There was no torture or things like that but, because of what happened in the past I was dwelling on the fact that, are these people treating me good and they are going to come back and torture me again?” Gentle, softly-spoken, literate and with a wry sense of humor that five and a half years in Guantánamo could not extinguish, al-Oshan recently wrote a critical account of the library facilities at Guantánamo that was published here in July.

Abdullah al-AnaziThe other poet, Abdullah al-Anazi, was rather less fortunate than Abdul Aziz al-Oshan. After responding to appeals for aid workers to help out with the “humanitarian crisis” in Afghanistan, which was publicized widely in Saudi Arabia both before and after 9/11, and which featured prominent sheikhs appearing on television explaining, as his lawyer described it, that “Muslims were in dire straits in Afghanistan, and that it was the responsibility of fellow Muslims to help them,” the 21-year old duly traveled to Afghanistan to provide humanitarian aid. After fleeing the Jalalabad region during the US-led bombing campaign, he was one of several dozen Guantánamo detainees caught in a bombing raid in the mountains near the Pakistani border, and was then taken to a hospital where one of his legs was amputated. Seized from his hospital bed by local warlords, he was then sold to US forces for a bounty (after which the people who had sold him and labeled him a terrorist disappeared with the money), and had his other leg amputated in US custody.

By the time he arrived at Guantánamo, on February 7, 2002, he weighed just 101 pounds (7 stone 3 pounds, or 46 kg). Described by his lawyer as “the gentle double amputee poet of Guantánamo,” the terrorist tag that his bounty hunters gave him clung to him in US custody, and, despite being “forced to walk on prosthetic limbs held together with duct tape,” as Marc Falkoff described it, lawyer Candace Gorman (citing Anant Raut, one of the lawyers for the Saudis) explained that one interrogator in Guantánamo assessed him as being “unsuitable for repatriation ever, because his lack of legs … would make him ‘less attractive to his wife,’ thereby making him a ‘prime candidate for suicide bombing recruitment.’”

Humanitarian aid workers and a missionary

Four more humanitarian aid workers were captured in Pakistan. 22-year old Zaban al-Shammari, who, according to one of his lawyers, “suffers from a form of epilepsy and experienced seizures” in Guantánamo, traveled to the southern Pakistani city of Karachi to work for a charity organization in July 2001, and was captured by bounty-hungry Pakistani soldiers 600 miles from the battlefields of Afghanistan, and Abdulhadi al-Sharikh, who was 19 at the time, had been in Pakistan for a year, on a mission to help the poor, when he too was seized without setting foot in Afghanistan.

Two others –- Fahd al-Fawzan and Mohammed al-Qurbi –- were not only captured in Pakistan, but also had to contend with allegations made by unspecified “members of al-Qaeda” –- either their fellow detainees, coerced or bribed, or, more worryingly, some of the “high-value” detainees in secret CIA-run prisons, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah –- that they had connections with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Al-Fawzan, who was just 17 years old when he was captured, had apparently been working for al-Haramain, a vast Saudi charity that was closed down in 2004, under pressure from the US government, which alleged that parts of the organization were used as a front for terrorist financing. Unwittingly tarred as a terrorist because of this association, what counted against him more was an allegation that he had been “identified by a senior al-Qaeda member,” who was probably also responsible for the claim that he had trained at a military camp, and that he had previously been in Afghanistan for ten months in 1999, when he was only 15 years old. In his defense, al-Fawzan stated that he wished to return to Saudi Arabia “to continue his laundry business and raise his family,” that Osama bin Laden was a “bad man,” and that “those types of attacks [9/11] are not a good reflection on Muslims.”

Al-Qurbi, who was 23 years old at the time of his capture, maintained that he was arrested by the Pakistani police in Quetta in October 2001, and was handed over to the Americans on November 25. He explained that he had traveled once to Pakistan via Syria and Malaysia, and had then traveled again to Pakistan, to attend a conference run by Jamaat-e-Tablighi, an enormous worldwide missionary organization, but was arrested before he got there. He insisted that he had never set foot in Afghanistan, even though it was alleged that he was identified as an al-Qaeda operative by one of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards, that he had managed a hostel for the Taliban, and that he was part of the “security element” for Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged facilitator of the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Captured in the UAE in November 2002, and held in secret CIA-run prisons until his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2006, al-Nashiri may, therefore, have been the source of all these allegations.

Another non-combatant, 20-year old Rami al-Juaid, was arrested in Kohat, Pakistan, at the house of a Pakistani who had traveled with him from Afghanistan, after the US-led invasion began, in a car driven by an Afghan guide. In his tribunal at Guantánamo, he accepted that he traveled to Afghanistan in August 2001, but denied receiving training at a “terrorist camp,” as alleged, saying that his training was religious, that it took place at a mosque in Kandahar, and that he had only planned on visiting Afghanistan for three weeks to see for himself the Islamic state run by the Taliban. When questioned by the tribunal, he explained that he was an only son, and that “If you are the only son/male child you are exempt in going to jihad.”

Military recruits

Four others were either accused of, or admitted taking part in military training, but none rose above the level of a foot soldier, and there are few, if any indications that any of them actually took part in any kind of combat. Abdulrazak al-Sharikh, the younger brother of Abdulhadi al-Sharikh, was only 16 years old when he arrived in Afghanistan in late 2000, and only 17 when he was captured in Pakistan, having crossed the border from Afghanistan after the US-led invasion began. Explaining his reasons for going to Afghanistan, he said in his tribunal that he wanted to receive training so that he could fight in Chechnya, where another of his brothers had been killed, but that although he had wanted to “go over there so I can die and meet up with him,” a friend of his brother’s had advised him that he “wouldn’t last one day” in Chechnya, and suggested that he went to Afghanistan instead. He added, “The Muslim scientists, or clergymen, were telling me to fight in Afghanistan. They convinced me to fight there, and told me how to get there, so I went.”

Although he admitted training for two months at the al-Farouq camp for Arab volunteers (where he attended a speech given by Osama bin Laden) and serving on the Taliban front lines for three months in Kabul and five months further north, with Pakistani members of the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, he explained that he never fired a weapon at anyone, and that there was little activity until after 9/11, when the Northern Alliance attacked them so hard that they retreated. He denied an allegation that he was “captured by Pakistan police while traveling with a group of Arabs and Afghanis, some of whom were security guards for Osama bin Laden,” saying, “This is not true. When I went to Pakistan, I only had two people with me. When I was turned over, they captured the Arab and Pakistani people. When they sent me to prison, I was taken along with the other group.” He added that he had traveled with two Pakistani guides, and that, after surrendering, he was met by a representative of the Saudi government, who knew of him because “I am from a very well known family.” Despite assurances from the representative that he would help him return to Saudi Arabia, however, he was then handed over to US forces.

Less is known about the three others accused of involvement in militancy. Khalid al-Sharif, who was 26 years old when he was captured crossing the Pakistani border, denied an allegation that he had attended the al-Farouq camp, but admitted that he had attended another military training camp. He refuted an allegation that he was second-in-command of a group of fighters in Tora Bora, however, insisting that he had never been to Tora Bora, and also refuted an allegation that he met Osama bin Laden, saying, “All I did was see a photograph of him. If I see a photograph of President Bush does that mean I met President Bush?”

The story of Salim al-Shihri, who was 20 years old when he was captured, is even more vague. Captured after the fall of Kunduz and taken to Qala-i-Janghi, where, he said, “I was there but I did not take part in the uprising,” he denied allegations that he traveled to Afghanistan in August 2001 “to join the jihad and fight with the Taliban,” and that he received military training and fought on the front lines, admitting only that he traveled to the front lines “for a visit,” and saying that he went to Afghanistan because he read a fatwa “calling for people going there to help people.” Asked to define the fatwa, he said, “I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t have the knowledge … I just know that an important sheikh talks,” and when asked what this particular fatwa was for, he said that it was “about helping those who needed help.” While this could have been a deliberately evasive response, it’s also possible that, like many others, he obeyed the fatwas unquestioningly, and did not really understand what he was getting into.

