Archive for October, 2007

The Guantánamo Files: Book Launch, 28 November 2007

The Guantanamo FilesI’m pleased to report that my newly published book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (already on sale, I hasten to add) will be officially launched on Wednesday, 28 November at Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE.

The event starts at 6.30 pm, and I will be joined for a discussion about Guantánamo by Moazzam Begg, former Guantánamo detainee, spokesman for Cageprisoners and author of Enemy Combatant, and Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel for Reprieve, the legal charity that represents dozens of Guantánamo detainees.

Entrance is free, but to reserve a place please phone 020 7637 1848 or email via Bookmarks’ website.

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.

“I’m innocent,” says Guantánamo detainee Lofti Lagha, sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in Tunisia

The flag of TunisiaThe story of Guantánamo detainee Lofti Lagha, which I first broke here, and subsequently reported on here and here, reached a predictably sad conclusion last week when he was sentenced to three years in prison. The 39-year old, who had traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 after several years as an illegal immigrant in Italy, was captured in Pakistan at a time when bounty payments for Arabs were commonplace, and has claimed that his fingers, which were affected by frostbite as he escaped Afghanistan through the Tora Bora mountains, were unnecessarily amputated while he was in prison at the US airbase in Bagram.

Lagha’s trial –- four months after his repatriation from Guantánamo –- bore all the hallmarks of an unjust show trial. Allegations that he received military training in Afghanistan and fought with the Taliban regime were dropped, and he was, instead, convicted of “associating with a criminal group with the aim of harming or causing damage in Tunisia,” even though, as the Associated Press reported, the Tunisian authorities “did not name the group that Lagha was said to participate in or specify what its planned violence was,” and even though Lagha himself insisted during the trial, “I haven’t been involved in any terrorist activity. I went to Afghanistan for work.” Speaking after the verdict was announced, his lawyer, Samir Ben Amor, said he was “disappointed” with the verdict, and stated that he would lodge an appeal, adding, “We thought he would get justice in his own country after what he endured at Guantánamo.”

While casting the regime of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a predictably bad light, the verdict also does nothing to assure critics of the US administration that the “diplomatic assurances” received from Tunisia regarding the status of detainees returned from Guantánamo are anything other than worthless. This was, after all, a man that the US authorities had cleared for release after over five years in custody, as close to an admission of wrongful arrest as the notoriously unapologetic Bush regime ever gets.

Those concerned about the administration’s ongoing attempts to break international safeguards preventing the return of cleared detainees to the countries of their birth, where they face the prospect of torture, should keep a close eye on the authorities over the coming months, as they attempt to erase their many mistakes, sending cleared men not just to Tunisia, but also –- in a plot in which the British government is also complicit –- to Libya and Algeria.

A glimmer of hope was provided last month, when a principled judge, Gladys Kessler, acted to prevent the government from returning another cleared Tunisian, Mohammed Abdul Rahman, to his homeland, stating, unequivocally, that, in light of the forthcoming Supreme Court review of the detainees’ rights, which “cast a deep shadow of uncertainty” over previous rulings restricting these rights, “it would be a profound miscarriage of justice” if the court denied Abdul Rahman’s petition to remain in Guantánamo, because of “the grave harm [he] has alleged he will face if transferred.”

It’s too late for Lofti Lagha, but his case demonstrates, with appalling clarity, why the US administration must be kept under constant pressure to find other destinations –- in third countries, or even, dare I suggest, on the US mainland –- for the many men whose lives have been ruined by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unjustly imprisoned, held without charge or trial and subjected to wanton violence for nearly six years, they surely deserve better than this.

For more on the Tunisian detainees in Guantánamo, see Human Rights Watch’s recent report, Ill-Fated Homecomings (which demonstrates the arbitrary nature of Tunisian justice by establishing that eight other Tunisians in Guantánamo have been convicted in absentia on extremely dubious evidence), and my newly published book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

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

Matthew Waxman: government insider turns against Guantánamo

The Pentagon

In a fascinating article for the Washington Post, “The Smart Way To Shut Gitmo Down,” Matthew Waxman, a teacher at Columbia Law School, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs in 2004-05, calls for the closure of Guantánamo, conceding that, although “the ongoing threat of terrorism is very real … it does not follow that we must keep Guantánamo Bay open –- or even that the prison helps our fight against al-Qaeda.”

While refusing to condemn what he tellingly describes as “the improvised decision to create Guantánamo Bay’s detention site in 2002,” Waxman insists, nevertheless, that he wants “to challenge its continued operation in 2007,” adding, “Fair-minded people can differ over whether the Bush administration was justified in sending suspected al-Qaeda fighters there immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, but as time wears on, it’s almost impossible to argue that the prison is keeping us safer.” Referring to President Bush’s declaration last year that “he would like to see Guantánamo Bay closed, if he could do so without putting Americans in greater danger,” Waxman concludes, “He can, and he should,” adding, “My experience advising former defense secretary Donald H Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on these issues has convinced me that there’s a way out, but it will take some painful truth-telling to get there. For even if Guantánamo Bay could be defended in legal or moral terms, it still hurts us more than it helps us in battling al-Qaeda.”

These are significant statements, given added weight by Waxman’s choice of wording: his references to “fair-minded people,” to questions of justification, and, in particular, to the legal and moral defense of Guantánamo, in which he chooses to write, “even if Guantánamo … could be defended,” rather than, “even if Guantánamo … can be defended.” And even his apparent swipe at some of Guantánamo’s opponents –- dismissing as “a fantasy” their “soothing notion” that “everyone at the prison is an innocent bystander erroneously swept up in post-9/11 dragnets” –- is immediately countered by the frank admission that “the Bush administration’s dogged insistence that all the detainees there are the ‘worst of the worst’” is also a fantasy.

Similarly, while defending the “valuable intelligence” obtained from Guantánamo, Waxman admits that much of this information has come “from detainees who haven’t been involved in terrorist plotting for years now,” and while critics, who are aware of the appalling isolation in which the majority of the detainees are held, may take exception to the “improved general conditions” he describes, which are “humane by the standards of US and European prisons,” he is to be applauded for another frank admission, that “Guantánamo Bay’s defenders hurt their own credibility when they refuse to acknowledge the well-documented abuse that has occurred there.”

Waxman’s proposed solutions are not always above criticism, but they are –- with a few notable exceptions –- generally balanced, and demonstrate a commitment to finding a way forward that maintains national security, but not at the expense of justice. Broadly speaking, this involves “transferring many of the detainees to their home countries, sending some to third countries and bringing the remainder –- including those who would be prosecuted for war crimes –- to secure facilities in the United States.”

While this seems to me to be both sensible and practical, I do have strong reservations about some of Waxman’s other conclusions. He writes, for example, that “the evidence against a particular suspect often can’t be presented in open civilian court without compromising intelligence sources and methods,” adding, rather coyly, I think, “Or the evidence may not be admissible under US criminal law rules.” What this means is preventing all mention of torture by US forces, whereas this is one Pandora’s Box whose lid will one day have to be prised open and dealt with, if the United States is ever to regain any kind of moral standing. And while few would dispute his point that “a durable, long-term framework for handling detainees” is needed, it’s profoundly disturbing that he seeks a solution that “lets us hold the most dangerous individuals and collect intelligence from them (including through lawful interrogation).” Read between the lines: it means, “also including through unlawful interrogation.”

These substantial caveats aside, Waxman’s overall drive –- to find a way of “forging a broad agreement about the minimum acceptable conditions for any long-term detention process, firmly within the rule of law” –- is to be commended, as a basis for crucial discussions that need to be undertaken. In the end, however, what makes his change of heart so significant is that, back in 2004 and 2005, while he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, he apparently played a significant role in manipulating the results of at least one of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, the military reviews convened to assess whether the detainees had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants.” Heavily criticized by lawyers and human rights activists for denying detainees access to lawyers and relying on classified evidence based on hearsay, coercion and torture, the tribunals have recently been subjected to severe criticism from former insiders who served on the panels or were involved in compiling the “evidence” used in them, as a collection of articles published here demonstrates in no uncertain terms.

In the case of Anwar Hassan, one of 22 Uyghur detainees (Chinese Muslims from the Xinjiang province), it was, apparently, on Waxman’s explicit instructions that Hassan, who was cleared in his first CSRT, was subjected to a second CSRT that reversed the decision made in the first tribunal. As I reported in July, Hassan’s lawyers, Angela Vigil and George Clarke, noted that, “[c]ontrary to the government’s suggestion,” the change of determination between the first and second CSRTs was not based on “additional classified information,” (of which there was none) but seemed, instead, to have been based solely on “communications” from Matthew Waxman “pressing for [a] reversal” of the first CSRT determination.

With the benefit of this information, perhaps the most personally revealing passage in Waxman’s Washington Post article is his confession that “Some of [the detainees] should never have been there (including several supposed jihadists turned over for bounty based on assertions that later proved flimsy).” His corollary, that “such imprisonments have had tragic and dangerous consequences,” is therefore welcome, as are the concluding lines of his article, in which he writes, “Both of these proposals –- shutting Guantánamo Bay and establishing robust judicial review of detentions –- carry risks. But those risks should kick-start the discussion, not end it. Detention policy is not about eliminating dangers, but about balancing and managing competing dangers. And keeping Gitmo open –- sapping US prestige, alienating our allies and handing al-Qaeda a propaganda tool –- carries downsides, too. Civil libertarians and security-minded hawks will both no doubt criticize these suggestions. But it’s past time to close Guantánamo Bay. Rumsfeld, my former boss, famously described the prison in 2002 as the ‘least bad option.’ Whatever the validity of his assessment then, my plan for shutting Gitmo is less bad now.”

