Archive for March, 2008

As a sixth “high-value detainee” is charged at Guantánamo, disturbing evidence surfaces

Ahmed Khalfan GhailaniThe US Department of Defense announced today that Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian captured after a gunfight in Gujrat, Pakistan in July 2004, would be the fifteenth Guantánamo prisoner to be tried by Military Commission, in connection with his alleged involvement in the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998.

Specifically, Ghailani is charged with “murder in violation of the Law of War, murder of protected persons, attacking civilians, attacking civilian objects, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, destruction of property in violation of the Law of War and terrorism” — plus conspiracy to commit all the preceding offenses — for his alleged role in securing and transporting material used in the Tanzanian bomb, and for helping to purchase the truck that was used in the attack. He is also charged with “providing material support to terrorism,” based on allegations that, after the bombing, he fled to Afghanistan, where he continued working for al-Qaeda “as a document forger, physical trainer at an al-Qaeda training camp, and as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.”

Ghailani is the sixth of the 14 so-called “high-value detainees” — those held in secret, CIA-run prisons, who were transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006 — to be put forward for trial by Military Commission. He joins Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Walid bin Attash (plus Mohammed al-Qahtani, a notorious victim of torture in Guantánamo), who were put forward for trial in February, in connection with the 9/11 attacks.

The novel system of “War on Terror” trials, conceived by Dick Cheney and his advisors in November 2001, have yet to secure a conviction (the closest they came was the plea bargain negotiated with the Australian David Hicks last year, who returned home to serve just seven months in prison) and have been plagued by controversy since their inception. Damned by their own military defense lawyers, derailed by their own government-appointed judges, dismissed by the Supreme Court and then resuscitated by a somnambulant Congress, they are currently limping towards trials in the cases of the Canadian Omar Khadr, who was just 15 years old when he was captured, and whose alleged murder of a US soldier is seriously contested by his legal team, and Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who was one of Osama bin Laden’s drivers.

The Commissions have stumbled at the arraignment phase in two other cases, those of Mohamed Jawad, an Afghan who was just 16 years old when he allegedly threw a grenade at a vehicle carrying two US soldiers and an Afghan translator, and Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi who was seized in Azerbaijan and is accused of plotting to attack shipping lanes in the Middle East.

More significantly, the Commissions appear to be fatally contaminated by allegations of torture, raising doubts that they can secure a single “clean” conviction that will be regarded as legitimate anywhere beyond the administration itself and its dwindling crowd of cheerleaders.

The Guantanamo FilesIn this, the case of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani appears to be no exception. Ghailani did not allege, during his military tribunal last year, that he was tortured (unlike Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, whose torture by waterboarding was recently admitted by CIA director Michael Hayden), but during my research for The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, I discovered a piece of information that indicated that, whether under duress, or by some other method, he had made a false allegation against one of the prisoners at Guantánamo.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the gathering of evidence used against the Guantánamo prisoners is the accumulation of allegations from the initial Combatant Status Review Tribunals, convened from July 2004 to March 2005 to assess whether they had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” through successive rounds of annual Administrative Review Boards, convened to assess whether they still constitute a threat to the United States, or whether they still have ongoing intelligence value.

In tracing the accumulation of allegations, an enormous number of claims are attributed to “a senior al-Qaeda operative” or “a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant.” With no names given, it has been impossible to establish the source of these claims, although they are frequently so at odds with a previously established chronology of the prisoner’s actions — placing them at training camps and in guest houses when they were not even in Afghanistan, for example — that it’s readily apparent that many, if not most of these allegations were produced under duress, probably when supposed “high-value detainees” were being shown the “family album” of prisoners that was used from the earliest days of the US-run prisons in Afghanistan, in late December 2001.

On one occasion only, I discovered that one of these “al-Qaeda” sources had been named, and was none other than Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani. As I explained in Chapter 20 of The Guantánamo Files, “The Yemeni Mohammed al-Hanashi … admitted to his tribunal in 2004 that he arrived in Afghanistan eight or nine months before 9/11, and that he fought with the Taliban. By the time of his review in 2005, however, new allegations had been added, including the claim that Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani ‘identified him as having been at the al-Farouq camp [the main training camp for Arabs, associated in the years before 9/11 with Osama bin Laden] in 1998-99 prior to moving on to the front lines in Kabul.’ In other words, although al-Hanashi admitted traveling to Afghanistan to serve as a foot soldier for the Taliban, a man who was held in extremely dubious circumstances in another part of the world was shown his photo and came up with a story about seeing him two or three years before his arrival in Afghanistan, which would, henceforth, be regarded as evidence against him.”

It will, of course, be some time before Ghailani’s case comes to trial, as Col. Steve David, the Commissions’ chief defense lawyer, is already struggling to find enough military lawyers to represent those who have already been charged, but it’s clear from just this one example, which accidentally slipped through the net, that the quality of Ghailani’s confessions will be contentious, and that questions will be raised about the circumstances in which they were gathered.

The great irony in his case is that the main evidence against him came not from the two years and two months that he was held in secret CIA custody, but from the testimony of a number of other men, including Mohamed al-Owhali, Wadih El-Hage, Mohammed Sadiq Odeh and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, who, although captured abroad and “rendered” to US territory in 1998 and 1999, were transferred to face a criminal trial, rather than being held in the ad-hoc system of secret prisons run by the CIA that developed after 9/11. They were subsequently interrogated, charged and successfully prosecuted for their involvement in the African embassy bombings in October 2001, and sentenced to life imprisonment, without the use of any of the torture techniques (euphemistically known as “enhanced interrogation techniques”) that the Bush administration introduced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Although there are other complications in the cases of the African embassy bombers — not least the role of double agent Ali Mohammed, and the lack of communication between the CIA and the FBI — the fact that successful prosecutions could take place without the use of torture should have sent a clear message to the Bush administration, just weeks before Dick Cheney stealthily authorized the President to capture suspected terrorists anywhere in the world, designate them “enemy combatants,” hold them without charge or trial and, if required, try them before Military Commissions, that there were other ways to engage a terrorist threat without resorting to torture, imprisonment without charge and dubious show trials.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com, CounterPunch and AlterNet.

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), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), 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).

UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices

Blinded by the apparent allure of a tall, thin woman from France, Britain’s press completely ignored the forcible deportation, on Thursday, of 60 Iraqi Kurds, who were transported back to a decidedly uncertain future on a German plane from a UK airport. Each of the 60 “failed asylum seekers,” as they are officially known, was escorted by an armed Home Office guard funded by the UK taxpayer. The guards had previously seized the men from the detention centers at Campsfield and Colnbrook in what looked uncomfortably like a “dawn raid.”

According to the International Federation of Iraq Refugees (IFIR), which immediately issued a press release that, unfortunately, did not include the words “Carla Bruni” in its title, the plane arrived at Arbil airport in Iraqi Kurdistan at 3 am on Friday morning. Confused, tired and unsure of where they were, the men refused to leave the plane. The Home Office guards then called for assistance from guards of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), who were waiting at the airport. 25 of these men boarded the plane, and “pushed and threatened the asylum seekers off the plane onto two waiting coaches.”

Iraqi Kurdistan

A photo from the Sulaimanya website illustrating ”Internally Displaced Persons” from Iraqi Kurdistan.

The ITIR press release continued, “At the airport the asylum seekers noticed three jeeps observing them, which they thought contained UNHCR personnel [from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], but they were not allowed to talk to the people in the jeeps.” They were then transported to Ain Kawa Bridge, in a village near Arbil, where they were abandoned, even though many of them were injured and all of them had lost their luggage, including their all-important mobile phones. An eye-witness reported that the KRG guards “knew nothing about human rights.” “If I had seen it in a film,” he said, “I would not have believed it.”

Compounding the men’s plight, many are not even from Kurdistan, but from cities further south, including Mosul and Kirkuk, even though, as ITIR noted, “people from this area have generally not been removed by the Home Office in the past.” Rizgar Bahem, from Mosul, protested about being abandoned at the bridge, and tried to reason with the guards. “I am not from Kurdistan,” he said. “Why are you leaving me here?” The guards’ leader “responded by hitting him with the muzzle of his gun and pushed him off the coach.”

Even those from Kurdistan are not necessarily safe. As IFIR noted last November, on the second anniversary of the forced deportation of 15 Iraqi Kurds on a military plane from Brize Norton airbase in Oxfordshire, “The Iraqi Kurdish asylum seekers are not criminals. They are civilians and victims of the war in Iraq. Kurdistan is not an independent state and is not part of stable state. Thus the Kurdish people are in limbo and the future of their lives is uncertain.”

Last February, when around 50 others were forcibly deported, Amnesty International issued an even more strongly worded response. Jan Shaw, the UK’s Refugee Programme Director, explained, “Forcing people back to Iraq, even to the North, will put people’s lives at risk. Amnesty remains opposed to any forcible return of asylum-seekers to Iraq, including to the Kurdish region. In post-conflict situations people should not be returned unless there is stability and a durable peace; neither of those is true in Iraq. Given the colossal scale of fighting and bloodshed in the country, it is hard to describe Iraq’s situation as ‘post-conflict’ at all. Imagine how terrifying it must be for those watching the chaos unfolding in Iraq on the news to then receive a letter from the government stating that they are about to be flown back there.”

Over the last few years, the British government has returned over a hundred ”failed asylum seekers” to Iraqi Kurdistan. Previous deportations have at least been covered in the media, but the silence in this latest case suggests that “deportation fatigue” has set in.

On the other hand, it may be that everyone’s still blinded by the presence of Carla Bruni, although on this matter, as on so many others, the wife of the French President has expressed no opinion.

For further information on the deportation, email Dashty Jamal, IFIR’s Secretary on: d.jamal@ntlworld.com

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on Indymedia.

