Archive for December, 2007

Audio: Moazzam Begg and Andy Worthington talk about Guantánamo

Thanks to Chris at Sheffield Indymedia, the talks at the Stop Islamophobia Society’s meeting at Sheffield University last night, by released Guantánamo detainee Moazzam Begg, and by Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, are available as MP3s on the Indymedia website.

The meeting, to mark International Human Rights Day, was entitled, “Human Rights in the War on Terror,” and was also supported by the Sheffield Guantánamo Campaign and Cageprisoners. Talks by Shazia Rashid, one of the organizers of the well-attended event, and by a speaker from the students’ Amnesty International group, are also available, as is the Question and Answer session, which I missed, unfortunately, as I had to catch a train back to London.

Moazzam Begg

Moazzam Begg.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington.

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.

Guantánamo Britons To Be Released: A Mixed Result

Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, explains why news that four British residents are to be released from Guantánamo provides grounds for cautious celebration, but also points out that two British residents will not be coming home.

I was at a mosque in Glasgow on Friday evening, talking about Guantánamo to a large, engaged crowd in the company of James Yee, the former Muslim Chaplain at the prison, who was wrongly imprisoned as a spy in 2003. In an attempt to demonstrate that Guantánamo was not an issue related solely to American foreign policy, I briefly outlined the stories of the six British residents still held in Guantánamo. What I said was along the following lines:

Shaker Aamer

Saudi-born Shaker Aamer, 38, who has been a British resident since 1996, is married with five children, the youngest of whom was born after his capture. In 2001, he travelled with his family from his home in south London to Afghanistan, where he shared a house in Kabul with released British national Moazzam Begg and his family, and worked to establish a girls’ school. After 9/11 and the US-led invasion, he arranged for his family to flee Afghanistan, but was captured in Jalalabad and sold to the Northern Alliance, who in turn sold him to the Americans.

In Guantánamo, his charisma, his mastery of English and his relentless campaigning on behalf of his fellow detainees led the US authorities to conclude, erroneously, that he was “The Professor,” a major player in al-Qaeda. Since leading a short-lived “Prisoners’ Council” in August 2005, which was encouraged and then suppressed by the authorities, he has been held in solitary confinement, and has been on a hunger strike for the last year, a desperate course of action, which has provoked a savage response from the prison’s commanders.

Like all the long-term hunger strikers (of whom there are several dozen), twice a day Shaker is strapped into a restraint chair –- a process that involves 18 separate straps –- and force-fed liquid food through a thick tube inserted into his stomach through his nose. This is an agonizing process, made worse by the authorities’ insistence –- as an attempt to “break” the strikers –- that the tube is removed after each feeding, and not kept in place as it was in the early days of the hunger strikes.

Omar Deghayes

Omar Deghayes, 37, was born in Libya, and arrived in the UK with his family as a teenager in 1986, after his father, a prominent lawyer and trade union activist, had been tortured and murdered by Colonel Gaddafi’s secret police. A law student at Wolverhampton University, he took a break from his studies in 2000 to travel to Afghanistan, where he married an Afghan woman and had a child, but was captured after crossing into Pakistan after the US-led invasion began.

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

Jamil El-Banna

Jamil El-Banna, 45, who was born in Jordan, arrived in the UK in 1994, and was granted asylum in 2000. Like Shaker Aamer, he is married with five children, and his youngest child was born after his capture. With Bisher al-Rawi, a British resident from Iraq, El-Banna was seized in November 2002 by US agents in the Gambia, where the two men had travelled to establish a mobile peanut-processing plant with al-Rawi’s brother Wahab.

Shockingly, they were captured after the British intelligence services provided false information to their American counterparts, claiming that both men were involved in terrorism (which they were not), neglecting to mention that al-Rawi had been working for MI5 as an informer, keeping tabs on the radical cleric Abu Qatada, and ignoring the fact that both men had been informed, before their departure, that they were not under suspicion.

“Rendered” to Afghanistan, El-Banna and al-Rawi were first held in the “Dark Prison,” a secret, CIA-run prison near Kabul, whose medieval savagery was supplemented by the addition of non-stop amplified music and noise, and were transferred to Guantánamo in March 2003.

Under pressure from the men’s lawyers, who discovered the part played by the British intelligence services in their kidnapping and “extraordinary rendition,” the government broke with its long-standing declaration that it would not act on behalf of the British residents in Guantánamo, and accepted the return of Bisher al-Rawi in March 2007, although it refused, initially, to press for the return of El-Banna, even though a military review board had cleared him for release.

Despite the fact that El-Banna has a British wife and five British children, and that the intelligence services were complicit in his capture, the government initially hoped to test its newly unveiled attempts to shred international treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture by returning El-Banna to Jordan (which he had fled because of religious persecution), on the basis of a “memorandum of understanding” –- allegedly guaranteeing that any returned nationals would be treated humanely –- which lawyers and human rights activists have condemned as worthless.

Binyam Mohamed

Binyam Mohamed (known to the Pentagon as Binyam Mohammed al-Habashi), 29, a refugee from Ethiopia who arrived in the UK with his father in 1995, was a janitor at a mosque in west London. Captured in Pakistan in April 2002, he was then handed over to the US authorities, who, in what appears to be one of the most devastatingly inept failures of intelligence in the whole of the “War on Terror,” decided –- apparently based on a “confession” extracted under torture by Abu Zubaydah, a “high-value” al-Qaeda suspect, who had recently been captured –- that he was a major al-Qaeda terrorist, who was planning to explode a radioactive “dirty bomb” in a US city.

In a successful attempt to force a confession out of him, Mohamed was “rendered” to Morocco, whose notoriously brutal interrogators, working on behalf of the Americans, tortured him for 18 months, repeatedly cutting his penis with razor blades, and he was then transferred to the “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan. Scheduled to face a Military Commission (a show trial in which secret evidence is withheld from the accused), his case was dropped in June 2006 after the Supreme Court ruled that the Commissions were illegal, and has not been reinstated.

Abdulnour Sameur

Abdulnour Sameur, 34, an Algerian refugee, was granted asylum in the UK in April 2000, after deserting from the Algerian army, because, he said, he was “made to go in the streets and shoot innocent people.” He had been living in the London suburb of South Harrow, but travelled to Afghanistan after a crisis of faith, when someone he met at a mosque suggested that he would find a purer life in Afghanistan, and that, if he liked it, “he would help me figure out how to build a house there.”