As one of these “civil libertarians” myself, I may surprise Matthew Waxman by fully endorsing his attempts to kick-start a meaningful dialogue about Guantánamo and the treatment of prisoners captured in the “War on Terror,” even if I do not agree with all his conclusions. I also note, however, that by repudiating claims by the administration that Guantánamo houses the “worst of the worst,” by conceding frankly that profound mistakes have been made (which implicitly condemns the administration’s claims that those who are cleared for release are not innocent, but are, instead, “No Longer Enemy Combatants”), and by highlighting the damage caused to the reputation of the United States, Waxman has, in many significant ways, actually joined the “civil libertarian” camp.

Far from insisting that everyone in Guantánamo is an “innocent bystander” –- though many hundreds are, and many hundreds more were no more than foot soldiers in an inter-Muslim civil war which preceded 9/11 –- lawyers and human rights activists have maintained, for nearly six years now, that, whether “terrorists” or not, the only legitimate way to establish the facts and to proceed with prosecutions is to work within existing laws, and not to invent alternatives, which –- like the reviled tribunals on which Waxman has eventually cast a critical eye –- have more in common with repressive dictatorships than with the principles on which the United States was founded.

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

As published on CounterPunch.

Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth?

The grim story of the Guantánamo suicides –- the deaths of three men, Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani in June 2006, and another, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, in May this year –- took another turn last week, when, in the absence of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s long-awaited report into the deaths, Navy Capt. Patrick McCarthy, the senior lawyer on Guantánamo’s management team, spoke out in an interview, declaring that all four men had killed themselves with “craftily fashioned nooses.”

Yasser al-Zahrani

Yasser al-Zahrani.

Speaking as the ridiculous saga of smuggled underwear continued to make waves in the media, McCarthy attempted to highlight the seriousness of the administration’s response to ludicrous claims that underwear had been surreptitiously delivered to two detainees, saying, “There was a Speedo in the camp and someone can hang himself with it. The Speedo also has a drawstring on it. The drawstring can be used to tie the Speedo, the noose apparatus up onto a vent.’”

Breaking with protocol, McCarthy also spoke about the deaths in Guantánamo, claiming that he had personally seen “all four men dead –- each one hanging –- and that the first three men had used sling-style nooses.” This is the first time that a representative of the US military has spoken openly about the death of al-Amri, who, McCarthy said, had fashioned “a string type of noose” to kill himself, although Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, who reported the story, added that “he did not elaborate.”

The circumstances of the men’s deaths have long been contentious. After the 2006 suicides, many former detainees who had known the men spoke of their shock and incredulity at the news. Tarek Dergoul, a British detainee released in 2004, spent three weeks in a cell beside al-Utaybi. He recalled “his indefatigable spirit and defiance,” and pointed out that he was “always on the forefront of trying to get our rights.” He had similar recollections of al-Zahrani, describing him as ”always optimistic” and “defiant,” and adding that he “was always there to stand up for his brothers when he saw injustices being carried out.”

In a press release shortly after the deaths were announced, former detainees, including the nine released British nationals, “poured scorn” on allegations that the deaths were suicides, and claimed that they were “almost certainly accidental killings caused by excessive force” on the part of the guards. A note of caution, however, was provided by British resident Shaker Aamer, who was told by a guard in Camp Echo, an isolation block where they were held for some of the time (and where Aamer himself has now spent two years and two months without any meaningful human company), “They have lost hope in life. They have no hope in their eyes. They are ghosts, and they want to die. No food will keep them alive now. Even with four feeds a day, these men get diarrhea from any protein which goes right through them.”

As the NCIS has, inexplicably, yet to conclude its investigation, it’s impossible to know at this point what the official conclusion will be. Clearly, the military has stepped back from its initial response, when the prison’s commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, attracted worldwide condemnation for claiming that the men’s deaths were “an act of asymmetric warfare.” As was revealed in documents released by the Pentagon earlier this year, however, which described, in minute and numbing detail, the weights of all the detainees in Guantánamo throughout their detention, all three men had been long-term hunger strikers, and two had been strapped into restraint chairs and force-fed until days before their deaths. This deliberately painful process, designed to “break” the strikers, is, it should be noted, illegal according to internationally recognized rules regarding the rights of competent prisoners to undertake hunger strikes, but in this, as with almost everything else at Guantánamo, the administration regards itself as above the law.

Al-Zahrani was force-fed several times a week from the start of October 2005, and daily from November 14 to January 18, 2006, during which time his weight fluctuated between 87.5 lbs and 98.5 lbs. Al-Utaybi, who weighed just 89 lbs at various times in September and October 2005, was force-fed several times a week from July to September 2005, and daily from December 24 to February 7, 2006. Crucially, his force-feeding began again on May 30, 2006, and continued until the records ended on June 6, just three days before his death.

Even more disturbing is the chronicle of al-Salami’s hunger strike. Although his weight loss did not appear as dramatic –- he weighed a healthy 172 lbs on arrival in Guantánamo –- he lost nearly a third of his body weight at the most severe point of his hunger strike, when his weight dropped to 120 lbs. What was particularly disturbing about his weight report, however, was the revelation that he was force-fed daily from January 11, 2006 until, as with al-Utaybi, the records ended on June 6, just three days before his death.

Ali al-Salami

Ali al-Salami.

Given this information, it’s unsurprising that those who are suspicious of the administration –- and of Capt. McCarthy’s supposed frontline recollections –- might conclude, as the former detainees suggested, that it would not have taken much on the part of the authorities to finish off three men who had persistently aroused the wrath of the administration through their lack of cooperation and their hunger strikes, and who were all critically weak at the time of their deaths.

As for al-Amri’s death, Carol Rosenberg noted that suspicions over the circumstances of his death have been exacerbated by the fact that he died in Camp Five, one of the prison’s maximum security blocks. She explained that “prison camp tours for media and distinguished visitors emphasize that Camp Five is designed with suicide proofing such as towel hooks that won’t bear the weight of a detainee, to prevent him from hanging himself,” and that, moreover, “the tours emphasize that each captive, housed in a single-occupancy cell, is under constant Military Police and electronic monitoring, which means a guard is supposed to look in on him at least every three minutes.”

An even more critical approach to al-Amri’s death was presented by lawyer Candace Gorman, who reported last week on a visit in July to one of her clients, Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi. A Libyan shopkeeper, who is married to an Afghan woman and has a child that he has not seen for six years, al-Ghizzawi was “visibly shaken” on meeting Gorman, and immediately told her of his “despair” over al-Amri’s death. As Gorman described it, “Al-Ghizzawi knew that Amri had been suffering from Hepatitis B and tuberculosis, the same two conditions from which he himself suffers. Like al-Ghizzawi, Amri had not been treated for his illnesses. Al-Ghizzawi, now so sick he can barely walk, told me that Amri, too, had been ill and then, suddenly, he was dead.” Al-Ghizzawi’s conclusion, as described on Gorman’s website, was that al-Amri had actually died of “medical neglect,” although she also noted that al-Ghizzawi “had mentioned that Amri had engaged in hunger strikes in the past but had stopped a long time ago because of his health.”

While this was correct, one can only wonder what the effect on al-Amri’s health had been of his participation in the mass hunger strike in the fall of 2005, when his weight, which had been 150 lbs when he arrived in Guantánamo in February 2002, dropped at one point to just 88.5 lbs, and he was force-fed, often several times a week, from October 2005 to January 2006. Like the three men who died in June 2006, al-Amri was a non-cooperative detainee, who had refused to take part in any of the sham tribunals and administrative reviews at Guantánamo, and it does not take much imagination to conclude that, with his severe and untreated illnesses, he, like the three men the year before, could actually have died not through medical neglect, but as another “accidental killing caused by excessive force” on the part of the guards.

I do not profess to know the truth of the matter one way or the other, but in revisiting the stories of these men’s deaths I hope to have demonstrated that, far from clearing the air, Capt. McCarthy’s comments have, ironically, served only to revive Guantánamo’s most tragic stories, which, presumably, the rest of the administration hoped had been forgotten. Sixteen months after the first deaths, and four months after the additional death that caused such distress to Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, it is surely time for the investigators of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to deliver their verdict.

For more on the deaths in 2006 at Guantánamo, including the feebleness of the allegations against the men, and more on the hunger strikes and other suicide attempts, see my newly published book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on CounterPunch and American Torture. An edited version also appeared on the Huffington Post.

Note: The Pentagon referred to Mani al-Utaybi as Mana al-Tabi, and to Ali al-Salami as Ali Abdullah Ahmed. Al-Utaybi’s name was also transliterated in some reports as Manei al-Oteibi, and al-Salami was also known as Salah al-Salami.

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), Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that he will die (September 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo (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).

The politics of David Hicks’ release from Guantánamo confirmed: plea bargain arranged between Cheney and Howard

David HicksAs if there was any doubt that politics, rather than justice, drives much of the US administration’s Guantánamo policy, Harper’s Magazine reports that a US military officer has shed light on the murky process involved in the release of Australian detainee David Hicks from Guantánamo in May.

Hicks, a convert to Islam who was sold to US forces after the fall of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, was sent back to Australia to serve a nine-month sentence after accepting a plea bargain during his trial by Military Commission in March. Commentators at the time were deeply suspicious of the deal, as it involved him renouncing well-documented claims that he was tortured and abused in American custody. By agreeing to drop these allegations, and to admit providing “material support for terrorism,” he was given a sentence far shorter than that which prosecutors had first mooted –- up to 20 years, according to some reports, which would have been comparable to the draconian sentence imposed on John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” in 2002 –- and was allowed to fulfil his dearest wish: to be freed from Guantánamo, and to return home.

David Hicks during his trial by Military Commission

David Hicks during his trial by Military Commission in March.