Alliance soldier rest guns on a corpse at Qala-i-Janghi

Northern Alliance soldiers rest a gun on the corpse of a Taliban soldier during the uprising at Qala-i-Janghi.

Even less is known about Fahd al-Harazi, who was 23 years old when he was captured. Although he had secured legal representation, he refused to meet his lawyers, and also refused to take part in either his tribunal or his review boards, so that the allegations against him went unanswered. While the first set of allegations –- that he traveled to Afghanistan in March 2001 “to fight the jihad,” attended “an al-Qaeda affiliated camp,” fought on the front lines against the Northern Alliance, and was wounded in Qala-i-Janghi –- seem plausible, additional claims –- that he was actually a trainer at al-Farouq, and that his name was found on a document at the “Military Committee al-Mujahideen Affairs Office,” which contained “nominees for the al-Qaeda Trainers Preparation Center” –- look more dubious, and may well have evaporated as the years have passed.

Detainees without lawyers

As with the 16 Saudis released just seven weeks ago, which I reported here, some of the latest group –- four in total –- had no legal representation, and, like Fahd al-Harazi, spent five and a half years in Guantánamo without seeing any non-military personnel except occasional representatives of the Red Cross. Two of these four men also refused to take part in their tribunals, and what little can be gleaned of their stories is taken from the Unclassified Summaries of Evidence for their tribunals. Majid Barayan, born in 1972, was captured on the Pakistani border and was accused of training at al-Farouq, where he allegedly “received weapons and explosives training,” and fighting on the front lines north of Taloqan against the Northern Alliance, where he was reportedly “in charge of an anti-aircraft missile launcher mounted on a truck.”

Also captured on the Pakistani border was Mousa al-Amri, born in 1978, who was subjected to conflicting allegations. Reportedly recruited after seeing fatwas issued by various sheikhs on bulletin boards around his hometown and in mosques, which called on Saudi citizens ”to travel to Afghanistan and help the Taliban,” it was suggested that, after arriving in Pakistan, a Saudi named Mohammed Abdul Razzaq facilitated his journey to Afghanistan and took him to a Taliban center near Kabul, which functioned as a reserve camp, providing training in small arms, medical care and guard duty. Other contradictory accusations involved him arriving in Afghanistan in March 2001, when he was promptly issued with a Kalashnikov and assigned to a position near the front lines, fighting on the front line in Bagram, and, in another scenario, staying in a Taliban house a few minutes from the Pakistani border, where Mohammed Abdul Razzaq (this time appearing as an Afghan) directed him to a supply center, where he spent six weeks loading trucks.

In his defense, al-Amri stated that he had actually been visiting mosques and teaching the Koran with Jamaat-al-Tablighi, and added that he told the Pakistani authorities that he fought with the Taliban because he was told that, “if he told the truth about performing missionary work with Jamaat al-Tablighi, the Saudi delegation would not help him.” He also said that he “never participated in military actions or affiliations of any type with the Taliban,” and that he ‘knows no one who is or has claimed to be with al-Qaeda, nor has anyone ever asked him to join the Taliban or al-Qaeda.”

The other two men are Bakri al-Samiri and Amran Hawsawi. Al-Samiri, who was 24 years old when he was captured, was accused of training in a camp run by the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), fighting on the front lines against the Northern Alliance, and retreating from Bagram to Jalalabad, where he was wounded by shrapnel. Although he admitted that he met a man in Mecca who told him about the work of LeT, he insisted that he only went to Afghanistan for a few weeks’ vacation “to help others any way I could help.” Like all the men who refused legal assistance, he appears to have taken part in hunger strikes at Guantánamo, and at one point, in May 2006, his weight dropped to just 103 lbs.

The last of the four, Amran Hawsawi, had a less confusing story to tell, and joins the ranks of the wrongly imprisoned humanitarian aid workers and religious teachers described above. 26 years old at the time of his capture, Hawsawi, who taught the Koran in Saudi Arabia, traveled to an Afghan refugee camp near the border with Iran, where he suffered shrapnel injuries after a bombardment. He then tried to cross the border into Iran, but was turned back by Iranian officials, and made his way to Pakistan instead, where he was subsequently arrested in a Saudi Red Crescent hospital in Quetta, even though he was seriously ill. “Even the doctor refused but they took [me] by force,” he explained. “He [the doctor] said you can release anybody but this one.”

Like Fahd al-Fawzan and Mohammed al-Qurbi, Hawsawi also ran up against allegations produced, in dubious circumstances, by alleged members of al-Qaeda. It was stated that “a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant,” who was “on the media committee along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” described him as a member of al-Qaeda, and it may have been this source that was also responsible for another groundless allegation: that he was “identified” in Kabul at the al-Farouq camp. Not only was al-Farouq nowhere near Kabul, but it was also alleged that Hawsawi traveled to Afghanistan in September 2001, which was when the camp closed down.

Prisoner of the Taliban and al-Qaeda

Abdul Hakim BukhariI have saved until last the story of Abdul Hakim Bukhari, a 46-year old former mujahideen fighter, who met Osama bin Laden 14 or 15 years previously while fighting against the Russians, when the CIA was covertly funding the anti-Soviet resistance that would, in time, become the basis of al-Qaeda. Although his motives were far from peaceful –- he admitted that he traveled to Afghanistan to fight the US after 9/11, because “President Bush declared war on the Taliban” and “the Taliban called a jihad” –- he never raised arms against either the US or its allies, but was instead suspected of being a spy after declaring that he admired Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance.

Fanatically opposed to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Massoud was assassinated two days before 9/11, and Bukhari’s admission resulted in his imprisonment by the very people he had traveled to help. “They got mad when I said I liked Massoud,” he said. “They are crazy. They don’t like him. If I had known they didn’t like him, I wouldn’t have spoken. For saying that, they punished me … they beat me, they hit me very badly. They accused me of being a spy. They are stupid.” Freed from a Taliban jail after the US-led invasion, he was one of at least eight Guantánamo prisoners imprisoned and tortured by the Taliban and/or al-Qaeda, who, instead of being released, were transferred to Guantánamo, where several of them still remain.

As the 16 released Saudis prepare –- after a suitable period of “reprogramming” –- to attempt to rebuild their shattered lives, their cases should demonstrate to the justices of the Supreme Court that the time is long overdue to conclude, emphatically, that the President and his advisors have no right to hold prisoners –- mostly innocent men or Taliban foot soldiers from an inter-Muslim civil war that long preceded 9/11 –- for over 2000 days without charge or trial, in circumstances that would try the hardest of convicted criminals on the US mainland.

It is also, I believe, incumbent on the justices to insist that the United States returns forthwith to the rule of law, reestablishing the inalienable right of anyone captured by US forces –- whether an American citizen or not –- to be treated as an Enemy Prisoner of War in accordance with the Geneva Conventions (in a war that is defined by time and place, rather than one that is nebulous and open-ended) or to be charged and brought before a reputable court of law, where the nature of much of the “evidence” produced in Guantánamo –- hearsay, and statements obtained through torture, coercion or bribery, as described in the stories above –- can be tested and shown up as the tissue of lies that so much of it clearly is.

The Pentagon’s disdain for the law was demonstrated, in a typically haphazard and arrogant fashion, when the Department of Defense released these 16 men without even notifying the lawyers of the 12 who had representation. And while dozens of other cleared detainees remain in Guantánamo, despite being approved for release through the administrative review process that is held up as providing fair and thorough investigations of their status, it also transpired that the 16 Saudis were released without being cleared, indicating that political maneuvering, rather more than justice, is driving the evacuation of the reviled prison.

As Anant Raut declared on the news of their release, “I hope this puts an end to the absolutely false argument that the only reason the US can’t transfer many of these prisoners out of Guantánamo is that their own countries don’t want them back. Clearly, the Saudis are willing to take their citizens home. The administration has said it only plans to charge some 30-60 of the prisoners; the remaining 300-plus it has no interest in keeping. If the Saudis are willing to take theirs back, my question is, what’s stopping the transfer of the others?”