For other articles dealing with Belmarsh, control orders, deportation bail, deportation and extradition, see Deals with dictators undermined by British request for return of five Guantánamo detainees (August 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: the troubling tale of Tunisian Belmarsh detainee Hedi Boudhiba, extradited, cleared and abandoned in Spain (August 2007), Guantánamo as house arrest: Britain’s law lords capitulate on control orders (November 2007), The Guantánamo Britons and Spain’s dubious extradition request (December 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: control orders renewed, as one suspect is freed (February 2008), Spanish drop “inhuman” extradition request for Guantánamo Britons (March 2008), Repatriation as Russian Roulette: Will the Two Algerians Freed from Guantánamo Be Treated Fairly? (July 2008), Abu Qatada: Law Lords and Government Endorse Torture (February 2009), Ex-Guantánamo prisoner refused entry into UK, held in deportation centre (February 2009), Home Secretary ignores Court decision, kidnaps bailed men and imprisons them in Belmarsh (February 2009), Britain’s insane secret terror evidence (March 2009).

A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo

The stories of the Uyghurs in Guantánamo — Muslims from the oppressed Xinjiang province of China, formerly known as East Turkistan — have long demonstrated chronic injustice on the part of the US authorities to those who know of them, although they have only sporadically registered on the media’s radar.

Map of Xinjiang province, China

Numbering 22 men in total, three were picked up randomly in Afghanistan, another was caught crossing the Pakistani border disguised in a burka, while the other 18 were seized together by opportunistic Pakistani villagers, after fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of the US-led invasion in October 2001, and sold to US forces for a bounty, as was common at the time. A leaflet dropped by US planes offered enterprising villagers and soldiers “millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers.”

These 18 men, who had fled their homeland because of persecution, in search of a new life, or in the hope of gaining some sort of training to enable them to fight back against their oppressors, had been living together in a small, run-down hamlet in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains, mending the settlement’s ruined buildings, and occasionally training on their only weapon, an aging AK-47.

After the US-led invasion, they were targeted in a US bombing raid, in which several men died. The survivors then made their way across the mountains to the Pakistani border, where they were first welcomed by the villagers, and then betrayed by them. In US custody, they attracted attention because of their supposed insights into the workings of the Chinese government, but it was apparent from early on that they had not been involved with either the Taliban or al-Qaeda, and that there was no reason to hold them.

Unfortunately for the Uyghurs, however, the declaration of their innocence only prefaced further problems, as they joined one of Guantánamo’s least enviable groups: cleared prisoners who, because of international treaties, cannot be returned to their home countries for fear that they will be subjected to torture, or worse. The US government had obligingly declared those opposed to Chinese rule in Xinjiang province as “terrorists,” in order to secure support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and had even allowed — or invited — Chinese interrogators to question the men in Guantánamo, but when it came to returning them to China they refused to do so.

Attempts to persuade other countries to accept the Uyghurs — and other cleared prisoners who faced similar problems with repatriation — were both long and largely futile. Despite the fact that some of these men had been regarded as wrongly detained while they were in US-run prisons in Afghanistan, and that many had been cleared after military tribunals in Guantánamo in 2004, it was not until May 2006 that one country — Albania, one of Europe’s poorest nations — could be prevailed upon to accept five of the men, who were joined, in December 2006, by another three cleared prisoners from Algeria, Egypt and the former Soviet Union.

Living in a UN refugee camp in Tirana has not been without its problems — there is no Uyghur community in Albania, no prospect of work, and no opportunity for the men to have contact with their families — but it is at least better than being in Guantánamo, where their compatriots, who have, for the most part, also been cleared for release (the exact details are, like much else at Guantánamo, difficult to gauge with absolute confidence), remain in a limbo that seems, literally, to be without end.

Compounding their suffering, the Uyghurs, like the majority of the dozens of other cleared prisoners, are held not in comfort in Camp 4 (Guantánamo’s only block with communal dorms) but in Camp 6, a maximum security prison in which they are held in complete isolation, in metal cells without windows, for 22 to 23 hours a day.

Camp 6, Guantanamo

Camp 6. After “unrest” followed the deaths of three prisoners in June 2006, it was decided that the communal areas would not be used.

One of these men is Abdulghappar, who is now 35 years old. In 2004, he explained to his military tribunal that he had traveled to Afghanistan to “get some training to fight back against the Chinese government,” and added that he had nothing against the United States. He said that his own people “and my own family are being tortured under the Chinese government,” and when asked, “Was it your intention when you were training to fight against the US or its allies?” came up with an answer that summed up the feelings of all his imprisoned compatriots: “I have one point: a billion Chinese enemies, that is enough for me. Why would I get more enemies?”

Abdulghappar recently wrote a letter to his lawyers, which was unclassified by the military censors who review all correspondence between lawyers and their clients. It was then passed to the Associated Press, who quoted parts of the letter in an article last week, which was then picked up by other media outlets.

In the hope of providing Abdulghappar with more of his own voice, however, I asked his lawyers for a copy of the letter, which I reproduce in its entirety below. As it is a translation, I have taken the liberty of editing the language to convey his message more fully.

Abdulghappar’s letter from Guantánamo

How are you, Mr. J. Wells Dixon and Ms. Seema Saifee? I hope that this letter reaches you before you come over, and I hope that it will be a little beneficial for our Turkistani brothers’ situation here.

We, the Turkistani brothers, left our homeland in order to escape from the brutal suppression and unfair treatment from the Chinese government towards our people. The Uyghur youth back home were either incarcerated because of false accusations or prosecuted and executed because of bogus allegations. It was extremely difficult for any Uyghur to see a future for themselves within our homeland, and both young and middle-aged Uyghurs started to leave East Turkistan and try to find survival abroad, if anyone could find a way to get out. We, the Uyghurs in Guantánamo, are also like those Uyghurs. We left our homeland for the same cause and sought solace in our neighboring countries.

As you know, for some specific reasons we ended up in Afghanistan. When we arrived in Afghanistan, the US army invaded. We had to depart for Pakistan, since we could not stay in Afghanistan. As we did not know anyone who could help us there, we had no other choice but to leave. The Pakistani people then arrested us and turned us over to the Pakistani government. Subsequently, the Pakistani government sold us to the US army for bounties. The US army then brought us to Guantánamo.

Since the very beginning of the interrogations, we have been saying this. Our circumstances are very clear to the US government, the US army and related agencies. Thus, the East Turkistani people and we, the Uyghurs in Guantánamo, have never had any revulsion against the US at any time, and this would never be possible, because our homeland is being occupied and we need the help of others.

We were very pleased at the beginning when the Pakistanis turned us over to American custody. We sincerely hoped that America would be sympathetic to us and help us. Unfortunately, the facts were different. Although in 2004 and 2005 we were told that we were innocent, we have been incarcerated in jail for the past six years until the present day. We fail to know why we are still in jail here.

We still hope that the US government will free us soon and send us to a safe place. Being away from family, away from our homeland, and also away from the outside world and losing any contact with anyone is not suitable for a human being, as, also, is being forbidden from experiencing natural sunlight and natural air, and being surrounded by a metal box on all sides.

I was very healthy in the past. However, since I was brought to Camp 6, I got rheumatism. My joints started to hurt all the time and are getting worse. My kidneys started to hurt ten days ago.

My countryman Abdulrazaq used to have rheumatism for a while, and since he came to Camp 6 it got worse. Sometime in early August, the US army told Abdulrazaq that he was cleared to be released, and also issued the release form to him in writing. As a result, Abdulrazaq requested to move to a camp that had better conditions, for health reasons. When his request was ignored he embarked on a hunger strike, which has lasted for over a month now.

Currently, he is on punishment and his situation is even worse. He is shackled to the restraint chair and force-fed twice a day by the guards, who wear glass shields on their faces. This has taken place for the past 20 days. For someone who has not eaten for a long time, such treatment is not humane. Abdulrazaq would never want to go on hunger strike. However, the circumstances here forced him to do so, as he had no other choice. If the oppression was not unbearable, who would want to throw himself on a burning fire? In the US constitution, is it a crime for someone to ask to protect his health and to ask for his rights? If it does count as a crime, then what is the difference between the US constitution and the Communist constitution? What is the difference between this and Hitler’s policies during the Second World War?

I have heard that an Egyptian man broke his back and became handicapped while he was being handled by a team in Camp 1 or 2, and then he was sent home as a crippled person for the rest of his life [Sami El-Leithi, released in October 2005]. Another Libyan broke his arm also. I worry that Abdulrazaq will face a similar or worse situation while being force fed twice a day for a long time, and I am also concerned for his psychological condition as it is extremely difficult for him to keep his mental state normal under such circumstances.

Recently, I started to wonder, “why are we staying in this jail for so long?” I wonder if we will be released after we damage our internal and external organs and our arms and legs. Or is it necessary for a few Turkistanis to die, as happened in the past here in this jail, in order to gain others’ attention and their concern towards our matter? Such thoughts are in my mind all the time. The reason I am writing this letter to you is that I sincerely hope that you and others related to law and enforcement can solve this issue quickly and help us in a practical manner.

Abdulghappar Turkistani (281)
December 12, 2007.
Guantánamo Bay jail, Camp 6.

For more on the Uyghurs in Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post, CounterPunch and Anti-war.com.

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), A transcript of Sabin Willett’s speech in Stockholm (November 2007), Support for ex-Guantánamo detainee’s Swedish asylum claim (January 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.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the hunger strikes at Guantánamo, see Shaker Aamer, A South London Man in Guantánamo: The Children Speak (July 2007), Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that he will die (September 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo (October 2007), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth? (October 2007), Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo (Yousef al-Shehri and Murtadha Makram) (November 2007), A letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj) (January 2008), 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: Andy Worthington’s US tour report

The Guantanamo FilesNormal service on my blog was lost for a week from March 9 as I made my first ever trip to the United States to promote my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, armed only with a mobile phone, and with sporadic access to the internet.