Accused of having advance knowledge of 9/11, he explained in Guantánamo that he made this up in the US prison in Kandahar airbase, when the interrogators threatened to withhold medical treatment. “I told them this in Kandahar during the interrogations because the interrogators were dogs,” he said. “I had an injury in my leg. I had metal sticking out of my leg and they would not clean the wound; they would not give me treatment … I just told them anything, whatever they wanted to hear because I wanted them to treat my leg. I saw other people whose legs had to be cut off. I did not want my leg to be cut off … If you were in my place, if you were in Kandahar you would have done the same thing. Just like a small child.”

Ahmed Belbacha

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

In autumn 2001, Belbacha took a month’s vacation to visit Pakistan and an Afghan refugee camp, but was captured near Peshawar, after crossing back into Pakistan, by villagers who sold him to the Pakistani authorities. Once he was in American custody, he was transported to the prison in Kandahar airbase, where he was “repeatedly beaten,” and was then taken to Guantánamo, where he was falsely accused of attending a training camp in Jalalabad and meeting Osama bin Laden on two occasions, even though, at the time of his vacation, he was waiting to hear from the British government if his application for asylum had been successful. With a grim irony, his application was turned down, but he was granted exceptional leave to remain in the UK in June 2003, when he had already been in Guantánamo for over a year.

What I didn’t realize, while I was explaining these men’s stories and encouraging the audience to take action on their behalf, was that the BBC was about to break the news that four of these men were soon to be released. As the BBC described it, Jamil El-Banna, Omar Deghayes and Abdulnour Samuer were to return to the UK, while Shaker Aamer would return to his native Saudi Arabia.

While this seems to be extraordinarily good news for those who have campaigned for the men’s release for nearly six years – and also for Gordon Brown’s government, which broke with its predecessor’s refusal to act on behalf of the residents by formally requesting the return of five of the men in August –- it’s also apparent that an announcement is not the same as the realization of these men’s freedom. While various news sources began speculating immediately on the date of their return (they “could be back by Christmas,” chirped the Daily Mirror), the BBC scrupulously maintained that the British government had “not confirmed” the move and that a release date was “unknown.”

This was indeed the case. When the Foreign Office finally issued a statement, a spokesman cautiously declared, “We have held detailed discussions with the Americans. We considered the circumstances of each case with the US and we are in contact with the families and the legal representatives of the five. While the discussions are ongoing we are not going to make further comment.” Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve, the legal charity that represents dozens of Guantánamo detainees, including the British residents, explicitly told the BBC, “There’s no doubt that the agreement has been struck, that they will return home. The question is, when? There’s no reason why they couldn’t come home tomorrow, but the US are insisting on a lot of red tape.”

Even if the men are home by Christmas, however, Shaker Aamer’s repatriation to Saudi Arabia remains troubling. A source close to his family explained to me that Shaker has “expressed for some time that he would like to be returned to Saudi Arabia,” pointing out that, if he were to return to the UK, it is feared that he “would face a travel ban, if not some form of control order, which would prevent him from being reunited with the rest of his family in Saudi Arabia, or moving back at some point in future should he wish to do so.” Given that the Saudi government has shown a commitment to helping former detainees to reintegrate into Saudi society after a period of “reeducation,” even going so far as to provide financial assistance as the men begin to rebuild their lives, it’s understandable that Mr. Aamer has chosen this option, although, as my source also explained, it remains unclear “how easy it would be for his wife and children to settle there or visit him in this period” –- a potentially appalling trade-off for someone who, as Moazzam Begg has pointed out, was absolutely devoted to his family.

More troubling still, of course, is the ongoing detention of the two residents who are not scheduled to be released: Binyam Mohamed, the only one of the five whose return was requested in August, and Ahmed Belbacha, whose return was not requested at all.

As the Independent explained, “the reasons for Mr. al-Habashi’s continued detention remain unclear,” but “the US is believed to be determined that he should face one of Guantánamo’s military commissions … which could jail him for life.” Describing his predicament, Clive Stafford Smith reiterated that there was “no evidence” against his client. “He was taken to Morocco and had a razorblade taken to his penis,” he explained. “Naturally, as any human being would do, he made statements saying whatever they wanted to hear. They [the US authorities] believed that stuff.” He added, “I’ve seen no evidence in Binyam’s case that isn’t evidence that was tortured out of him. The bottom line is that we’re happy for him to face a fair trial, if that’s what everyone wants to do. But the problem we do have is that trying him using torture evidence, using secret evidence, is giving him an unfair trial. The British Government has made it perfectly clear, the military commissions are unfair.”

In the case of Ahmed Belbacha, who, like Jamil El-Banna, has officially been cleared for release from Guantánamo, the British government has refused to act on his behalf, because, technically, he was not actually a British resident at the time of his capture. In August, I wrote to the Foreign Office to complain, explaining that “the refusal to act on Mr. Belbacha’s behalf would, I believe, portray the new administration, of which you are a key part, in a very unfavourable light, and would suggest that the government is only prepared to act –- as in Mr. al-Rawi’s case –- when faced with the possibility of being shamed by revelations that the detainee in question was actually working for the British intelligence services.”

In September, I received a reply from Nicolas Jankowski, of the Counter Terrorism Policy Department, who explained that the decision to request the return of the British residents was “limited to those who were lawfully resident in the UK prior to their detention. We believe we have identified all of those to whom this relates who are currently detained at Guantánamo Bay. Mr Ahmed Belbacha does not fall into this category.”

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

My opinion has not changed. While I await the release of four of the residents, and urge anyone concerned with the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo not to forget that Binyam Mohamed remains mired in a dark and disturbing netherworld of spectral allegations obtained through torture, in which the British intelligence services were at least partly complicit, I also maintain that the government’s intransigence in Mr. Belbacha’s case shows, only too clearly, the hard, unyielding edge of the government’s policy towards refugees. It’s a situation faced every day by families and individuals in the UK, who are threatened with being returned to countries where they face the risk of torture or worse, and is highlighted in Mr. Belbacha’s case by the fact that he would rather remain in Guantánamo –- in one of the most lawlessly isolated prison environments in the western world –- than return to the country of his birth.


Readers who are concerned about Binyam Mohamed’s continued imprisonment, and the refusal of the British government to act on behalf of Ahmed Belbacha, are encouraged to make their feelings clear by writing to the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who can be reached at:

A template for a letter about Mr. Belbacha can be found on the website of the National Guantánamo Coalition.

The profiles in this article are drawn partly from an article I wrote when the British government first requested the return of the residents in August, which includes additional information about the government’s attempts to return foreign nationals –- held without charge or trial in the UK –- to countries where they face the risk of torture. This article, plus others relating to Ahmed Belbacha and Omar Deghayes can be found here, and another article looking in depth at the story of Jose Padilla, Binyam Mohamed’s alleged co-conspirator in the “dirty bomb” plot, can be found here.