The answer, sadly, is that up to 150 detainees remain in Guantánamo because the administration is finding it difficult to undo the lawless fiasco it has created. While two-thirds of the Saudis have now been released, almost all the Yemeni detainees –- 96 men, whose profiles largely match those of the Saudis –- are still there, apparently because the governments of the US and the Yemen cannot reach an agreement about the terms of their repatriation that will satisfy both parties.

Dozens of North Africans are also still stranded, unwilling to return to the countries of their birth, where, despite being cleared, they face the risk of torture. These men are being subjected to particularly cynical moves on the part of the US administration, which, with the UK government, is engaged in bypassing international anti-torture legislation preventing the return of individuals to countries where they face the risk of torture by securing “diplomatic assurances” and “memoranda of understanding” with the abusive regimes in charge of their home countries that are not worth the paper on which they are printed.

The tide of opinion may slowly be turning against Guantánamo in the United States, but although the release of the Saudis contributes to its closure, the circumstances of many others –- as touched on above –- reveals that it is much easier to set up an illegal interrogation camp and torture prison than it is to close it down.

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 the Huffington Post.

Note:

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

ISN 112: Abdul Aziz al-Oshan (Abdul Aziz Saad al-Khaldi)
ISN 514: Abdullah al-Anazi (Abdallah Faris al-Unazi Thani)
ISN 647: Zaban al-Shammari (al-Shamaree)
ISN 231: Abdulhadi al-Sharikh (al-Sharakh)
ISN 218: Fahd al-Fawzan (al-Fouzan)
ISN 342: Mohammed al-Qurbi
ISN 318: Rami al-Juaid (Rami bin Said al-Taibi)
ISN 67: Abdulrazak al-Sharikh (al-Sharekh or Abd al-Razzaq Abdallah Ibrahim al-Tamini)
ISN 322: Khalid al-Sharif (al-Barakat)
ISN 126: Salim al-Shihri (Salam Abdullah Said)
ISN 79 Fahd al-Harazi (Fahed)
ISN 51: Majid Barayan (al-Barayan)
ISN 196: Mousa al-Amri (Musa)
ISN 274: Bakri al-Samiri (Bader al-Bakri al-Samiri)
ISN 368: Amran Hawsawi
ISN 493: Abdul Hakim Bukhari (Bukhary)

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; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here).

Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that he will die

In a report from Guantánamo in the Press Gazette, Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of London-based legal charity Reprieve, files a report on a recent visit, based on the sections of his notes that have been declassified by the US military. Like every other lawyer with clients in Guantánamo, Stafford Smith cannot report a word from his meetings with his clients without military censors first checking every word, providing approval –- or withholding consent –- without any explanation whatsoever.

In this latest salvo from the frontline, Stafford Smith begins light-heartedly, reporting on a ludicrous allegation that he “might have smuggled some Speedo swimming trunks and ‘Under Armour briefs’” to one of his clients, British resident Shaker Aamer, whose painful story I reported here, here and here. “Shaker was apparently caught wearing both ‘contraband’ items in his prison cell,” Stafford Smith notes. The lawyer’s wry, combative nature has long annoyed the authorities at Guantánamo, to such an extent that last year, in a sure sign that they have long since abandoned common sense, they accused him of inciting the suicides of three detainees in June 2006, and this latest allegation therefore follows a well-worn path.

Stafford Smith continues: “These are serious allegations, yet the notion that I was going to slip a prisoner some Speedos was pretty silly. So I composed a reply that contained every euphemism for underwear that I could conjure up, and relished reminding the officer that I am more concerned with legal briefs than the Under Armour variety. Surely it would be clear even to the Guantánamo authorities that their own guards must have supplied the offending lingerie.” Backing up this statement, he adds that an internet search “disclosed that Under Armour does a line of ‘tactical’ underwear for the military.”

From here, the story becomes far darker, as Stafford Smith reports on the precarious mental health of another of his clients, Sami al-Haj. As he describes it, the Sudanese al-Jazeera cameraman, who “has been on a hunger strike for more than 230 days, more than three times as long as the IRA strikers in 1980,” was “seized when on assignment to Afghanistan, apparently because the US thought he had filmed al-Jazeera’s famous bin Laden interview. As has so often been the case of late, the US was wrong (though name me a journalist who would turn down a bin Laden scoop).”

Sami al-Haj

Although al-Haj has been a tireless source of information from within Guantánamo –- effortlessly demonstrating why it is counter-productive to wrongly imprison a journalist in the world’s most notorious illegal prison –- Stafford Smith reports worrying signs that he is losing both his memory and his will to live, perhaps as a result of the relentless pain of the force-feeding process at Guantánamo, which involves detainees having a 110 cm tube forced up their nose and into their stomach three times a day. Stafford Smith describes the process with empathic feeling, having tried it on himself, and also notes that it is “calculated to be painful –- or, to borrow General Craddock’s offensive euphemism, to make it ‘inconvenient’ for Sami and others to continue their peaceful protest.”

Stafford Smith writes that he is “very worried” about al-Haj. “His memory has been going, along with his grip on the English language. He has developed a paranoid fear that he will be the next prisoner to die at the island gulag. ‘My prison number is 3, 4, 5,’ he told me, his face serious. ‘First, in June 2006, there were three prisoners who died. Then, this May, there was a fourth to die. Three, four … five, I am afraid I am going to be the fifth.’”

Stafford Smith reports that he “administered a psychological screening test” on his client, but that, “for reasons that are beyond me,” his notes regarding his findings were nor cleared by the military censors. He adds, however, that he has since consulted a number of mental health experts about al-Haj’s mental state, and that one doctor “reminded me not to refer to Sami as paranoid,” succinctly explaining why the Guantánamo regime is not a breeding ground for delusions, but a very real environment for destroying the mind of its prisoners as effectively as US “enemy combatant” Jose Padilla’s years of isolation in a military brig on the US mainland. “His fears of mistreatment at the hands of the Americans are not, unfortunately, paranoid,” the doctor explained. “They are very worrying, but he has more than five years’ experience proving that they are very real.”

Stafford Smith concludes his report by stating, “When BBC correspondent Alan Johnston was being held hostage by the Palestinian Army of Islam, Sami issued a plea asking them to let his fellow journalist go without conditions. It was broadcast by Sami’s al-Jazeera employers, in the hope that the kidnappers would be watching the Arabic news channel. I wonder how to contact Alan Johnston now, to see if he can return the favour. The western media has been too slow to come to Sami’s aid. I am not sure why.”

The reasons why Sami al-Haj has been abandoned by the western media are many, but none show the purported guardians of truth in a good light. They concern, firstly, the obfuscating fog of secrecy and misinformation –- deliberately fostered by the US administration –- which hovers over Guantánamo, and which creates enormous obstacles for those who see clearly the appalling truth that, in response to 9/11, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a coterie of close aides embarked on a plot to turn the United States from a country founded on the rule of law, with in-built checks and balances on the abuse of executive power, into a lawless tyranny, featuring torture prisons, “disappearances,” false confessions, secret evidence and show trials that resemble, to cite just one example, the monstrously repressive Soviet regime of Josef Stalin.

Those who see this truth are also stymied by the difficulty of finding ways to focus the attention on the general public on the stories of individual detainees like Sami al-Haj, when there are so many innocent men imprisoned without charge or trial and denied all access to the outside world. And finally, of course, the media itself is complicit. In a world where anti-Muslim sentiment is either widely condoned or expressly encouraged, and, in any case, rolling 24-hour news and the ratings-chasing and politically motivated filters to truth erected in most of the print media encourage citizens to have the attention span of a hyper-active child, there is no time or will for the sustained investigations which, for example, enabled the journalist Stephen Grey, working as a freelancer, to write Ghost Plane, his masterly account of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme, and which, I hope, enabled a similar process to take place in the creation of The Guantánamo Files, my forthcoming book that attempts to give voices to the majority of the neglected prisoners of Guantánamo.