How it is that I managed to make it so far in my life without visiting America is beyond me. New York was astonishingly familiar, not just because it has been a cultural reference point since my youth, but because all the supposed distinctions between the US and the UK turned out to be effectively non-existent. The “special relationship” at a governmental level may be largely reliant upon certain shared imperial ambitions, but on the ground, though clearly dependent upon shared language, it was apparent that, for several decades now, we have both been dipping into a cross-pollinated pool of common experience.

Introducing me effortlessly into US society, my old blogging chum The Talking Dog first extended the hand of American generosity, meeting me at the airport — after waiting for hours as my flight was delayed and I slowly cleared immigration — and driving me, to the accompaniment of his laconic but piercing insights into US politics, back to Brooklyn, where the TD family completed my welcome with warmth and enthusiasm — and a much-appreciated chicken dinner.

The media circus began on the Monday morning (March 10), when veteran activist Mort Mecklosky interviewed me by phone for an hour on WUSB 90.1 FM in Long Island. TD then escorted me to the offices of the Center for Constitutional Rights on Broadway, where I finally met some of the lawyers with whom I had been in contact by phone and email for many months, including Wells Dixon, Shayana Kadidal, Emi MacLean, Susan Hu and Jen Nessel. After a discussion about some of the most pressing issues relating to Guantanamo — the problems with repatriating cleared prisoners to countries where they face the risk of torture, and legal representation for the 14 “high-value” prisoners transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four of the five others recently charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks — we adjourned to a lively corner café, where I enjoyed my first genuine US burger and fries and soaked up the buzzy ambience.

We then negotiated a chronically packed subway to Columbia University School of Law for a well-attended event, “The Future of Guantánamo,” which was organized by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, with support from the American Constitution Society, CCR and Human Rights Watch. The event arose after I had hooked up with Brennan Center attorney Jonathan Hafetz last fall, as the story of Ali al-Marri, a US resident imprisoned without charge or trial as an “enemy combatant” on the US mainland, briefly hit the news. To my great delight, Wells Dixon, attorney for the Guantánamo Global Justice Initiative at CCR and Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program Director at Human Rights Watch, were also enthusiastic to speak, and to endorse the event.

From L to R: Andy Worthington, Jonathan Hafetz, Joanne Mariner and Wells Dixon, March 10, 2008.

In what I hope might be a model for Guantánamo-related events to come, we each took a theme relating to the problems involved in closing Guantánamo. I began by outlining the research I had undertaken for The Guantánamo Files, and a broad sweep of my findings, and then spoke about the problems of Guantanamo’s cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated — and what role Europe might have to play in solving what appears to be a horrendously intractable problem. Jonathan then took over, talking about the prisons beyond Guantánamo — those at Bagram in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in various other places, as part of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program, which we still know very little about — and the US “enemy combatants” Jose Padilla and Ali al-Marri (all crucial issues that need to be confronted whatever happens at Guantánamo). Joanne followed, speaking about perturbing proposals by the administration to overwrite all the unprecedented extra-legal innovations of the last six and a half years by introducing legislation authorizing “preventive detention” (in other words, attempting, retrospectively, to legitimize indefinite detention without trial), and Wells concluded by discussing the many disturbing facets of the process of Military Commissions dreamt up to try the Guantánamo prisoners. I have covered the Commissions at length here, but they remain of enormous importance, as their ultimate failure may be what is required to push the trials of those considered truly dangerous to the US mainland, and the US court system, which is where they should have been pursued in the first place.

A recording of the event is available here, and additional photos are available here. I’d like to thank not only the speakers, and Columbia Law School, but also Ellen Fisher of the Brennan Center, who did such a great job of organizing the event.

After a brief visit to a bar with my fellow speakers — another first for the visitor! — and an interview with Jeff Farias of Air America radio, TD escorted me back to Brooklyn for another civilized night of good food and wine, punctuated only by shock at the day’s seismic news: the scandal, involving a prostitution ring, that was in the process of toppling New York governor Eliot Spitzer (henceforth to be known only as “Client No. 9”), who had set himself up for a spectacular fall by (a) antagonizing Wall Street and (b) being such a moralistic prig in his role as governor. The jury’s out as to which transgression was the more significant.

Eliot Spitzer

Eliot Spitzer: the resignation photo.

Tuesday dawned bright and early. Extending a by-now familiar hospitality, Mrs. TD took me on a walking tour through the streets of Brooklyn, arriving in Manhattan via the extraordinary view from Brooklyn Heights and the charms of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Manhattan from Brooklyn

Manhattan viewed from Brooklyn, March 11, 2008.

We parted downtown, and I then made my way, via Chinatown and Little Italy, to Tribeca, for an interview with Lenny Charles of the International News Network (INN), which aired later that day. The interview, in which we discussed in depth my New York Times front-page story with Carlotta Gall, Time Runs Out for an Afghan Held by the U.S., and the ramifications of the Times’ subsequent Editor’s Note apologizing for giving me a byline, is available here and here (on YouTube), although I apologize in advance for the rather poor quality.

Following my interview with Lenny, I took a cab to Penn Station, to catch one of the many cut-price coaches to Washington D.C. After passing through the Lincoln Tunnel, we traveled through the largely loveless industrial landscape of New Jersey, and proceeded through several hundred miles of mostly featureless flat lands, punctuated only by the mighty Susquehanna River and the sudden intrusions of deluxe, bespoke housing developments shrouded by trees. Mid-evening we rolled up in Bethesda, MD., where some old friends from my pre-Guantánamo days (we met at a wonderful Neolithic Temples Conference in Malta in 2003) welcomed me with a familiarity to which I had rapidly become accustomed.

This was clearly too short a visit, as we barely had time to eat, drink and recap on the events of the last year and a half (since we last saw each other in London), before I was deposited in the heart of activist D.C., around Dupont Circle, for my next public appointment at the New America Foundation on Connecticut Avenue. On arrival, I secured a quiet room for a telephone interview with Mary-Charlotte Domandi on the Santa Fe Radio Café. The interview is available here — it’s only the last ten minutes or so, as I was lost in transit when I was supposed to be on the end of a phone, although I hope to do a more extensive interview at some point in the future.

Mother Jones anti-torture issueAfter the interview, I had a brief opportunity to catch up with my old college friend Peter Bergen, who organized the event. The author of Holy War, Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know, Peter is also a respected journalist, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and the terrorism analyst for CNN. He recently wrote an article about “extraordinary rendition” (and co-wrote some important notes about those involved in the process, which drew partly on my research for The Guantánamo Files), for an issue of Mother Jones that was devoted to the elimination of the use of torture by US forces, and he reinforced my realization that America’s shameful use of torture has become an increasingly key issue, not only in progressive circles, but also in parts of the Republican party, by presenting me with a copy of the latest issue of Washington Monthly, in which a roll-call of varied contributors voiced their opposition to the use of torture, with many of them also highlighting the importance of the Geneva Conventions, and of not imprisoning people without charge or trial, as part of the conversation.

Washington Monthly anti-torture issueThe contributors include an astonishing array of principled people cut out of the loop by the Bush administration, including former President Jimmy Carter, former congressmen, senior military officials and government officials, FBI senior interrogator Jack Cloonan, several serving Senators, the chair and vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission, plus Carl Ford, the assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research in the Bush administration, William H. Taft IV, who was Colin Powell’s chief legal advisor, and Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who was Powell’s chief of staff.

As the Editors wrote in their introduction to the issue, “In most issues of the Washington Monthly, we favor articles that we hope will launch a debate. In this issue we seek to end one. The unifying message of the articles that follow is, simply, Stop. In the wake of September 11, the United States became a nation that practiced torture. Astonishingly — despite the repudiation of torture by experts and the revelations of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib — we remain one.”

The realization that four particular policies introduced by the Bush administration — the use of torture, the use of “extraordinary rendition,” imprisonment without charge or trial and the jettisoning of the Geneva Conventions — had crystallized as rallying points for an increasing number of Americans, was one of the main revelations of my visit. It was not that I didn’t know how significant these aberrations were before traveling to the States — and how many people were opposed to them with every fiber of their being — but it was not until I spent time in the US that I realized how fundamentally the administration’s flight from long-established laws is perceived as not only endangering troops abroad and eroding America’s moral standing, but also — and perhaps even primarily — as a fundamental betrayal of America’s core values, and it was genuinely moving to discover that the idealism on which the nation was founded is still considered of paramount importance today.

Andy Worthington at the New America Foundation

At the New America Foundation, March 12, 2008.

For the event at the New America Foundation, “Life at Guantánamo Bay,” which was introduced and moderated by Peter, I ran through the findings of my research into Guantánamo to a packed house of policy makers, academics, activists and others involved in international politics. I’m delighted that Tom Wilner, a partner at Shearman and Sterling, and an indefatigable opponent of the administration’s post-9/11 policies, whom I had the pleasure to meet and interview while he was visiting London last September, took time out of his busy schedule to add his insights into the legal betrayals perpetrated by the administration. I’m just as delighted that, when a Department of Defense official asked us to explain away the administration’s claim that those held at Guantánamo had been trained to resist interrogation, and that therefore any plea of innocence was suspicious, Tom was even more vociferous than me in noting that, although this could conceivably be true, there was also no way of distinguishing between trained al-Qaeda liars and genuinely innocent men, as they were both telling the same story.

A video of the event is available above, on YouTube, and an audio recording is available here. Both, I think, confirm that Tom and I agreed that the closest analogy to the situation in Guantánamo was the witch-hunts of the 17th century, and also confirm that Tom’s mantra — “All we’ve ever been asking for is a fair trial for these men” — remains as potent now as it was when he first began demanding rights for the Guantánamo prisoners in January 2002. I’d like to thank Peter and Elizabeth Wu at the New America Foundation for organizing the event, and Tom for coming along to add his considerable first-hand experience to the fruits of my research.