According to the officer who spoke to Harper’s, Hicks’ deal was arranged by Vice President Dick Cheney and Australian Prime Minister John Howard. “One of our staffers was present when Vice President Cheney interfered directly to get Hicks’ plea bargain deal,” the officer said. “He did it, apparently, as part of a deal cut with Howard. I kept thinking: this is the sort of thing that used to go on behind the Iron Curtain, not in America.” He added, pointedly, “And then it struck me how much this entire process had disintegrated into a political charade. It’s demoralizing for all of us.”

Although Howard, perhaps protesting a little too much, claimed after the deal was cut, “We didn’t impose the sentence, the sentence was imposed by the military commission and the plea bargain was worked out between the military prosecution and Mr Hicks’ lawyers,” there are good reasons for doubting that this was the case.

In the first instance, the deal appears to have been the first time that major disagreements arose between the Commissions’ convening authority, retired judge Susan J. Crawford, who, many years ago, worked with Cheney at the Department of Defense, and Col. Morris Davis, the Commissions’ chief prosecutor, who recently resigned after complaining about interference from his superiors. In a move that would have humiliated and enraged Morris, he was sidelined completely while Crawford arranged the deal with her political masters (i.e. with Cheney).

And secondly, both Cheney and Howard had much to gain from the deal. Cheney, the chief architect of America’s post-9/11 torture policy, got to keep a lid on allegations of torture by the US military, and Howard –- who faced a growing backlash in Australia against his refusal to act on Hick’s behalf –- managed to placate his critics while ensuring that Hicks would remain in prison until after the next election.

Their ploys will hopefully backfire –- with Howard losing the forthcoming election and Cheney unable to keep the torture genie in the bottle forever –- but there seems little reason to doubt that the unnamed military officer who spoke to Harper’s was embellishing the sordid truth about political maneuvering that his recollections have revealed.

Note: For further information about David Hicks (and John Walker Lindh), see my newly-published 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’s ghosts and the shame of Diego Garcia

One of the more sordid and long-running stories in Anglo-American colonial history –- that of Diego Garcia, the chief island of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean –- reared its ugly head again on Friday when the UK’s all-party foreign affairs committee announced plans to investigate long-standing allegations that the CIA has, since 2002, held and interrogated al-Qaeda suspects at a secret prison on the island.

Diego Garcia

The shameful tale of Diego Garcia began in 1961, when it was marked out by the US military as a crucial geopolitical base. Ignoring the fact that 2,000 people already lived there, and that the island –- a British colony since the fall of Napoleon –- had been settled in the late 18th century by French coconut planters, who shipped in African- and Indian-born labourers from Mauritius, establishing what John Pilger called “a gentle Creole nation with thriving villages, a school, a hospital, a church, a prison, a railway, docks, a copra plantation,” the Labour government of Harold Wilson conspired with the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to “sweep” and “sanitize” the islands (the words come from American documents that were later declassified).

Although many islanders traced their ancestry back five generations, a British Foreign Office official wrote in 1966 that the government’s aim was “to convert all the existing residents … into short-term, temporary residents,” so that they could be exiled to Mauritius. Having removed the “Tarzans or Men Fridays,” as another British memo described the inhabitants, the British effectively ceded control of the islands to the Americans, who established a base on Diego Garcia, which, over the years, has become known as “Camp Justice,” complete with “over 2,000 troops, anchorage for 30 warships, a nuclear dump, a satellite spy station, shopping malls, bars and a golf course.” So thoroughly were the islands cleared –- and so stealthy the procedure –- that in the 1970s the British Ministry of Defence had the effrontery to insist, “There is nothing in our files about a population and an evacuation.”

Diego Garcia's former residents in happier times

Diego Garcia’s former residents in happier times.

Suffering in exile, the Chagos islanders have struggled in vain to secure the right to return to their ancestral home, winning a stunning victory in the High Court in 2000, which ruled their expulsion illegal, but then suffering a setback in 2003, when, with typically high-handed authoritarianism, Tony Blair invoked an ancient and archaic “royal prerogative” to strike down their claims once more. Although the appeal court reversed this decision in May 2006, ruling that the islanders’ right to return was “one of the most fundamental liberties known to human beings,” it remains to be seen how this belated judicial recognition of their rights can be squared with the Americans’ insistence that their military-industrial archipelago must remain unsullied by outsiders.

In their resistance to the islanders’ claims, Blair and the Foreign Office were clearly protecting the interests of their American allies, for whom the geopolitical importance of Diego Garcia as a strategic base had recently been augmented by its use –- and the use of some of the ships moored there –- as fabulously remote offshore prisons in which to hold and interrogate “high-value” al-Qaeda suspects.

The suspicion, which the foreign affairs committee has pledged to investigate, is that on Diego Garcia the Americans found a far more compliant partner in torture –- the British government –- than they found in most other locations chosen for secret CIA prisons. According to various reports over the years, the Americans’ other partners in the offshore torture game –- Thailand, Poland and Rumania, for example –- were only prepared to be paid off for a while before they got cold feet and sent the CIA packing.

Whether the committee will probe deeply or not remains to be seen. The British-based legal charity Reprieve, which has called for such an investigation for some time, has already told the committee in a submission that it believes that the British government is “potentially systematically complicit in the most serious crimes against humanity of disappearance, torture and prolonged incommunicado detention.” Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s legal director, told the Guardian that he is “absolutely and categorically certain” that prisoners have been held on the island.

When questioned by diligent MPs like Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative MP for Chichester, who is a staunch opponent of the CIA’s use of “extraordinary rendition,” the British government has persistently maintained that it believes “assurances” given by the US government that no terror suspects have been held on the island, but there are several compelling reasons for concluding, instead, that the government is actually being economical with the truth.

Studies of planes used by the CIA for its rendition program –- which can be found on Stephen Grey’s excellent Ghost Plane site –- have established that on September 11, 2002, the day that 9/11 plotter Ramzi bin al-Shibh was seized after a firefight in Karachi, one of the CIA’s planes flew from Washington to Diego Garcia, via Athens. Bin al-Shibh did not resurface again until September 2006, when he was moved to Guantánamo, and he has not spoken about his experiences. Unlike his supposed mentor Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he refused to take part in his tribunal at Guantánamo earlier this year, but this is not the only piece of the torture jigsaw that has been reconstructed by diligent researchers.

In June 2006, Dick Marty, a Swiss senator who produced a detailed report on “extraordinary rendition” for the Council of Europe, also concluded that Diego Garcia had been used as a secret prison. Having spoken to senior CIA officers during his research, he told the European Parliament, “We have received concurring confirmations that United States agencies have used Diego Garcia, which is the international legal responsibility of the UK, in the ‘processing’ of high-value detainees.”

Anecdotally, Marty’s findings have been confirmed by other sources. Manfred Novak, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, declared that he heard from “reliable sources” that the US has “held prisoners on ships in the Indian Ocean,” and detainees in Guantánamo have also told their lawyers that they were held on US ships –- in addition to those held on the USS Bataan and the USS Peleliu, which are discussed in my book The Guantánamo Files. One detainee told a researcher from Reprieve, “One of my fellow prisoners in Guantánamo was at sea on an American ship with about 50 others before coming to Guantánamo. He told me that there were about 50 other people on the ship; they were all closed off in the bottom. The people detained on the ship were beaten even more severely than in Guantánamo.”

The most incriminating evidence of all, however, has come not from opponents of Guantánamo, or, indirectly, from those subjected to some of the regime’s most horrendous abuses, but from an upstanding insider. Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star US general, who is now professor of international security studies at the West Point military academy (whose recent report on Guantánamo was ridiculed here), has twice let slip that Diego Garcia has, as the administration’s opponents have struggled to maintain, been used to hold terror suspects. In May 2004, he blithely declared, “We’re probably holding around 3,000 people, you know, Bagram air field, Diego Garcia, Guantánamo, 16 camps throughout Iraq,” and in December 2006 he slipped the leash again, saying, “They’re behind bars … we’ve got them on Diego Garcia, in Bagram air field, in Guantánamo.”

Do we need any further proof?

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 CounterPunch and Indymedia.

See here for further developments in the story of the secret prison on Diego Garcia.

Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: stranded in Albania

In the Washington Post, Jonathan Finer updates the sad story of five Uyghurs –- Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, which borders Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan –- who were released from Guantánamo in May 2006. The five men –- and 13 of their compatriots, who remain in Guantánamo –- were all captured by enterprising Pakistani villagers in December 2001, having crossed the border after a US bombing raid destroyed the rundown hamlet in the Tora Bora mountains where they had been living, repairing the settlement’s battered buildings and occasionally, while dreaming of revenge against the Chinese government that had taken over their homeland (formerly known as East Turkistan), firing a shot from their only weapon, an ancient AK-47.

Apparently regarded as guiltless almost from the moment they were handed over to the Americans, they were nevertheless regarded as valuable intelligence assets, able to provide insights into the workings of the Chinese government. In a cruel twist, however, the Americans also invited Chinese intelligence agents to Guantánamo to interrogate them, which was a disturbing experience, according to those who spoke about it in their tribunals. Dawut Abdurehim, one of those still held at Guantánamo, said after the visit that he was vaguely threatened, but reported that “some other Uyghurs had conversations with bad, dirty language,” in which they were told by the Chinese delegation that, “when we go back to the country, we’d be killed or sentenced to prison for a long time.”

After the first round of administrative hearings at Guantánamo –- the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, held in 2004-05, and designed to confirm that all Guantánamo’s inhabitants were “enemy combatants” –- the five men were among the lucky 38 (out of 558 detainees in total) who were cleared for release, although their 13 companions –- whose stories were identical –- were not so fortunate. Although some were cleared for release during the following year’s Administrative Review Boards, others were judged still to be “enemy combatants.” These discrepancies caused consternation to the administration, as described by an Army Major who criticized the tribunals two weeks ago, and in one particularly notorious incident, the authorities were so dissatisfied with the results of the tribunals that they ordered second tribunals to be held, which duly reversed the decisions, even though, as lawyers for one of the Uyghurs noted, there was no “additional classified information” to warrant such a change.

