Archive for November, 2007

The Guantánamo Files: Andy Worthington’s UK tour dates, December 2007

The Guantanamo FilesFollowing the successful launch of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison at Bookmarks in central London on Wednesday 28 November when Andy, Moazzam Begg and Zachary Katznelson of Reprieve spoke to a packed house (photos to follow), Andy will be making the following appearances in December:

GLASGOW: Friday 7 December.
Masjid Al-Furqan, 19 Carrington Street, Glasgow. 7.30 pm.
With James Yee, Guantánamo’s wrongly imprisoned Muslim chaplain.
Organized by SACC (Scotland Against Criminalising Communities).

CAMBRIDGE: Sunday 9 December.
Talk and book signing at Libra Aries Bookshop, 9 The Broadway, Mill Road, Cambridge, CB1 3AH. 7 pm.
Contact: 01223 412411. Visit the website for further details and a map.

SHEFFIELD: Monday 10 December.
Arts Tower, Lecture Theatre 4, Sheffield University. 7 pm.
With Moazzam Begg, former Guantánamo detainee and spokesman for Cageprisoners.
Organized by the Sheffield Guantánamo Campaign.
Contact: 07931 358784 or 07972 206218.

LONDON: Friday 14 December.
Talk and book signing at the London Guantánamo Campaign’s weekly “Shut Guantánamo” demonstration outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square.
6 – 7 pm.

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

The Guantánamo Files: Additional Chapters Online – Tora Bora

The Guantanamo FilesTo mark the official launch on Wednesday of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (Pluto Press), I’ve just posted the second of 12 additional chapters featuring stories that I could not include in the book, either for reasons of space (to keep the book at a manageable length) or, in some cases, because the information was not available at the time of writing.

This additional chapter complements Chapter 4 of The Guantánamo Files, looking at the stories of 14 detainees not mentioned in the book, who were captured in the Tora Bora mountains, or in the city of Jalalabad, at the time of the US military’s much-hyped but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to kill or capture a significant group of al-Qaeda and senior Taliban leaders –- including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri –- who were holed up in the mountains in November and December 2001.

To mark the occasion of the book launch, I’d also like to thank the various organizations who have interviewed me over the last few weeks: in particular, the teams at the BBC World Service’s “The World Today” and “Outlook,” who interviewed me on October 10 and November 15, and Nihal and his young, enthusiastic crew at the BBC Asian Network, who welcomed me in Shepherd’s Bush on November 7. I’d also like to thank Press TV for their hospitality, and for familiarizing me on several occasions with the various traffic-choked routes to Ealing.

Thanks also to Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy for publicizing the book and the launch, Chris at ZNet for welcoming me on board, Mark Thwaite at the Book Depository for his review, in which he described the book as “shocking and vital,” the Canadian campaigning group Justice for Mohamed Harkat for highlighting the book’s publication, and Eleanor at the Care2 News Network for publicizing it to the network’s many readers. Thanks also to Marc Falkoff, editor of Poems From Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, for mentioning me in a fascinating interview in the Pennsylvania Gazette, in which he talks at length about the plight of Abdul Farhan Abdul Latif, one of the 17 Yemeni detainees that he represents, and to Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration, and a savage critic of the cabal currently running the White House, who plugged The Guantánamo Files in a powerful article on CounterPunch, lamenting the decline of the United States.

Details of further promotional events for The Guantánamo Files –- in London, Glasgow, Cambridge and Sheffield –- will follow soon.

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

The Guantánamo Files: Stories from America’s Illegal Prison

The Guantanamo FilesThis introduction to The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, explaining how I came to research and write the book, and the significance of my findings, was published on the new British political blog Liberal Conspiracy, dedicated to “developing, shaping and spreading liberal-left ideas and values in Britain.” Information about the forthcoming book launch, on Wednesday 28 November, is included at the end of the article.

We are just seven weeks away from a particularly disturbing anniversary. On January 11, 2008, the Bush administration’s notorious “War on Terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay will have been open for six years. For all this time, the prisoners –- or “detainees,” as the government insists on describing them –- have been held without charge or trial, and with no sign of when, if ever, they will be released from what Lord Steyn, the British law lord, memorably described as a “legal black hole.” Although 464 of these men have now been released –- or, in rather fewer cases, transferred to the custody of their home governments –- their stories remain largely unknown, as do those of the majority of the 310 detainees still held at Guantánamo.

In February 2006, when I first began researching the detainees’ stories, it was this combination of factors –- the exceptional flight from domestic and international law on the part of US administration, and the fact that almost nothing was known about the men imprisoned in Guantánamo –- that first prompted me to action. In the first weeks of my research I was restricted, like everyone else who had attempted to answer the question, “Who is in Guantánamo?” to news reports and interviews with released detainees, and trawls for information that were often based on little more than gossip and rumour. Those who had been before me, attempting to extract information from the prison’s fortress-like seclusion, were, primarily, teams at Alasra, a Saudi-based Arabic language website, the Washington Post and the British human rights group Cageprisoners.

All this changed in a two-month period, from March to May, when the Associated Press, which had requested documents relating to the detainees under Freedom of Information legislation, but had been turned down by the Pentagon, took the government to court and won. The released documents contained, for the first time, the names and nationalities of all the detainees, and their ISNs –- the Internment Serial Numbers by which they were all identified, having been shorn of their identities as part of the dehumanizing process of detention and interrogation. Also released were 8,000 pages of transcripts from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which had been convened to assess whether, on capture, the detainees had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” and the annual Administrative Review Boards, convened to assess whether the detainees were still a threat to the United States and/or still had ongoing “intelligence value.”

The tribunals were instigated in the wake of a momentous Supreme Court decision, in June 2004, that Guantánamo –- leased from Cuba since 1903, and chosen as a prison location because it was presumed to be beyond the reach of the US courts –- was in fact US sovereign territory, and that the detainees had the right to challenge the basis of their detention. These tribunals were, of course, both a lamentable and an illegal response to the Supreme Court ruling. Although the justices’ decision allowed the detainees, for the first time, to seek legal representation, they were not allowed lawyers in their tribunals, which were also criticized for relying on classified evidence that could have been –- and in some cases clearly was –- obtained through torture, coercion and bribery, either of other detainees in Guantánamo or of various “high-value” suspects held in a shadowy network of secret prisons run by the CIA.

These transcripts, and those of the subsequent review boards, were, however, the only means whereby the detainees were allowed to tell their own stories, and it was through a detailed analysis of these documents –- transcribed and cross-referenced with the names, nationalities and ISNs of the detainees –- that I was able to put together, for the first time, a chronology of the circumstances of each detainee’s capture, whether in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, crossing the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, or in 17 other countries where they were seized and subjected to “extraordinary rendition.”

As I gave voices to the previously mute detainees, I also came to understand how it was that so many of the men appeared to have nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qaeda and 9/11. Although many were Taliban foot soldiers, they were largely recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war with the Northern Alliance, which began long before 9/11, and there were, moreover, many hundreds of completely innocent men –- humanitarian aid workers, missionaries, religious students, entrepreneurs, economic migrants and drifters –- who were sold to the Americans for bounty payments, averaging $5,000 a head, by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, or by unscrupulous citizens and villagers.

In the cases of the Afghans, who comprised over a quarter of the prison’s population, Taliban conscripts, forced to join the Taliban on pain of death, jostled with farmers, taxi drivers and pro-American, pro-Karzai soldiers and political leaders. Taking advantage of the gullibility of the US military and its Special Forces, whose intelligence gathering capabilities, in this as in so much of the “War on Terror,” were sorely lacking, most of these men were betrayed by rivals or swept up during raids based on untrustworthy tip-offs.

This is not to say that there were no dangerous prisoners amongst those who ended up in American custody. Several dozen of the detainees, at least, were members of, or actively affiliated with al-Qaeda, and it’s probable that, amongst those claiming to be nothing more than Taliban foot soldiers, there were some who were committed to Osama bin Laden’s global, anti-American jihad. However, the correct venue for these allegations to be tested was –- and still is –- in a court of law, not in a dangerously novel prison environment where, in the name of extracting information from uncooperative detainees (with no consideration of whether they were not forthcoming because they had no information to give), torture became a substitute for the skilled gathering of intelligence, the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention Against Torture, the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution were shredded with impunity, and the rigged tribunals – the basis of my research – were instigated, based largely on “confessions” by other detainees, in an attempt to disguise the manifest failures of the whole malign experiment.


Andy’s book, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison 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.

The official launch takes place on Wednesday November 28, 2007 at Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE. All are welcome and admission is free, but please call Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848 to reserve a place.

Andy will be joined for the launch by released British detainee Moazzam Begg and Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel for Reprieve, the London-based legal charity that represents dozens of Guantánamo detainees. As well as discussing the book, they will be talking about the plight of the six British residents still held in Guantánamo, conditions in the prison today, and attempts by the US and UK governments to bypass international safeguards preventing the return of men to regimes where they face the risk of torture.

Adel Abdul Hakim, the asylum seeker from Guantánamo: a transcript of Sabin Willett’s recent speech in Stockholm

Adel Abdul HakimFollowing up on my exclusive report yesterday about the former Guantánamo detainee Adel Abdul Hakim and his application for permanent asylum in Sweden, his lawyer Sabin Willett, who first alerted me to Adel’s story, has kindly allowed me to reproduce a talk that he gave to the Swedish Helsinki Committee’s War & Peace Seminar in Stockholm on November 19, the day before Adel filed his application. Like Sabin’s other comments over the last few years on Guantánamo and the plight of his clients, it is both eloquent and emotionally engaging, with a controlled and well-directed fury aimed at those in charge of his own country –- the United States –- who have turned their back on rules observed “in all civilized nations,” which, he is “ashamed to say,” are “no longer rules honored in my country.”