Note: For Prisoner 345, the campaign to free Sami al-Haj, click here.

Additional note: Sami is also referred to as Sami al-Hajj. This is his name as recorded by the Department of Defense.

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.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the hunger strikes at Guantánamo, see Shaker Aamer, A South London Man in Guantánamo: The Children Speak (July 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo (October 2007), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth? (October 2007), Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo (Yousef al-Shehri and Murtadha Makram) (November 2007), A letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj) (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest Guantánamo charges (June 2008), Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo (June 2008), Guantánamo Suicide Report: Truth or Travesty? (August 2008), Seven Years Of Guantánamo, And A Call For Justice At Bagram (January 2009), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), Obama’s “Humane” Guantánamo Is A Bitter Joke (February 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent Home (March 2009). Also see the following online chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 2 (Ahmed Kuman, Mohammed Haidel), Website Extras 3 (Abdullah al-Yafi, Abdul Rahman Shalabi), Website Extras 4 (Bakri al-Samiri, Murtadha Makram), Website Extras 5 (Ali Mohsen Salih, Ali Yahya al-Raimi, Abu Bakr Alahdal, Tarek Baada, Abdul al-Razzaq Salih).

Former Guantánamo detainees speak: Murat Kurnaz, Mamdouh Habib and Abdur Rahim Muslim Dost

Murat Kurnaz

Murat Kurnaz

In a busy week for former Guantánamo detainees, Der Spiegel reports that the sole German ex-detainee, Murat Kurnaz –- born in Bremen but ignored by the German government until Angela Merkel came to power, because he was the son of Turkish immigrant workers (gastarbeiter) –- is making headway with his long-standing claim, which he made following his release from Guantánamo in August 2006, that, as well as being tortured and abused by US forces in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, he was also beaten by soldiers from Germany’s Special Forces Command (KSK) at the US base at Kandahar airport.

Kurnaz described in detail how the Americans called him to a fence one evening, where two German soldiers were waiting. One of the soldiers, he claims, called out to him, “It looks like you picked the wrong side.” He was then taken behind a truck and ordered to lie on the ground, he says. The two Germans were prepared –- and “were wearing camouflage uniforms.” One of them, Kurnaz claims, grabbed him by the hair and shouted at him, “Do you know who we are? We’re the German force, the KSK.” According to Kurnaz, the German soldier then pushed his face onto the dry desert floor and kicked him in the side before leaving. The soldiers laughed, says Kurnaz. “They thought it was funny.”

Although the KSK has persistently denied Kurnaz’s claims, Der Spiegel reports that three American witnesses –- including Major Matthew W. Donald of the 108th Military Police Company, who now teaches military history at the University of Ohio –- have corroborated his claims, adding that German investigators believe that his account is “credible.”

Mamdouh Habib

Mamdouh HabibOver in Australia, meanwhile, the Australian reports that “Holes have emerged in the evidence Australian intelligence agencies have relied on to paint former Guantánamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib as a national security threat.” Habib, an Egyptian-born citizen, was released from Guantánamo in January 2005, but only after he was rendered for torture in Egypt and was then treated with appalling brutality in Guantánamo. The case against him –- such as it was, before he was released lest details of his “extraordinary rendition” and torture emerged to shame the US administration –- hinged on his alleged connections, established during a visit to the United States, with followers of “the Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted and sentenced in the US for his part in terror plots including Ramzi Yousef’s 1993 bomb attack on the World Trade Center. A key part of this “evidence” –- calls allegedly made to Habib “from a New Jersey phone number linked to another convicted terrorist, Ibrahim El-Gabrowny” –- have now been revealed as groundless, following the discovery that, at the time the calls were made, El-Gabrowny had already been in US custody for three weeks.

As the Australian described it, the latest revelations about the phone records came about after one of the men arrested with Habib in Pakistan –- Ibrahim Diab, who was “arrested but quickly released” –- came forward “to corroborate [Habib’s] claims that he was held in the Australian High Commission in the capital Islamabad and interrogated by an Australian diplomat.” Diab’s testimony also backs up claims made by Mr Habib that the calls from New Jersey were actually “faxes about fundraising activities sent to him by other members of the New Jersey Muslim community with access to the same phone.” Habib, who turned out on Saturday at a huge protest rally against President Bush’s visit to Australia, where he told reporters, “George Bush is a great evil –- he should get out of this country,” continues to maintain his innocence, in an attempt to clear his name, to retrieve his passport from the Australian authorities, and to secure damages from the federal government over his detention in Egypt and at Guantánamo.

Diab’s testimony will presumably bolster Habib’s case against his own government, which has persistently maintained that it had nothing to do with the activities of the Americans. Habib, on the other hand, has repeatedly insisted that “the Australian government was complicit in the treatment he received,” asserting that “Australia’s spy agency ASIO was aware at the time of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings that he knew many of the members of the Muslim community in New Jersey, including some of the men convicted over the bombings,” and that the agency had asked him to spy on the New Jersey Muslims, but he had refused. I wonder whether, as with Jamil El-Banna in the UK, that refusal to work as an informer may not have blighted the rest of his life.

Abdur Rahim Muslim Dost

Abdur Rahim Muslim DostAnd finally, to Pakistan, where Abdur Rahim Muslim Dost, an Afghan writer and businessman, who was sold to the Americans by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, has been allowed to speak publicly for the first time in almost a year. Betrayed by the ISI because both he and his brother Badruzzaman Badr (also held in Guantánamo and then released) had published articles that were critical of the ISI, Muslim Dost was freed from Guantánamo in April 2005, but then proceeded to write a book about Guantánamo, with his brother, that was, again, critical of the ISI. Da Guantánamo Matay Zolanay (The Broken Shackles of Guantánamo) was published last July, and two months later, on 29 September, Muslim Dost was seized by Pakistani police as he left a mosque in Peshawar, his home since the 1970s. Ranking as one of Pakistan’s many “disappeared” for several months, he was eventually located in his adoptive country’s sprawling and unaccountable prison system, and was recently transferred to the Central Prison in Peshawar, where, farcically, he has been charged with “violating visa rules and illegal stay in Pakistan.”

Speaking to the Pakistan Daily Times this week, Muslim Dost ran through his recent history, explaining that, after his arrest, “agency personnel drove him handcuffed and blindfolded to their office near the Army Stadium. ‘I was already familiar with the detention centre, as I had spent some time there before I was shifted to Guantánamo Bay in 2001,’ he added. He said an intelligence official, in his mid-30s, questioned him about the book. ‘I explicitly told him that I had co-authored the book and would write another one once I was released.’”

Muslim Dost went on to explain that he was held for six months in a secret prison located somewhere between Gora Qabristan and Peshawar airport, which held between 35 and 40 people, and accused the authorities of running a prison that was even more vile than Guantánamo. “Detention cells at Guantánamo Bay are far better than those I witnessed in Peshawar, being run by the intelligence agencies,” he told the Daily Times, adding, “Most of the inmates were suffering from tuberculosis without any healthcare facilities available to them,” and explaining that he was not even allowed writing materials, as he had been in Guantánamo, where he wrote 25,000 lines of poetry, some of which appears in the recent book Poems From Guantánamo, even though it was almost all confiscated by the authorities and not returned to him on his release. He also explained that one of his fellow detainees had been “brutally tortured” at the prison.

While his transfer from this secret prison to Peshawar perhaps indicates that the much-wronged poet will soon be released outright, he will clearly never be cowed by threats and intimidation from powerful people whom he regards, implacably, as corrupt. “If the authorities consider publication of my book written on wrongdoings and injustices by the agencies with innocent detainees [to be a mistake],” he said, “then I will make this mistake time and again.”