After the event, I made my way to the BBC World studios, a few blocks away, for an interview with Philippa Thomas that was broadcast on BBC World News. Topically, the interview focused on the claims and counter-claims regarding the mental state of the supposed “high-value” prisoner Abu Zubaydah, and on the hollowness of the administration’s claims that they were treating the Guantánamo prisoners humanely by allowing some of them, after six years of unprecedented isolation, to phone their families for the first time. I then attempted to relax for a few hours at Peter’s house before returning to Dupont Circle for a dinner hosted by Citizens for Global Solutions, a pioneering grass-roots membership organization that campaigns to encourage Americans to engage with the wider world.

This was a fascinating and engaging affair. My hosts Tom Moran, Raj Purohit and Rich Stazinski of Citizens for Global Solutions had invited a small group of other interested parties — including representatives of the Cato Institute and the Center for Victims of Torture, and two friends of mine, Guantánamo lawyer David Remes and Anant Raut, a former Guantánamo lawyer who now works for the House Committee on the Judiciary — to discuss Guantánamo, the wider issues of the “War on Terror” and the administration’s flight from the law, over fine food and wine. It’s an excellent formula, and we all, I think, established contacts that we can build on as we work towards reestablishing America’s moral authority in the years to come — as well as having a rollicking intellectual party.

One particularly interesting campaigning aspect that emerged from this session of epicurean brainstorming, which served only to confirm the mounting revulsion towards the administration’s policies that I mentioned above, was focused on reports from various diners of the growing success of attempts to engage evangelical groups in a reading of the Gospels that reclaims a message of peace from those who have used it only to foment war and destruction.

We were all aware, however, that, although hope is in the air for the first time in eight years, a great deal of work still needs to be done to persuade millions of Americans to care about the torture and illegal imprisonment of foreign “enemy combatants.” Having expressed my incredulity that the case of the American “enemy combatant” Jose Padilla, who was tortured for three and a half years on the US mainland, had not stirred both fear and indignation, I concluded that perhaps the best way forward was to focus on Iraq, which, until the ailing US economy recently reared up as the prime talking point, was the issue capable of arousing the most interest. It remains, I think, the key rallying point, not just because of its money-guzzling futility — and its increasingly harsh toll on those who have signed up to serve their nation — but also because the whole unprincipled policy of torture, imprisonment without charge or trial and the abandonment of the Geneva Conventions is barely concealed behind its bellicose front.

Following a last pint at a nearby bar, and further discussions with Tom and Rich, the working part of my visit was mostly complete. After staying the night at Peter’s, I booked another cut-price coach to New York in the morning, caught a cab to 19th Street NW (gaining my only fleeting glimpse of the White House en route), and returned to New York, where I was largely at liberty to take some time to explore the city’s attractions. My host for my last two nights — a close friend of one of my own close friends, whom I’d met briefly in London last fall — maintained the ludicrously high standards of hospitality that I’d been fortunate enough to experience throughout my visit. After meeting at a group art show in a print studio on West 37th Street, we took a cab back to her wonderful bohemian loft in Tribeca — a true original, not some Yuppie makeover — for a top-notch Chinese takeaway bought by her flatmate, and chit-chat into the wee small hours.

After a slow start on the Friday morning, I took a cab to East 39th Street for an interview with the eloquent and empathic Michael Jones for a forthcoming edition of the radio show Voices of Our World. The show, which provides voices to those marginalized by the inexorable march of insatiable global capital, will air sometime in the first half of April, and I’ll publicize it when it’s available.

I then spent the afternoon pounding the sidewalks, shopping — or attempting to shop — for gifts for my family before meeting up with Joanne Mariner for a drink and a chat in a bar near Gramercy Park, where Joanne sprung one of the week’s surprises on me, which had passed me by while I was removed from my computer: the arrival at Guantánamo –- while most voices from the administration were still suggesting that the prison’s closure was what they had in mind –- of a new and supposedly “high-value” prisoner called Muhammad Rahim. It was, I admit, hard to comprehend, particularly following the largely inexplicable transfer of five prisoners into Guantánamo last year, but it perhaps proves once more that, when it comes to Guantánamo, logic is something that is left outside the gates.

I later learned that another significant story that had passed me by was a momentous decision, in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, that cleared prisoner Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian national and British resident, who has been spurned by the British government, but is terrified of returning to Algeria, “deserves to have his case returned to a federal judge for review,” as the Associated Press described it. The ruling, which, as the AP added, “mark[ed] the second time in eight months the appeals court has gone against the Bush administration on an important Guantánamo Bay issue — a development the government and congressional Republicans had not planned on,” was so significant that David Remes, Belbacha’s lawyer in the States, noted that one of his colleagues had described it as “the single biggest decision for asylum seekers we’ve had in the entire Gitmo litigation.”

The rest of my trip was a rush of culture — privileged entry to the National Arts Club for a concert by BeBop survivor Bob Mover and an accomplished six-piece band, followed by champagne and cookies in the Tiffany-decorated drawing room, a drive back to Tribeca with a bunch of lovely New York artists, writers and actors, and another late night, in which the discussion turned, productively, to the differences between now, when we were discussing the possibilities of America being led by a black man or a woman (or, at worst — and still largely unthought — a maverick Republican resolutely opposed to torture, because he had experienced it himself), and 2004, when artists and activists had dutifully put on events to raise money for John Kerry, with little enthusiasm. Hovering over it all, however, was Barack Obama’s ability to indicate that a genuine seismic change in American society was possible, a situation which, I suggested, was akin to the Tony Blair experience of 1997 in the UK, but hopefully with far more substance and willingness to embrace a new vision.

Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village, March 15, 2008.

And that, essentially, was that. After another late start, my host took me on a tour through SoHo and Greenwich Village, where we picked up the greatest falafels in New York and watched a couple of drunks fighting playfully over outdoor chess tables, and left me — as was appropriate — to leave America alone, making my way to JFK airport and the long, jetlag-inducing journey home. It was raining when I arrived in London, and I was genuinely drained, but it was delightful to be back home with my family, even though a part of me — and there’s no way to write this without it sounding appallingly sentimental — was still on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, discussing, with those most affected by it, the implications of the policies implemented by the most rogue administration in US history.

Note: my thanks to Helen and Will at Pluto Press for funding my visit, and to Mary and Stephanie at the University of Michigan Press for arranging my interviews.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials

From the moment that the Toronto Star unleashed a gruesome, and previously unpublished photo of the chest wounds sustained by 15-year old Omar Khadr, after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, it was clear that the resumption of Khadr’s pre-trial hearing at Guantánamo last week would once more raise murky issues of torture and untrustworthy intelligence that the administration — desperate to secure a “clean” conviction in its much-reviled Military Commission process — hoped would remain buried.

Omar Khadr at the time of his capture

The photo preceded excerpts from Star reporter Michelle Shephard’s long-awaited biography of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s Child, which does the most thorough job to date of humanizing the second youngest son of the generally unsympathetic Khadr family, whose late patriarch, Ahmed Khadr, was close to Osama bin Laden.

While serving as a terrifying trailer for the book, however, the photo’s publication also heightened tensions that had surfaced in pre-trial hearings in November, when, after five years of claims, on the administration’s part, that Khadr had been the last enemy soldier alive after the firefight, and had therefore thrown the grenade that killed a US soldier, it was revealed that the grenade could, in fact, have been thrown by one of his companions, who was alive at the time, but whose survival at that point had not previously been disclosed.

Omar Khadr and the fog of war

The day before Khadr’s pre-trial hearings resumed last Friday, his tenacious military defense lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, duly raised these issues, telling journalists that the report of the circumstances that led to Khadr’s capture, written by an officer identified only as “Lt. Col. W.,” had been altered after the event to implicate the Canadian teenager. As Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler described it, the report initially said that the assailant who threw the grenade had been killed, but was then revised, about two months later, to say that the grenade thrower had been “engaged” (a change that clearly implicated Khadr). “We now know that story was false,” Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler told the reporters, adding, “It’s consistent with the proposition that the government manufactured evidence to make it look like Omar was guilty.”

On Friday, Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler asked the judge, Col. Peter Brownback, to allow the defense team to question “Lt. Col. W.” Col. Brownback not only agreed to this request; he also ordered prosecutors to give Khadr’s lawyers a list of all US personnel who had interrogated Khadr in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, and to provide them with access to their notes, postponed the trial’s start date (scheduled for May 5) to allow more time for discussions of acceptable evidence, and rebuffed the government-appointed prosecutors, who claimed, as the Miami Herald described it, “that they had already searched available records and interviewed potential witnesses, and had found nothing more to provide in the discovery phase to defense lawyers.” As the Herald report continued, “Brownback was not persuaded,” and “sent prosecutors back to search US State Department communications with Canada, battlefield dispatches and messages around the time of the 2002 firefight and other records.” “We can’t try the case until we get the discovery done,” Col. Brownback insisted. “So if I have to come down here every week, I’ll do it, what the heck.”

Khadr alleges torture

Capping another difficult week in the administration’s attempts to prosecute Khadr, his lawyers released an eight-page affidavit, in which Khadr himself described his treatment at the hands of both the Americans — in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo — and the Canadian agents who also visited him at Guantánamo. Partly redacted by US censors, the document nevertheless reveals extensive allegations of abuse that, in some cases, seem to amount to torture.

In addition to Khadr’s previously documented claims that he was threatened with rape and was used as a human mop at Guantánamo to wipe up his own urine after he had been held for hours in a stress position and had soiled himself, he reported that he “told a Canadian delegation in 2003 that the Americans ‘would torture’ him — so he told them whatever they wanted’ to hear, but that “The Canadians called me a liar, and I began to sob. They screamed at me and told me they could not do anything for me.” In other sections, he described how, after he embarked on a hunger strike at Guantánamo, “Guards would grab me by pressure points behind my ears, under the jaw and on my neck. On a scale of one to 10, I would say the pain was an 11.”