While the 13 unlucky Uyghurs (and four others, captured in different circumstances) were all eventually cleared, they, like at least 60 other cleared men from countries with dubious human rights records, remain in Guantánamo, having missed the escape route that opened up briefly last year for Abu Qadder Basim, one of the five men cleared after the CSRTs, and his four companions. In the face of very real fears that they would be tortured or killed if returned to China, the irony-free US administration, which clearly felt that it had given them five-star treatment since capturing them in December 2001, spent 18 months fishing around for other countries malleable and poor enough to be bullied into accepting them, finally settling on Albania.

They were delivered to a UN refugee camp in the capital, Tirana, in May 2006 –- and followed, in December, by three more innocent but stateless unfortunates, who were also granted a moment of dubious pity by the administration that had so carelessly and callously ruined their lives in the first place: Ala Salim, an Islamic scholar from Egypt, who was working for a humanitarian aid agency in Pakistan; Fethi Boucetta, a doctor turned teacher from Algeria, who was brazenly seized from his house in Peshawar, when the required suspect was not at home; and Zakirjan Hassam, a poor refugee disenfranchised by the atomization of the Soviet Union, who was sold to the Americans by Afghan villagers.

Abu Qadder Basim

Abu Qadder Basim in Albania.

Sixteen months later, speaking to Finer by mobile phone with the help of an interpreter, Abu Qadder Basim explained that, although they “embraced their new life in Albania” for a while, “they are unable to work or reunite with family members.” From what Finer described as a “spartan room, adorned only with a wall calendar, a few worn Korans, a small fan and a paperback copy of Albanian for Foreigners,” he said, “Obviously you can’t compare this life to Guantánamo, which is a prison,” but added, “We have requested an independent life here, to bring our families here, to be trained and have some work to do, to live in our own apartments. But even after we were released and they said we did nothing wrong, we have no hope for the future.”

Unlike the rest of the camp’s inhabitants –- mostly from Albania’s neighbors –- the Uyghurs have little in common with the camp’s other residents, who, as Finer puts it, can “blend easily into the crowd on Tirana’s busy streets,” and are “beginning to feel abandoned.” Finer reports that their Albanian language classes stopped over the summer, that a promise of $200-a-month apartments, to be paid for in the first year by the government and the United Nations, has not materialized, and that no progress has been made on reuniting them with their families or finding them work. Another of the five, Adel Abdul Hakim, explained, “Albania has tried to help us and we are grateful, but this is an undeveloped country, and even many Albanians can’t work or make enough money. They can give us an apartment for a year, but it isn’t sustainable, when most Albanians only make about $300 a month. Then what do we do?”

Unsurprisingly, Sali Berisha, the Prime Minister of this fiercely pro-American country, which greeted President Bush like a hero on a recent visit, has a more upbeat prognosis. Failing to mention that Dick Cheney endorsed Albania’s membership of NATO two days after agreeing to tidy up America’s mistakes, Berisha stated recently that accepting the Uyghurs “was a human rights gesture and a normal one. These men could not have gone back to their own countries, that is for sure.” He added, pointing the blame at other countries, which, for quite understandable reasons, have refused to clean up the big man’s mess, “I have been very surprised that others are unwilling to do this. On the one hand they are blaming Guantánamo, on the other they say, ‘Don’t send them here.’”

Berisha then proceeded to deny that the US administration had “offered any incentives” for Albania to take in the Uyghurs, noting that they might take more Guantánamo detainees, although Finer pointed out, accurately, that it was unlikely that they would take any of the other 17 Uyghurs, having already attracted the wrath of China, “a longtime ally and trading partner in Albania’s communist days,” which has persistently demanded their return to China. Bravely, however, or perhaps having consulted the treasury, Berisha explained that China’s demands had been rebuffed. “I asked the Chinese to bring me any evidence, if they have them, of terrorist activities, but nothing came,” he said. “We cannot send them somewhere when we aren’t sure due process is applied. We are European. Now that file is closed. They are here and they will slowly, step by step, be integrated. They will have a good life here.”

While this conclusion remains in doubt, praise for the Uyghurs has also come from the camp’s director, Hidajet Cera, who, as Finer describes it, “communicates with them through a Chinese-speaking interpreter (though their main language is a Uyghur dialect) when one can be found.” At other times, he notes, “the translation is done by an Algerian refugee who speaks French and Arabic, which the Uyghurs can speak conversationally.” “They are the best guys in this place,” Cera explained. “They have never given us one minute’s problem. We try to do what we can for them. We offer them a special menu. We have a van and a driver at their disposal if they want to go into town. It is hard because if you look at Albanian society, the way they live, they are not at the bottom.”

For Abu Qadder Basim, even such praise is not enough. He explained to Finer that every Friday they go to a mosque to pray, but have otherwise “more or less stopped venturing out of the camp.” “It is frustrating not to be able to speak with anyone,” he explained. “So we basically spend the whole day here, praying and going on the internet. It’s a very simple life. Outside of the camp, you see people with their families, and it makes us think of our families and our kids.”

Note: According to the Pentagon’s records, the five released men were Abu Bakker Qasim, Ahmed Adil, Akhdar Basit, Abdul Abdulhehim and Haji Mohammed Ayub. While Qasim is clearly Abu Qadder Basim, it has not been possible to identify Adel Abdul Hakim, although he is probably Abdul Abdulhehim. So much for justice, when even your name is irrelevant.

For more on the Uyghurs 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.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see: The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden (November 2007), A transcript of Sabin Willett’s speech in Stockholm (November 2007), Support for ex-Guantánamo detainee’s Swedish asylum claim (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Former Guantánamo prisoner denied asylum in Sweden (June 2008), Six Years Late, Court Throws Out Guantánamo Case (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (July 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), A Pastor’s Plea for the Guantánamo Uyghurs (October 2008), Guantánamo: Justice Delayed or Justice Denied? (October 2008), Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department (November 2008), Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), Guantanamo’s refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

The Guantánamo Files: Andy Worthington interviewed by Kristina Božič

The Guantanamo FilesThe following interview, with Slovenian journalist Kristina Božič, took place in London in August 2007. An article based on the interview appeared in the Slovenian newspaper Dnevnik on 22 September 2007. This is an edited version of the full interview, as transcribed by Kristina and edited by Andy.

Andy Worthington says he has spent most of his adult life wishing that the world would be a more just and a better place, but has realized that this cannot happen quickly. However, he is not giving up on it. He started investigating the US prison at the naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba –- a place he describes as “a very dangerous betrayal of justice” –- at the beginning of 2006. He has read 8000 pages of transcripts from the tribunals convened in Guantánamo to assess the detainees’ status as “enemy combatants,” and has written a book about who is in Guantánamo, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, which is published in Britain and in the USA in October.

Kristina Božič: What was your main source when writing the book?

Andy Worthington: It was the 8000 pages of the transcripts of the tribunals at Guantánamo that the Department of Defense released last March and April. None of the documents have got names on them, just the numbers –- the Internment Serial Numbers (ISNs) –- by which all the detainees were referred to. At the same time that these documents were released, after Guantánamo had been open for four years, the US government was also forced to release lists of the names and nationalities of who was in Guantánamo (with ISNs), and what I was therefore able to do was to match up the names to the transcripts. It took a lot of rather dull comparing and matching, but in the end this enabled me to place the detainees’ stories in context and in chronological order.

This brought the realization that the first men captured were seized in Afghanistan in November 2001, that many others were captured crossing the border to Pakistan, mostly in December 2001, and that others were caught in Pakistan in the following months, mostly without ever having set foot in Afghanistan. This way I started to build everything up, and it became the most significant insight that I had, in a way, because simply looking at the transcripts you come across stories that give you nothing to build on: the Americans say one thing and the detainee says another thing, and you really do not have any breakthrough points to establish who is telling the truth. This, of course, is the main problem with Guantánamo, and the reason why you should not bypass the law in the first place, because all you are left with is one person’s word against another’s.

But finding out that a whole lot of people were caught under similar circumstances gave me the ability to see that maybe all these people were in fact telling the truth, that some groups of men were serving as Taliban foot soldiers, for example, and that others were completely innocent: humanitarian aid workers, teachers of the Koran, economic migrants, refugees from persecution, for example, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Later on I filled in some gaps by establishing contacts with lawyers who represent the detainees in the USA.

Kristina Božič: Have you gone to meet any of the released detainees?

Andy Worthington: I have met a few of the British detainees, but basically most of the people who got released and wanted to talk had already spoken. So I did a lot of research on the internet, the kind of niggling research, where you do not stop Googling on page one but go to the tenth page, the fiftieth, sometimes to the seventieth and suddenly there is something, a piece of information that fills in another gap. I did a lot of research about who had been released, because 200 people were released before the tribunals even started, but even with this kind of research I was unable to find out anything about the stories of around 80 of these men. You can find their names; they are on one of the lists. They were sent home to a variety of countries, but there is no other information. Most of them were Afghans and Pakistanis, who just disappeared. Quietly went home, I suspect. But I did a lot of research to find out whether there was any information on these people, and it took weeks and weeks and weeks. At the beginning, when many Afghans were released from Guantánamo, the world’s media were interested and someone from the Associated Press or some other agency would go to Kabul to talk to these people, but with time they all lost interest. So whenever Afghans are released now, nobody even knows who many of them are. There is nobody in Kabul awaiting them.

Haji Faiz Mohammed and Jan Mohammed

The first of 163 Afghans released from Guantánamo, in October 2002: Haji Faiz Mohammed (left), who was 70 years old when he was captured, and Jan Mohammed, a baker.

Kristina Božič: Have you done any travels, though?