Note: For more on Kurnaz, see here, and for more on the stories of all three men 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 Ahmed Belbacha: UK government explains why it will not act to prevent his return to torture

On 6 August, just before the British government announced that it was asking for the return of five British residents in Guantánamo (Shaker Aamer, Jamil El-Banna, Omar Deghayes, Binyam Mohamed and Abdulnour Sameur), I wrote a letter to the Foreign Secretary David Miliband asking the government to act on behalf of another British resident, Ahmed Belbacha.

A refugee from Algeria, Belbacha arrived in the UK in 1999, after receiving death threats from militant Islamists who objected to the fact that he worked for a state-owned oil company, and settled in Bournemouth, where he worked in a hotel. Captured on holiday in Pakistan in 2001, while his application for asylum in the UK was still pending, he was sold to US forces, transferred to a US-run prison in Afghanistan and then sent to Guantánamo. In 2003, his application for asylum was turned down by the British government, but he was granted leave to remain in the UK instead. Unfortunately, by this time, he had already been held in Guantánamo for a year, subjected, like the majority of detainees held in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, to chronic abuse and groundless allegations extracted under duress, which later evaporated like the mirages they always were.

In February this year, as the paranoid mist conjured up by the US administration dissipated, he was cleared for release by a review board at Guantánamo, but was told that the British government would not accept his return to the UK. This led the Americans to approve his release to Algeria instead, where he is not only at risk from the militants from whom he fled in the first place, but has also been told that the Algerian intelligence services –- the notorious and semi-autonomous Department of Investigations and Security (DRS) –- “cannot ensure that he will be safe –- from their own personnel.”

On 4 September, I received the following reply to my letter, which I reproduce in full:

Dear Andy Worthington,

Thank you for your email of 6 August about Guantánamo Bay. I have been asked to reply. You may be aware of the recent decision to seek the release from Guantánamo Bay and return to the UK of five men. I should stress that the UK Government believes that the circumstances in which detainees are currently held indefinitely at Guantánamo Bay are unacceptable. We believe that the detention facility at Guantánamo should be closed. The UK Government, therefore, welcomes recent steps taken by the US Government to reduce the numbers of those detained at Guantánamo Bay and to move towards the closure of the detention facility. These steps have included an increasing emphasis on engagement with third countries over the transfer and resettlement of those detained.

The Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary have reviewed the UK Government’s approach to a group of individuals who were lawfully resident in the UK prior to their detention; 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 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: Mr Shaker Aamer, Mr Jamil El-Banna, Mr Omar Deghayes, Mr Binyam Mohamed and Mr Abdennour Sameur. On 7 August, the Foreign Secretary wrote to US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to formally make this request.

This decision is limited to those who were lawfully resident in the UK prior to their detention. We believe we have identified all of those to whom this relates who are currently detained at Guantánamo Bay. Mr Ahmed Belbacha does not fall into this category.

Discussions with the US Government may take some time and we cannot guarantee success. On the question of detainees being returned to their country of origin, the US authorities have said that they require assurances from the government of the country concerned that detainees will not be mistreated before considering them for return.

The UK Government will, of course, continue to take all necessary measures to maintain national security. Should these men be returned to the UK, the same security considerations and actions will apply to them as would apply to any other foreign national in this country.

Whilst the UK Government does not normally make representations of this kind, the decision to do so in these cases arises out of the exceptional nature of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and the UK Government’s desire to take action to help bring about its closure and to reduce the numbers of those detained there.

Best regards,
Nicolas Jankowski
Counter Terrorism Policy Department

When I’ve recovered from my disappointment at the meanness of spirit expressed on behalf of the Foreign Office by Mr. Jankowski, I intend to write another letter, explaining how distressing I find it that because, technically, Mr. Belbacha was not a British resident at the time of his capture, this innocent man, who has been through five and a half years of extraordinarily bleak treatment at the hands of his US captors, will not be rescued from the prospect of further ill-treatment in the country of his birth because the government has turned its back on the decision it made to welcome him to stay in Britain while he was suffering in Guantánamo. This rather makes a mockery of the supposedly principled stance made by Gordon Brown’s new administration when it requested the return of the other five men, and does little to persuade me that the government is as concerned with justice as it is with PR.

I can only hope, from the careful references to the “unacceptable” nature of Guantánamo and the forthcoming discussions with the US that “may take some time” and that have no “guarantee of success,” that the government will do rather more to secure the release of the five other British detainees than they have with Ahmed Belbacha. In the meantime, I encourage readers to send their own letter of complaint regarding the callous dismissal of Mr. Belbacha to David Miliband at: milibandd@parliament.uk. It may take a month, but you too may get a reply from the Counter Terrorism Policy Department.

As published on Indymedia.

Note: More on Ahmed Belbacha’s story can be found here, and my original letter to the Foreign Office is here. For more on the British residents in Guantánamo (including Mr. Belbacha), 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.

Interview about Jose Padilla on Anti-war.com – and information about a Guantánamo documentary

Anti-war RadioOn Tuesday, Scott Horton invited me back on his radio show to discuss Jose Padilla, Guantánamo, torture, secret prisons and the fact that something rotten lurks at the heart of the current US administration. The interview followed the publication of my article Jose Padilla: More Sinned Against Than Sinning, published on Anti-war.com (and also here), and is available here — and as an MP3 here.

This is a busy week for interviews. Today I interviewed US attorney Tom Wilner, who represents four Kuwaiti detainees in Guantánamo (and eight who have been released), for a forthcoming documentary about Guantánamo and the secret prisons that I’m working on with Polly Nash and Mark Saunders, two film-makers –- and friends –- from the London College of Communication (which is providing funding) and the independent production company Spectacle. Tom –- profiled here –- was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule, during a brief business trip to London, to talk with eloquence, precision and passion about the plight of the detainees and the pernicious flight from domestic and international law that has been perpetrated by the US administration over the last five and a half years, and I’d like to thank him for being such an inspiring interviewee.

Rounding off the week, tomorrow I’m honoured to be joining a roll-call of former detainees, lawyers, authors and human rights activists who have been interviewed for the excellent Talking Dog blog (scroll down the site for the list of interviews), and on Friday I’m interviewing Marc Falkoff, law professor, Guantánamo attorney and editor of Poems From Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, for the acclaimed politics and poetry website Nth Position.

Details to follow in due course.

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.

Jose Padilla: More Sinned Against Than Sinning

Jose PadillaNews that Jose Padilla’s lawyers are seeking to hold former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and 59 other US officials responsible for “abusive and unconstitutional tactics used against Mr. Padilla while he was held in military custody as an enemy combatant from 2002 to 2006” has temporarily revived the story of the Chicago-born former gang member and Islamic convert. Padilla’s conviction on August 16, in a court room in Miami, for “conspiracy to murder, kidnap, and maim people in a foreign country, conspiracy to provide material support for terrorists, and providing material support for terrorists,” was announced to whoops of joy from an administration ravenous for all crumbs of comfort, but to a generally muted response in the US media.

An American citizen once regarded as one of the most dangerous terrorists ever apprehended on American soil, Padilla –- whose arrest in May 2002 was trumpeted by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft as that of a “known terrorist,” who was “exploring a plan” to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in a US city –- is due to be sentenced in December (if the verdict does not unravel on appeal). He faces the prospect of spending between 15 years and the rest of his life in jail, even though his profile has shrunk so considerably, that, after once being regarded as a potential mass murderer on a unprecedented scale, he was, in the end, not actually accused of lifting a finger to harm even a single US citizen.

The trial

Many of the media outlets that bothered to report the verdict stuck to a narrowly defined script, neglecting to mention Padilla’s long detention without charge or trial, and hailing it, as ABC News did, as a triumphant example of a legal victory in the “War on Terror.” This in itself was doubtful. Since the prosecution was allowed to show, on a huge screen, a seven-minute video of a speech by Osama bin Laden that was completely unrelated to the case, and lead prosecutor Brian Frazier mentioned al-Qaeda around a hundred times in his opening comments, and another hundred times in his closing remarks, the few outspoken critics of the trial were justified in concluding that this was an arrant display of propaganda masquerading as evidence.

