Archive for July, 2008

An interview with Sami al-Haj, former Guantánamo prisoner and al-Jazeera journalist

Sami al-HajThe following inspiring interview with Sami al-Haj, who was released from Guantánamo on May 1, was conducted by journalist Silvia Cattori during Sami’s recent visit to Switzerland. It was translated into English by Sue Bingham, and was first published on the website of the British human rights organization Cageprisoners. This is a slightly edited version. Note: Sami has recently explained that his name is transliterated as Sami El-Haj, but I have stuck with the old spelling, as this is how he is more commonly known.

Standing straight and tall, an impressive and deeply introspective man, Sami al-Haj walks with a limp and the help of a walking stick. Neither laughter nor smiles light up the refined face of this man, old before his time. A deep sadness pervades him. He was 32 years old when, in December 2001, his life, like that of tens of thousands of other Muslims, became a horrific nightmare.

He endured horrendous suffering. Weakened by a hunger strike which lasted 438 days, set free on the 1st May 2008, he greets you attentively and with a gentle manner. He calmly tells you of a world whose paralysing, suffocating horror is beyond your comprehension.

“I came to Geneva, the city of the United Nations and freedom, to ask for the law to be respected, to demand the closure of the Guantánamo camp and secret prisons, and to demand that this illegal situation be brought to an end,” he says calmly. The word has been uttered. Everything is “illegal”; everything is false, manipulated, absurd and Kafkaesque in this war waged essentially against those of the Muslim faith.

In Guantánamo, spurred on by his passion for justice and his conviction that every journalist’s mission is to bear witness to what he sees, Sami al-Haj had the psychological strength to carry on, resisting the worse abuses and putting his own suffering to one side. His experiences were extremely painful but he was able, even in the worst moments, to cling to the hope that he would get out alive. And knowing that he had to observe everything in order to be able to tell the world helped him to bear the unbearable.

Moreover, it was through viewing this horrific place (which could have been his tomb) with the objective eye of the journalist that Sami al-Haj was able to survive and remain sane. Others, who were not as lucky as he was, died [see here and here] or became insane, and so were unable to recount their experiences.

With neither pencil nor paper, Sami al-Haj forced himself to memorise everything in order, even in a cage, to carry on his work as “an al-Jazeera journalist covering a story,” as he put it.

Today he is driven by the idea of bringing to the world’s attention these tens of thousands of prisoners who are still suffering inhuman treatment in the prisons of Guantánamo, Bagram and Kandahar [and Iraq]. He replies tirelessly and with good humour to all the journalists who interview him, hoping that his words will allow those who no longer have a voice to be heard.

Silvia Cattori: How do you feel, just a few short weeks after your liberation?

Sami al-Haj: I feel fine, thank you. When I see people committing themselves to saving human beings and fighting to defend their rights, it gives me great comfort. Of course, when I left Guantánamo, two months ago, I was in a very bad way. But now I feel better, discovering that people outside are fighting and not losing sight of the main goal — achieving peace and freedom for everyone.

Silvia Cattori: After those painful years spent in the camps, what are your strongest feelings and greatest hopes?

Sami al-Haj and his son MohammedSami al-Haj: Of course, I am happy to be free again. I have been reunited with my family, my wife and my son. For six and a half years he did not see me, and had to go to school without me. He waited for me and said, “Dad, I have missed you for so long! I was so unhappy, especially when I saw my school friends, with their fathers, and they asked me where my father was. I had no answer to give them. That’s why I asked my mum to take me to school in the car, because I didn’t want them to keep asking me that question.”

I said to my son, “Now, I could take you to school, but you must understand that I have a message to give, a just cause to defend. I want to fight for the cause of human rights, for those who have been deprived of their freedom. I do not want to fight alone. There are thousands of people who are standing up and fighting wherever human dignity is attacked. Do not forget that we are fighting for peace, to defend rights whenever they are denied, for a better future for you. Perhaps one day we will achieve this, and then I will be able to stay with you and take you to school.”

I do not know if he understood, because he is still very young, but he smiled at me. My wife did not want me to leave again either. But when I reminded her of the horrific situation those imprisoned in Guantánamo find themselves in, and that they also have a family, sons, daughters, a wife whom they miss terribly, and that if I do not fight these people will remain imprisoned even longer, she understood that I must carry on travelling, adding my voice to all the other voices, so that the detainees can return home as soon as possible. She gave me her full support. On the way to the airport she said to me, “I will pray for you.”