Andy Worthington: No, this was really an internet- and phone-based project, which demonstrates what can be done with the internet. It was possible because the Associated Press took the US government to court to get these documents released, and none of this would have been possible without them.

Kristina Božič: Do you feel that you established more of a storyline than the American army and intelligence?

Andy Worthington: Yes, because often they simply did not know what they were doing.

Kristina Božič: So you started with the question, “Who is in Guantánamo?” Now that the book is written, do you feel you can give a three-sentence answer to this question?

Andy Worthington: I would say, first of all, that there are a few dozen people, who are genuinely dangerous to the Americans and to their allies. The rest were either Taliban foot soldiers, or completely innocent men. That’s the short answer. To break it down, however, will take a longer reply.

Over a quarter of the total number of people held in Guantánamo were Afghans, and out of this number there were a few senior Taliban leaders, but only half a dozen at most. The majority of the Afghans are, or were in Guantánamo because somebody did not like them and sold them. The Americans were working with warlords; they had no real intelligence on the ground about who they were working with, who they should trust, who was reliable. To a large degree they tended to believe people who presented themselves as their friends and who promised that they would show them who the ‘bad people’ were. They had no way of verifying who was telling the truth and they were not even interested. So that’s over a quarter of the people and that leaves about 550.

For these people it is harder to come up with a concise story. There are still a couple of dozen people nobody knows anything about, and there are many more about whom very little is known –- just their word against that of the Americans, with much of the information contained in lists of dubious “evidence” for tribunals in which they did not take part. A lot of the Saudis and Yemenis, for example, admitted that they went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance –- before 9/11 –- because the sheikh in their local mosque told them that it was very important for them to go and help the Taliban establish “a pure Islamic state.” The majority of them did not pretend that they were not there to fight, but they were not there to fight against the Americans, but to fight other Muslims.

Some of them were not even told they were fighting other Muslims, but thought they were fighting Russians, which actually made sense because one of the leaders of the Northern Alliance was General Rashid Dostum. Afghan history is pretty complicated, because of shifting alliances over the years, and the clearest example is Dostum, who was fighting with the Russians throughout the 1980s before joining the Northern Alliance. Only later did he become friends with the Americans, so it is quite a confusing story. So the prisoners say, “We were fighting Dostum, who fought with the Russians. When did he become your friend? After 9/11? But I was first there before that.” So a large number of them were just foot soldiers. And one of the great ironies is that there are three nations in particular who were responsible for setting up and funding the whole training camp system in the 1980s –- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the USA. So in a lot of ways this was kind of the bitter fruit of what the Americans were at least partly responsible for establishing, but then walked away from, after the fall of the Communists.

Then you’ve got a large number of people –- several hundred, at least –- who were not there to fight at all. They were there either because they were refugees or economic migrants –- many of them living and working in Afghanistan or Pakistan for years, some with local wives and children –- or because they were studying the Koran, or because they went there as missionaries to teach the Koran. Which again, with all the money powering these missionary projects through the Wahhabi mosques in Saudi Arabia, which were themselves funded by the American money from oil, is another great irony …

Kristina Božič: Are there any Chechens in Guantánamo?

Andy Worthington: No. There are no Chechens in Guantánamo. There were persistent rumors that Chechens were involved in Afghanistan, and it’s probable that some of the corpses at Tora Bora were Chechens. That was a battle in early December 2001, two months after the invasion of Afghanistan, when Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, other al-Qaeda leaders, a number of senior Taliban leaders, and groups of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were holed up in the Tora Bora mountains and the Americans let them escape by not guarding the exits to Pakistan, and there were plenty of American military people at the time who were not happy about that, to put it mildly.

Prisoners captured in the Tora Bora region

Some of the prisoners captured after the fall of Tora Bora.

When the battle for Tora Bora ended, there were around 200 people dead, but I have not seen any analysis about who those corpses were, whether anybody bothered or if they were all just dumped in a mass grave. I have no idea. But some of the fighters who were there and escaped said that the last of the fierce fighters in the mountains were Chechens and that they were killing other people who were trying to escape. So whether that proves it or not … There certainly were some Chechen fighters in Afghanistan, but the reports at the time, which were always mentioning Chechens, do not seem to be accurate. What there were instead at Guantánamo were a handful of people from various parts of the Russian Federation, some of whom had been to Chechnya, but very few, and not Chechens.

Kristina Božič: Would you agree with the conclusion, which the film The Road to Guantánamo tried to convey, that the majority of people in Guantánamo were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Andy Worthington: I would say it depends on how you define that. If you define it as, “were people fighting with the Taliban in the wrong place at the wrong time?” –- as the majority of them were not intending to fight against the USA –- then yes. And, of course, the many innocent people are exactly as defined and portrayed in Michael Winterbottom’s film.

Kristina Božič: The Americans made the claim that if one was in any way connected with the Taliban than one was considered a terrorist or at least labeled an “enemy combatant.” This connection seems very far-fetched.

Andy Worthington: Well, that was the problem, that instead of taking on al-Qaeda, which they were supposed to, they tarnished the whole of Afghanistan as al-Qaeda, because the Taliban were sheltering them. Yet analysts have pointed out that there were never more than fifty people in the overlap between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. So in theory anyone who was in Afghanistan could be said to be an “enemy combatant.” And of course many problems arose from this.

Kristina Božič: What kept you going through the 8000 pages?

Andy Worthington: It probably has a little to do with the fact that I am pig-headed and had decided that I wanted to know who was in there. Discovering that I had an opportunity to accomplish that by going through all these documents, once I started I just did not want to stop until I had done it.

Kristina Božič: One of the comments on your book, which can be read on your website before the book is published in October, is that you manage to show that today Guantánamo exists more for the sake of keeping a secret about Guantánamo, than for the sake of American safety. This seems a paradox.

Andy Worthington: Well, there are many different perspectives on what Guantánamo is really about. I have spoken to some people who have suggested that it was set up just to terrify people, that it did not really matter whether people there were guilty or not, since the administration just wanted to make a horrible example to convey that no one should mess with them. But if it was only that simple … The truth is that this is not what Guantánamo is based on. The Americans rounded up all these people, most of them between November 2001 and February 2002, with the majority being sold to them by their Pakistani and Afghan allies, who also sold them the stories that these people were guilty. The Americans decided that everybody they were going to come across was guilty. That was their presumption all along. However, they had to somehow prove it. But it is this presumption that I wanted to uncover. Not necessarily by attacking it from the opposite side, claiming all these men are innocent, because I do not think they were all innocent of everything, but what I wanted to establish was that if you have a few hundred people fighting with the Taliban that does not prove they were terrorists against the USA. This was one of my main motivations.

So I was analyzing how the Americans came up with their supposed intelligence and what I found as I went through the transcripts –- first the tribunals [the Combatant Status Review Tribunals] and then the subsequent administrative reviews [the annual Administrative Review Boards] –- was that there were embellishments to the stories. At first, for example, the story is that a prisoner was told by a sheikh at his mosque to go to Afghanistan to fight, he went there, he fought, he got caught and was put in prison, end of the story. But then all these other stories start coming out … and you do not know where these other allegations are coming from, which is the next big problem with Guantánamo, because the administration set it up not as a prison to keep these people locked away to make America safer, but as an interrogation center. A really horrific thing is the accumulation of additional evidence they get, where an alleged senior al-Qaeda operative starts telling them new stories. Some of these allegations come from the “high-value” prisoners –- people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah –- and throughout this process they have this book of photos they have been showing to the prisoners, and under pressure many go, “Yeah, yeah, I saw him in Kabul in a training camp in 1999.” But this guy said he was in Yemen in 1999 in school. Why are they believing these unspecified allegations? This stuff –- unverifiable, quite possibly derived through torture –- just mounts up and mounts up.

Kristina Božič: They seem to be incredibly gullible.

Andy Worthington: Yes, because they are starting from the presumption of guilt. What has to happen is that an enormous amount of work has to be done to convince them that they have made a mistake.

Kristina Božič: You do not think they already know this and are now just looking for a way out?

Andy Worthington: Well, partly they know, but how much and who, I do not know. Six months after the prison was established, senior CIA people were saying that in most cases they had the wrong guys. There is a quote from someone at the CIA in August 2002 saying that half of these guys do not even know the world is round. But if you look at the pronouncements of various spokespeople for the administration and the kind of xenophobic paranoia of many of the right-wingers in the States, you see that they are not really dealing with common sense. They seem to believe their own hype on a lot of occasions.

Kristina Božič: How do you feel that Guantánamo will be perceived fifty years from today?

Andy Worthington: I think it will be seen as a terrible injustice. Something like the internment of the Japanese Americans in the camps during the second world war. And of course it is not really isolated from the rest of the so-called “war on terror,” including Iraq, which should never have been included in the “war on terror” in the first place. There are also very horrible echoes also of Vietnam in many ways.

Kristina Božič: Has history, though, not seen this kind of situation before?

Andy Worthington: Not in the USA. Now obviously, America does not have a very clean history –- as in Central and South American in the 1970s and ’80s, for example, where American operatives were almost literally standing just inches away from some of the most horrific things that they engineered –- but nothing has ever quite happened like this before. I feel as if 9/11 was an excuse to just chuck every single rule of law out of the window and say, “anything goes.”

Kristina Božič: Would you agree with Amnesty International’s definition that we are looking at the Gulag of the 21st century?

Andy Worthington: Yes, it is there in the whole system of interrogation and torture and how they have picked out “enhanced interrogation techniques” from their covert programs over the years. Also, there are uncanny similarities between what they are doing and Stalin’s show trials. I do not see much difference. However, somewhere at the bottom of all this there is a terrorist problem, but before 9/11 they dealt with it through the law, prosecuting the terrorists who were involved in the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, for example, through the existing legal system in the USA.

Kristina Božič: Some say that the Jose Padilla case also proved just that –- that terrorist suspects can be put through the established legal system.