Sabin’s speech

Jag vill tacka alla våra nya vänner i Sverige för att de har bjudit Adel och mig till detta seminarium. Hans återförening med sin familj igår var ett fantastiskt ögonblick. [I would like to thank our many new friends in Sweden for inviting Adel and me to this seminar. His reunion with family yesterday was a wonderful moment.] But it will be better if I proceed in English.

Guantánamo has many faces. The face of the prison, so familiar from the photographs. The faces of political sponsors, like Vice President Cheney, who told the world that it holds killers picked up on the battlefields of Afghanistan, or former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who famously called the prisoners “Among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.”

For this American lawyer, Guantánamo has a different face –- the face of the prisoner I first met in an isolation cell in July 2005, where he was chained to the floor. The face of an innocent, who never was a soldier, never was a terrorist, but was swept up in the madness post 9-11. Adel’s face.

There are still more faces of Guantánamo, of families left behind, of children who cannot remember a father soon to enter his seventh year in the Guantánamo prison. Children not so different from yours, or mine. Perhaps Guantánamo’s ultimate face is the face you never see –- the 320 men still in the prison. Regulations forbid us from photographing them. The state knows that what the world cannot see, it forgets. That it will accept all manner of propaganda, of lies, of empty rhetoric, of social engineering so long as it is spared a glimpse of the human face. The state knows that Abu Ghraib was never intolerable until there were photographs.

Even in this audience, I wonder who you think is at Guantánamo. In your heart. Terrorists, right? Enemies? Surely. Here we believe in human rights and in fair treatment, in fair and open trials, for everyone, but in our hearts, we all believe they must be, well, dangerous, right?

We forget that propaganda has power even on us. So let’s look at the numbers. And in doing so let’s accept military allegations at face. Let’s ignore everything the prisoners and their lawyers say. So how many men does the military allege that it captured on battlefields? Five percent. How many does the military say engaged in a single act of hostility? Fewer than half. In six years, how many have been charged with a crime –- any crime? (Remember, at all relevant times, terrorism has been a crime). Ten. Just ten. Of those, how many have been convicted? One. And that one wasn’t an Arab, by the way. The Australian David Hicks would have done or said anything to get out of there. He will be home at New Year’s.

How strong is propaganda’s reach? Even the sponsors of this seminar refer in the materials to Adel as a “terror suspect.” Yet no one, no US soldier, prosecutor or politician, has ever suspected Adel –- ever –- of involvement in terrorism.

How did this happen? How did we get it so wrong?

Leaflets had a lot to do with it. The slide shows you one. What does the smiling fellow say? “Get wealth and power beyond your dreams … You can receive millions of dollars helping the anti-Taliban forces catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life. Pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.”

The notorious psyops leaflet referred to by Sabin

The US dropped these all over northeastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, in late 2001. How many did we distribute? Leaflets are “dropping like snowflakes in December in Chicago,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

In 2001, Pakistanis who got these leaflets turned in Adel and seventeen companions to US Forces for $5,000 a head, quite a lot of money in that part of the world. These men are Uighurs, a Muslim minority group from central Asia. Their republic was overrun by Mao Tse Tung in 1949. Ever since, Uighur poets and patriots have argued for independence. Under the law of Communist China, this is known as “terrorism.”

Many Uighurs have fled communist oppression. But since 9/11, Communist China had been exploiting our “war on terror,” urging that its political dissident Uighurs were terrorists. The State Department’s annual China report said this was wrong, but in the summer of 2002, the US had begun its massive effort to prepare for an invasion of Iraq. It needed UN support. That summer the Chinese, who sit on the Security Council, and the US cut a deal. The Chinese would not object to the US invasion of Iraq. The Americans would agree to a list of concessions, including branding the Uighurs as terrorist. That was the summer that Adel was sent to Guantánamo, and President Jiang came to Texas to meet President Bush.

So Adel sat in Guantánamo. And sat. In mid-2004, the US Supreme Court ruled that the men in Guantánamo had access to the U.S. courts –- a decision Congress would revoke two years later. But at the time the Bush administration was terrified someone might learn the facts. It hastily convened military review panels to rubber-stamp the men as “enemy combatants.” Secret proceedings, without evidence or lawyers. They put the Uighurs through this. A senior official confessed to the New York Times that this was a sham.

Now most of the Uighurs were rubber-stamped as enemy combatants with everyone else. But a strange thing happened. Some nameless, honorable military officers rebelled against the political command. They cleared five of the Uighurs. Adel was one of them. The officers cleared him, and then the government kept the fact secret and sent him back to his cell.

The following spring, my law firm took the first two Uighur cases for Adel and his friend. The government had kept their innocence secret, and we didn’t learn of it until July 2005, when at last we met them at the base.

It was soon after that that I spoke for the first time to Kavser, Adel’s sister, who is here today. I’ll never forget that call. I do not speak Uighur, but weeping is the same in every language. For long years she had supposed her brother was dead.

In the US courts, a furious court battle ensued. A key hearing was scheduled for May 8, 2006. On May 5, the government sent Adel and four companions to Albania. So I got on an airplane and flew to Milan, and thence to Tirana, and on Monday morning, I took his photograph. Adel’s beard had grown long in Guantánamo. Adel had exchanged GTMO for an Albanian refugee center in the midst of an epic slum. There was no Uighur community for support. In Europe only Moldava is poorer. Still, he was out of the prison.

For the men left behind, conditions have worsened gravely. In the new Camp 6, men are held in solitary –- even men who have been cleared for release. No window, no sunlight, no fresh air, no companions. For two hours in twenty-four, which might be during day or night, a man is shackled and led to a 3 x 4 meter space, surrounded by concrete walls two stories high. In effect, a chimney. Occasionally, the sun may be glimpsed above the wire mesh above the chimney, but often “rec time” is at night.

For the other 22 hours, a man is entirely alone. He eats alone. He prays alone. At night he lies alone listening to the roar of the HVAC. There is no difference between one hour and the next, between today and tomorrow, between yesterday and forever. No one touches this man, except MPs wearing rubber gloves. Did you ever spend 22 hours alone in a room? With the shades pulled, and no phone or TV or radio or computer or i-Pod or book or magazine or companion? Don’t try it for longer than a day. After that, the studies say, people soon begin to go mad.

“It is like we are underground here,” one man said to me. He thought he was already entombed. Another sent a message to his wife: “Tell her to remarry.” A third said he was hearing voices. His foot tapped uncontrollably against the floor. His face was inexpressibly sad. He had only one question for me: “Sabin, why do they hate us so much?”

I leave that question to the historians.

Now I suppose it would be irrelevant in a discussion of Guantánamo to digress with law, but it is a core principle of international law that a soldier of the enemy is no criminal. He has broken no law. You may hold him as a prisoner only so long as the shooting war lasts. You must treat him with honor, as you would treat your own soldier.

If we suspect an enemy soldier is also a criminal –- say, a terrorist complicit in the murder of civilians –- then he is to be treated like one. Charged, represented by counsel, tried with evidence in an open proceeding, before a court. Terrorism is, of course, a crime. If you think you have a terrorist, charge him and try him. If a person is neither of these things –- if he is a civilian, as Adel is, as the other Uighurs are, then he must be released immediately. Those are the rules under the Geneva Conventions. They are the rules in all civilized nations. I am ashamed to say they are no longer rules honored in my country.

The fact is that my government has made a hash of things. Most dishonorable of all, we have left the mess for others to clean up. In the days when my Grandfather served in the U.S. Navy, we Americans could claim to have helped clean up the messes of others. Now the tables have turned, and his grandson comes to Europe, to ask you to help remedy the errors of my generation.

It is a dark time, and the dark time is not over. Yet there are fleeting glimpses of sunshine. Your ministry granted a four-day visa, and the sun rose again for these people yesterday at Arlanda, when after so many years these people embraced again.

Perhaps the most important contribution to yesterday’s joyful reunion was that of six-year-old Fatima, Kavser’s daughter. It was to save her from China’s compulsory abortion policy that Kavser and her husband Abdulatif fled western China seven years ago. The Chinese seized Abdulatif in retaliation, and so a young mother with two children under four and another on the way wandered destitute on the streets of Islamabad. And it was Sweden –- again, Sweden! –- that gave these people refuge. Adel came to Kavser last evening; but Fatima had led her journey here. So in a very real way it was Fatima who brought these people together at Arlanda last night. I’m reminded that in a few weeks, when my own tradition revisits an ancient message of peace, we will reread the words, “And a little child shall lead them.”

When I met Fatima yesterday, she wore the pink dress and tiara of the fairy godmother. It seemed only right.

Please welcome my client and friend, Adel Abdul Hakim.

Adel and Fatima

Adel and Fatima.

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

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see: The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: Stranded in Albania (October 2007), Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden (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.

WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden

On Tuesday November 20, Adel Abdul Hakim, a former Guantánamo detainee from Xinjiang province in the People’s Republic of China, took another step towards reconstructing his shattered life by applying for asylum in Sweden.

The 33-year old, an ethnic Uyghur from a state where the repression of his people is widespread, made his claim for permanent resident status during a visit from Tirana, the capital of Albania, where he had been living, in a UN refugee camp, since his release from Guantánamo with four other Uyghurs in May 2006. After negotiations conducted by his US lawyers, various NGOs and lawyers in Sweden, he had been granted a four-day visa, to attend a human rights conference, and, finally, to be reunited with his sister and her family, who are part of a large Uyghur community in Sweden, one of the leading countries in the world in fulfilling international obligations to accept refugees.