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

As published on Indymedia and CounterPunch.

Another book review: The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison

This review, by Henry Blaxland, appears in the December 2007 issue of Socialist Review.

The Guantanamo FilesIn his state of the union address of 29 January 2002 George Bush had this to say of his country’s international obligations: “America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state.” As Andy Worthington demonstrates in his powerful and chilling book, subtitled “The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison”, the President’s claim was not just a little disingenuous; it was a downright lie.

Two months previously, in his capacity as commander in chief, he had issued a military order declaring that he could designate any non-US citizen as an international terrorist, detain them at will and subject them to military commissions beyond the jurisdiction of the US courts. On 20 January 2002 the first 20 prisoners arrived at Guantánamo.

This book makes a major contribution to the burgeoning literature on Operation Enduring Freedom, the US invasion of Afghanistan in retaliation for 9/11.

Worthington has put together a comprehensive and detailed account of the capture and ill treatment of those swept up in the “war on terror”. What emerges is a picture of random detention of those in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many were rounded up by the modern equivalent of bounty hunters or, particularly in the case of Pakistan, as part of a political deal with the US. Very few were of any intelligence value, but the conditions of interrogation and detention were so brutal that they inevitably led to false confessions and false allegations against others, which in turn led to more of the wrong people being detained.

The book describes the horrors of the prisons of Afghanistan –- Bagram, Kandahar, “The Dark Prison”, “The Salt Pit”. It describes the use of extraordinary rendition as well as the shocking brutality in Guantánamo itself. The often harrowing individual stories are woven into a chronological account of the process of detention.

Those rounded up include charity workers, Chinese Muslims escaping persecution in their own country, poor farmers, those answering the call to join the Taliban’s battle against the Northern Alliance, a Sudanese cameraman for Al-Jazeera and an ex-colonel in the Yemeni intelligence.

The overriding impression created is that for the Bush regime itself the whole process has been totally counterproductive for two main reasons. Firstly the intelligence gleaned under torture or through inducement has been either of negligible value or positively misleading.

Secondly, as the stories of the detainees have gained increasing publicity, the current US regime has been discredited in the eyes of millions across the world. Not only has it fuelled the determination of radical Islamists; it has outraged liberal opinion and exposed the reality of US power.

It comes to something when one of the military lawyers assigned to represent the prisoners feels compelled to state: “The whole purpose of setting up Guantánamo Bay is for torture. Why do this? Because you want to escape the rule of law.”

For how much longer Guantánamo will continue is difficult to tell. The US government has professed an interest in returning the remaining prisoners to their countries of origin, which, ironically, is proving easier said than done because of the human rights records of those countries.

It has also become increasingly clear that hundreds of prisoners are being held in unidentified locations and that rendition is now the preferred method. As Guantánamo starts to fade from the public eye this book provides an invaluable demonstration of the myth of the “rule of law” in capitalist democracy.

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.

Book review: The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison

This review, entitled “Show trials and errors,” was written by Stephen Grey, and appears in this week’s New Statesman.

A detainee at GuantanamoIn The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminded us that, for the KGB, modern psychology made the infliction of medieval-style physical torture redundant. Psychological tortures, devised by doctors, were just as painful and effective. As Bisher al-Rawi, just released back to Britain after four years in Cuba, told me recently: “I think the psychological effect of this experience, in my opinion, far outweighs the physical. I think physical [effects] you can just overcome. Psychological [effects] you live with, all your life.”

Torture, Solzhenitsyn made clear, was highly effective. Not for obtaining the truth, of course, but for terrorising a population and for obtaining the all-important confessions –- confessions that legitimised an entire system of repression. In their efforts to harvest the maximum intelligence from the 800 or so prisoners of the camp, many endured both physical and psychological torments. The physical ranged from beatings to being strapped in stress positions and force-fed and the attentions of the ERF (emergency response force). The psychological stress came from solitary confinements, bombardment with strange music, cruel taunts, mortal threats and, above all, the uncertainty for many about where and why they were being held or what future they faced.

In Andy Worthington’s The Guantánamo Files, the whole story of the Cuban camp emerges as a ghastly experiment in which the terrorist suspects became guinea pigs in a vast experiment of methods to crack the human soul. Until the 11 September 2001 attacks, few of these techniques had been refined; few among the US military had been trained in their use. What intelligence emerged from this programme? Did it actually succeed in helping combat the menace of al-Qaeda? The short answer is: we still do not know. Most confessions extracted from US prisoners remain classified documents.

The Guantánamo Files is a powerful, essential and long-overdue piece of research, providing the first real Who’s Who of those held at the Cuban base. Though his heart sides with the prisoners, Worthington tries hard to be objective. Yet, as he admits, there is so much of his account that is based on one-sided claims, whether of the US authorities or of prisoners in the camp.

Looking for the truth of Guantánamo is certainly hard where information is so polluted by propaganda, abusive techniques and the sheer ignorance of many involved, as well as restrictions on what those involved can safely say in public. Much of what we hear comes either in the form of allegations based on US intelligence we cannot see or from prisoners’ lawyers who, while courageous in their pro bono work, have a professional obligation not to reveal harmful information about their clients.

The Guantánamo Files provides a refreshing examination of the accounts of prisoners themselves, culled mainly from transcripts of their Combatant Status Review Tribunals held at the base and released after a Freedom of Information request.

The dice are loaded against prisoners. With even the slightest connection with the Taliban or Islamic militancy judged as proof of enemy status, it is hard for prisoners to tell the honest truth. That is why many prisoners’ stories are far from convincing: one after another says he was in Afghanistan for charity work, to look for a wife, out of pure curiosity, or even, incredibly, for the fishing. A prisoner might confirm he was in the Tora Bora mountains with Osama Bin Laden –- but only because he stumbled into bad company as he tried to flee for Pakistan.

But, while the book races from one account to the next, it is most powerful when it examines the accounts in detail and compares one with another. Only then does it become clear that, though many prisoners are obviously lying, a great many others are being honest. Of the hundreds swept to Guantánamo, described by the Pentagon as the “worst of the worst,” few emerge as any kind of “big fish” in al-Qaeda.

Instead, we see clear evidence of a post-9/11 sweep where the US military were in effect duped into rounding up the small guys –- both by warlords in Afghanistan, who pocketed large rewards for their co-operation, but also by intelligence officers in Pakistan, who picked up equally large suitcases of cash.