Khadr also described abuse that took place in the days after his capture, in particular at the hands of a Hispanic MP, who “would often [redacted]. He would tell nurses not to [redacted] since he said that I had killed an American soldier. He would also [redacted] me quite often.” He also reported that something was done to his eyes — “Sometimes they would [redacted] particularly since both my eyes were badly injured” — and described being kneed “repeatedly in the thighs,” a brutal technique, known as the common peroneal strike, whose overuse in Bagram led to the murder of two prisoners, Mullah Habibullah, and a taxi driver named Dilawar, in December 2002.

This comment adds to the suspicion that Khadr was the victim of torture in Bagram, as it was also revealed last week that one of his interrogators was Sgt. Joshua Claus, who was later charged, along with 14 others, of various crimes, including assault and “maltreatment of a detainee” in connection with the murder of the two men, and was sentenced to five months in jail in 2006.

One of the cells in the prison at Bagram airbase

Mohamed Jawad

Omar Khadr was not the only defendant last week to raise the spectre of torture to haunt the Military Commissions. On Wednesday, Mohamed Jawad, an Afghan who, according to his own account, was only 16 when he was seized after allegedly throwing a grenade that wounded two US soldiers and an Afghan interpreter, said, as Carol Williams described it in the Los Angeles Times, “that he had been tortured while in US custody at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan after his arrest, and that he had been mistreated in Guantánamo as well.” “The American government said the Taliban has been very cruel in Afghanistan, that they killed people without any trial and imprisoned people without trial,” Jawad told the judge, Col. Ralph Kohlmann. “When I was in detention at Bagram, Americans killed three people. They beat people and arrested us without trial. We’re not given any rights.”

This was a departure in some ways. As I reported in a detailed article when he was first charged last October, Jawad had not alleged that he had been tortured by US forces during his tribunal and his military reviews at Guantánamo, which were convened, in the first instance, to assess whether he had been correctly designated as an “enemy combatant” when he was captured, and subsequently to assess whether he still constituted a threat to the US or its interests. He had, however, claimed that a false confession had been forced out of him by the Afghan police who first captured him. “[T]hey tortured me,” he said in 2005. “They beat me. They beat me a lot. One person told me, ‘If you don’t confess, they are going to kill you’. So, I told them anything they wanted to hear.”

Although he explicitly stated in his review, “I have never seen or endured any torture in Bagram or here in Cuba by the Americans,” it’s possible that he had previously failed to mention being tortured by US forces because he had concluded that it was wiser not to raise the topic in front of the US military officers who appeared to offer him a chance — however slim — of escaping from Guantánamo for good. It certainly seems unlikely that Jawad was not subjected to abuse while at Bagram, as the period that he was there — from mid-December 2002, two months after Omar Khadr left for Guantánamo — is during that same period, from summer 2002 until sometime in 2003, at the earliest, that the prison was the venue for particularly savage and routine violence that led to the murders mentioned above, and, it should be noted, to an apparent third homicide mentioned not only by Mohamed Jawad, but also by the released British prisoners Moazzam Begg, Richard Belmar and Jamal Kiyemba, as I discuss in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.

This alone would make his trial problematical, but Jawad himself raised further hurdles to what the Pentagon clearly hoped would be a straightforward process by declaring the proceedings illegal and refusing to accept representation by his military lawyer, Col. Mike Sawyers. Apparently dragged from his cell to attend the hearing, and wearing the infamous orange garb that, for many years, has been reserved for those ruled “non-compliant,” he told Col. Kohlmann, “My right has not been given to me. I have not violated any international law. There are many accusations against me … they don’t make any sense … I am a human being.” He added, as Steven Edwards described it for the Canwest News Service, that he “continued to be treated unjustly and interrogated, and that he wanted the ‘whole world’ to know it.”

Despite being spurned by his client, Col. Sawyers was vigorous in his defense outside the courtroom, explaining to reporters that western concepts of justice were “completely foreign” to Jawad, and making a statement on his behalf that also resonates with the case of Omar Khadr. “I believe this is the direct result of taking a 16- or 17-year-old boy and putting him in confinement … with no contact with the outside world,” Col. Sawyers said. “He has been in a three-by-seven-(foot) cell … I do not believe he understands the proceedings … I don’t know if I were given ten years I could explain it to him.”

With Jawad’s refusal to engage with the Commissions (asked to enter a plea, he had, by that point, “slumped onto the defense table and refused to respond to Kohlmann’s questions”) and with Col. Sawyers’ active duty about to run out, the case is unlikely to resume in the near future. As Col. Steve David, the Commissions’ chief defense lawyer, explained, he will not be able to assign Jawad a new lawyer for some time, because, unlike the prosecution, which has a full roster of 30 lawyers, he has only nine lawyers on duty, who are already struggling to cope with their caseload.

Ahmed al-Darbi

The last of the cases considered last week — that of Ahmed Mohammed al-Darbi, a 33-year old Saudi — also failed to advance the process. Apparently the brother-in-law of one of the 9/11 hijackers, al-Darbi, described as “polite and responsive” during his arraignment, also refused to enter a plea, and was undecided about whether or not to accept the services of his military lawyer. The administration can, perhaps, count itself lucky that al-Darbi did not wish to speak out, although this is probably only a matter of putting off the inevitable.

Seized in Azerbaijan, al-Darbi was rendered to Afghanistan, and also ended up in Bagram, where, he later alleged, an interrogator named Damien Corsetti, known as “Monster” or “The King of Torture,” abused prisoners by poking them in the face with his naked penis and threatening them with sexual assault. Corsetti was later charged with dereliction of duty, maltreatment, assault and performing an indecent act with another person, but although he was cleared of all the charges in June 2006, al-Darbi’s presence at Bagram during the period that both Omar Khadr and Mohamed Jawad were there suggests that the well-chronicled torture at the prison during that period — which Corsetti discussed, with refreshing frankness, in a recent interview — will also surface in his trial.

If, as Carol Williams suggested, Mohamed Jawad’s case had been pushed forward before those of the six men (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) who were charged last month in connection with the 9/11 attacks, because the process of finding lawyers for those men has only just begun, and because Jawad’s case — and, by extension, that of Ahmed al-Darbi — were presumed to be easier to win, last weeks’ events have served only to rock the Commissions’ legitimacy once more, highlighting allegations of torture in Bagram as a counter-point to the well-chronicled torture of those charged in connection with 9/11 in secret prisons run by the CIA (in five of the cases) and in Guantánamo in the case of the sixth, Mohammed al-Qahtani.

Ibrahim al-Qosi and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul

Nor, it seems, is it likely that torture will be sidestepped in the cases of the other prisoners awaiting arraignment. The Sudanese prisoner Ibrahim al-Qosi and the Yemeni Ali Hamza al-Bahlul (both charged last month for their alleged connections with al-Qaeda) are well-known to those who have been following the Commissions since they first spluttered into life in the summer of 2003. Both were previously charged in the first round of the trials, which were struck down as illegal by the Supreme Court in June 2006, without either man having had the opportunity to discuss the details of their treatment, but in a hearing in 2004 al-Bahlul’s military defense lawyer, Maj. Tom Fleener, told the judge, Col. Peter Brownback, “I believe Mr. al-Bahlul was tortured,” adding that it was “going to be an issue” in any trial faced by his client.

Ali Hamza al-Bahlul during his Military Commission in 2004

A sketch of Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, made during his first appearance before the Military Commissions in 2004. Image from the Associated Press.

Similar territory was covered by Lt. Col. Sharon Shaffer, who was assigned to represent al-Qosi. According to a report in the Nation in December 2005, she “characterized his treatment as possibly torture but certainly inhumane treatment; he was held in stress positions for protracted periods, subjected to military dogs and sexually humiliated.”

Ibrahim al-Qosi during his Military Commission in 2004

A sketch of Ibrahim al-Qosi, made during his first appearance before the Military Commissions in 2004. Image: Art Lien/Getty Images.

If there is a “clean” case that can be presented to the Commissions without ensnaring the administration in ever more lengthy and damaging allegations relating to the use of torture by US forces, it has yet to be found. Just possibly, however, the Pentagon’s announcement, during the fallout from Mohamed Jawad’s boycott of his arraignment, that another Afghan — Mohammed Kamin — would also face a trial by Military Commission was intended to fulfil the administration’s elusive dream: the successful prosecution of a prisoner who will not claim that he was tortured.

Mohammed Kamin

On the surface, Mohammed Kamin fulfils this criterion, although he also seems, like many before him, to be an unworthy candidate for any kind of war crimes trial at all. In his charge sheet (PDF), he is accused of “providing material support for terrorism,” specifically by receiving training at “an al-Qaeda training camp,” conducting surveillance on US and coalition military bases and activities, planting two mines under a bridge, and launching missiles at the city of Khost while it was occupied by US and coalition forces. He is not charged with harming, let along killing US forces, and were it not for his supposed al-Qaeda connection — he apparently stated in interrogation that he was “recruited by an al-Qaeda cell leader” — it would, I think, be impossible to make the case that he was involved in “terrorism” at all. As it is, I’m prepared to state that his case seems to me to demonstrate how hopelessly blurred the distinctions between military resistance (aka insurgency) and terrorism have become, so that anyone caught fighting US occupation is not engaged in a war (with its own well-established laws) but is automatically part of a global terrorist movement.