Adel Abdul Hakim and his sister

Adel Abdul Hakim embraces his sister Kavser at Stockholm-Arlanda Airport on November 19 after arriving from Tirana, Albania, his home for the last 18 months.

The five men –- and 13 of the other 17 Uyghurs, who are all still in Guantánamo, despite having been cleared for release –- had fled the well-chronicled oppression in their homeland, and were living in a ruined village in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains, when the US-led invasion of Afghanistan began in October 2001. Although they indulged in nothing more sinister than renovating the settlement’s ruined buildings, and occasionally firing a bullet from their only weapon, an aging AK-47, while dreaming of rising up against their oppressors, they were targeted in a US bombing raid –- in which several of their companions died –- and were then captured by enterprising Pakistani villagers after making their way to the Pakistani border.

They were subsequently sold to the Americans, who soon realized that they were not involved with al-Qaeda, but who decided to hold them for their supposed intelligence value. In The Interrogator’s War, a book written by a former military interrogator at the US-run prisons in Afghanistan, the author, writing under the pseudonym of Chris Mackey, explained that the arrival of the Uyghurs triggered a frenzy of activity in the upper echelons of the administration. “[T]he requests for follow-up questions flooded in from Washington,” Mackey wrote, “and every query that came in made it clear that US intelligence was starting from practically zero with this group.”

After their transfer to Guantánamo, the US authorities obligingly allowed Chinese intelligence operatives to visit the prison to question the men, which was, understandably, an experience that some of them found disturbing. 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.” It later became clear that the US administration’s cooperation with the Chinese authorities, which included branding the Uyghur separatist movement (the East Turkistan Islamic Movement) as a terrorist organization, was intimately tied to securing China’s support –- or lack of opposition –- to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Despite this arrangement, it was the very real threat that the men would be tortured or even killed if they were returned to China that led to the US administration seeking out a third country that would accept the men after they had been cleared of all wrong-doing in the tribunals at Guantánamo –- the Combatant Status Review Tribunals –- which were established to determine whether, on capture, they had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants.” Despite the US administration’s best efforts at cajoling or bribing other countries to accept the men, however, Albania –- a Muslim country, but one of the poorest states in Europe –- was the only country that could be prevailed upon to accept them.

Although Adel and his companions found their new life in Albania frustrating, as there are no other Uyghur speakers and there was also no prospect of work, they were fortunate to have been cleared and released. Their 13 companions not only remain in Guantánamo, but some were also subjected to multiple tribunals, as the administration revealed another facet of Guantánamo’s prevailing injustice by reconvening tribunals when they produced what was regarded as the wrong result.

For Adel, at least, the opportunity to rebuild his life in earnest is now a possibility. It is, for the moment, the one bright light in the stories not only of the Uyghurs, but of all the other dispossessed men, captured and imprisoned through chronic failures of intelligence, many of whom are, sadly, still languishing in Guantánamo. It remains to be seen whether this development will open a new avenue for the release of some of the other innocent men (as many as 70, according to some estimates), who are also fearful of returning to their home countries, and whose continued presence in Guantánamo provides a major obstacle to the administration’s stated plans to wind down much of the prison’s operation.

Note: I am immensely grateful to Sabin Willett, one of Adel’s lawyers, for informing me about Adel’s visit to Sweden (see his brief report here). For more on the Uyghurs, 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.

Also published on the Huffington Post, ZNet and CounterPunch.

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), Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: Stranded in Albania (October 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.

Guantánamo whistleblower launches new attack on rigged tribunals

Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, explains why a new statement by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, the Guantánamo whistleblower, is more significant than Guantánamo’s leaked operating manual.

The media –- both mainstream outlets and the blogosphere –- have spent the last week consumed by the story of a leaked operating manual from Guantánamo. This is understandable in some ways. The prison’s Standard Operating Procedures have never been revealed to the public before, and, while it takes some dedication to stay awake through the numbing and pedantic attention to detail that drags on through 238 pages, there is something genuinely shocking about the stark admission that all incoming detainees are to be held in isolation for the first 30 days “to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process,” which “concentrates on isolating the detainee and fostering dependence of the detainee on the interrogator.” At least as worrying is the additional directive that, during this period, the detainees are to be prevented from having contact with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). What makes these admissions particularly disturbing, of course, is that they were brazenly committed to paper in an official document, even though the conduct that they endorse –- the establishment of an offshore interrogation camp, and denying access to ICRC representatives –- is illegal.

A Guantanamo detainee is escorted from an ARB hearing

In this photo from December 2006, a detainee, clutching the “Summary of Evidence” against him, is escorted from his Administrative Review Board hearing (the annual successors to the Combatant Status Review Tribunals). Photo © Paul J. Richards/AFP-Getty Images.

These are not, however, facts that were previously unknown. A copious amount of evidence –- discussed in the majority of the books published about Guantánamo, including my own, The Guantánamo Files –- attests to the fact that the prison’s major focus was the illegal interrogation of detainees, and the denial of access to ICRC representatives has also been reported in detail, particularly in the cases of Abdallah Tabarak, a supposed bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, who was mysteriously released in 2004, and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian accused of aiding the 9/11 hijackers in Germany, who is still held in Guantánamo.

More noticeably, the manual, published in March 2003, is nearly five years old, and, although there are good reasons to be wary of the administration’s claims that it is completely out of date, it is, to a large degree, ancient news, whose domination of the media has overshadowed other, more contemporary issues of considerable importance.

A case in point is a new statement by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, an Army reservist who worked at Guantánamo in 2004-05, which was submitted to the Washington DC Circuit Court as part of a brief in the continuing, and long-running struggle to secure justice for Sudanese detainee Adel Hamad. A hospital administrator for a large Saudi charity, Hamad had lived in Pakistan for 17 years, working on various humanitarian aid projects, when he was captured by Pakistani and American intelligence operatives in July 2002, based on spurious or non-existent “intelligence,” and sent to Guantánamo.

Lt. Col. Abraham, an Army reservist with 20 years experience in military intelligence, first came to prominence in June this year, when his criticisms of the tribunal process at Guantánamo –- the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), convened to assess whether, on capture, the detainees had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants” –- were widely credited with persuading the justices of the Supreme Court to reverse themselves for the first time in 60 years, agreeing to review the detainees’ right to challenge the basis of their detention in a case that is scheduled to start on December 5.

In an affidavit filed in the case of Fawzi al-Odah, a Kuwaiti detainee, Lt. Col. Abraham delivered a damning verdict on the tribunal process, which he described as severely flawed, relying on intelligence “of a generalized nature –- often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status.” In addition, he insisted that the process was designed to rubber-stamp the detainees’ prior designation as “enemy combatants.”

His latest statement is no less explosive. After giving a little more of his background, pointing out that his last assignment before Guantánamo, from November 2001 to November 2002, was as “the Lead Counterterrorism Analyst for the Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Command,” for which he received the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Abraham explains that he has been asked by Adel Hamad’s lawyer, the Federal Public Defender for the District of Oregon, to provide “additional information about the manner in which OARDEC [the Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants] operated during my assignment there, from September 11, 2004 until March 9, 2005,” and also “to comment upon certain declarations provided by the directors of the national intelligence organizations,” which were filed in an attempt to prevent the courts –- and, in some cases, the detainees’ lawyers –- from having access to supposedly sensitive government information about the detainees.

After revisiting previously aired complaints about OARDEC –- specifically that most of the staff “were volunteer reserves forces with little or no experience with intelligence or legal matters,” who were ill-equipped to deal with OARDEC’s “extraordinary and historic mission” –- Lt. Col. Abraham launches a blistering attack on the woeful, and deliberately narrow parameters of OARDEC’s capabilities, which, by extension, refutes the national intelligence directors’ claims that there was any information worth concealing.

Noting that the mission, as established in the Combatant Status Review Tribunal Procedures, in July 2004, mandated OARDEC to request “reasonably available information in the possession of the US government bearing on the issue of whether the detainee meets the criteria to be designated as an enemy combatant,” he points out that, in reality, “the facilities and systems utilized by OARDEC precluded access to or use of information that OARDEC needed in order to perform its primary mission effectively,” and that the mission was additionally hampered because there was “no systematic method for requesting the government information relating to specific detainees,” and because the largely unskilled staff “rarely selected the most promising sources of information and failed effectively to identify and pursue leads if any developed.”

The specific problems relating to the collection of evidence centered on the fact that OARDEC was only permitted access to material that was “classified SECRET and below” –- in other words, that access to “TOP SECRET information,” which might have been particularly useful, was denied across the board. This lack of access was compounded by the administration’s insistence that all 558 CSRTs were completed within 120 days, and, even more critically, by the fact that OARDEC was “entirely dependent on indulgences from external organizations,” having “no organic intelligence assets, no collection capabilities, no dissemination authority, and no direct tasking authority” of its own.

“As a result,” he adds, requests for information were “very rarely” sent to the CIA, were never sent to the NSA (National Security Agency) or the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), and were only sent to the US Army Intelligence and Security Command when Abraham himself “mentioned this fairly obvious and fertile source of information.” Compounding these failures, OARDEC’s lack of any “tasking authority” meant that any responses to the limited number of requests that were actually made were “largely dependant on whether anyone at the agency was inclined to do so.” In most instances, he concludes, “OARDEC received either a negative response (no information available) or no response at all.”