Rushing into battle with little preparation, US soldiers not only swept up Islamist militants, but also picked up proven members of missionary groups such as al-Tablighi (a group devoted to a strictly non-violent version of jihad) as well as junior workers for Muslim charities with a proven record of humanitarian work.

Adel Hamed, a Sudanese worker in Pakistan for a Saudi charity, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, was condemned at a tribunal because the charity “supports terrorist ideals and causes.” A dissenting US military officer pointed out that such NGOs also had “numerous employees and volunteer workers working in legitimate humanitarian roles.” And yet the chairman of the tribunal tellingly ruled that, nevertheless, the case passed the “low evidentiary hurdle” of such hearings.

Time and again, detainees face allegations from accusers whose identities are kept secret. When their identities are revealed, the intelligence and accusation frequently can be proven as falsehoods. Faced with one such wild anonymous allegation (that he ran a “network of madrasas” able to field 5,000 soldiers for al-Qaeda), Abdul Salim Siddiqui, a Pakistani shopkeeper, told his tribunal: “The person who made these allegations was either drunk or didn’t have a brain.” After three years of Siddiqui trying to prove his innocence, a board member finally told him: “I believe you,” and he was released.

Such examples as these provide evidence not only as to why those at Guantánamo deserve fair trials, but also to why so much secret intelligence cannot be judged reliable until fully tested by public scrutiny.

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.

Book review: Torture Taxi: On The Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights

Torture TaxiWhen Torture Taxi, by Trevor Paglen, “an expert on clandestine military installations,” and crime journalist A.C. Thompson was published in the United States in September 2006, it was the first book to focus on the CIA’s programme of “extraordinary rendition,” in which, as the authors describe it, terror suspects “were taken to countries where they would be tortured or brought to a secret network of CIA-run prisons around the world, where the CIA itself practiced torture.”

Torture Taxi was swiftly followed –- and superceded, in depth and detail –- by Stephen Grey’s authoritative Ghost Plane: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Rendition Programme, but its first UK printing provides a reminder of its initial power –- as a well-told political detective story, whose topic was, and still is of enormous importance. It remains a good primer on the horrors of “extraordinary rendition,” unveiling, in particular, the ways in which, because the CIA is a civilian organization and not a part of the US military, its rendition hardware –- the jets used to transport prisoners around the world –- cannot officially be kept secret.

Registered with front companies, these planes, unlike the military’s, leave a paper trail in the records of various aviation bodies, which became the basis for much of the subsequent research into the planes’ itineraries, but only, ironically, after the planes themselves had first been monitored by plane-spotters and military secrecy geeks. The irony, of course, is that in the beginning the plane-spotters had no idea what they were tapping into, and even when they did –- becoming what the Guardian described as the “scourge” of the CIA –- they still cared more about their hobby than about clandestine operations run by the CIA.

It’s the exposition of this part of the story that provides the thrills and spills in Paglen and Thompson’s account, starting with the “air traffic controller with a particular interest in ‘black’ military projects,” who first noted unusual aircraft activity at an airstrip in Nevada in December 2002, and who then emailed other enthusiasts the tail numbers of four suspicious planes. Traced to companies that apparently had connections with the CIA, and involving aircraft that had already been noticed visiting “lots of interesting places,” the plane-spotters had unwittingly stumbled upon the most closely guarded secret in the “War on Terror.”

In tracing the story, Paglen and Thompson effectively sketch the contours of the rendition programme’s evolution from a top secret “finding” statement signed by President Bush on September 17, 2001, authorizing “the creation of a network of secret prisons –- ‘black sites’ –- around the globe,” and empowering the CIA “to kidnap anyone it suspected of having terrorist affiliations,” and also tell a number of individual rendition stories; in particular, those of the British resident Binyam Mohamed, and Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen. Mohamed was rendered to Morocco, where he was tortured for 18 months, and also spent time in the “Dark Prison,” a secret CIA-run prison near Kabul, and El-Masri, who was seized because he had the same name as a man suspected of aiding the 9/11 hijackers, was kidnapped in Macedonia, where he had gone for a holiday, and rendered to the Salt Pit, another secret CIA-run prison near Kabul, where he was held for four months until the CIA realized it had made a mistake, and he was dropped off in Albania and told to make his own way home.

In between these accounts, Paglen and Thompson make a number of visits to places connected with “extraordinary rendition,” which, although generally fruitless, convey menacing glimpses of the dark machinations that underpin the programme. In a small town in Massachusetts, Paglen hits a dead end at the offices of one of the CIA’s front companies, but the chapter provides chilling confirmation of the “ghost” individuals assigned to the boards of the various companies involved, people like Colleen A. Bornt and Bryan P. Dyess, who don’t really exist and whose signatures vary wildly from document to document.

In Afghanistan, where Paglen and Thompson travel in search of the CIA’s prisons, their mission is also largely inconclusive, although they find and photograph the Salt Pit, which Afghan soldiers describe to them as “an Afghan military facility,” while conceding that “lots of Americans” are also present. After a tip-off from Afghan journalists, they also find and photograph the gates of an undisclosed secret prison in Kabul itself, which appears to be manned by Special Forces and Gurkhas.

Scratching away at the visible –- and not so visible –- reference points of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme, Torture Taxi will not satisfy those who want exhaustive details of the many hundreds of people who have been rendered since 2001 –- including many other innocent men, who are not mentioned –- but is perfect for those who want a brisk introduction to the front line in America’s disturbing and unprecedented retreat from domestic and international law.

Torture Taxi: On The Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights by Trevor Paglen & A.C. Thompson is published by Icon Books. For more on “extraordinary rendition,” see my newly published book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on Nth Position.

Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: who are Fawzi al-Odah and Lakhdar Boumediene?

This article, following on from yesterday’s article Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history, which analyzed the legal history of the detainees’ demands for habeas corpus rights, looks at the stories of the lead Petitioners in the cases that will be considered by the Supreme Court today. It’s a version of an article that I wrote for the BBC, which was published on the BBC News website.

Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, unearths details about the two men challenging the US’s right to detain them, in a case at the Supreme Court.

The cases were filed by US lawyers on behalf of Kuwaiti Fawzi al-Odah and 11 other Kuwaiti detainees, and Algerian-born Bosnian Lakhdar Boumediene and five other Bosnian detainees. At issue is the 2006 Military Commissions Act, passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush. It stripped the Guantánamo detainees of the right to challenge in federal courts the basis of their indefinite detention as “enemy combatants,” stating that heir cases could only be heard in military commissions, not civilian courts. Lawyers for the detainees say this violates their constitutional right to habeas corpus –- the 800-year old “Great Writ,” which guarantees prisoners the right to challenge the basis of their detention in court. The administration disagrees, arguing that habeas corpus does not apply to non-US sovereign territory, even though the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that this was a lawless argument, and that the men were “imprisoned in territory over which the United States exercises exclusive jurisdiction and control.”