Andy Worthington: Well, I do not know that the Padilla case proved that, really. Here we have a jury deciding that Padilla was guilty of little more than unspecified thought crimes, and let us not talk about the three and a half years that he was kept in solitary confinement, where he lost his mind …

Jose Padilla

Jose Padilla, held in a solitary confinement for three and a half years, takes a trip to the dentist.

Kristina Božič: Yes, it was not a fair trial, but some are trying to see the positive side of it, pointing out that it proved that terrorist cases can be tried through the existing legal system.

Andy Worthington: Well, in that sense it is something they will have to come to terms with, because Guantánamo … some say it is the tip of the iceberg, because there are something like 15,000 to 20,000 other people in American custody, held without charge or trial, and without access to the legal system. Most of them are in Iraq, where they have been in prison without access to anybody in their own country, and their cases are tied in with those of the men at Guantánamo because the way they are treated is the same as the treatment of the “enemy combatants” in Guantánamo. Then there are around 500 prisoners in Bagram in Afghanistan and hundreds more in other prisons in other places –- including Diego Garcia –- and in other prisons that are not directly under American ownership, where they are sent so that they can be tortured and the Americans can say that it has not got anything to do with them. How all these stories can get unraveled I have no idea, because all of it is absolutely self-defeating. Not only is torture morally repugnant, but it does not work. It recruits more people for the terrorist cause and it does not give the Americans the intelligence they want. You do not get intelligence from torturing people. The whole thing is a horrible failure. How it all gets undone –- I do not know, really.

Kristina Božič: What do you think about the theories that 9/11 was a set-up?

Andy Worthington: I try not to think about that, because you do not need a conspiracy theory. Let us accept that there were terrorist attacks. This is the real world we live in, and the response of the American government to the attacks was shocking. And this is what has to be dealt with. These events and people are bad enough without tacking the conspiracy theory onto them. I do not need a conspiracy theory to know that Dick Cheney is an evil man.

Kristina Božič: How much were people at the top of the administration aware of the actual conditions and the things that have been going on in Guantánamo?

Andy Worthington: I suspect [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld must have known a lot about it, because he was involved not only in establishing which army rules about the handling of prisoners could be thrown out and which new techniques could be applied, but he was also the one to whom reports of US interrogations were delivered, right from the beginning when they captured John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban,” in December 2001 in Afghanistan, who was stripped naked, and strapped to a gurney with duct tape. So Rumsfeld knew. How much he understood that what they were doing to people was torture, I do not know. I suspect people can fool themselves into thinking that it is not.

Most people do not understand what solitary confinement means, let alone the more brutal “enhanced interrogation techniques” –- the administration’s euphemism for torture. They think people simply get bored in there. They do not grasp that actually within a very short amount of time people can start to lose their minds. Gareth Peirce, the British lawyer who has been defending all kinds of people in contentious cases for decades, was opposed to the British government raising the pre-trial detention period from seven days, because she pointed out that even in seven days you can get innocent people to confess to things they did not commit. Most people have no idea what pressure you can be put under just by being in detention for a week.

But to return to Rumsfeld, I cannot work him out as much as Cheney, who I think genuinely enjoys making people suffer, and who, with his advisors –- especially David Addington –- was responsible for attempting to justify a lot of the torture policies. As for President Bush, I do not know really. After they caught Abu Zubaydah, one of the first supposedly senior al-Qaeda leaders, the CIA apparently told Bush that he was not actually as significant as they had thought he was, and Bush was upset, saying he did not want to lose face. But he was also interested in how they could get Zubaydah to talk, and whether there was possibly more going on than they knew, and supposedly he wanted to know what the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were. “Do they work? Is it a good idea to use them?” And coming from the president this was one of the things that kind of established the whole process.

Kristina Božič: But what can or should people do who are knowledgeable and aware but somehow powerless?

Andy Worthington: I think the first thing that everyone must keep on maintaining is that something has gone very wrong here. There are many people out there who are not raving right-wing lunatics, people who claim to be liberals, who say that we are faced with an existential threat like nothing that has ever happened before and that therefore our civil liberties need to be curtailed and the police should be able to hold people for as long as they want if they think that they are dangerous. It’s how we’ve had Belmarsh and the control orders for so long now in the UK, and it’s basically the justification for Guantánamo, and it’s really not a good idea. It is not always easy to defend the rights of people who may or may not be guilty from being treated this way in the face of people who are kind of up in arms, but I think it is important to say that we are not facing the most severe existential threat we have ever known. I suspect most people who say this were born after 1945. What are we talking about here? Are we comparing a little group of people who conducted an operation, horrific as it was, with the Nazis? It seems that people have forgotten this. Or people want their own existential horror in the same way that the war-mongering people in the States, who got the positions of power –- like Cheney in the first Bush administration –- never wanted there to be the absence of an enemy. When the enemy stopped being the Soviet Union, then they had to have a new one.

Now, there is a new threat, of course, I am not saying that there is not, but the Americans had a significant terrorist attack before 9/11 that was carried out by Timothy McVeigh, but they seem to have dated the whole origin of terrorism to 9/11, which in this country would be the same as saying that what happened on July 7, 2005 was the first terrorist attack in London, which it wasn’t. I lived here in the ‘80s and ‘90s when there were attacks by the IRA, and large numbers of people in London have lived through terrorist attacks.

Kristina Božič: Can Guantánamo then be described as something not unusual, as something that has been happening before, but has just never been put out so much in the open before, through the internet and through demands for transparency from other governments?

Andy Worthington: But it is something unusual. When the media focuses on the “extraordinary rendition” policy, they tend to focus on a small number of high profile cases, but there are numerous cases of these poor men who have done absolutely nothing and have been sent to prisons in Syria and elsewhere … The process of rendition actually encompasses the whole of Guantánamo and the secret prisons. Everyone who is in Guantánamo was rendered there.

Before 9/11 the Americans very specifically used rendition to bring people to justice in the USA or to move them to convenient allies like Egypt. These were all people who already had a judgment against them; they might have been judged in absentia but they had been judged guilty of a crime. I cannot see that there is anything wrong with a very tightly controlled program like that, or comparatively I cannot see much wrong with it compared to just ramping up the whole thing after 9/11 and rounding up anybody who they feel like. Anyone who the president thinks might be guilty can end up tortured in a CIA-run jail or in a Moroccan jail, on no basis whatsoever other then suspicion. That has got to be wrong. If you get back to the position you were at before, then OK, but you have to clear up all this stuff first.

I have tried to tell the story of most of the people in Guantánamo, which is going to have people saying to me, “how do you know that?” And I will have to say I do not know categorically, in the cases of all the men held at Guantánamo, but let us have a look at it. Over half of these people have been released. I think I am providing pretty compelling evidence that mostly this is a miscarriage of justice and that these are not acceptable figures within any kind of judicial system. Maybe 5% of them are guilty, but 95% they banged up anyway. In the judicial system we all live under that would never be acceptable. To get one criminal we lock up twenty innocent men?

Kristina Božič: However, we do seem to be living in a society that thinks this might be OK and worth it if it saves lives.

Andy Worthington: True. But only because it is not happening to them.

Kristina Božič: Do you expect to be blamed for not being objective in your book?

Andy Worthington: I am sure I will be blamed for not being objective, and it is kind of impossible to properly combat that one, because the whole place is outside of the law. Fundamentally, this is what it is about. That is why I have been talking about those figures, how successful judicial systems are in general. We conclude they are quite successful, that the whole system of prosecution, defense and the jury works pretty well. We know some innocent people go to prison and some guilty people are released, but generally it works well.

So my answer to people who would say that I am being biased is that when they say I am just defending all these terrorists, then I have to ask how they know they are terrorists. Just the fact that they claim this means that they are biased. I at least tried to present two sides of the story. Yes, I make a decision in some of these cases when I suggest that some of these people did not do what the Americans say they did. I cannot confirm it, but I am trying to be a lot more objective than those standing up there and saying that the president has the right to imprison any “terrorist” he wants. To define a terrorist you have to have some kind of a judicial system. Just the president saying someone is a terrorist does not make that person a terrorist. Otherwise let us forget it, what is the difference between this and the most vile totalitarian dictator that you know of? There is no difference.

Kristina Božič: In your previous two books you looked into opposition movements in England. Were there any similarities or parallel things when you researched The Guantánamo Files?

What I was drawing on, I suppose, was my involvement in studying protest movements and people who wanted to establish alternative ways of living in Britain, and how, at various times, they have been suppressed. What I was already interested in was how governments curtail civil liberties for the wrong reasons. Civil liberties have been steadily curtailed in the UK. People used to be able to gather quite freely 25 years ago in this country, but it has got more and more tightly controlled over the years. It is not enough to suggest that politicians are doing everything for our benefit. People tend to forget that they are supposed to work for us, but that they very easily start working for themselves. To go back to what I was saying before, when the police say to politicians, “we would like to be able to hold people for as long as we like,” and politicians say yes … The police are always going to ask for that, but just because they ask for it does not mean that politicians are supposed to say yes. They are supposed to weigh it up with the rights of the people –- and it is our right not to be held indefinitely.

What is difficult to get across to people who are not Muslims and who think that no one is going to be coming after them, is that the more powers you give to the government that they should not be given, the more you might want to get them back one of these days. How are you going to do that? You cannot necessarily trust that, because you are a law-abiding citizen, everything will be alright. I think it’s really important to remember that famous poem from the Nazi times, attributed to Pastor Niemöller, about how they came for the Jews, the Communists, the trade unionists etc, and the commentator did not speak out because he was not one of them, but when they came for him there was no one left to speak out. Obviously, there are a lot of people I can talk to who will look at me as if I am insane. With the attempt to introduce ID cards into this country, for example, they will say, “Why not? I have got nothing to hide.” But giving powers to the state that it does not need is not about not having anything to hide. Why would you willingly give something of yours to the state that it does not need?