Abraham also notes that, even on the databases available to OARDEC, “access to much information was confined to particular individuals or groups, called communities of interest (COIs),” and adds that, “In order to access COI-restricted information, individuals either had to be members of the COI or obtain special access.” However, “Even if an OARDEC member had the appropriate clearance and access to the overall system, without a password and authorization, he or she would be denied access to COI information.” As a result, he explains that most of the OARDEC staff lacked access to COI-restricted information to such an extent that, “If there were information about a detainee in those other systems, the OARDEC researchers could not find it.” His conclusion is bleak. Given these obstacles, and the fact that most of the staff “had little if any understanding of the nature of, or even the existence of the myriad of intelligence components … They literally did not know what they were missing.”

Shorn of almost all genuine sources of intelligence, Abraham writes that OARDEC “relied primarily upon information provided by Joint Task Force Guantánamo” –- the organization running the prison itself –- “which consisted primarily of post-detention custodial and interrogation reports”; or, in rather clearer language, “Most of the information OARDEC collected … consisted … of information obtained during interrogations of other detainees.”

Describing a typical scenario, he notes that the compilation of material for the tribunals effectively began and ended with the file received from Guantánamo, which contained little more than post-detention summaries of interrogations, and incident reports relating to the detainee’s behavior. On some occasions, documentation relating to the detainee’s initial detention, “including notes on the contents of items in the detainee’s possession” might also be in the file, “but this was not so in every case.” He then explains that, even with this evidence, the researchers failed to investigate it rigorously, preferring, instead, to search their “limited databases” and “cast broad nets for any information, no matter how marginal, no matter how tenuous, no matter how dated, no matter how generic, no matter how dubious the source, so long as it could be connected to the detainee.”

A detainee sits alone during his recreation period

In this photo from December 2006, a detainee sits alone during his recreation period. Photo © Brennan Linsley/AP.

The result of this slap-dash approach was obvious, and, looked at in conjunction with the lack of access to genuine classified information (if, indeed, any existed) explains some of the more egregious and well-documented failures of the tribunal process. “Where no information was obtained about an individual,” Abraham explains –- adding, crucially, that this “was the case for nearly all detainees except individuals of prominence” –- the search “would shift to more broadly based themes, such as the region from where the individual came, his ethnic group or nation of origin, or any organization denominated as being associated with terrorist activities, with which the individual was alleged to have been associated.” For the last of these allegations, Abraham notes, pointedly, that OARDEC personnel “presumed that having an alleged association with an organization was a sufficient basis for attributing all research relating to that organization to the individual.” As Mark and Josh Denbeaux of Seton Hall Law School realized through their analysis of the CSRT documents –- and as I write about in depth in The Guantánamo Files –- what this meant in practice was not only that a significant number of detainees were tarred as terrorists through the most tangential associations with organizations proscribed by the US government, but also that organizations that were not included on the government’s blacklists –- like the World Association of Muslim Youth, for which Adel Hamad worked as a hospital administrator –- were labeled as entities associated with terrorism.

Furthermore, Abraham notes that “information relating to the credibility of a source was omitted, making sources appear authoritative even when they were suspect,” and he uses, as an example, an allegation against a particular group that “would be repeated without disclosing that it originated with one of the groups’ political opponents or some government overtly hostile to it” (as happened, in particular, with detainees from China, Libya and Tunisia). He also points out that, using the time restraints as a deliberate cover, “independent evidence from the detainee’s life before his arrest” was never investigated, even though the detainees’ “claims of innocence often could have been corroborated or disproved by a few simple inquiries,” and in this instance he uses, as an example, that, “if a detainee told interrogators that he had worked at a hospital in Afghanistan, OARDEC could have requested that an agency with regional or functional purview locate and obtain records from the hospital and interview personnel there.” In addition, he notes that “Beyond impractical discussions about bringing villagers to the nearest video conference facility,” he was “not aware of any realistic attempts” to “identify or even attempt to bring before the Tribunal [outside] witnesses [requested by the detainee] or their statements,” and concludes that OARDEC “was designed to conduct Tribunals without witnesses other than the accused detainee.” This, too, is a topic that I discuss at length in The Guantánamo Files, particularly in relation to many of the Afghan detainees, who begged their tribunals to make a few phone calls to confirm their innocence. In June 2006, the journalist Declan Walsh proved how easy it was to contact witnesses that the US government claimed to be unable to find, locating, in just 72 hours, three witnesses, in Washington, Kabul and Gardez, who were able to verify the story told by a wrongly imprisoned pro-US Afghan commander, Abdullah Mujahid (who is still in Guantánamo, even though he has now been cleared for release).

After this comprehensive demolition of the tribunals’ claims to competency, Abraham turns his attention to the claims made by the directors of the national intelligence organizations that granting the courts access to government information about the detainees “might risk disclosure of highly sensitive national intelligence information, such as source or method information.” He notes in the first instance that OARDEC’s systems were so primitive that the staff were unable to communicate electronically with major organizations including the CIA and the NSA, and also had no way of retaining or utilizing highly classified information. “This limitation,” he writes, “precluded any possibly that such sensitive information could be incorporated into materials presented to the Tribunals.”

Moreover, Abraham points out that “the kinds of sensitive national intelligence information discussed by the intelligence directors is not normally shared between intelligence agencies except in the rarest of circumstances,” and specifically rebuts a statement made by General Michael Hayden, the current director of the CIA, and the director of the NSA from 1999 to 2005 –- that disclosure of government information would reveal details of “clandestine intelligence operations, including counterterrorism operations, foreign intelligence information and assistance, information provided by sensitive sources, and technical collection activities” –- by insisting that this kind of information would not have been disclosed to OARDEC, or to the tribunal members, “under any circumstances.” He adds that, “in the few cases where the concerns might apply, there are adequate mechanisms in place to provide for in camera review of any critical information, the nature of which precludes disclosure beyond the court.”

In a damning aside –- which he cannot prove, though I too infer that it is correct, based on my extensive research into the detainees’ stories –- Abraham explains that, even assuming OARDEC had been able to conduct an exhaustive search for information, “what it would have likely discerned from the exercise is that there is little information to be obtained on people that have never before been considered let alone determined to be persons of interest.” As long ago as February 2002, this was effectively admitted by Brigadier General Mike Lehnert of the Marines, who was in charge of Guantánamo in the early days, when he stated, “A large number [of the detainees] claim to be Taliban, a smaller number we have been able to confirm as al-Qaeda, and a rather large number in the middle we have not been able to determine their status. Many of the detainees are not forthcoming. Many have been interviewed as many as four times, each time providing a different name and different information.”

The administration’s response to this failure to extract information from the detainees –- who, in 86 percent of cases, were not actually captured by the Americans themselves, but were handed over or sold by their Afghan or Pakistani allies –- was to instigate the grotesque system of punishments and rewards, partly chronicled in the leaked manual from March 2003, whereby, to put it bluntly, torture became a substitute for the skilled gathering of intelligence. A later component of the regime, as Lt. Col. Abraham has described in such shocking detail, was to rig the tribunals to make it appear that the “rather large number in the middle” –- many of whom were completely innocent, or had nothing useful to offer –- were a grave and continuing threat to US security. As many of the 310 detainees still in Guantánamo were effectively condemned by this corrupt process, I contend that Lt. Col. Abraham’s latest statement –- which was only previously reported on the Supreme Court’s SCOTUSblog –- is actually far more important than a leaked operating manual.

Note: Despite my reservations about the media frenzy surrounding the leaked manual, it is worth looking at, and Stephen Soldz, psychologist and anti-torture activist, wrote the most perceptive article about it here.

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. An edited version appeared on the Huffington Post.

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

James Yee, wrongly imprisoned Guantánamo chaplain, on UK tour

James Yee: For God And CountryUS Army Captain James Yee was the Muslim chaplain of the US prison at Guantánamo Bay from November 2002 until September 2003, and in that capacity advised the prison’s commanders about the detainees’ religious practices and objected to the cruel and degrading abuses to which they were subjected. Astonishingly, although he had been recognized twice as an outstanding officer, he was arrested while on leave, accused of spying, espionage, and aiding the alleged Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners, and held in solitary confinement for 76 days in a military brig –- where he was subjected to the same treatment as the Guantánamo detainees and the US “enemy combatants” Jose Padilla and Ali al-Marri –- before being cleared of all the charges against him.

As a result of this outrageous paranoia and persecution on the part of the US administration, James Yee resigned from the US Army and received an Honorable Discharge on January 7, 2005. Perhaps to atone for its mistakes –- or perhaps in an effort to keep him sweet –- the Army awarded him a second Army Commendation medal for “exceptionally meritorious service.” This did not, however, prevent him from writing a highly critical memoir of his time at Guantánamo, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, which was published, to great acclaim, in 2005.

In association with the British human rights group Cageprisoners, James Yee is undertaking a UK tour over the next few weeks, and several of the events also feature released Guantánamo detainee (and Cageprisoners spokesman) Moazzam Begg. Other dates have been arranged with FOSIS (The Federation of Islamic Student Societies), SACC (Scotland Against Criminalizing Communities), the Brighton-based Save Omar campaign, established to secure the release of British resident Omar Deghayes, and various other organizations. See below for details.

I’m pleased to report that, as well as copies of James Yee’s book For God and Country and Moazzam Begg’s book Enemy Combatant, copies of my newly released book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison will also be available at the Cageprisoners events.

James Yee Itinerary

Wednesday 21st November 2007
Garden Court Chambers, 57-60 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2, 6 pm
Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, legal meeting With Moazzam Begg, Tim Otty QC, plus William Kuebler and Rebecca Snyder, US military lawyers for Guantánamo detainee Omar Khadr
[Note added November 22: This was an excellent event, to a packed room of lawyers, with a thorough presentation by Bill Kuebler and a moving talk by Moazzam Begg, but I was incorrect in thinking that it was an event featuring James Yee. The listings below, are however, correct].