Fawzi al-Odah

Fawzi al-Odah30-year old Fawzi al-Odah, the lead Petitioner in Al Odah v. United States, is a Kuwaiti primary school teacher whose father, a retired air force pilot, fought with US forces during the Gulf War in 1991. According to his own account, which he gave to a military tribunal at Guantánamo, he took a short holiday from work and travelled to Afghanistan in August 2001 to teach the Koran and provide humanitarian aid. This was something he had done before, in other countries, and his family had a history of providing humanitarian aid, establishing libraries and wells in various countries in Africa.

After establishing contact with the Taliban, which he said “was necessary because that was the government in Afghanistan at that time,” al-Odah said that he had been “touring the schools and visiting families,” teaching the Koran and handing out money, until his activities were curtailed following 9/11.

He said that in Kandahar the Taliban representative “told me that was a dangerous place because it was the capital for the Taliban,” and advised him to go to Logar, in the east of the country, where he stayed with a family for a month, and left his passport and belongings for safekeeping. He explained that, “If the Afghans saw I had a passport indicating I was an Arab, and they saw the money and the camera I had, I would have been killed.”

After this, he said that he moved to Jalalabad, where he stayed with another family, who gave him an AK-47 assault rifle to protect himself, and then joined other people crossing the mountains to Pakistan, where he handed himself in to the border guards. He added that he expected to be escorted to the Kuwaiti embassy, but was instead handed over to US forces.

In Guantánamo, where al-Odah’s despair at his predicament has been such that he joined a widespread hunger strike in August 2005, the authorities have struggled to make a case against him.

In his latest military review, he was not accused of participating in hostilities against US forces, but of “firing a Kalashnikov rifle at some targets” at a small camp where he was taken by a Taliban official, of staying in a house in Jalalabad “with three Arabs who appear to be fighters who carried Kalashnikovs,” and of fleeing Afghanistan with a group of men “who may have had some al-Qaeda or Taliban members.”

While eight of al-Odah’s compatriots have been released from Guantánamo, his lawyers have stated that John Bellinger, the State Department’s senior legal adviser, explained that the reason that al-Odah and the other three Kuwaiti detainees are still in Guantánamo is because the Kuwaiti government has not followed the rules that the US administration attempted to impose on them when the other eight men were released. The Americans attempted to insist that the men be tried and imprisoned on their return, but although the Kuwaiti government put them on trial, the court found that there was no case to answer and duly released them.

Lakhdar Boumediene

Lakhdar BoumedieneThe other case, Boumediene v. Bush, concerns six Bosnian citizens of Algerian origin, who were among the earliest victims of “extraordinary rendition” by US forces. All of the men, including the lead petitioner, 41-year old Lakhdar Boumediene, travelled to Bosnia during the civil war in the 1990s. Later granted citizenship, five of the six married Bosnian women and took jobs working for various Muslim charities.

In October 2001, the US embassy in Sarajevo asked the Bosnian government to arrest them because of a suspicion that they were involved in a plot to bomb the US embassy in Sarajevo. The Americans offered no proof, but threatened to withdraw peace-keeping forces unless the government complied with their request.

The six men were duly arrested, but after a three-month investigation, in which the Bosnian police searched their apartments, their computers and their documents, they found no evidence to justify the arrests. The Supreme Court ordered their release, and the Bosnian Human Rights Chamber ruled that they had the right to remain in the country and were not be deported. However, on the night of 17 January 2002, when they were freed from Bosnian custody, they were seized by US soldiers, hooded, handcuffed and rendered to Guantánamo.

Since arriving in Guantánamo, the men have faced repeated allegations of links to al-Qaeda, but the embassy plot has never been mentioned. It was alleged in a tribunal hearing that an unidentified source had said that Boumediene “was known to be one of the closest associates of an al-Qaeda member in Europe.”

The men have persistently denied the allegations, and their lawyers say that the source of the bomb plot allegations was the embittered ex-brother-in-law of one of the men, who ran a smear campaign against him. According to Manfred Novak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, who has investigated their story in depth, “It’s implausible to say that they are enemy combatants. They were fighters during the Bosnian war, but that ended in 1995. They may be radical Islamists, but they have definitely not committed any crime.” According to a Washington Post article in August 2006, they were formally exonerated by Bosnian prosecutors in 2004.

Despite this, all six men have reported that they have been treated brutally in Guantánamo, subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” involving prolonged isolation, forced nudity and sleep deprivation. In the case of one of the six, 37-year old Mustafa Ait Idir, his lawyers have backed up claims that he suffered a stroke after a brutal assault by guards in Guantánamo, which left one side of his face paralyzed.

The reason that Boumediene and his compatriots are still in Guantánamo is apparently because of their supposed intelligence value. In March 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded to a request for their release from the Bosnian prime minister by stating that it was not possible because “they still possess important intelligence data,” and in 2004 Ait Idir told a military tribunal at Guantánamo, “The interrogator told me I was there to give up information. The story on the outside was I was captured because of terrorism, and now here you are telling me you want me to give up information about rescue organizations and Arabs and how the Arabs are living.”

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

For another, current take on the Bosnians, see this article in Mother Jones by Marc Perelman.

The Guantánamo Files: photos from the book launch, Wednesday 28 November

These photos of the official launch of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison at Bookmarks in central London were taken by photographer Richard Keith Wolff, who took a great interest in the event. Contact him at:

Thanks to everyone who turned up to make it such a successful evening, to Bookmarks and Pluto Press for their support, and, of course, to Moazzam Begg, former Guantánamo detainee and spokesman for Cageprisoners, and Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel of the legal charity Reprieve, who delivered compelling speeches about Guantánamo, and who, with Andy, responded to a barrage of fascinating questions from the audience.

Introducing the author

Introducing the author.

Moazzam Begg and Zachary Katznelson

Moazzam Begg and Zachary Katznelson.

Author's delight

Author’s delight.

Book signing

Book signing.

The lively crowd

The lively crowd.

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.

Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history

The US Supreme Court

As the Supreme Court prepares once more to consider whether the detainees at Guantánamo have habeas corpus rights –- a cornerstone of civilization and a principle established 800 years ago in England, giving prisoners the right to challenge the basis of their detention in court –- Andy Worthington looks at the key arguments in what has described as “perhaps the most important habeas corpus case in modern history.”