They were also justified in highlighting the weakness of the actual evidence against Padilla: his fingerprints and personal details on an application form for an “al-Qaeda” training camp in Afghanistan, which he apparently filled out in July 2000, and just seven intercepted phone messages, out of the thousands recorded between 1993 and 2001 featuring Padilla’s co-defendants, Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, in which he purportedly demonstrated his commitment to “violent jihad.” It’s also noticeable that, whereas his co-defendants were accused of repeatedly speaking in code, this allegation was not applied to the seven calls featuring Padilla.

Even overlooking the fact that this was, at best, just one notch up from a “thought crime” –- and that there may be something wrong with a system in which, as Brian Frazier told the jury, “you can find that the defendants are guilty even if they never killed or harmed anyone –- under the law it is the illegal agreement that is the crime” –- the brandishing of the application form was enough to convince the jurors of Padilla’s guilt. After a three-month trial, they took only eleven hours to reach a verdict.

Noting that this meant that the jurors spent less than one hour of deliberations for each week of trial testimony, whereas “the rule of thumb, [as] any trial attorney will tell you, is that one week of trial testimony usually tracks one day of deliberations,” CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen wrote that both lawyers and reporters were “shocked by the speed of the verdict.” According to the New York Times’ account, one juror said that she “had ‘all but made up her mind’ about the defendants’ guilt before deliberations began.”

The torture

What makes the verdict particularly distressing for those concerned with justice in the United States, however, is not just the manipulation of the trial by the prosecution and the slimness of the evidence against the once-alleged “dirty bomber.” The elephant in the room in Padilla’s case –- his detention, in brutal isolation, as an “enemy combatant” for 43 months in a military brig, and its effect on his mental health –- was swept aside as though it had never existed, not only during the trial itself, in which the judge, Marcia G. Cooke, explicitly barred both the prosecution and the defense from speaking about it, but also in much of the mainstream media coverage of the verdict.

This is shocking beyond belief. In a country in which far too many people have expressed their utter indifference to the fate of non-Americans detained by their government in the “War on Terror,” the treatment of Padilla should at least have set alarm bells ringing. Unlike foreigners, who, according to the President, can be picked up anywhere in the world, imprisoned, tortured and held forever without charge or trial, American citizens are supposed to be protected against this kind of treatment. Padilla’s case emphatically proves that this is no longer true.

There was, I must admit, a certain amount of uproar and hand-wringing in the US in December 2006, when photos of Padilla, shackled and restrained, and kitted out in black-out goggles and sound-muffling headphones for nothing more dangerous than a walk from his cell to a dental appointment, were published in the New York Times. Momentarily electrified, the media responded with a rush of indignation (perhaps proving, as with the Abu Ghraib scandal, that photos speak louder than words), and articles poured forth describing what had happened to Padilla during the four years and eight months he had then spent in US custody.

Jose Padilla's shocking trip to the dentist

The image of Jose Padilla’s trip to the dentist that shocked Americans in December 2006.

Padilla, a former Chicago gang member, who had moved to Florida and converted to Islam in 1994, was arrested on May 8, 2002, at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, after several years abroad in Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was held for a month as a material witness and interrogated by the FBI, and was then designated as an “enemy combatant” and transferred to a military brig in Charleston, South Carolina, where, for 43 months, as described by Warren Richey of the Christian Science Monitor, he was “held not only in solitary confinement but as the sole detainee in a high-security wing of the prison. Fifteen other cells sat empty around him.” Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist and “an expert on the debilitating effects of solitary confinement,” who conducted a detailed examination of Padilla for his lawyers, said that it was “clear that the intent of this isolation was to break Padilla for the purpose of the interrogations that were to follow.”

Richey continued: “Padilla’s cell measured nine feet by seven feet. The windows were covered over. There was a toilet and sink. The steel bunk was missing its mattress. He had no pillow. No sheet. No clock. No calendar. No radio. No television. No telephone calls. No visitors. Even Padilla’s lawyer was prevented from seeing him for nearly two years. For significant periods of time the Muslim convert was denied any reading material, including the Koran. The mirror on the wall was confiscated. Meals were slid through a slot in the door. The light in his cell was always on.” In addition, as Naomi Klein noted, it was reported that his interrogators –- the only people with whom he was allowed any contact –- “punctured the extreme sensory deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with harsh lights and pounding sounds,” and Padilla also stated that he was “injected with a ‘truth serum,’ a substance his lawyers believe was LSD or PCP.”

As Richey went on to note, “Those who haven’t experienced solitary confinement can imagine that life locked in a small space would be inconvenient and boring. But according to a broad range of experts who have studied the issue, isolation can be psychologically devastating. Extreme isolation, in concert with other coercive techniques, can literally drive a person insane, [which] makes it a potential instrument of torture.” When approved by Donald Rumsfeld for use at Guantánamo, Defense Department lawyers warned that isolation was “not known to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days,” echoing the CIA’s findings, in its declassified 1963 handbook, when the agency warned of the “profound moral objection” of applying “duress past the point of irreversible psychological damage.”

According to Stuart Grassian, however, it was “clear from examining Mr. Padilla that that limit was surpassed.” After studying the daily activity logs relating to his incarceration, particularly during the period from November 2002 to April 2003, which Padilla himself described as the “terrible time,” Grassian discovered that it was “not unusual for Mr. Padilla to go four, five, or six days without even brief [visual checks] by the brig staff, who were, in any event, under instruction not to converse with him.” Richey added, “Other than the brief checks by brig guards, Padilla went through stretches of 34 days, 17 days and 15 days without any human contact,” and Grassian concluded that “when he did have such contact, it was inevitably with an interrogator.”

As a result, Grassian declared, “Given the extensive research on this issue, much of it funded by the United States government, it follows necessarily that the United States government was well aware of the likely consequences of its conduct in regard to Mr. Padilla.” Grassian explicitly condemned a statement made by Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in which he revealed a portion of the government’s interrogation strategy in an affidavit in 2003. Refuting Jacoby’s claim that “The Defense Intelligence Agency’s approach to interrogation is largely dependent upon creating an atmosphere of dependency and trust between the subject and interrogator,” in which “Anything that threatens the perceived dependency and trust between the subject and interrogator directly threatens the value of interrogation as an intelligence-gathering tool,” Grassian stated, bluntly, “What the government is attempting to do is create an atmosphere of dependency and terror.”

Quite what rubbish was spouted by Padilla during these years of “dependency and terror” –- prior to losing his mind to such an extent that his warders described him as “so docile and inactive that he could be mistaken for ‘a piece of furniture’” –- is unknown. His own desperate confessions –- and where they led –- have yet to be revealed. What is clear, however, is that other confessions, themselves produced under duress by “high-value” detainees held in secret CIA prisons, formed the basis of the “dirty bomb” allegation.

The “dirty bomb” plot — and Binyam Mohamed

According to the government, Padilla approached training camp facilitator Abu Zubaydah (captured in Pakistan five weeks before him) and 9/11 kingpin Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (captured in 2003) with plans for the bomb, and was apprehended after Zubaydah identified him to the FBI. Less vigorously reported were admissions by the government itself that both Zubaydah and KSM were “skeptical” about the plot. Other insider comments indicated that Zubaydah actually dismissed Padilla as “a maladroit extremist,” telling his interrogators that he was so “ignorant” that he believed he could “separate plutonium” from other nuclear materials by “rapidly swinging over his head a bucket filled with fissionable material.”

Jose Padilla arriving in Miami

Jose Padilla arriving in Miami (Photo: Alan Diaz/AP).