Wednesday 28th November
Lancaster University, Department of Politics and International Relations

Thursday 29th November
King’s College, London WC2, 5 pm

Friday 30th November
FOSIS, University of Sussex & University of Portsmouth

Saturday 1st December
FOSIS, University of Kent

Sunday 2nd December
FOSIS, University of Bristol & University of Exeter

Monday 3rd December
FOSIS, Midlands

Tuesday 4th December
FOSIS, Manchester Metropolitan University & University of Leeds/Bradford

Wednesday 5th December
Cageprisoners, Hidden Detainees and Q News, London Muslim Centre, Whitechapel, London E1, 6:30pm
With Moazzam Begg

Thursday 6th December
Cageprisoners and Birmingham Guantánamo Campaign, Birmingham, 7pm
With Moazzam Begg and the Tipton Three (released Guantánamo detainees Rhuhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul)

Friday 7th December
SACC, Masjid Al-Furqan, 19 Carrington Street, Glasgow. 7.30 pm.
With Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.

Saturday 8th December
FOSIS, Dundee University

Sunday 9th December
Cageprisoners, Dallow Community Centre, 234 Dallow Road, Luton, LU1 1TF, 5:30pm
With Moazzam Begg

Monday 10th December
Save Omar, Brighton

For further information: or 07973 264197

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

The trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier”

Omar KhadrOn July 27, 2002, so the story goes, a US Special Forces unit stationed in Khost, in south eastern Afghanistan, received a tip-off from an Afghan villager that a group of al-Qaeda terrorists was operating out of a compound near Ab Khail, a small town in the hills near the Pakistani border. Although they found nothing there, one member of the unit, Sgt. Layne Morris, decided to check another compound nearby. Taking five other soldiers with him, Morris spied, through a chink in the gate, five Arab men, all heavily armed. When they refused his call to surrender, he summoned reinforcements.

45 minutes later, when the reinforcements arrived and Pashtu translators began attempting to negotiate with the men, they responded by firing their guns and hurling grenades. Wounded in one eye, Morris was evacuated by helicopter, but the battle continued for four hours, and the five men refused to give up even as American planes bombed the compound relentlessly. When the shooting finally stopped, the remaining soldiers — Sgt. Christopher Speer and four others –- entered the shattered compound, intending to “collect arms and intelligence.” They were not expecting to find anyone alive, and were therefore caught off-guard when Omar Khadr, who was hidden between the remains of two buildings, apparently threw a grenade at them. Wounded in the head, Speer was also evacuated, but later died from his injuries at a military hospital in Germany.

“Within seconds,” said Capt. Mike Silver, who walked into the compound behind Sgt. Speer, “we had him [Omar] pinpointed and we opened fire.” Shot three times in the chest, Khadr dropped the pistol he was carrying, and when Capt. Silver approached him, called out, “Shoot me. Please, just shoot me.” Although a sergeant who was present noted later that “every US soldier who walked by Omar longed to put a bullet in his head,” the unit’s medic insisted on patching him up. It was an act of kindness that has rarely been repeated in the five years and four months since.

Transferred to a hospital at the US prison in Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, with chest wounds and shrapnel injuries to his head and one of his eyes, Khadr’s interrogation began as soon as he regained consciousness. According to his own account, reported by Amnesty International, he “asked for pain medication for his wounds but was refused,” said that “during interrogations a bag was placed over his head and US personnel brought military dogs into the room to frighten him,” and added that he was “not allowed to use the bathroom and was forced to urinate on himself.” Like many other prisoners, he was also hung from his wrists, and explained that “his hands were tied above a door frame and he was forced to stand in this position for hours.” An article in Rolling Stone, in August 2006, added further details, noting that he was “brought into interrogation rooms on stretchers, in great pain,” and was “ordered to clean floors on his hands and knees while his wounds were still wet.” The rationale, according to an unnamed official cited by Amnesty, was to secure intelligence at all costs. He claimed that captured prisoners were so scared of abuse by US soldiers that they would talk without prompting. The prisoners “sometimes think we are going to cut out their livers,” he said, citing Khadr as an example of a prisoner “singing like a bird.”

Ahmed KhadrIt is not known at which point the US authorities realized who Omar Khadr was –- the third of four sons of Ahmed Said Khadr, who had fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s, during the US-sponsored mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation. Based in Canada after emigrating from Egypt in 1977, Ahmed Khadr was reportedly a financier for al-Qaeda, and had taken his family to live in a compound with bin Laden’s family after the leader of al-Qaeda returned to Afghanistan in 1996. Once this information was registered, however, Omar’s fate –- as a significant “enemy combatant,” to be held beyond the reach of the law –- was sealed.

More crucially, it is not known at which point the US authorities realized that Omar, born on September 19, 1986, was only 15 years old when he was captured, although Rolling Stone reported that, when the Special Forces soldiers approached him after shooting him in Ab Khail, “they saw that he was just a boy. Fifteen years old and slightly built, he could have passed for thirteen.” For those prosecuting the “War on Terror,” however, Omar’s age was irrelevant. Dozens of children were held in Guantánamo, and, although few were treated as badly as Omar, only a handful –- three even younger Afghan children –- were ever segregated from the prison’s adult population (in a separate block, Camp Iguana), and treated with something close to appropriate care.

Amnesty International suggested that, “because the USA is one of only two states that have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes that children need special safeguards and care, it feels free to trample on the human rights of juveniles in its ‘war on terror,”’ and this was confirmed by pronouncements from within the administration. At a press conference in April 2003, after the “child prisoners” story first surfaced, Defense Secretary 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.”

As a result, Omar’s torture continued with impunity in Guantánamo. On his arrival, in October 2002, just a few weeks after his 16th birthday, he was immediately subjected to a regime of humiliation, isolation and abuse –- including extreme temperature manipulation, forced nudity and sexual humiliation –- which had just been introduced in an attempt to increase the meager flow of “actionable intelligence” from the prison. He told his lawyers that he was “short-shackled by his hands and feet to a bolt in the floor and left for five to six hours,” and that “occasionally a US officer would enter the room to laugh at him.” He also said that he was “kept in extremely cold rooms,” “lifted up by the neck while shackled, and then dropped to the floor,” and “beaten by guards.” In one particularly notorious incident, the guards left him short-shackled until he urinated on himself, and then “poured a pine-scented cleaning fluid over him and used him as a ‘human mop’ to clean up the mess.” As if further humiliation was required, he added that he was “not provided with clean clothes for several days after this degradation.”

Confirming its disregard for the rights of children, the administration proceeded, in November 2005, to designate Omar as one of ten Guantánamo detainees to be tried by Military Commission. Under this new process, dreamt up by Dick Cheney and his senior counsel David Addington in November 2001, the detainees could be tried –- and even sentenced to death –- using secret evidence that would never be revealed to either the detainees or their government-appointed defense lawyers.

Omar’s age did, however, make a difference to lawyers and human rights groups, who have maintained, ever since his case first came to light, that he should have been treated as a juvenile from the moment he was seized by US forces. They have also pointed out that the Military Commissions, which are grotesquely unjust when applied to adults, are doubly so when applied to juveniles, whether the children in question are “soldiers” or not. It would, indeed, be hard to imagine a situation that reflected more badly on the reputation of the United States as a nation established and administered under the rule of law than to prosecute a juvenile in a system that, rather than functioning as a beacon of justice, bore more than a passing resemblance to the show trials of Stalinist Russia.

Omar’s lawyers, Muneer Ahmad and Rick Wilson, who run the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University, first visited him in October 2004, following a crucial ruling in the Supreme Court in June 2004, when, in a landmark case, Rasul v. Bush, the Justices ruled by 6 to 3 that the detainees had the right to challenge the legal limbo in which they had been held for nearly two and half years, demolishing, along the way, the administration’s long-cherished belief that Guantánamo did not count as US territory.

Although the arrival at Guantánamo of Ahmad, Wilson, and dozens of other lawyers finally pierced the veil of total secrecy that had shrouded the prison since its inception, the administration’s other response to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the detainees’ habeas rights was shockingly underhand. Instead of opening up to the US court system, those in overall charge of Guantánamo instigated a tribunal system to confirm that the detainees were “enemy combatants,” and that they could therefore continue to hold them without charge or trial. To effect their aims, the tribunals –- the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) –- prevented detainees from being represented by lawyers, and, like the Commissions, relied on secret evidence obtained through torture, coercion or bribery.

Ahmad explained that he and Wilson took Omar’s case on legal principle but also “to remind the world that this kid is there, that he is alive, that his life has value and meaning and that he’s been thrown in a hole. It’s our collective responsibility to treat him with the dignity that he deserves.” He recalled that, when he finally met Omar, his first thought was, “He’s just a little kid.” As Rolling Stone described it, “Omar was gaunt and pale, in a state of everlasting exhaustion, his senses starved by solitude. He had large gunshot-wound scars on his back and chest, and smaller scars over most of his body, several parts of which still held shrapnel.” “You feel a general protectiveness toward these folks just because they’re kept without access to anyone,” Ahmad added. “And because of Omar’s age and lack of world experience, you feel that much more protective. You’re conscious of not infantilizing him, but when someone is that young, you would be wrong not to recognize this. Our contention is that children are deserving of special protection –- that’s been our legal approach, and it’s also been our ethos in our relationship with him.”