On December 5, the nine justices of the Supreme Court will hear arguments from the government, represented by a team led by US Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, and from lawyers for the detainees, whose cases –- Al Odah v. United States and Boumediene v. Bush –- will be put forward by Seth P. Waxman, a former US Solicitor General, who is now a partner in the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. The detainees’ main briefs are backed up by more than two dozen amicus briefs looking at various aspects of the cases, which have been filed by a wide range of legal experts, including such veterans of the Guantánamo legislation as Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Tom Wilner of Shearman and Sterling.

At stake is whether or not Congress acted unconstitutionally in passing the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA), which established Military Commissions to try “enemy combatants” held at Guantánamo, and also stripped the US courts of their right to hear habeas corpus petitions filed by the Guantánamo detainees.

The MCA was itself a response to two previous Supreme Court decisions: Rasul v. Bush, in June 2004, and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in June 2006. In Rasul, the justices ruled, by a majority of 6-3, that the Guantánamo prisoners had the right to challenge the legal limbo in which they were held, and demolished the administration’s long-cherished belief that Guantánamo –- which was specifically chosen as the venue for a “War on Terror” prison because it was presumed to be beyond the reach of the US courts –- did not count as US territory. “They are not nationals of countries at war with the United States,” the judges declared, “and they deny that they have engaged in or plotted acts of aggression against this country; they have never been afforded access to any tribunal, much less charged with and convicted of wrongdoing; and for more than two years they have been imprisoned in territory over which the United States exercises exclusive jurisdiction and control.”

In his majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens emphasized the importance of habeas corpus, citing a 1945 case in which it was described as “a writ antecedent to statute … throwing its roots deep into the genius of our common law,” and a 1953 case dealing specifically with the detention of aliens in US custody: “Executive imprisonment has been considered oppressive and lawless since John, at Runnymede, pledged that no free man should be imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed or exiled save by the judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. The judges of England developed the writ of habeas corpus largely to preserve these immunities from executive restraint.”

In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which focused on the case of Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who was one of Osama bin Laden’s drivers in Afghanistan, the justices of the Supreme Court delivered an equally damning verdict on the legitimacy of putting the detainees forward for trial by Military Commission. This system of show trials was dreamt up by Vice President Dick Cheney and his advisors, including David Addington, and established in a document known as Military Order No. 1, which was approved with no Congressional oversight whatsoever in November 2001. It authorized indefinite detention without due process for “enemy combatants,” and established ground rules for the Commissions that drew widespread criticism from lawyers and human rights activists, for several obvious reasons. These included the fact that the juries and presiding officers would be hand-picked by the administration, that evidence obtained through hearsay or torture would be allowed, and that both the accused and his lawyers could be prevented from seeing certain evidence.

By a majority of 5-3, the justices ruled that that the Military Commissions were illegal under US law and the Geneva Conventions. Concluding that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions –- which forbids “cruel treatment and torture” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” –- was “applicable” to Hamdan and others facing Military Commissions, Justice Stevens stated that it was Hamdan’s right to be tried by a “regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.” By confirming the importance of Common Article 3, the Supreme Court struck at the heart of the administration’s novel and unprecedented flight from domestic and international law. Justice Anthony Kennedy spelled out this position even more clearly, warning the administration that “violations of Common Article 3 are considered ‘war crimes,’ punishable as federal offences, when committed by … United States nationals and military personnel.”

In the case of Rasul v. Bush, the government responded by allowing the detainees to have access to lawyers, for the first time in over two and a half years of isolated detention, but ignored the main thrust of the verdict –- that they should have access to the US courts –- by establishing military reviews at Guantánamo, known as Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), which were blatantly unlawful. Designed merely to review whether or not the detainees had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants” when they arrived in US custody – mostly between 2001 and 2003, and mostly delivered by the US military’s allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan at a time when bounty payments for al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects were prevalent – the CSRTs prevented the detainees from being represented by lawyers, and, like the Commissions, relied on classified evidence, which was not revealed to the detainees and which, moreover, was just as readily obtained through the torture, coercion and bribery of other detainees.

In response to Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the government seized on a comment made by Justice Stephen Breyer –- “Nothing prevents the President from returning to Congress to seek the authority he believes necessary [to reestablish the Commissions]” –- by doing just that, pushing the MCA through a supine Congress just three months later, reestablishing the reviled Military Commissions and, for good measure, stripping the detainees of their habeas rights.

Although the MCA was challenged in April this year, when the justices of the Supreme Court chose to delay judgment on the cases, allowing time for a limited review of the detainees’ cases to proceed under the terms of the Detainee Treatment Act (another flawed piece of anti-terror legislation, passed in 2005), the road to Wednesday’s momentous Supreme Court hearing opened up just two months later, when, reversing itself for the first time in 60 years, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the detainees’ arguments once more. Commentators credited this extraordinary change of heart to the explosive revelations contained in an affidavit filed in Al-Odah v. United States by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a military intelligence officer with 20 years’ experience, who was involved in compiling the “evidence” for the CSRTs.

In a comprehensive hatchet job, Lt. Col. Abraham described the tribunals 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,” and this was confirmed when it became apparent that several detainees had been subjected to second or third CSRTs when the verdict in the first did not meet with the administration’s approval. Lt. Col. Abraham later revealed that two of his former colleagues had supported his statements, and in September another whistleblower, an Army major who had been a tribunal member on 49 of the 558 CSRTs, also spoke out, confirming Abraham’s complaints about both the gathering of intelligence and the reconvening of tribunals.

The revelations of Lt. Col. Abraham and his colleagues have returned the issue of the detainees’ indefinite detention to center stage, just as it was three and a half years ago in Rasul v. Bush. In his argument on Wednesday, Seth Waxman will explain that the MCA is unconstitutional, and will point out that rulings made by the Supreme Court back in the summer of 2004 are still applicable. His brief states that, in Rasul, “this court ruled that noncitizens detained by the United States military at Guantánamo Bay have access to the writ of habeas corpus, a conclusion informed by the Court’s analysis of the common law writ,” and that the government has offered “no persuasive rebuttal to the Court’s reading of history.” Waxman’s brief also refutes “the government’s reliance on cases declining to grant habeas relief” as they relate to “prisoners of war,” and he reiterates the point made by the Supreme Court in Rasul: “Petitioners maintain that they are not enemy soldiers subject to military detention. Unlike prisoners of war in traditional armed conflicts – where it is usually clear or undisputed that the prisoners are in fact detainable enemy soldiers – Petitioners are civilians from a friendly nation who were abducted by the government far from any theater of war and have never engaged in armed hostilities against the United States.”