The poem attributed to pastor Niemoller

Kristina Božič: To be safe?

Andy Worthington: To be safe? Well that is not going to help, is it? ID cards are not going to stop terrorism. If anything again happens in this country it will not make a blind bit of difference whether there are ID cards or not.

Kristina Božič: How can you explain that today Guantánamo Bay still exists?

Andy Worthington: I think it has continued its existence because the US administration rushed into it and did not listen to some of the experts –- in political circles, and also in the agencies; the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in particular, but also in parts of the CIA –- who were asking where this kind of process ends. All they have done is to create a monster, and they have no idea how to deal with it now that it is set up.

Kristina Božič: What is hard to grasp is also somehow the lack of empathy and the acknowledgment of what is happening in front of our noses.

Andy Worthington: Part of that, oddly enough, is that, when the US administration released these documents, nobody took the time to go through them. I did. I am not wanting to blow my own trumpet, but I know how difficult it was. Instead, the majority of the media decided they could not extract a narrative from the documents, that it was too difficult to tell who was telling the truth and who was not, so therefore it was better not even to go there. That played into the hands of a government that was reveling in its ability to imprison people without charge or trial. They really should have gone further than that when those documents were released, investigated it further and said, “look, these are the people behind these numbers.” I know why they did not do it, but I hope that what I am doing and what the book of poems [Poems From Guantánamo] that just came out will do, is to say, “Look, these are all people. We know that most of them are not the worst of the worst. More than half the people who were held there were released and, moreover, the US managed to get away with that without really facing the fact that they let go more than half of those whom they were claiming were the worst of the worst. What does this tell us? Of course, the administration claims that most of the people it has released are not innocent; they are just not dangerous any more. They are very persistent in changing the meaning of the language they use. They even have a term for it: “No Longer Enemy Combatant.”

Kristina Božič: But people seem to forget or not follow up these lies, perhaps because they are bombarded with loads of information all the time?

Andy Worthington: It is possibly also just the way we are living. Over thirty years ago there was an enormous amount of pressure in the USA to end the Vietnam War. Something like 80,000 Americans died in the war … So what are we up to in Iraq? Four thousand? When it was 80,000 people, it was obviously everywhere; every community had someone who died. Four thousand dead, but ten times that many who have been severely injured must be slowly getting to the sort of numbers where in every part of the States there is someone who knows someone who is mutilated or who died as a result of the Iraq war. And this then will raise the question, “why, what is it about?” I do not know why more people are not more offended by it. But, apparently, everyone is comfortable, everyone is making money, no one is really thinking about the bigger picture. This is one aspect of it. Compared to thirty years ago in Britain, this looks like a nice comfortable place and everyone can go shopping. Similarly, if I buy clothes without wondering who made them, or buy things in a supermarket without wondering how they were grown, then everything is very distant. And these are also the circumstances that make it easier for an authoritarian government to thrive, selling fear to people, as they are comfortable and removed from everything. I think this complacency is terrible, but it is a symptom of our time.

Kristina Božič: Where does the road take you now? Do secret prisons present another challenge to be uncovered for you?

Andy Worthington: I would hope to be able to investigate that further but it is quite a hard project. Various journalists have been working on that. I know some of these stories –- some are reported in my book –- but I do not really know how to go about uncovering the whole truth. However, I cannot really imagine letting go of this story, not until something has happened to bring it to an end.

Kristina Božič: The Tipton Three, who were imprisoned in Guantánamo, said that the end can only mean justice, and that means bringing Rumsfeld, Bush and other criminals to court. That seems hardly possible, and so the story seems a long way from ending.

Andy Worthington: I cannot really see the end either. I cannot see how the Americans are going to get out of this. I really do not see it. I do not see how they are going to stop what they have started in Iraq; I do not see how they will stop any of it. They are down to eighty people in Guantánamo who they say are dangerous enough that they want to put them on trial in their Military Commission show trials. That is ten or eleven percent of the people they have imprisoned. And when it comes down to it, there will probably be less than eighty, and at the moment it is not even clear whether they can go ahead with these trials. Can they maybe put them into the American system? The Padilla case showed that a jury does not necessarily mind if these people have been tortured for years. If they can do that then they can probably close the whole system down eventually, because otherwise it seems that they have to hold people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed forever without charge.

Kristina Božič: Another book on Guantánamo, Joseph Margulies’ Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power, makes the claim that the actual aim of the whole “war on terror” is to make the executive branch more powerful and to give the president unprecedented powers. Would you agree with this?

Andy Worthington: Yes, absolutely. Cheney and Rumsfeld both worked for Nixon, and Cheney in particular believes that the executive branch of the state should not be answerable to anybody. So 9/11 presented an opportunity for them to do that. It is a very dangerous situation. Although the lawyers will say that they have not got anybody free from Guantánamo, that what gets people free is public pressure, it remains a fact that it was the lawyers who faced tremendous abuse when they first started representing detainees from Guantánamo, but who nevertheless stood up for the separation of powers, and the importance of not allowing the executive to grant itself dictatorial powers. This is very commendable and very important.

Kristina Božič: So what do you believe pushes the United States to release detainees?

Andy Worthington: There are various angles. One is public pressure, but there is also a very political angle to almost all the releases from Guantánamo, which has absolutely nothing to do with whether these men are terrorists or not. It has to do with the fact that within European countries there was clearly pressure from a lot of people asking, “What is happening to these people in there? Get them home, they are our citizens.” And then from other countries, where this is not the case –- the Yemen and some of the north African regimes where nobody is representing the rights of the detainees –- the detainees remain where they are. One of the really unfortunate things about who is left in Guantánamo is how many of them are in the worst of all possible situations, because they had left their home countries for whatever reasons: some had fled persecution, others were economic migrants and were living in Afghanistan or in Pakistan. And with these people, the Americans are struggling to find a way out, because I think the majority of the key players –- with some notable exceptions; Cheney, for example –- do want to close Guantánamo down as much as possible. It is quite ironic, as they cannot send them home, because their home governments might not treat them very well –- saying this after they have been living in this five-star hotel in US custody…

Kristina Božič: The British have also refused to accept back their ex-resident, whose resident permit expired, because he did not reapply for it since he was in Guantánamo. So Britain does not want to take him back, while his wife and children still live here.

Andy Worthington: This is Jamil El-Banna, who is one of the five residents that Britain has now asked to have back from the Americans. It is an interesting story, as it is still unfolding. The British government was initially prepared for him to be sent back to Jordan, the country of his birth, from where he had fled, even though he has a wife and five children in Britain. And he only ended up in Guantánamo because of the complicity of the British intelligence services, which is pretty shocking. They have been complicit in various cases of the people in Guantánamo, and I cannot really understand how they work.

Jamil’s friend Bisher al-Rawi returned to Britain in March, even though the British government had said all along that it would not accept any residents back, as it would set a terrible precedent. But the pressure was on, because Bisher had been working for British intelligence, keeping an eye on Abu Qatada. He’s a Jordanian, whom the British want to send back to Jordan, and he went to the same mosque as Bisher. Qatada is a radical cleric, but the government claims that he is the spiritual representative of al-Qaeda in Europe. And when the British wanted to keep tabs on Qatada, and ultimately to arrest him, it was Bisher who helped them, working as an unpaid informer. Jamil, on the other hand, who had also met Qatada, had also been asked to work as an informer, but had refused, although he had been told that this would not cause any problems for him.

So on what basis British intelligence betrayed Bisher and Jamil to the Americans in the first place I really do not understand, but all the intelligence stuff gets pretty murky when you start looking at it objectively. Bisher’s family came from Iraq and he was the only member of his family who did not become a British citizen, because he hoped that one day the family would be able to reclaim their property in Iraq. If it were not for this, he would have been out of Guantánamo years before as a British national. He went to set up a peanut-processing factory with his brother and with Jamil in Gambia, and that’s where he was kidnapped by the Americans after the British provided them with false intelligence. All this came out over a year ago when Bisher and Jamil’s lawyers came across memos that the British had sent to the Americans when they were heading off for the Gambia. The British basically lied about them. They said they were suspected terrorists, they did not mention that Bisher was working for them … I really do not understand what game they were playing. They said that they told the Americans that they did not want them to be captured, but at the same time they provided false intelligence information to the Americans that pinpointed them as terrorists.

I kind of wonder whether everybody was under so much pressure from the Americans that they just felt they had to give them something. The Americans were twisting everybody’s arms to hand them over some terrorist suspects. They went crazy after 9/11, having had so little information for years, because they had neglected their intelligence services, and during my research it seemed to me that they believed that they could capture every single person in the world who might be in some way connected to terrorism and would then be able to question them all. That seems to me to be the main basis of Guantánamo and the secret prisons. But they didn’t think about what they would do with these people in the long-term. The only way for them to be safe, it seemed, was to capture every single person who might be a terrorist suspect anywhere in the world. And yet what they ended up with was 95 percent innocent men or Taliban foot soldiers, while the truly dangerous people escaped in front of their noses.


The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison by Andy Worthington is 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.

Kristina Božič can be contacted at:

The Afghan teenager put forward for trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo

Alone in the civilized world (and, it should be noted, in most other countries regarded as barbaric dictatorships), the US administration has a penchant for ignoring international laws regarding the legal distinctions between adults and children, subjecting teenagers, in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, to brutal detention without charge or trial, and, in the case of Omar Khadr, who was 15 years old at the time of his capture, also hauling him up before a lawless show trial by Military Commission, designed to prevent all mention of torture by US forces, and to secure a pre-ordained verdict of guilt. Dozens of teenagers –- some as young as 12 or 13 –- have been held in Guantánamo over the years, but until now Khadr was the only one to face a trial.