Securing Omar’s trust did not prove easy, primarily because suspicion and paranoia were built into the fabric of Guantánamo, and also because guards and interrogators did all they could to slander the lawyers –- as Arab-hating Jews or homosexuals, for instance –- or to suggest that cooperating with them would ensure that they remained in Guantánamo for life. Gradually, however, as Rolling Stone explained, “Omar revealed himself to be very shy and curious and, in most ways, still a child, with a child’s sweetness and credulous charm.” When the lawyers offered to get him something to read, “he asked for coloring books and car magazines and books with photographs of big animals,” and when, after a break during a meeting, they asked him what kind of juice he wanted them to bring back, he said, “Just something weird.”

More worrying, however, than these poignant demonstrations of the stunted growth of Omar’s adolescent mind, is the psychological impact of indefinite detention. A number of medical experts, who reviewed the results of mental status tests administered by his lawyers, stated that he had been severely traumatized by his experiences. Dr. Eric Trupin, who has conducted extensive research on the effects of incarceration on adolescents, explained, “The impact of these harsh interrogation techniques on an adolescent such as O.K. [Omar], who also has been isolated for almost three years, is potentially catastrophic to his future development. Long-term consequences of harsh interrogation techniques are both more pronounced for adolescents and more difficult to remediate or treat even after such interrogations are discontinued, particularly if the victim is uncertain as to whether they will resume. It is my opinion, to a reasonable scientific certainty, that O.K.’s continued subjection to the threat of physical and mental abuse places him at significant risk for future psychiatric deterioration, which may include irreversible psychiatric symptoms and disorders, such as a psychosis with treatment-resistant hallucinations, paranoid delusions and persistent self-harming attempts.”

In the three years since Ahmad and Wilson first met Omar, his isolation –- and the perils to his young mind –- have not diminished, and, although singled out for trial by Military Commission, he remains, like every other detainee, held in what appears to be an unending legal limbo, as the Commissions have stumbled from one legal setback to another. In April 2006, when he was briefly hauled up before his first trial, Omar read out a note that read, “Excuse me, Mr. Judge, I’m being punished for exercising my right and being co-operative in participating in this military commission. For that, I say with my respect to you and everybody else here, that I’m boycotting these procedures until I be treated humanely and fair.”

Omar did not have long to wait until his first trial collapsed. In June 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that the Commissions were illegal under US law and the Geneva Conventions, and highlighted the relevance of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which forbids “cruel treatment and torture” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” Justice Anthony Kennedy even went so far as to warn the administration that “violations of Common Article 3 are considered ‘war crimes,’ punishable as federal offences, when committed by or against United States nationals and military personnel.”

Scurrying back to its bunker, the administration seized on a comment made by one of the judges, Justice Stephen Breyer, who had said, “Nothing prevents the President from returning to Congress to seek the authority he believes necessary,” and responded by drafting the Military Commissions Act (MCA). Passed by a comatose Congress last fall, this despicable piece of legislation reintroduced the Commissions and, for good measure, removed the detainees’ habeas corpus rights that had been demanded by the Supreme Court in June 2004.

Duly revived in March this year, the Commissions skirted their first challenge, when the Australian detainee David Hicks accepted a plea bargain and dropped his well-documented allegations of torture at the hands of US forces in exchange for a nine-month sentence to be served in his homeland, but collapsed again in June, when Omar’s case, and that of Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who had worked as a driver for Osama bin Laden, were dismissed by the Commissions’ military judges. In separate decisions, both Army Colonel Peter Brownback (for Khadr) and Navy Captain Keith Allred (for Hamdan) pointed out that the MCA had mandated them to try “unlawful enemy combatants,” whereas the tribunals that had made them eligible for trial –- the Combatant Status Review Tribunals –- had only declared that they were “enemy combatants.”

Omar Khadr during his Military Commission in June 2007

Omar Khadr (far left) during his aborted Military Commission in June 2007 (©AFP/Getty Images).

After a petulant hiatus, in which the administration’s language-shredding officials declared that the distinction was merely one of semantics (which it was not), the government declared that it would appeal the decisions, and was once more ridiculed when it was revealed that the appeals court in question –- the Court of Military Commission Review, which was also mandated by the MCA –- had not yet been established. Convened in August, in what the New York Times described as “a borrowed courtroom half a block from the White House,” the appeals court duly decided that the Commissions’ judges had the right to sweep away these inconvenient distinctions, and Omar’s trial was rescheduled for November 8.

And so, last Thursday morning, as the sun rose over Guantánamo Bay, journalists, human rights activists, and, for the first time, a few hand-picked administration cheerleaders from organizations including the Heritage Foundation, crowded into a makeshift military courtroom to witness the government’s latest attempt to fulfil a six-year old dream: securing the successful conviction of a “war criminal” in a court designed primarily by Dick Cheney and David Addington, which bears no resemblance to any court recognized in domestic or international law.

The courthouse at Guantanamo

The courthouse at Guantánamo (©Greg Savoy, Reuters).

Omar’s third trial began with the kind of unpredictable challenges that observers of the ad-hoc legal system have come to recognize from previous attempts to rewrite the law. His tenacious military lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, who has traveled to Canada to publicize his client’s plight, and, in the last few months, has described the Commissions as rigged, ridiculous, unjust, farcical, and a sham, tore into the judge, challenging Col. Brownback’s independence, and arguing that he was too involved in the system to make impartial decisions. Referring to a comment that Brownback had made, in which he admitted taking “a lot of heat” over his decision in June, Kuebler forced the judge to fight back, admitting that he made the comments, but denying that anyone in authority had put pressure on him.

After a two hour hearing, the much-vaunted trial turned out to be nothing more than an arraignment. To the dismay of the prosecutors, who had hoped to show a video, retrieved from the Ab Khail compound, that purportedly showed Omar making and planting roadside explosives, Col. Brownback refused to allow the video to be shown, and postponed the trial to allow time for the defense to examine the new evidence.

The real reason that Col. Brownback postponed the trial –- without, in the end, ruling that Omar was indeed an “unlawful enemy combatant” –- was only revealed after the arraignment, when deputy chief defense counsel Mike Berrigan announced that, just 36 hours before the trial began, the lead prosecutor, Marine Corps Major Jeff Groharing, had informed Khadr’s defense team of the existence of “potentially exculpatory evidence” from a “US government employee,” who was an eye-witness to the gunfight in Afghanistan that led to Khadr’s capture. As Carol Williams described it more bluntly in the Los Angeles Times, “The eye-witness’ account contradicts the government version of events and could exonerate Khadr of the war crimes with which he is charged: murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, spying and material support for terrorism.”

“It’s an eye-witness the government has always known about,” Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler explained to the press, adding that the disclosure was symptomatic of the underlying problem with a system that was “designed to produce convictions.” He also asked, “How much other exculpatory evidence is out there behind the black curtain that we cannot see?” and Mike Berrigan added, “How we can be on the eve of a hearing to determine his status –- and how we can have newly discovered evidence –- is beyond me.”

Further criticism came from Jennifer Daskal, senior counter-terrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, who explained, “It is totally outrageous that the prosecution would try to push ahead with a hearing on whether or not Khadr was an unlawful enemy combatant, while all the time withholding from the defense potentially exculpatory information. Anyone who has ever gone to law school knows the fundamental legal and ethical rule –- the prosecution cannot withhold exculpatory information from the defense.”

Jennifer Daskal was correct to highlight the “fundamental legal and ethical rule” about exculpatory evidence, but its omission for five years in Omar’s case is typical of the rigged and unjust system that Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler and other principled military lawyers –- including Michael Mori, who defended David Hicks, and Charlie Swift, who lost his job for defending Salim Hamdan –- have spent so long railing against. It is, moreover, not a problem that applies exclusively to the Military Commissions.

Just five weeks ago, an Army Major, who served on 49 tribunals at Guantánamo, made a sworn statement –- included in an affidavit filed on behalf of another Guantánamo detainee, a Sudanese hospital administrator named Adel Hamad –- in which he criticized the absence of exculpatory evidence in the tribunals. Noting that any exculpatory evidence, which might have exonerated the detainees, was supposed to be presented separately, “as required in the CSRT rules,” he explained that no exculpatory evidence whatsoever was presented in any of his 49 tribunals, and added that the only time he ever encountered exculpatory evidence was “by accident,” when “some of the evidence presented by the recorder [whose role was “to generate the evidence“ to present to the tribunals] would contradict the allegations made against the detainee.”

In the legal netherworld of Guantánamo, beyond US criminal law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the failure to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence for five years is, of course, no surprise. The administration’s many shields –- designed to prevent all mention of torture and ill-treatment, while securing convictions at all costs –- rely, specifically, on the right to withhold classified evidence from the detainees and their lawyers, and, moreover, to impose protective orders shielding the identities of witnesses, interrogators and informants. Though little reported, the imposition of protective orders –- described as “draconian” by Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler –- has led to a situation whereby, as Carol Williams reported, “Affidavits sworn by bounty hunters in Pakistan who turned over more than 200 of Guantanamo’s detainees in exchange for sums upwards of $5,000 are among the classified documents that neither defendants nor trial observers are allowed to see.”

In such an environment, Omar is lucky that the exculpatory evidence was presented at all. As he returns to enforced solitary confinement once more, it’s hard not to wonder whether finally, after 64 months of hideous imprisonment, his long journey to some sort of justice is finally near. But then I recall some of the most chilling words ever uttered by the administration: that, even if detainees are eventually acquitted in their military trials, they might be held indefinitely in Guantánamo anyway.

Andy’s book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, was published last week, on the day of Omar’s arraignment. Parts of this article are drawn from passages in the book. The book 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.