Whilst it seems from this argument that the Supreme Court will have no choice but to reiterate its 2004 verdict, Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Director at Human Rights Watch, has pointed out that the justices are in fact being asked to decide “whether prisoners at Guantánamo enjoy a constitutional right of habeas corpus (in other words, whether the Rasul decision was grounded in the Constitution, or whether it had mere statutory grounds).” If they agree that habeas corpus is a constitutional right –- as the Constitution’s Framers clearly intended it to be, ruling that it can only be suspended in “cases of rebellion or invasion” –- Mariner notes that they may then assess not only whether Congress “meant to suspend the right,” but whether, indeed, the nation’s politicians actually “had the power to do so.” Mariner also observes that the justices may rule on whether Congress, in allowing for limited federal court review of the CSRTs (in the Detainee Treatment Act), has provided the detainees with an “adequate substitute” for the right of habeas corpus, which, as she adds, is where “kangaroo courts” –- the tribunals, as demolished by Lt. Col. Abraham –- “come into the picture.”

Although no decision is expected before spring 2008, tomorrow’s hearing is indeed of colossal importance, not only to the detainees in Guantánamo, many of whom are about to start their seventh year of imprisonment without charge or trial, but also to the government’s assertion that it is entitled to pursue these policies without any significant judicial oversight. As Britain’s Financial Times noted in a recent editorial, “American democracy is based on the optimistic notion that all three branches of government will not do the wrong thing, all at the same time. The president and even Congress might step over the line –- but if they do, the US Supreme Court is there to restore the rule of law over the mistakes of men.”

Although the Bush administration has attempted to shift the Supreme Court to the right –- and to its own point of view –- in its two most recent appointments, the justices have repeatedly shown, as Suzanna Sherry, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, explained, that their job is “to balance the need to prevent terrorism with individual rights.” They are also clearly aware of their own right not to be shunted aside by an executive that demands the freedom to operate without any restraint whatsoever. Dennis Hutchinson, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, summed up this attitude in a single line that those campaigning for the detainees’ rights must be hoping is particularly applicable: “The Court doesn’t like to be told, ‘You don’t have a role to play here.’”

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

As published on CounterPunch and 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 whistleblower launches new attack on rigged tribunals (November 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).

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Guantánamo habeas cases, see: Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (Uighurs’ first court victory, June 2008), What’s Happening with the Guantánamo cases? (July 2008), Government Says Six Years Is Not Long Enough To Prepare Evidence (September 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), Guilt By Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), After 7 Years, Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo Kidnap Victims (November 2008), Is Robert Gates Guilty of Perjury in Guantánamo Torture Case? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), The Top Ten Judges of 2008 (January 2009), No End in Sight for the “Enemy Combatants” of Guantánamo (January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (January 2009), How Cooking For The Taliban Gets You Life In Guantánamo (January 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), The Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants (March 2009), Farce at Guantánamo, as cleared prisoner’s habeas petition is denied (April 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Judge Condemns “Mosaic” Of Guantánamo Intelligence, And Unreliable Witnesses (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies (May 2009), Free The Guantánamo Uighurs! (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part One): Exposing The Bush Administration’s Lies (July 2009), Obama’s Failure To Deliver Justice To The Last Tajik In Guantánamo (July 2009), Obama And The Deadline For Closing Guantánamo: It’s Worse Than You Think (July 2009), How Judge Huvelle Humiliated The Government In Guantánamo Case (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), As Judge Orders Release Of Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner, Government Refuses To Concede Defeat (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), Guantánamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave (August 2009), Judge Orders Release From Guantánamo Of Kuwaiti Charity Worker (August 2009). Also see: Justice extends to Bagram, Guantánamo’s Dark Mirror (April 2009), Judge Rules That Afghan “Rendered” To Bagram In 2002 Has No Rights (July 2009).

Cowboy justice at Guantánamo: judge confirms use of secret evidence in the trial of Omar Khadr

Omar KhadrJust days before lawyers will argue in the Supreme Court that the Guantánamo detainees have the right to challenge the basis of their detention, the latest news in the ongoing saga of Omar Khadr, the Canadian who was just 15 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan after a firefight in which a US soldier was killed, confirms that the administration has no regard for the law, and is intent on pushing forward with trials that owe more to the show trials of Stalinist Russia than they do to long-established principles of American justice.

Khadr’s team of defense lawyers, led by Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, explained that they have been ordered by Col. Peter Brownback, the judge in Khadr’s trial by Military Commission, which will probably take place in May 2008, not to tell their client –- or anyone else –- the identity of witnesses against him. Kuebler said that, although he had been given a list of prosecution witnesses, the judge’s decision required him to keep secrets from his client. He added that he would ask Col. Brownback to revoke the order, pointing out, as the New York Times described it, that it would hamper the defense team’s ability “to build an adequate defense because they cannot ask their client or anyone else about prosecution witnesses, making it difficult to test the veracity of testimony,“ and because it “treated Mr. Khadr as if he had already been convicted and deprived him of a trial at which the public could assess the evidence against him.”

The judge’s order revealing this latest blow to justice (dated October 15 and initially issued without public disclosure), was only released following complaints from several news organizations, including the New York Times and the Associated Press, that they were denied access to much of the court proceedings against Khadr, as many of the arguments in the case were being made via e-mails to which the public had no access.

Although the administration immediately sought to defend its position, with one of the prosecutors, Major Jeffrey Groharing, declaring, “It is conceivable, if not likely, that al-Qaeda members or sympathizers could attempt to target witnesses,” the blunt truth is that this latest attempt to handicap Khadr’s defense team only adds to the list of disturbing precedents that the Bush administration is attempting to pursue in Khadr’s case. Not content with attempting to redefine a wartime battle as a “war crime” and shunning a universal prohibition against the prosecution of “child soldiers,” those driving the much-derided Military Commissions have now confirmed their disregard for the law by endorsing a skewed trial rigged to secure a prosecution.

This has been apparent to the principled military lawyers appointed to the Military Commissions since their establishment in 2003. One of their number, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, who lost his job earlier this year as a result of vigorously defending the rights of Salim Hamdan, one of Osama bin Laden’s drivers, to receive a fair trial, told a meeting of law students this April that the government’s insistence that the Commissions “were ‘full and fair trials’ reminded him of an old Western in which a character is told, ‘You’re going to have a fair trial, and then we’re going to hang you.’ ‘They weren’t doing what military commissions historically were set up to do,’ he said. ‘Rather than bring law to a lawless place, it was to create a lawless place.’” Responding to the latest news, Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler nailed this latest manifestation of cowboy justice in a single line: “Instead of a presumption of innocence and of a public trial, we start with a presumption of guilt and of a secret trial.”