In a courtroom, of course, it may well emerge that, like all the others mentioned above, Mohammed Kamin will reveal — or at least allege — that he too was tortured, adding to the increasing suspicion that there is no corner of the post-9/11 prison system that is beyond the cold hand of the torturer, whose actions were sanctioned at the highest levels of the government. In the full glare of the world’s media, the Military Commissions continue to expose the very torture and abuse that the administration has strived so hard to conceal, and I cannot see how they can ever result in a prosecution that will be recognized as valid. As the Bush administration counts down its last months in office, the only solution, it seems to me, is to maintain the pressure on the next administration to move the trials to federal courts on the US mainland.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post 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), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, February 2008), 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).

Sami al-Haj’s Guantánamo torture pictures

Today, Reprieve, the charity that provides frontline investigation and legal representation for prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, released the first of four pictures based on censored drawings made by imprisoned al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj.

Lewis Peake's picture based on a banned drawing by Sami al-Haj

The first of Lewis Peake’s four pictures based on drawings by Sami al-Haj, which were censored by the US military.

The pictures were created by political cartoonist Lewis Peake, and came about after Mr. al-Haj’s original drawings were censored by the Pentagon. Mr. al-Haj had shown the drawings to his lawyer, Cori Crider, during a visit last month. Fearing that they would be censored, Ms. Crider asked Mr. al-Haj to provide detailed descriptions of the drawings, which he duly did.

When the drawings were subsequently censored, as anticipated, Reprieve approached Lewis Peake and asked him to create original works based on Mr. al-Haj’s descriptions. Mr. Peake was hesitant at first, as the following explanation reveals, but ultimately found the process deeply rewarding. “Drawing cartoons based on someone else’s concepts is a new experience for me and when Reprieve asked me to do this I wasn’t sure it would work,” he said. “I had to remain true to the spirit of Sami’s original drawings (which I had not seen!) yet somehow inject something of my own to avoid creating lifeless replicas. In the event I have found it very rewarding — artistically and emotionally — and if it contributes even minutely to helping Sami obtain his freedom (insh’ allah!), it will have done more than all of my other work combined.”

The first of the pictures to be released (the others will follow over the next week or so — see here) documents Mr. al-Haj’s feelings about the way he sees himself subjected to force-feeding in what he and other prisoners describe as the “Torture Chair,” the restraint chair into which they are strapped twice a day, when they have a 110 cm tube forcibly inserted into one nostril so that liquid food can be administered. The tube is pulled out after each feeding, and the prisoners are left in the chair for up to two hours so that they can be force-fed again if they vomit.

“The first sketch is just a skeleton in the torture chair,” Mr. al-Haj explained. “My picture reflects my nightmares of what I must look like, with my head double-strapped down, a tube in my nose, a black mask over my mouth, with no eyes and only giant cheekbones, my teeth jutting out — my bones showing in every detail, every rib, every joint. The tube goes up to a bag at the top of the drawing. On the right there is another skeleton sitting shackled to another chair. They are sitting like we do in interrogations, with hands shackled, feet shackled to the floor, just waiting. In between I draw the flag of Guantanamo — JTF-GTMO — but instead of the normal insignia, there is a skull and crossbones, the real symbol of what is happening here.”

Explaining the rationale behind the project, Reprieve’s Director, Clive Stafford Smith, said, “Reprieve has commissioned these drawings to highlight the denial of basic justice to Sami al-Haj. He is no terrorist, but he does not ask you to take his word for it. By his peaceful hunger strike he asks only for a fair trial. Yet the US military seeks to muzzle him at every turn. He cannot tell his story to a jury. He is not allowed to draw a picture demonstrating how he and others suffer. And now, as the price for discussing his release, the US is trying to force the Sudanese government to bar Sami from working as a journalist once he is out of Guantánamo. This reflects precisely the opposite of the high ideals for which the US stands.”

Speaking of the censorship of Mr. al-Haj’s original pictures, he added, “This is typical of the misplaced censorship used by the authorities at Guantánamo, where the motivation is not national security but trying to avoid embarrassment for the illegal acts of the military. The Bush Administration can suppress Sami’s sketch, but they can’t stop another artist from replicating it. Ultimately, Sami’s spirit is irrepressible. Like Martin Luther King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, the world will hear him, because he seeks only justice.”

Note: See here for a more detailed article, and all of Sami’s pictures.

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), and was the Communications Officer for Reprieve in 2008. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on Indymedia.

Why Guantánamo Must Be Closed

The Guantanamo FilesAn edited version of this article was published in the first issue of the online magazine FLYP, in a section entitled “Face/Off,” in which two contrasting opinions are presented regarding current political issues. The question posed was, “Should Guantánamo Be Closed?” and my article was presented under the heading, “Its whole purpose is torture.” The opposing view — under the heading, “Moving the jails is not the solution” — was presented by James Jay Carafino, Ph. D., whose resumé includes a role at the Heritage Foundation.

The reason that Guantánamo must be closed is the same as it has been since the prison opened over six years ago, on January 11, 2002. In a country founded on the rule of law, it is completely unjustifiable to declare prisoners “illegal enemy combatants” and to hold them without charge or trial.

If these prisoners were, or are terrorists, as the government has persistently averred, they should have been charged as such, and subjected to trials as criminals on the US mainland. If, on the other hand, they were soldiers — even soldiers of an irregular army — who were captured on the battlefield, as the government has also maintained, they should have been held as Enemy Prisoners of War, as defined by the Geneva Conventions, and protected “against acts of violence or intimidation.”

What happened instead, as we have discovered in the long years since Guantánamo opened, is that hundreds of innocent men — charity workers, economic migrants, religious students and teachers — were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan by the US military’s local allies, and were handed over for bounty payments averaging $5,000 a head.

Hundreds of Taliban recruits were also detained, although the administration has struggled to connect them in any meaningful way to al-Qaeda or the events of 9/11. The majority of these men had traveled to Afghanistan before 9/11, at the urging of fatwas issued by radical sheikhs in their home countries in the Middle East, to help the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance in an inter-Muslim civil war that began after the fall of the last remnants of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992, and continued after the rise of the Taliban in 1994.

There will never be any excuse for holding so many innocent men. According to Article 5 of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, if there is any doubt about the status of prisoners captured during a war, they must be subjected to battlefield tribunals, designed to deal promptly with those captured by mistake. This has happened in all previous wars conducted by the United States since the Conventions were drafted. During the first Gulf War, for example, battlefield tribunals were held for 1,196 prisoners, and nearly three-quarters of them were subsequently released.

However, as Chris Mackey, a former interrogator at the US prisons in Afghanistan, has explained, no substantive screening process whatsoever took place at Kandahar and Bagram. On the orders of the high-level officials overseeing the transfer process at Camp Doha, Kuwait, all Arab prisoners were automatically sent to Guantánamo, and so too were the majority of the 220 Afghans who also ended up at Guantánamo, even though the majority had been betrayed by rivals or had been picked up in raids based on dubious intelligence.

Shamefully, when the prisoners failed to provide significant intelligence at Guantánamo, the authorities decided that it was because they had been trained by al-Qaeda to resist interrogation, and, with the blessing of defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, introduced “enhanced interrogation techniques” — including prolonged isolation, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, religious abuse, the use of extreme heat and cold, and the use of excruciatingly painful stress positions — which, particularly in 2003 and 2004, transformed an offshore interrogation center holding prisoners without charge or trial (all illegal under the Geneva Conventions and international laws) into a prison where what was practiced was — under any definition other than the deliberately narrow one chosen by the administration — torture.

Legal attempts to redress these injustices have largely been ignored or overridden by the administration. When the Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 that Guantánamo — chosen as the location for the prison because it was presumed to beyond the reach of the US courts — was “territory over which the United States exercises exclusive jurisdiction and control,” and that the prisoners therefore had habeas corpus rights (the right to challenge the basis of their detention), the administration undermined the judgment by introducing military tribunals — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals — which were a cynical mockery of the Article 5 battlefield tribunals. These, of course, relied on a proximity to the place and time of capture, so that witnesses could be reasonably called, but in Guantánamo, although the authorities claimed that they had tried to call witnesses requested by the prisoners, no outside witness was ever called to back up the prisoners’ stories.

Moreover, the prisoners, though allowed access to lawyers after the Supreme Court ruling, were not allowed legal representation in the tribunals, and were also denied the opportunity either to hear or challenge the “classified evidence” against them. Last year, two military officers who had served on the tribunals submitted statements declaring that the tribunals relied on generalized and often generic evidence, adding, moreover, that most of the “evidence” consisted of “information obtained during interrogations of other detainees.”

So what of the truly dangerous prisoners at Guantánamo? According to dozens of high-level military and intelligence sources cited by the New York Times in June 2004, none of the prisoners “ranked as leaders or senior operatives of al-Qaeda,” and “only a relative handful — some put the number at about a dozen, others more than two dozen — were sworn Qaeda members or other militants able to elucidate the organization’s inner workings.” To these can be added some — or perhaps most — of the ten prisoners and 14 “high-value” prisoners, who were transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2004 and September 2006.

What will happen to these men is unclear. The Pentagon has, of course, just pressed charges against six of the “high-value” prisoners most closely associated with the 9/11 attacks (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed architect of 9/11), but the system chosen for their prosecution — trial by Military Commission — has yet to record a single significant success.

Dreamt up by Vice President Dick Cheney and his advisors in November 2001, as an alternative to both the criminal justice system and the military’s own judicial system, the Commissions, like the tribunals, are empowered to use hearsay evidence (and may use evidence obtained through coercion if approved by the government-appointed military judges). They have been condemned by one of their own military defense lawyers (Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler) as rigged, ridiculous, unjust, farcical, a sham, and a lawless process. Another, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, explained to Vanity Fair last March, “The whole purpose of setting up Guantánamo Bay is for torture. Why do this? Because you want to escape the rule of law. There is only one thing that you want to escape the rule of law to do, and that is to question people coercively — what some people call torture. Guantánamo and the military commissions are implements for breaking the law.”