Asadullah Rahman

Asadullah Rahman, an Afghan detainee (released in January 2004), who was just 12 years old when he was captured and sent to Guantánamo.

Last week, however, in what was supposed to be a demonstration of the efficacy and justice of the Military Commissions, the Pentagon announced that an Afghan named Mohamed Jawad would be joining Khadr, Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who was one of Osama bin Laden’s drivers, and David Hicks, who was returned to Australia in May after a plea bargain, as the fourth “terror suspect” to face the Commissions since their revival in March this year, after four years of wrangling and humiliation for the government.

A minimum of research reveals that, according to the Pentagon’s own records, Jawad was born to Afghan parents in Pakistan in 1985, and was therefore only 17 when he was captured. This means nothing to the administration, of course. At a press conference in April 2003, when the “child prisoners” story first broke, Donald Rumsfeld pointedly described the juvenile detainees as “not children,” and General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that they “may be juveniles, but they’re not on the Little League team anywhere. They’re on a major league team, and it’s a terrorist team, and they’re in Guantánamo for a very good reason –- for our safety, for your safety.”

Last year, in response to press reports criticizing the number of juveniles held at Guantánamo, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon also weighed in, insisting, in defiance of reason, “There is no international standard concerning the age of individuals who engage in combat operations,” and adding, “Age is not a determining factor in the detention [of those] engaged in armed conflict against our forces or in support to those fighting against us.”


Naqibullah, an Afghan detainee (released in January 2004), who was just 13 years old when he was captured and sent to Guantánamo.

What is just as astonishing about Jawad’s case, however, is that it was chosen at all. According to the AFP, he is to be charged with “attempted murder in violation of the laws of war,” and “intentionally causing injury for allegedly throwing a grenade at a US military vehicle, wounding two US soldiers and an Afghan interpreter,” but there are doubts over whether he actually threw the grenade, and, in any case, after nearly six years of chest-thumping claims that Guantánamo houses “the worst of the worst,” the decision to prosecute a teenager, who had no connection whatsoever with al-Qaeda, and who, at best, was a minor Afghan insurgent, is both desperate and risible.

For his part, Jawad has long denied that he actually threw the grenade. In his administrative review in December 2005, he denied an allegation that an individual approached him at his shop in Khost in October 2002, offering him an opportunity to make money by killing Americans, saying, “I don’t have a shop in Khost. I don’t know anyone to give me money.” He accepted that, in December 2002, at a mosque in Miran Shah, Pakistan, he met four people who offered him a job clearing mines in Afghanistan, but denied other allegations that he received training “to use AK-47s, rocket launchers, machine guns and hand grenades,” that he trained with Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (the anti-American militia headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a US favorite during the war against the Soviet Union), and that he “was identified as being at [a] jihadi madrassa before the Americans came to Afghanistan,” where he learned how to throw grenades and was “seen with a fake plastic grenade in his hand.” “This statement is not true,” he said. “It is a lie. I never went to a religious school. I have not heard of those names before. I only went to school in Pakistan.”

The specific reason for Jawad’s detention in Guantánamo involves a grenade attack on US forces on December 17, 2002. According to the allegations, two people ordered him and a second person “to position themselves near the mosque and to wait for an American target to pass. As an American vehicle passed, the second individual ordered the detainee to throw a grenade into the vehicle.” Jawad responded, “Nobody asked me to throw a grenade. I have never thrown a grenade. I don’t understand how to throw it.” He then became agitated after it was alleged that he had “stated originally he was not the person who was supposed to throw the grenade, but that the grenades were passed to him at the last minute … The other individuals told the detainee to throw the grenade, so he did.” He insisted, “That is not true. I told them [the interrogators] in my statement that I was the person who did not throw the grenade.”

He also denied subsequent allegations that, while he was throwing the grenade, the second individual “fled the scene,” that he was “caught by a local police officer at the site of the explosion,” and that he “made a written confession to this attack, signed it, and marked it with his fingerprint.” Crucially, he said that the local police took him to jail and “they tortured me. They beat me. They beat me a lot. One person told me, ‘If you don’t confess, they are going to kill you’. So, I told them anything they wanted to hear.”

Having not heard this story before, the Presiding Officer, in a stunning display of the tortuous bureaucracy overlaying the Guantánamo regime, declared that Jawad’s allegation of torture and abuse “triggers the mandatory reporting aspect of the Office of Administrative Review for the Detention of Enemy Combatants (OARDEC) Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) [with regards to reporting allegations of abuse and torture].” This was dropped, however, when Jawad then confirmed to the Board that the abusive treatment had taken place in Kabul, at the hands of Afghan soldiers, and added, “I have never seen or endured any torture in Bagram or here in Cuba by the Americans.”

Returning to the subject of the grenade attack, Jawad denied an allegation that he “told a senior Afghani police officer that he was proud of what he had done, and if he were let go he would do it again,” and responded to an allegation that “A senior Afghani official stated he heard the detainee admit to throwing the grenade at the two United States soldiers,” by saying that he was probably overheard when he made his false confession. He again insisted that “someone else threw the grenade,” and explained that the person who had invited him to come to Afghanistan to clear mines had given him a grenade to put in his pocket (although he did not know what it was) and had then left him unattended for a while in the market. He said that, while shopping for raisins, he took the grenade out of his pocket and put it on the sack of raisins, but that when the shopkeeper saw it he “told me it was a bomb and that I should go and throw it in the river. I put the thing back in my pocket and I was running and shouting to stay away, it’s a bomb! When I got close to the river, people [the police] caught me.”

Mohamed Jawad may well be guilty of the grenade attack, but it is doubtful that the truth will be aired adequately in a Military Commission. It is, for example, beyond the bounds of belief that the Afghan soldiers who allegedly tortured him will be sought and found in Afghanistan and brought to Guantánamo to testify. Above all, however, the whole sad story, whether true or not, is nothing like the kind of major prosecution of a senior al-Qaeda operative that the American public might be expecting after six years, the spending of untold billions of dollars, and the demolition of the rule of law.

For more on the stories of juveniles detained 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 CounterPunch (as “The Case of Mohamed Jawad”). An edited version also appeared on the Huffington Post.

See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the stumbling progress of the Military Commissions: The reviled Military Commissions collapse (June 2007), A bad week at Guantánamo (Commissions revived, September 2007), The curse of the Military Commissions strikes the prosecutors (September 2007), A good week at Guantánamo (chief prosecutor resigns, October 2007), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), African embassy bombing suspect charged (March 2008), The US military’s shameless propaganda over 9/11 trials (April 2008), Betrayals, backsliding and boycotts (May 2008), Fact Sheet: The 16 prisoners charged (May 2008), Four more charged, including Binyam Mohamed (June 2008), Afghan fantasist to face trial (June 2008), 9/11 trial defendants cry torture (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (five trials dropped, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), An empty trial at Guantánamo (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, October 2008), Life sentence for al-Qaeda propagandist fails to justify Guantánamo trials (al-Bahlul, November 2008), Guilt by Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials at Guantánamo (December 2008), Is the 9/11 trial confession an al-Qaeda coup? (December 2008), The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns Chaotic Trials (Lt. Col. Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Torture taints the case of Mohamed Jawad (January 2009), Bush Era Ends with Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009).

And for a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Obama’s Confusion Over Guantánamo Terror Trials (June 2009).

Malice in Blunderland: Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial to go ahead, despite appeal

Omar KhadrIn a second development this week in the fraught story of the Military Commissions –- the US administration’s blundering attempts to subject detainees at Guantánamo to a second-tier legal system, designed to prevent all mention of torture and to realize pre-ordained verdicts of guilt –- it was announced on Monday that Col. Peter Brownback had ordered the trial by Military Commission of Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen who was just 15 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan in 2002, to proceed on 8 November.

The story of Khadr’s involvement with the Commissions is long and complicated, and new readers are recommended to read previous articles here. In a nutshell, however, when Khadr’s Commission was convened in June, it was the self-same Col. Brownback who threw the case out of court, arguing that the legislation that had mandated his trial –- the Military Commissions Act of 2006 –- had stipulated that only “illegal enemy combatants” could be tried by Military Commission, whereas Khadr –- and every other detainee in Guantánamo, for that matter –- had only been judged as “enemy combatants” in the tribunals at Guantánamo that had made them eligible for trial by Military Commission in the first place.

Confused? It only gets more surreal. Last week, Khadr’s lawyers, led by Lt. Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, filed a federal court appeal questioning whether the Commissions were legally entitled to try Khadr at all, and asked an appeal court in Washington to uphold Brownback’s original dismissal of the charges in June. Dismissing Khadr’s lawyers’ concerns –- that there was “the prospect of ongoing proceedings in multiple courts, as well as the propriety of going forward despite a substantial question as to whether the trial can legally proceed in the first place” –- Brownback responded by citing the need to proceed in a “judicious manner,” whatever that means.

Evidently fortified by a recent decision in another appeals court –- the United States Court of Military Commission Review, which was hastily cobbled together after Brownback himself had disabled the Commissions in June –- the Defense Department argued, as Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler described it, that “military commission rules issued by the Department of Defense, which explicitly grant the federal appeals court jurisdiction in the case, are invalid. The judge indicated that he was not deciding whether the Court of Appeals had jurisdiction, yet the practical effect of his ruling is to nullify Omar’s right to seek meaningful review of last month’s decision by a special military appeals court allowing the trial to resume.”

“The Defense Department is so desperate to validate this broken process that they will disregard just about any concern of judicial economy or fairness to the accused,” Kuebler added. “They write a rule giving Omar a right to appeal, they tell Omar he has a right to appeal, and when he appeals, they claim he doesn’t have a right to appeal –- Alice in Wonderland really is the only way to describe it.”

That’s not bad, Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler, but “Malice in Blunderland” might be even more apt.

For more on Omar Khadr and the Military Commissions, see my new 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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