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

As published on the Huffington Post.

Out of Guantánamo, and into the fire: conviction of ex-detainee in Tunisia casts doubts on US motives

The recent conviction, in a Tunisian court, of former Guantánamo detainee Abdullah bin Omar undermines claims by the US administration that it has found adequate ways of repatriating wrongly arrested detainees to their home countries.

A former railway engineer, bin Omar (51) left Tunisia because of religious persecution in 1989. Taking his wife and children with him, he moved to Pakistan, where he had been living for 13 years when he was seized at his home by Pakistani police in May 2002. He later claimed, as did numerous other detainees, that, as a result of bounty payments offered by the Americans for al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects, he was sold to US forces for $5,000.

Held for five years without charge or trial in Guantánamo, bin Omar was accused, in the “evidence” compiled against him, of traveling to Pakistan “under Osama bin Laden’s protection,” of running a guest house for fighters in Afghanistan, and of having various connections with al-Qaeda. He maintained, however, that he had never even visited Afghanistan, and had not been “a member of any type of group or organization while he lived in Pakistan,” and the allegations had evidently evaporated by early 2007, when he was cleared for release by a military review board.

In June, his lawyers at Reprieve, a London-based legal charity that represents dozens of Guantánamo detainees, discovered that in 1995 he had been convicted in absentia by a Tunisian court, and given a 10-year sentence. Some reports suggested that he had received this sentence for belonging to Ennahda (aka Al-Nahda), a moderate, non-violent Islamist political party, which has never been recognized by the regime run by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, although Human Rights Watch recently reported that the “primary evidence” against him “appears to have been the statement that one of his 19 co-defendants made to the police in 1993, in which he claimed that [he] had taken a leadership position in an organization known as the Tunisian Islamist Front while in Pakistan.” Based on his experience of similar cases, his lawyer, Samir Ben Amor, explained that he thought it “likely that this incriminating statement was the product of torture and abuse.” Before bin Omar’s lawyers from Reprieve could meet with him to reveal this information, however, he and another cleared Tunisian, Lotfi Lagha, were loaded onto a plane and flown back to Tunis, where they were promptly imprisoned.

Although both men were granted access to lawyers, they reported that they were mistreated in Tunisian custody. Both said that they had been held in solitary confinement, and bin Omar added that he was told that if he did not confess falsely to crimes, his wife and daughters would be raped. Last month, the Tunisian authorities further antagonized their critics by subjecting Lagha to what looked suspiciously like a show trial. Previous claims that he received military training in Afghanistan and fought with the Taliban regime were dropped, and he was, instead, convicted of “associating with a criminal group with the aim of harming or causing damage in Tunisia” and sentenced to three years in prison, even though the authorities did not name the group or provide any details about the alleged plot.

Bin Omar’s trial was no better. Convicted of “belonging in times of peace to a terrorist organization operating in a foreign country,” and of preparing for attacks intended to “change the state through violence,” replacing the government with a “fundamentalist regime,” he received a seven-year sentence. One of his lawyers, Zachary Katznelson, who was present at the trial, told me, “There was not a shred of evidence actually offered against him. No witnesses, no documents, nothing. Merely a statement from the intelligence services saying he was guilty. Accusation presented as fact.” He added that this was “all too familiar in the context of Guantánamo,” but that it was “horrible to see the consequences pronounced before my eyes.”

What makes these reports of rigged trials and abuse in custody so disturbing is that, after the Pentagon had cleared these men, they were supposed to have been guaranteed fair and humane treatment, under the terms of “diplomatic assurances” agreed between the American and Tunisian governments. These were required if the US administration was to avoid international censure for breaking international laws preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they faced the risk of torture or ill-treatment.

The rationale for coming up with these “assurances” is shocking, but simple to understand. Attempts to empty the prison of cleared detainees, leaving 80 to face trial, and another 120 to be held indefinitely without trial, are hampered by the fact that as many as 70 cleared detainees –- mostly from China and from various North African countries –- do not want to return to the countries of their birth. Unable to find other countries to accept them, and unwilling to grant them asylum in the United States, the “diplomatic assurances” seemed to the administration to be a convenient way to break the deadlock.

The trials in Tunisia suggest, however, that the strategy is not working, and last month, in an unprecedented decision in a US District Court, Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that another cleared Tunisian, Mohammed Abdul Rahman, “cannot be sent to Tunisia because he could suffer ‘irreparable harm’ that the US courts would be powerless to reverse.” It remains to be seen whether Kessler’s ruling will impact on other detainees, further derailing the integrity of the “diplomatic assurances.”

Two other cleared detainees who do not want to return home –- the Libyan Abdul Rauf al-Qassim and the Algerian (and British resident) Ahmed Belbacha –- have not been granted such protection, but have not yet been repatriated from Guantánamo, and attempts by the British government to replicate the Americans’ underhand behavior with its own alleged terror suspects –- held without charge or trial and subjected to “control orders” that amount to virtual house arrest –- have also suffered legal setbacks. Although some have been repatriated to Algeria, an appeal court ruled in April that two Libyans could not be returned because they were at risk of torture, and in July another appeal court reached a similar conclusion in the case of three Algerians, demonstrating that the British government’s “memoranda of understanding” with Libya and Algeria are as worthless as the Americans’ “diplomatic assurances” with Tunisia.

These legal struggles come too late for Lotfi Lagha and Abdullah bin Omar, who seem, as Zachary Katznelson explained, to have been used as “guinea pigs in a potentially deadly diplomatic experiment,” but they reveal that, after nearly six years, it is far more difficult to close down Guantánamo than it was to set it up in the first place.

Please note that, after receiving the following message from Ann Alexander regarding my last article about Mr. Lagha, I have corrected his name to Lotfi rather then Lofti: “My Tunisian friend, Abdul, has asked me to point out that the name of the man mentioned in this article is Lotfi not Lofti. He knew it wasn’t a typing error as you have spelt this man’s name the same way throughout the article. Abdul is blind and asked me to ask you if your book is on electronic mail so that he can read it. Abdul was a victim of torture in Tunisia and knows all about Tunisian ‘justice.’ He is now an Islamic counsellor in London. Watch out for him. He tends to shout, ‘Make way for a blind man.’ He’s a real character. Anyway, Andy, I felt sure that you would want to amend Lotfi’s name. Best wishes, Ann.”

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

A version of this article was published exclusively in the Daily Star, Lebanon.

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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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