It’s also clear that another man who was picked out by Zubaydah in relation to the same dubious plot –- Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born British resident who was captured in Pakistan a week after Zubaydah –- suffered even more severely than Padilla. Rendered by the CIA to Morocco, where he was tortured for 18 months and had his penis repeatedly cut by razors, and then transferred to Guantánamo via the CIA’s own “Dark Prison” near Kabul –- a medieval torture prison with the addition of 24-hour amplified music and noise –- Mohamed admitted to being a part of the whole Zubaydah-KSM-Padilla “dirty bomb” plot, but later explained that he had confessed to whatever his US-directed Moroccan torturers told him to, and had never even met Padilla.

While Binyam Mohamed remains in Guantánamo –- unsure if the authorities will release him (as requested by the British government) or will attempt to reinstate the charges against him in a Military Commission (following their collapse in June 2006, when the Supreme Court judged them illegal, and their reintroduction via last fall’s Military Commissions Act) –- the “dirty bomb” allegation against Padilla was dropped in November 2005, just days before the Supreme Court was due to look at the legality of his detention. Apparently, the administration was unwilling to allow Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to testify, in case they revealed that they had been tortured.

Unlike in Guantánamo’s “enemy combatant” tribunals –- and in the Military Commissions, which the administration is still trying to revive, after further setbacks in June –- evidence obtained through torture is inadmissible in US courts, because it is illegal, immoral and unreliable. And however much the administration may try to deny it, the “dirty bomb” allegation is a perfect demonstration of the hole into which the administration has dug itself: a “plot,” whose existence was only ever announced through torture –- whether of Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Jose Padilla or Binyam Mohamed –- that lives only in this world of tortured confessions, and has no independent existence that can be verified in the real world.

Once Padilla’s “enemy combatant” status was dropped, along with the “dirty bomb” story (and in marked contrast to Binyam Mohamed, whose alleged involvement in the plot limped on until the Supreme Court struck down the Military Commissions eight months later), he was charged with the vague, motive-based crimes for which he was eventually convicted, and moved to a legally-recognized detention facility, which is where he was located when the photos of the world’s most high-security dental visit were revealed in the New York Times.

“The most important case of our lifetimes”

As a result of the revelations about Padilla’s mental state in the Times article, it looked, for a while, as though the trial might not even go ahead. In February 2007, Naomi Klein, in an optimistic report for the Nation, suggested, “Something remarkable is going on in a Miami courtroom. The cruel methods US interrogators have used since September 11 to ‘break’ prisoners are finally being put on trial.” In the end, however, as noted above, District Judge Marcia G. Cooke pulled the plug on the dissenters, and six months later, as Padilla’s trial came to an end, it was as if most of the country had succumbed to a collective memory loss.

In the week before the verdict was announced, one journalist at least avoided having his mind wiped clean. Warren Richey’s three-part series on Padilla (see here, here and here), which I quoted from above, revisited, in horrific detail, the systematic mental destruction of Padilla that took place during the 43 months that he was illegally imprisoned without trial and tortured by his own government. As also noted above, however, Richey’s was a rare voice in the mainstream media.

Most of the dissenting voices –- the ones who realized, with an appalling clarity, that the US government was getting away with torturing its own citizens, and that, in theory, no US citizen whatsoever was protected from similar treatment –- peppered the blogosphere. In a shining example of a concerned citizen jolted into a state of near-insomnia by the ramifications, the author of the Talking Dog blog, who has long maintained that the Padilla case is “the most important case of our lifetimes,” fulminated that the sweeping aside of an issue that involved “not just our entire Bill of Rights, but the Magna Carta” was effected by a “complicit commercial media [that] won’t even tell us what happened.”

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, and the majority of the American people are happy to know that, like the worthless foreigners who can be seized, tortured and imprisoned without charge or trial at the whim of their President, they too can be seized, tortured and held in a military brig for 43 months, but I strongly suspect that this is not the case. The corollary –- as a non-US citizen like myself is all too aware –- is that, unless the issue of Padilla’s treatment is resuscitated and thrust at the administration whenever Bush or his dwindling coterie of cronies declares that America “does not torture,” then a viciously dismissive set of double standards is at work.

What the case of Jose Padilla should demonstrate most of all, to any American who recalls the barriers to tyranny erected in the Constitution and recognizes that the current administration has swept them away, is that not only should American citizens be protected from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, but those safeguards should also apply to foreigners, including the 359 men still detained in Guantánamo, the tens of thousands imprisoned in Iraq, and the hundreds of others held in secret CIA-run prisons or transferred to torture prisons in third countries.

The Talking Dog is right; it really is that important, and it is for this reason that Padilla’s lawyers are to be commended for filing their lawsuit challenging the President’s power as commander-in-chief to dismiss the constitutional rights of US citizens designated as “enemy combatants” by asking US District Judge Henry Floyd to declare that Padilla’s treatment in the brig was “unlawful and in violation of the Constitution.” As Jonathan Freiman, one of Padilla’s lawyers, said when the lawsuit was announced, “This is the American people’s last chance to know what happened behind the closed doors in Charleston, and the last chance for a court to determine if what happened is consistent with our Constitution and values.”

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 Antiwar.com and American Torture.

See here for updates on Padilla: Why Jose Padilla’s 17-year prison sentence should shock and disgust all Americans (January 2008), US Justice Department drops “dirty bomb plot” allegation against Binyam Mohamed (October 2008), Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (April 2009).

Also see the following for articles about Ali al-Marri, the last US “enemy combatant”: Court Confirms President’s Dictatorial Powers in Case of US “Enemy Combatant” Ali al-Marri (July 2008), The Last US Enemy Combatant: The Shocking Story of Ali al-Marri (December 2008), Ending The Cruel Isolation Of Ali al-Marri, The Last US “Enemy Combatant” and Why The US Under Obama Is Still A Dictatorship (both March 2009), Dictatorial Powers Unchallenged As US “Enemy Combatant” Pleads Guilty (May 2009).

“We would rather be back in Guantánamo,” say Tunisians Abdullah bin Omar and Lofti Lagha, returned in June

In the Washington Post, Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch provides gruelling updates on the stories of Abdullah bin Omar and Lofti Lagha, the Tunisian Guantánamo detainees who were returned to the country of their birth in June. Having recently travelled to Tunisia, Daskal reports that, although she was unable to gain access to bin Omar (referred to as Abdullah al-Hajji) and Lagha (and was tailed by plain clothes police throughout her visit), she met local activists, lawyers, government officials and family members who had met them, and who explained to her that they had been “telling visitors that things are so bad they would rather be back at Guantánamo Bay.”

According to Daskal, Hajji, whose story I reported here and here, “told his local lawyer that the Tunisian government’s first act of welcome was to replace their blindfolds, which are used in transporting detainees, with hoods.” She adds that what happened shortly after his return “tracks closely with widely known practices of the Tunisian police,” and explains that he “endured two long days of interrogations at the Ministry of Interior, where he was “slapped,” “shaken awake every time he started to sleep,” and, as previously reported, threatened with the rape of his wife and daughters. At the end of this ordeal, Daskal reports that “the threats to Hajji’s family were more than he could take: he told his lawyer that he signed the paper that officials thrust at him, even though his eyes had deteriorated so badly and his glasses were so old that he had no idea what it said.”

Tunisian prison map

A map of Tunisian prisons from the website Tunisian Prison Map (which, unsurprisingly, is banned in Tunisia).

He was then taken before a Tunisian military court, which had “tried him in absentia and sentenced him to 10 years in 1995 on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization operating abroad,” even though the case against him “relied primarily” on a statement made by one of his 19 co-defendants, in which he claimed that Hajji had been associated with the Tunisian Islamic Front in Pakistan. Daskal notes that Hajji’s lawyer explained that the statement “was probably given after torture and abuse,” and also reports that Hajji himself said that “neither the Tunisians nor the Americans ever told him about this conviction before sending him home,” adding that, “had he known about it, he never would have wanted to return.” This confirms what one of his lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith, explained in a New Statesman article shortly after his release:

As I flew in to Guantánamo Bay on a small commercial plane recently, I squinted out of the window. A grey aircraft crouched at the end of the runway. Given the Bush administration’s maverick rendition policy, I wondered whether the plane had been used for one of those forcible, extralegal transfers of prisoners to a torture chamber.