Complicating matters, at least some, and perhaps the majority of these men have been subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including, in at least three cases, waterboarding, which is a form of controlled drowning. Despite the administration’s best semantic efforts, these techniques are torture, pure and simple. They remain illegal under domestic and international law, and evidence obtained through torture is legally inadmissible.

How the administration will deal with this inconvenient truth is, at present, unknown. If the Commissions collapse, these men will have to be moved to the US mainland to face prosecution in a recognizable court system, where their torture will cast a cloud over the integrity of their trials, even if juries can be secured who are prepared to ignore the fact that they were tortured.

What should have happened, and what should happen in future with any other alleged terrorists captured by the United States, is that they are handed over to skilled interrogators like the FBI’s Dan Coleman, who interrogated many of the terrorists captured before 9/11 (and convicted in the US courts) without resorting to “enhanced interrogation.” Fundamentally opposed to torture, because it is unreliable, and because it corrupts those who undertake it, Coleman, in 2005, delivered a brief condemnation of the methods employed by the government since 9/11, which should serve as an epitaph for the lawless aberrations of the last six years. Speaking to Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, he said, “Brutalization doesn’t work. We know that. Besides, you lose your soul.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Afghan hero who died in Guantánamo: the background to the story

On February 5, the New York Times published a front-page story by Carlotta Gall and myself, Time Runs Out for an Afghan Held by the U.S., about Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, a 68-year old Afghan detainee who died in Guantánamo on December 30, 2007, in which we established that Mr. Hekmati, known to the authorities in Guantánamo as Abdul Razzak, had — contrary to assertions that he was involved in both al-Qaeda and the Taliban — helped free three significant anti-Taliban commanders from a Taliban jail in 1999, but that no significant effort had been made in Guantánamo to find witnesses who could easily have verified his story, which he had repeated throughout his five-year detention without charge or trial.

In the wake of various right-wing claims that the journalistic integrity of the article was in doubt, following an “Editor’s Note” issued by the Times, pointing out that I have described Guantánamo as part of “a cruel and misguided response by the Bush administration to the Sept. 11 attacks,” and that I have an “outspoken position on Guantánamo” and “a point of view,” I thought it might be prudent to relate a little of the background to the story, explaining its genesis, and directing readers to other sources to help verify the story reported by Carlotta and myself.

The story of Abdul Razzaq Hekmati had intrigued me while I was researching my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, primarily because he had called Ismail Khan — who was exceedingly well known as the governor of the western Afghan province of Herat — as a witness in his Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantánamo. These tribunals were established to review the detainees’ status as “enemy combatants,” and were apparently empowered to call outside witnesses requested by the detainees, although as Carlotta and I reported, based on my research, on statements made last year by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who had served on the tribunals, and on a report compiled by the Seton Hall Law School (PDF), no outside witnesses had ever been called to appear at a tribunal.

Ismail Khan

Ismail Khan in 2004.

In Chapter 18 of The Guantánamo Files, I looked specifically at the US authorities’ stated inability to locate witnesses requested by the detainees to appear at their tribunals to clear their names. Because Ismail Khan was so famous, I mentioned the request made by a truck driver named Abdul Razzak, who claimed that he had freed Khan from a Taliban jail in 1999, but had no time to research his story further.

Instead, after also mentioning a few more of the many Afghan detainees who beseeched the authorities to establish contact with officials in Afghanistan who could apparently vouch for them, I focused on the case of Abdullah Mujahid. He had been cleared for release at the time I was writing the book, and was finally released from Guantánamo — only to end up being held without charge or trial in a US-run wing of Kabul’s Pol-i-Charki prison — in December 2007.

In Guantánamo, Mujahid persistently maintained that he had been working for the government of Hamid Karzai, and the authorities’ alleged inability to find witnesses requested by him was demonstrated as a sham in June 2006, when, in the space of 72 hours, the journalist Declan Walsh located three witnesses whom the authorities claimed to have been unable to contact: one was working in Washington DC, another was working for the Karzai government in Kabul, and the third was working for the provincial government in Gardez. All three were able to verify his story.

When I read that Abdul Razzak had died of colorectal cancer in Guantánamo on December 30, I was determined to see if I could find out anything more about his story, and Googled various variations of his name, and the events he had referred to, until finally, “ismail khan taliban jailbreak 1999” led me to Dissension Within Taliban Made Daring Escape From Prison Possible, a New York Times article by Carlotta Gall, from January 2002, which matched the account of the jailbreak described by Abdul Razzak in many ways.

Carlotta Gall interviewed the engineer of the prison escape, 21-year old Hekmatullah Hekmati, who, as she described him, “was only a teenage Taliban intelligence officer, barely old enough to grow a beard, when he decided to help Ismail Khan.” According to Hekmati’s account, he had become “disillusioned by the Taliban, whom he saw as power hungry opportunists presenting themselves as religious students, and bad leaders, who were waging a brutal, ethnically motivated war against their countrymen.” He decided that Khan, imprisoned, with 14 others, in the Kandahar prison that held the Taliban’s most senior political and military prisoners, might provide a good alternative, having established himself as a “decent administrator” during his tenure as Herat’s pre-Taliban governor. “I thought he would work more for his country, if he were freed,” he told Carlotta Gall.

Having secured a job as an intelligence officer at the prison, through a relative, Hekmati said that he then set about persuading Khan that he was trustworthy. Speaking to Carlotta Gall, Ismail Khan said, ”We spoke to Hekmatullah for about a year about the escape. Since he was such a powerful Talib he could easily come to my cell and speak to me. I could not believe he could do it and that I could trust him.” To prove that his intentions were sincere, Khan added that he told Hekmati that, “if he wanted to go ahead with the plan he should move his mother and brothers and sisters to Iran for safety,” and that when he did so he knew that the plan was real.

While Ismail Khan’s son, Mirwais, and several of his cousins organized the escape, Hekmati acted as a go-between, delivering a letter to Khan outlining the plans. In response, Khan said, he “pledged to provide the young man with a lifetime sinecure and arranged for a four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser to be sent to Kandahar for the escape.” After discussing plans to free all 15 prisoners, the escape team settled on just three men — Khan, Haji Abdul Zahir, a commander from a famous Afghan family, and his cellmate from Jalalabad, General Qassim — and on the night of March 2, 1999, while the other guards slept, Hekmatullah Hekmati opened their cells and led them to a Land Cruiser parked outside, which had been adorned with the white flag of the Taliban.

After changing into the “black turbans and flowing robes that were the signature dress of the Taliban,” the escape party drove off, passing through checkpoints with ease. They later got lost in the desert, and hit an anti-tank mine, which destroyed the vehicle and left both Ismail Khan and Hekmatullah Hekmati with “broken legs and open wounds,” but Hekmati’s father, who had been driving the Land Cruiser, then “set off for help and after a four-hour walk north reached the front lines of Ismail Khan’s own troops, who arranged a rescue.”

Although Carlotta Gall did not mention Abdul Razzak by name, it seemed probable to me that he was actually Hekmati’s father, named as Abdul Raza Hekmati, who drove the escape vehicle and arranged for the rescue of Ismail Khan and his own son after the Land Cruiser hit the anti-tank mine. The elder Hekmati evidently shared his son’s disgust with the direction the Taliban was taking. As Hekmatullah came up with his plans, Carlotta Gall noted, “The only other person he told was his father, who did not try to stop him but advised him to take it very slowly and carefully.”

In the various accounts that he gave in Guantánamo, Abdul Razzak credited himself with the motivation to free Ismail Khan, which his son claimed was his own idea, but in other crucial respects the story of the escape, as described by Hekmatullah Hekmati, matched Abdul Razzak’s account exactly, not only in his various descriptions of himself as the driver of the escape vehicle, but also in his description of the incident with the anti-tank mine. Explaining his role in the escape, Abdul Razzak said, “It was at night time. I brought [the] Land Cruiser … and I was waiting in a dark place. My son did it, because he was in the intelligence and he was entrusted by the Taliban. He took all three of them out and put them in the car… and then we escaped.” The following exchange from one of his military review boards is his take on the incident with the anti-tank mine:

Board Member: What happened to the Land Cruiser he purchased?
Detainee (through translator): Hit a mine and my son’s foot was amputated and my hand was broken. It was destroyed.

After discovering this story, I contacted Carlotta Gall, who remembered that a friend of Hekmatullah’s had told her that his father had been arrested and sent to Guantánamo, and that she had spoken about it to Haji Zahir, who was outraged and said that he would talk to the Americans about it. With the truth established that Abdul Razzak was indeed Hekmatullah Hekmati’s father, the story then took shape.

I provided Carlotta with information from his Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) and his Administrative Review Boards (ARB) at Guantánamo, from the statements of Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, and from the report by the Seton Hall Law School, and Carlotta tied the whole thing together, talking to key figures and securing poignant quotes from representatives of the US and Afghan governments, and from those who knew Mr. Hekmati.

I was particularly impressed with the comments made by Haji Zahir, who explained, “What he did was very important for all Afghan people who were against the Taliban,” adding, “He was not a man to take to Guantánamo. He was a man to give a house to and support.” Haji Zahir was even more significant than the final version of the article indicated. His father, Haji Abdul Qadir, not only served as vice-president for six months in Hamid Karzai’s first government, but was assassinated in July 2002, and his uncle was Abdul Haq, a celebrated anti-Taliban commander who was killed by the Taliban in October 2001. Ironically, the void left by the death of Abdul Haq, who was described in an obituary in the Guardian as “one of the few homegrown political figures who could have restored unity to his benighted and wartorn country” raised the profile of another anti-Taliban Pashtun who had, until that point, struggled to establish himself in the south of the country. That man was none other than Hamid Karzai.