As published on Nth Position and CounterPunch.

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 Mohamed Jawad (October 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).

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

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive. And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009).

Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo

Whether through a desire to impress the Supreme Court with its sense of justice prior to next month’s showdown over the detainees’ rights, or, as is more probable, through a placatory deal with the Saudi government following the death of a third Saudi detainee in Guantánamo in May this year, the US administration released another 14 Saudi detainees on Saturday. Whichever way you look at it, however, the administration loses. Of the 136 Saudi detainees originally held as the “worst of the worst,” 107 have now been released (45 in the last four months alone). Removing from these figures the three men who died, this means that just 26 Saudi detainees remain in Guantánamo.

The Guantanamo FilesDrawing on the research I conducted for my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison –- and additional information released by the Pentagon just two months ago –- I can reveal exclusively that the stories of these men do nothing to bolster the administration’s claims, first voiced nearly six years ago, that those detained in the “War on Terror” were so uniquely dangerous that it was worth breaking domestic and international law, shredding the Constitution, abandoning the Geneva Conventions and introducing torture as official US policy to hold them without charge or trial –- potentially forever –- in conditions that are worse than those endured by the most hardened convicted criminals on the US mainland.

The missionaries

Of the 14 men, seven –- five humanitarian aid workers and two missionaries –- had no connection whatsoever with any kind of militancy. I found the story of the first of the missionaries, 24-year old Khalid al-Bawardi, utterly convincing while conducting my research. After pompously lecturing his tribunal about the finer details of Sunni Islamic practice, he explained that he had traveled around Pakistan and Afghanistan hectoring his fellow Muslims for their failings –- mainly to do with raised graves and good luck charms –- and also providing food and clothing, and had been handed over to US forces by opportunistic border guards, after crossing into Pakistan after the US-led invasion began.

The second, 26-year old Sultan al-Uwaydah, did not take part in any of the tribunals or review boards in which, though deprived of legal representation and subject to secret evidence obtained through torture, coercion or bribery, the detainees were at least allowed to present their stories. Looking at the “evidence” presented by the administration, however, his explanation for being in Afghanistan –- that he traveled to “teach the Koran to poor and disadvantaged Muslims,” and that he duly taught the Koran to children in various locations, before hooking up with his uncle in Khost and escaping to Pakistan, where he was arrested –- was severely at odds with the authorities’ version.

This other scenario included an allegation that he was “arrested after crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan with 30 other persons suspected of being Osama bin Laden bodyguards,” and other allegations, from an unidentified “source,” from “an al-Qaeda operative,” and from “a senior al-Qaeda operative,” that purported to reinforce this notion that he was one of 30 bodyguards for bin Laden. One of these “sources,” for example, stated that “he knew the detainee and that he was probably an Osama bin Laden bodyguard because the detainee was always with Osama bin Laden.” Noticeably, however, it has been established that the bodyguard story was concocted by a fellow detainee, Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged “20th hijacker” on 9/11, during the four months that he was tortured in Guantánamo in late 2002, and it’s difficult, therefore, to lend much credence to all the other unsubstantiated allegations.

The humanitarian aid workers

Of the five humanitarian aid workers, the most complete story was told by 28-year old Mohammed al-Harbi, whose release was clearly long overdue. A successful grocer in Saudi Arabia, al-Harbi batted away an allegation that he was a mujahideen fighter in Kandahar, insisting that he had never been to Afghanistan, and explaining that he traveled to Pakistan in November 2001 to deliver nearly $12,000 to those in need of humanitarian aid. Adding that he was only planning to stay for a few weeks at most, because his wife was pregnant at the time, he proceeded to explain that “The Pakistani police sold me for money to the Americans,” even though “I had a return ticket home and it was clear I wasn’t planning to stay or ever cross into Afghanistan.” He added that, although the Saudi authorities intervened to help him while he was in custody in Pakistan, the ISI (the Pakistani intelligence services) deliberately hid his passport, presumably to protect the reward money they were receiving from the Americans, who were paying an average of $5,000 a head for al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.

The story of the second aid worker, 28-year old Sa’id al-Shihri, was unknown until the Pentagon released its new batch of documents in September. According to the government’s own “evidence,” al-Shihri decided to do charity work in Pakistan after hearing a speech by a sheikh in his local mosque. Twelve days after 9/11, he flew to Pakistan, and then “traveled with an Afghan driver, another Saudi man who worked with the Red Crescent, and a member from the Saudi embassy in Pakistan,” in a vehicle taking supplies to a refugee camp near the Afghan border between Spin Boldak and Quetta. Presumably wounded in a bombing raid (though this was not stated), he was taken to a Red Crescent hospital in Quetta, where he and four others stayed for a month and a half, “awaiting a plane to come and take them back to Saudi Arabia. However, when they were moved from the hospital they were put on a plane and taken to Kandahar,” to the US prison at the airport, where al-Shihri stayed for ten days before being flown to Guantánamo. To counter this detailed and non-military explanation for al-Shihri’s presence on the Afghan border, the authorities managed to come up with nothing more than a few wildly tangential allegations: that he “trained in urban warfare at the Libyan Camp north of Kabul,” and, even more improbably, that, according to “an individual,” he “instigated him and another person to assassinate a writer,” based on a fatwa issued by a radical sheikh.

Al-Wafa: terrorist entity or legitimate charity?

The other three aid workers were, to varying degrees, involved with the Saudi charity al-Wafa, whose headquarters were in Kabul. Blacklisted two weeks after 9/11 and regarded as a front for al-Qaeda, dozens of detainees were tarred as terrorists because of their association with the charity, even though humanitarian aid was clearly the main focus of the organization.

27-year old Zaid al-Husain al-Ghamdi, whose family did not even know he was in Guantánamo until earlier this year, because the US authorities had described him as a Jordanian, traveled to Afghanistan in July 2001, and was declared an “enemy combatant” after his tribunal in October 2004 on the basis of three particularly thin allegations: that he was a member of al-Wafa, that he “carried a weapon in Afghanistan,” and that he was “present and wounded during military operations at Khost” in December 2001. These allegations were augmented in the years that followed, but nothing about these additional claims suggests that they were reliable. The authorities alleged that he “was identified” as the “occasional leader” of a group of fighters in the northern city of Taloqan, but ignored another narrative that could be pieced together from other statements: that al-Ghamdi reported that he left home “to provide help for the refugees in Afghanistan,” that he worked for al-Wafa as a laborer in Kabul, and that he traveled to Taloqan because, after approaching Taliban representatives in Kabul to find out “places needing assistance with orphans,” he had been told that Taloqan was a suitable area. The additional information compiled by the authorities also provided an explanation of the circumstances of his capture, which contradicted the claim that he was “wounded during military operations.” After fleeing to Khost, al-Ghamdi said that he “stopped in the first Taliban center he came to,” which was subsequently bombed. Injured and “rendered unconscious,” he awoke in a hospital in Miram Shah, in Pakistan, where he was arrested and transferred to US custody.

Jabir al-QahtaniThe stories of the other two were unknown until this September, because they did not take part in any tribunals or review boards, and the Pentagon had not released any of the “evidence” against them. Al-Wafa litters the story of 23-year old Jabir al-Qahtani, but none of the allegations come close to any evidence of militant activity. By the time of his last administrative review, in April 2006, all the authorities had managed to come up with were allegations that he traveled to Lahore in March 2001, “with his travel partly financed by the head of al-Wafa,” that he worked in a warehouse in Lahore for six months, and that he then moved to a warehouse in Kabul. Captured by the Northern Alliance in November 2001, he was held for four months before being turned over to US forces. With only one dubious allegation of militancy –- that he “was identified as a fighter who preferred to spend most of his time lounging around [various] guest houses” –- the authorities resorted to alleging that he “depicts (sic) many counter-interrogation techniques attributed to al-Qaeda training and consistent with al-Qaeda members,” and that, in Guantánamo, he “was identified as the leader of a cell block, and has issued a fatwa on the United States.”

A more shocking set of allegations was leveled against 35-year old Abdullah al-Wafi al-Harbi. He told his interrogators that he traveled to Afghanistan via Iran, approximately three weeks after 9/11, and that, when he reached the border and told the guards that “he had come to Afghanistan to assist in humanitarian efforts,” they “informed him about a group called al-Wafa and advised him to join the group if he wished to help the poor.” After two weeks in Kabul –- in other words, when the US-led invasion of Afghanistan began –– he said that “he was told by the Afghanis that they had to leave because there was a problem with Arabs,” and explained that representatives of al-Wafa provided him “with directions on how to leave Afghanistan.” He then traveled by taxi, with three other men, to Khost, where they stayed for a month before crossing into Pakistan, where he was arrested.

Ranged against this account was a bewildering array of unsubstantiated allegations: that he “was identified as an experienced fighter who allegedly fought against the Russians in Afghanistan and Bosnia (sic),” and that a “source” –- or various sources –- claimed that he “was in Bosnia with a known al-Qaeda operative,” that he attended the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, that he was “well known by clerics and imams in Saudi Arabia as a recruiter and fundraiser for jihad,” and that he, along with others from Mecca, who were known as “the Mecca Group,” “ate with Osama bin Laden while at Tora Bora.” Another unidentified “individual” made the astonishing claim that al-Harbi told him that several of the 9/11 hijackers “stayed at his house during Haj, possibly in 1999.” It was also stated that a “source” said that al-Harbi “told him he had lied to interrogators” in Kandahar, claiming to work for al-Wafa “rather than admitting to fighting in the jihad,” even though this was directly contradicted by the next allegation from another “source,” who stated that he was “ranked high in al-Wafa.”