I had intended to visit a prisoner from Tunisia called Abdullah bin Omar. The administration once pretended that bin Omar was among the worst of the worst terrorists on earth. More recently, a military tribunal cleared him for release, finding that he was no threat to anyone. To be sure, such Guantánamo tribunals are themselves a travesty, relying on coerced and secret evidence, but at least bin Omar was allowed to be present to argue his innocence.

I had planned to advise bin Omar on his right to asylum. Tunisia has a far longer pedigree than Guantánamo’s when it comes to denial of due process. Two colleagues recently travelled to Tunisia on his behalf and found that he had been sentenced in absentia to 23 years in prison. It was clear that he would be better off serving his sentence in absentia. He was almost certain to face torture on his return. All of this we had communicated to the US government –- only bin Omar did not know the full extent of his peril in Tunisia.

I never got to see my client. The day after I arrived, as evening drew in, that grey plane took off. Having stalled me for a week, the US government then sent us an email saying that bin Omar had been a passenger on it.

After his appearance before the military court, Daskal reports that, for the next six weeks, Hajji was “held in solitary confinement in a windowless, unventilated cell that he called his ‘tomb,’” and was allowed no contact with any other prisoners. She adds, “He was allowed just 15 minutes of recreation per day, in another windowless room, [and] told visitors that he never knew what time it was –- not even when to pray.” Speaking of his treatment, his lawyer declared bluntly, “It’s illegal!” pointing out that the Tunisian government “had disavowed such solitary confinement in 2005 as cruel and outmoded,” brandishing “a tattered copy of the Tunisian Criminal Code and pointing excitedly to the provision that permits solitary confinement only for punitive purposes and not for more than 10 days.”

Lagha, whose release was first mentioned in an article I wrote here, has spoken briefly about his ill-treatment in US custody, but has so far mentioned little about his treatment since his return to the country of his birth. Daskal reports, however, that his lawyer explained that he “has been facing charges of participating in a terrorist organization abroad,” and that he was only moved out of solitary confinement two days before he first met him on August 9. Two of Lagha’s brothers, who “made the long trip from the family home in southern Tunisia to the capital to see him” while Daskal was there, explained that they thought that their brother was dead, and didn’t even know that he was being held at Guantánamo until they learned of his release on al-Arabiya TV.

As shocking as it is to realize that Lagha, who did not have legal representation in Guantánamo, spent five a half years in US custody without his family even knowing that he was alive, what is even more disturbing about this latest report on the fate of the two returned Tunisians is that it highlights, in stark and unarguable terms, that the “diplomatic assurances” made to the US government by the government of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali –- which purport to “negotiate away the risk of torture by getting promises of humane treatment from the receiving country” –- are actually worthless.

Daskal reports that she asked Robert F. Godec, the US ambassador to Tunisia, to explain “what the Bush administration is doing to track the two men’s cases,” and that Godec replied that “he had ‘specific and credible’ assurances from the Tunisian government that they would not be abused,” adding that “we follow up on these assurances.” But Daskal was concerned that he “would not say whether the treatment of Hajji and Lagha had lived up to Tunisia’s pledges; nor would he say whether any US official had met with the two since their return home.” “This,” she concludes, “is disturbing: all we have are promises from a notoriously abusive regime, yet US officials will not even say whether they are following up on those assurances by talking to the detainees themselves.”

Sadly, this is also typical. Daskal, pointing out that “the United States is expressly prohibited under international law –- in the form of the 1984 Convention Against Torture –- from forcibly sending anyone back to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing they would be tortured,” notes that “Haphazardly shipping detainees such as Hajji and Lagha to countries with widely known records of torture is hardly the way to go about closing Guantánamo Bay.” In two other cases, however, the US administration is seeking to return other cleared detainees –- the Libyan Abdul Rauf al-Qassim and the Algerian-born British resident Ahmed Belbacha –- from Guantánamo to the country of their birth, even though both men fear that they will be tortured on their return, and has been joined by the British government in this plot to undermine international safeguards preventing torture.

As I reported here, the British government –- which has refused to accept the return of Belbacha, even though he was granted leave to remain in the UK –- has entered into agreements regarding the “humane treatment” of returned prisoners with the governments of Jordan, Libya and Algeria that are as worthless as the Americans’ “diplomatic assurances” from Tunisia. The motives vary: the Americans, for example, want to sweep out some inconvenient individuals from Guantánamo who should never have been detained in the first place, and the British want rid of prisoners held without charge or trial because, unlike most other countries in the West, they are stubbornly refusing to accept that intercept evidence can be used in trials without compromising intelligence sources (although the suspicion remains that, in many cases, they are unwilling to proceed with trials because their “intelligence” is shockingly poor).

The end result, however, is the same: innocent men held for years without trial –- or men whose guilt has never been demonstrated in a court of law, and who in many cases have never even been told what they are supposed to have done –- are being returned to countries where they face the very real risk of torture.

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

Additional note: On 7 September, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report on the Tunisian detainees, Ill-Fated Homecomings: A Tunisian Case Study of Guantánamo Repatriations, which I recommend whole-heartedly.

For more on the Tunisians 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.

As published on American Torture.

Guantánamo: unhappy detainees are desperate (official)

Despite attempts by the administration to portray Guantánamo as an efficient, lawful, functioning prison, the Associated Press notes that a new US military report, “Danger Inside the Wire” (it’s one page long, so it’s more of a memo, really) declares that, although assaults on guards are down by more than 60 percent, “there were 385 mass disturbances in the first six months of 2007 compared to 201 for all of 2006, an increase of more than 90 per cent with half the year still to go.”

Although the military “declined to provide details about the incidents,” a spokesman for Guantánamo, Army Lt. Col. Ed Bush, explained that the category “includes assaults or ‘other acts’ involving at least three detainees that were intended to disrupt operations at the detention centre.” According to the AP, the report “also showed that several other disciplinary categories, including ‘forced cell extractions’ and ‘assault with bodily fluids,’ are on pace to match or exceed last year’s totals, and Lt. Col. Bush added, helpfully, that “the ‘mass disturbance’ category does not include the long-running hunger strike” (last reported here, although a more detailed appraisal was provided by the wrongly imprisoned detainee –- and al-Jazeera cameraman –- Sami al-Hajj).

A guard patrols a cell block at Guantanamo

How could this be? Military officials claimed, predictably, that the figures proved that the detainees “are still dangerous,” and Army Col. Bruce Vargo, the commander of Guantánamo’s Joint Detention Group, parroted the official line, telling the AP that the detainees “continue to wage war by employing various tactics … to either harm the guard force or bring international attention upon themselves in order to obtain release and return to the fight.”

Rephrased without spin, that statement could simply read that they continue to protest their unjust detention without charge or trial, by employing whatever means they can, to bring international attention upon themselves in order to obtain release.

This would hardly be surprising. Although 124 detainees have been released since the deaths of three Saudis in June 2006, the remaining 359 detainees are held in conditions that, if not conducive to unrest, are almost certain to cause severe mental distress. After the deaths –- and a subsequent disturbance in Camp 4, where detainees had previously been allowed to live communally, in conditions that at least approached those demanded by the US-spurned Geneva Conventions –- almost all the detainees (including the many dozens who have been cleared for release) “are now held in solitary confinement in solid-wall cells for all but two hours a day.”

Noting that these are “harsh conditions that detainee advocates say could contribute to disciplinary problems,” the AP sought the opinion of Sabin Willett, a lawyer who represents some of the Uyghur (Chinese Muslim) detainees, who managed to dismiss the administration’s talk of detainees waging “war” and seeking freedom to “return to the fight” in a single sentence, pointing out, “If you keep people pent up in conditions of isolation and hopelessness, they become frustrated.”

Note: The hunger strikes –- and the detainees’ current conditions –- are discussed at length in 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.

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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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