Haji Zahir (center)

Haji Zahir (center) gives instructions to his frontline soldiers during the Tora Bora campaign in November 2001. Photo by Majeed Babar.

This was not Haji Zahir’s only claim to fame. During the largely disastrous Tora Bora campaign in late November and early December 2001, when Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and many other senior figures in al-Qaeda and the Taliban escaped unscathed into Pakistan’s largely autonomous border provinces — leaving numerous foot soldiers and fleeing civilians to be captured and sent to Guantánamo — Zahir was widely regarded as the only trustworthy commander out of the three Afghan commanders chosen to lead the US Special Forces’ proxy Afghan armies in the battle against bin Laden’s men.

The other two commanders — the thuggish Hazrat Ali and the urbane smuggler Haji Zaman Ghamsharik — are discussed in Chapter 4 of my book. Haji Zahir never made the final cut, but I noted in my first draft that he, and the 600 men he brought with him, were to prove themselves able fighters in the battle for Tora Bora, and I also quoted some perceptive comments that he made after the operation, when he explained to John F. Burns of the New York Times that he had pleaded with the Americans to block the trails to Pakistan. “The Americans would not listen,” he said, “even when I told them that one word with me was worth more than $1 million of their high technology. Their attitude was, ‘We must kill the enemy, but we must remain absolutely safe.’ This is crazy.”

I think Haji Zahir’s significance — added to that of Ismail Khan — reinforces the importance of Abdul Razzaq Hekmati’s role in striking a major blow against the Taliban, and I believe that it should make his lonely death, after being falsely imprisoned for five years by an administration that was blithely and cruelly unconcerned with establishing whether or not he had been captured by mistake, count for something more productive than a belated and much-needed epitaph. This epitaph is clearly important for an innocent man who, even in death, had his name blackened by the people who had wrongly imprisoned him in the first place, and who let him die without having had an opportunity to clear his name, but what his story reveals about the many failures of Guantánamo should also resonate in the halls of power in Washington.

To this end I was pleased to note that, in an article in the Washington Independent on February 10, Aziz Huq of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law cited Mr. Hekmati’s case as part of an argument aimed at the Supreme Court, which is currently deciding whether or not the Guantánamo detainees have a constitutional right to habeas corpus. In the article, Aziz Huq asked the highest court in the land “to decide whether the role of the courts is to bless the errors and abuses of the executive — or whether it is the role of the courts, as a co-equal branch, to check error and reject lies.”

Discussing the failures of the current limited review of cases allowed by 2005’s Detainee Treatment Act, Aziz Huq wrote, “There are many reasons why the government might be resisting fuller review. It could be that the government, as a matter of principle, believes it should have the power to lock-up indefinitely anyone it deems is a terrorist-combatant. It could be that it has tortured the detainees to get information. It could be that it would rather let a man die of cancer in Guantánamo than follow its own leads to prove his actual innocence — that he had, in fact, fought against the Taliban.”

For further information on Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, I recommend the transcripts of his CSRT (PDF, pp. 55-9), his first round ARB (PDF, pp. 272-85) and his second round ARB (PDF, pp. 37-51), which reveal even more of his story, to counter the administration’s claims, after his death, that he was “assessed to be an experienced jihadist with command responsibilities,” and that he was also “assessed to have had multiple links to anti-coalition forces.”

Additional claims, not mentioned in the article, which were introduced in his ARBs — and which almost certainly came from dubious “confessions” made by other detainees — were that he was paid to smuggle 50 Arab family members out of Afghanistan and into Iran, that he was “knowledgeable of an assassination plot against President Karzai the day before it occurred,” and, most bizarrely of all, that he told another detainee that “there were still suicide pilots in the United States who could carry out their missions.” A final allegation referred to his conduct in Guantánamo, where, it was claimed, he was “currently instructing others on how to resist interrogation tactics.”

As mentioned in the Times article, he refuted all the allegations against him, but his reason for denying the claim about his behavior in Guantánamo revealed explicitly how allegations in the prison have often arisen through conflict between the detainees. He explained that this particular false allegation arose because a Tajik detainee, who had lived in an adjacent cell for a month, had “started fighting” with him and had falsely accused him.

Also not mentioned in the article was a specific and rather telling comment about the Taliban’s connections with Pakistan. After explaining that he was driven to take part in the jailbreak because of his opposition to the Taliban’s “ruthlessness and injustice,” he stated his belief that, when Ismail Khan was governor, “the whole area was peaceful and all the money coming through the province was safe,” whereas the Taliban “were disbursing money to Pakistan and just wasting money.”

He also included additional information about the time that he spent in exile in Iran after the jailbreak (before returning to Afghanistan to be handed over to unquestioning US forces by a personal enemy), when the Taliban offered a substantial reward for his capture. He explained that, because he was protected by Burhanuddin Rabbani’s governing council (the official anti-Taliban government-in-exile in northern Afghanistan, which was recognized as legitimate by most of the western world, including the United States), he fled to Iran with his family, where he was provided with a house and financial support, and where, in addition, his neighbor was Ismail Khan. “They gave me the house he (Khan) used to live in, and Khan took another house,” he explained. “We had a family relationship. They invited us to their house and we invited them to our home. We would eat food and then they would go back home.”

The final word on this shameful story — for now, at least — must go to the Guantánamo spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Rick Haupt, who admitted that he “did not know” if Mr. Hekmati “was allowed any final contact” with his family before he died. This seems extremely unlikely, as Mr. Hekmati himself explained, in the last of his fruitless military reviews in 2006, that after nearly four years in US custody he had not received a single letter from his family, and did not even know where they were.

So much for justice.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post, CounterPunch and Antiwar.com.

Guantánamo “Fair Trial” posters censored by shopping centre in Reading

In an act of political censorship, the management of the Oracle shopping centre in Reading has demanded that the Lush cosmetics store remove material in its storefront calling for prisoners held without charge in Guantánamo Bay to receive a fair trial.

The Oracle requested that posters featuring Guantánamo prisoners Sami al-Haj and Binyam Mohamed — which relate to a promotion with the legal action charity Reprieve — be removed from the store’s window because the suggestion that they should receive a fair trial contravenes one of the terms of Lush’s lease; namely, that retailers are prohibited from displaying signs which, “in the reasonable opinion of the Landlord,” are of a “distasteful, offensive or political nature.” In a letter to Lush, the Oracle’s management team stated that in making this demand they were “trying to protect [the Oracle] brand.”

Lush's Sami al-Haj poster

One of the “distasteful, offensive or political” posters that caused offence to the management of the Oracle in Reading.

Noting that the GAME store was openly advertising Grand Theft Auto IV, Gears of War 2 and Destroy All Humans 3, that the Vue Cinema was showing a series of films “of questionable taste”, including Diary of the Dead and Rambo, and that Starbucks was allowed to advertise on the Oracle website for its “social, environmental and economic” causes, Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s Director, said, “Films and games that glorify war and torture are fine, but it’s not okay for Lush to stand up for basic human rights, or for a charity. Reprieve believes that this is a demonstration of censorship with no bearing on any justifiable goal.”

He added, “In the time of the Ancient Greeks, no major political undertaking was embarked upon without consulting the Oracle at Delphi. The management of the Oracle at Reading has failed to demonstrate why a fair trial is either distasteful or political. Yet numerous avowedly political campaigns have been — and continue to be — presented in the centre’s stores. Topshop, for example, has rightfully campaigned for Fair Trade, and Lush itself has campaigned against animal testing and against unnecessary packaging, without attracting criticism from the management. Fair trade is okay, fair trials are not?”

For another example of censorship — the removal of an apparently offensive reference to bottoms in Lush’s store in Northampton’s Grosvenor Centre — click here.

Andy 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), and was the Communications Officer for Reprieve in 2008. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on Indymedia.

Bill Bailey endorses Lush and Reprieve’s initiative to close Guantánamo

On Wednesday March 5th, comedians Bill Bailey, Kevin Eldon and Robin Ince donned oversize pants, emblazoned with the slogan “Fair Trial My Arse”, and joined staff and press officers from cosmetics company Lush, and representatives of legal action charity Reprieve, for a photo call outside Lush’s store at 80-82 Regent Street, London. The slogan was coined after US authorities accused Reprieve’s Director, Clive Stafford Smith, of smuggling contraband underwear in to his clients at Guantánamo last year.

Kevin Eldon, Bill Bailey & Robin Ince

The occasion was the launch of an initiative aimed at raising awareness of the plight of the prisoners held without charge in Guantánamo Bay. Lush’s Mark Constantine recently met Clive Stafford Smith, and Lush then developed a “Guantánamo orange” fizzing bath ballistic — named “Guantánamo Garden”, after attempts by a few privileged prisoners to grow plants in Guantanamo’s inhospitable soils — which dissolves to reveal a photo of either Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj or British resident Binyam Mohamed, and a link to Reprieve’s website. Both men have been imprisoned without charge or trial for nearly six years.

As a further part of the campaign, Lush’s stores nationwide are featuring a window display containing a pair of truly enormous orange pants, which bears the “Fair Trial My Arse” message, and are also featuring Sami and Binyam on their Charity Pot hand and body cream (with 100% of the proceeds going to Reprieve) and on posters in the windows, mocked up like newspaper front pages, with the headline “A Fair Trial for Sami/Binyam.”

Speaking of the promotion, Clive Stafford Smith explained, “Public pressure is the most effective tool to secure the release of men held in Guantánamo for years without charge or trial. Promotions like this raise awareness and help encourage people to call for the closure of Guantánamo. Reprieve is delighted that the staff at Lush have taken up the fight for justice for Sami al-Haj, Binyam Mohamed, and all the men who remain prisoner to this day without a day in court.”

For a short film about the London promotion, click here.
For a short film about the Birmingham promotion, click here.

Andy 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), and was the Communications Officer for Reprieve in 2008. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

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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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