The Taliban foot soldiers

Turki al-AsiriOf the seven men who fought with the Taliban, three of the stories appear fairly straightforward, although two of the men –- 26-year old Turki al-Asiri (see photo) and 19-year old Nayif al-Nukhaylan –- did not take part in any tribunals or review boards. Al-Asiri was accused of answering a fatwa urging support for the Taliban, of training at al-Farouq (the main camp for Arabs, associated with Osama bin Laden), and of fleeing, via Tora Bora, from Jalalabad to Pakistan, where he was arrested. Al-Nukhaylan, who was also accused of attending al-Farouq, apparently received additional training at a Moroccan camp in Jalalabad, where he was wounded in a US air strike and spent some time in a coma in an Afghan hospital. The third man, 25-year old Fahd al-Sharif, who had been a policeman in Mecca, apparently remained seduced by the jihadist fantasies that had been used to recruit him. He told his review board that he traveled to Afghanistan in 2000 “for the purpose of jihad with the Taliban government” and that he hoped to become a martyr, but added that he went only to fight the Northern Alliance, “to help thousands of millions of Afghan Muslims to return their hopes, their countries and their lives.”

The stories of two other willing recruits are notable only because of the additional allegations that mounted up against them. 29-year old Hani al-Khalif, who had served as a soldier in the Saudi army during the Gulf War, explained that he “had been taught the doctrine of jihad in the mosque he attended,” and “specifically that it was a Muslim’s duty to wage jihad against anyone who killed Muslims.” He added that he wanted to fight in Chechnya, which was “a greater jihad,” because “the fight was not against other Muslims as in Afghanistan,” but was unable to arrange travel to Chechnya, and settled on Afghanistan instead, where he trained at al-Farouq, and then fought on the front lines against the Northern Alliance until he was ordered to surrender to General Dostum, one of the Alliance leaders. Despite the coherence of this narrative arc, however, it was also alleged that “a senior al-Qaeda operative” identified him as the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in Karachi, Pakistan.

The story of 29-year old Faha Sultan (described on his release as Fahd al-Osaimi al-Otaibi) was unknown until just two months ago. After responding to a fatwa, he traveled to Afghanistan in January 2001, and was identified by two detainees as having worked in a Taliban distribution center. Less reliable was an allegation that he was “identified as a friend of a senior al-Qaeda leader and had a good relationship with another individual who was a close associate of the senior al-Qaeda leader,” because, although the US authorities claimed that he had “acted as if in a catatonic state during interviews,” on one occasion being overheard “telling another detainee that he had fooled the interrogator into thinking that he was ‘messed up,’” it was also stated that, as long ago as July 2002, “a foreign delegation” –- presumably Saudi intelligence –- identified him as being “of low law enforcement and low intelligence value.”

Hunger strikes in Guantánamo

Yousef al-ShehriThe stories of the last two Taliban recruits are particularly depressing, not because of their military recruitment, which followed a well-established pattern, but because of what happened to them in Guantánamo. Yousef al-Shehri was just 16 years old when he was captured by Northern Alliance soldiers, in a group of around 120 fighters, after the surrender of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in November 2001. Although dozens of juveniles have been held at Guantánamo, the US administration (as one of only two nations that has refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) has, with only a few exceptions, pointedly refused to recognize that all juveniles –- even “child soldiers” –- should be treated differently from adults, and al-Shehri was not one of the exceptions. Held throughout his detention as an adult, and treated as a dangerous terrorist rather than a child, his suffering became particularly pronounced when he took part in a prison-wide hunger strike, which involved at least 200 detainees, in the summer of 2005. In July 2005, and again in January 2006, his weight, which had been 141 pounds when he arrived at Guantánamo in February 2002, dropped to just 97 pounds, and his lawyers, who visited him in October 2005, said that he was “emaciated and had lost a disturbing amount of weight,” adding that he was “visibly weak and frail” and “had difficulty speaking because of lesions in his throat that were a result of the involuntary force-feeding” to which he had been subjected.

Murtadha Makram, who was 25 years old when he was captured, was an even more committed long-term hunger striker. A Taliban recruit who spent 16 months in Afghanistan, “was identified as having fought at Tora Bora,” and was seized after crossing into Pakistan, Makram was force-fed at least once a week from October 2005 onwards, and daily from December 17, 2005 to January 27, 2006, when his weight, which had been 142 pounds when he arrived in Guantánamo, fell at one point to just 87 pounds. After resuming his hunger strike later in the year, he was then force-fed on a daily basis from November 16, 2006 until the records ended on December 10. In March 2007, when detailed notes about the ongoing hunger strikes –- compiled by the imprisoned al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj –- were declassified, al-Haj explained that Makram “has tried to kill himself many times. He last tried to do this on May 18, 2006. Now he is on a hunger strike to try to kill himself. He has been without food for three months and is being force-fed.” Though no one in the administration has admitted it, it’s plausible that Makram was released in this latest batch of detainees because of fears that his desire to kill himself was close to becoming another PR-damaging reality.

In conclusion, though many readers may have no sympathy for the suffering of Taliban recruits (whether on hunger strike or not), the unpalatable truth is that force-feeding competent prisoners against their will is widely considered illegal, and is only being undertaken because otherwise Guantánamo would be filled with emaciated corpses. The reason for these men’s despair –- which is such that many have sought to end their lives, even though Islam prohibits suicide –- is, quite simply, the intolerable burden of indefinite detention without charge or trial, which is unique to Guantánamo and the administration’s secret prisons.

In the cases of the innocent men described above, this is clearly a moral outrage and a colossal miscarriage of justice, but even in the cases of the Taliban foot soldiers, who, lest we forget, traveled to Afghanistan before 9/11 to take part in an inter-Muslim civil war, it has yet to be demonstrated that the administration’s flight from domestic and international law has been justified. After depriving these men of the protections of the Geneva Conventions, refusing to allow them to challenge the basis of their detention and interrogating them for nearly six years, the administration’s decision to release them, though clearly affected by diplomacy, also suggests that, in the end, they had no inside knowledge of al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks.

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 and CounterPunch. A slightly edited version appeared on the Huffington Post.


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

ISN 68: Khalid al-Bawardi
ISN 59: Sultan al-Uwaydah
ISN 333: Mohammed al-Harbi
ISN 372: Sa’id al-Shihri
ISN 50: Zaid al-Husain al-Ghamdi
ISN 650: Jabir al-Qahtani
ISN 262: Abdullah al-Wafi al-Harbi (Abdullah Abd al-Mu’in al-Wafti)
ISN 185: Turki al-Asiri (al-Jabali Asseri)
ISN 258: Nayif al-Nukhaylan (Nayif Ibrahim)
ISN 215: Fahd al-Sharif
ISN 438: Hani al-Khalif
ISN 130: Faha Sultan (Fahd al-Osaimi al-Otaibi)
ISN 114: Yousef al-Shehri (Yussef al-Shihri)
ISN 187: Murtadha Makram (Murtada Maqram)

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

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), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth? (October 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 Guantánamo Files: Additional Chapters Online – The Qala-i-Janghi Massacre

The Guantanamo FilesTo celebrate the official UK publication (today) of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press), I’ve just posted the first of 12 additional chapters featuring stories that I could not include in the book, either for reasons of space –- to keep a tight narrative in the book itself –- or, in some cases, because the information was not available at the time of writing.

Those of you who visited this site in the first few months after I started writing articles about Guantánamo and related issues –- on May 31 this year, after the death of a fourth detainee in Guantánamo, a Saudi named Abdul Rahman al-Rami (posts here and here) –- may recall that, in the introduction to my website at the time, I promised not only that I would be posting articles on a regular basis (and I have now produced 100 full-length articles, opinion pieces and news reports in just over five months), but also that I would provide these additional chapters to coincide with the book’s publication, and I’m pleased to be able to honour my promise. The other chapters will follow, hopefully at regular intervals, over the next few months.

This first additional chapter complements Chapter 2 of The Guantánamo Files, looking at the stories of the detainees not mentioned in the book, who, after surrendering to the Northern Alliance in November 2001, during the fall of Kunduz, the last Taliban-held city in northern Afghanistan, survived a massacre at the Qala-i-Janghi fort in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

To mark these two occasions (the book publication, and my 100th post), I’d also like to thank the websites –- in particular, CounterPunch, the Huffington Post, and –- who have been publishing my articles over the last five months and helping to bring some of my particular concerns to a wider public. These include the rampant injustice of the Bush administration, the corrosive influence of Dick Cheney and David Addington, the ongoing saga of the Guantánamo whistleblowers, the significance of the illegal detention of the US “enemy combatants” Jose Padilla and Ali al-Marri, the stumbling progress of the Stalinesque show trials known as Military Commissions, the stories of the 64 detainees released since June 2007, and attempts by the US and UK administrations to return prisoners to countries where they face the risk of torture.

I’d also like to thanks others who have been extremely supportive, especially Cageprisoners, who have publicized almost my entire output, Mike Otterman, who invited me to post articles on American Torture, and Index on Censorship, who published an article and excerpts from the book in their latest issue. I’m also grateful to Indymedia, whose open publishing policy has provided an additional forum. Others who have shown more than a passing interest include The Talking Dog, Candace Gorman’s Guantánamo Blog, Nth Position, and Dhafir Trial (highlighting the plight of the wrongly imprisoned US charity fundraiser, Dr. Rafil Dhafir). Thanks are also due to Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, and a host of lawyers, activists and journalists whose support and advice has been invaluable. You know who you are.

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

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Andy Worthington

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