Silvia Cattori: So, by going to Afghanistan to film the massacres of civilians, victims of President Bush’s war, you yourself became one of his victims? Are you not afraid of what could happen to you again?

Sami al-Haj: For me, there is no question — I will continue my work as a journalist. I must continue carrying a message of peace, no matter what. For my part, I have spent six years and six months in prison, far from my family, but for others it was so much worse. I lost a very dear friend, a journalist with al-Jazeera: he died in Baghdad, killed when the hotel where he was staying was bombed. I also lost a colleague who was working with me at al-Jazeera, whom I consider a sister: she too died in Baghdad.

Many people have lost their lives because of this war. You must know that the Bush administration wanted to prevent coverage by the free media, like al- Jazeera, in the Middle East. The al-Jazeera offices in Kabul and Baghdad were bombed.

In 2001, when I left my son and my wife to film the war initiated by the USA against Afghanistan, I had to expect finding death during a bombing raid. I went there fully aware of the risks. Every journalist knows that he is carrying out a mission and must be ready to sacrifice himself in order to bear witness to what is happening, through his films and writing. And to help people understand that war brings nothing but the death of the innocent, destruction and suffering. It is on the basis of this conviction that my colleagues and I went to countries at war.

Now, after all these years in captivity, I can once again do something to help bring about peace. I am going to commit myself to this goal, until it is achieved. I am sure that one day, even if I do not personally reap the fruits, we will succeed in achieving peace and the respect of human rights, as well as the protection of journalists throughout the world. I am sure that we will see the day when journalists are no longer tortured or injured doing their job, defending people’s rights to information and highlighting human rights abuses.

Silvia Cattori: You said at the beginning that you are feeling fine. But after such a terrible experience, and given that you were released with no apology whatsoever from your torturers, how are you able to talk about all this without resentment or bitterness?

Sami al-Haj: Of course, what happened to me was very hard and my personal situation is difficult. But when I think of those who are still in Guantánamo, and their families that they miss very much and who have no news at all of them, I tell myself that my situation, as difficult as it is, is better than theirs.

I cannot forget that in Guantánamo I have left behind brothers who have been crushed, who have gone mad. I am thinking in particular of a Yemeni doctor who now lives naked in his cell because he has lost his mind.

Silvia Cattori: What kind of torture did they subject you to?

Sami al-Haj: All kinds of physical and psychological torture. As all the detainees were Muslim, the camp administration subjected them to many forms of harassment and humiliation linked to religion. With my own eyes I saw soldiers tearing up the Qur’an and throwing it in the toilet. I saw them, during interrogation sessions, sitting on the Qur’an until their questions were answered. They insulted our families and our religion. They made fun of us by pretending to ring our God, asking him to come and save us. The only Imam at the camp was accused of complicity with the detainees and was sent away, in 2005, for refusing to tell visitors that the camp respected religious freedom.

They beat us up. They taunted us with racist insults. They locked us in cold rooms, below zero, with one cold meal a day. They hung us up by our hands. They deprived us of sleep, and when we started to fall asleep, they beat us on the head. They showed us films of the most horrendous torture sessions. They showed us photographs of torture victims — dead, swollen, covered in blood. They kept us under constant threat of being moved elsewhere to be tortured even more. They doused us with cold water. They forced us to do the military salute to the American national anthem. They forced us to wear women’s clothes. They forced us to look at pornographic images. They threatened us with rape. They would strip us naked and make us walk like donkeys, ordering us around. They made us sit down and stand up five hundred times in a row. They humiliated the detainees by wrapping them up in the Israeli and American flags, which was their way of telling us that we were imprisoned because of a religious war.

When a detainee, filthy and riddled with fleas, is taken out of his cell to be submitted to more torture sessions in an attempt to make him collaborate, he ends up not knowing what he is saying or even who he is any more.

I was interrogated and tortured more than two hundred times. Ninety-five percent of the questions were about al-Jazeera. They wanted me to work as a spy within al-Jazeera. In exchange, they offered American citizenship for myself and my family, and payment based on results. I refused. I told them repeatedly that my job is a journalist, not a spy, and that it was my duty to make the truth known and to work for the respect of human rights.

Silvia Cattori: Today, can you find it within yourself to pardon your torturers?

Sami al-Haj: Of course I will pardon them if they close Guantánamo. But if they continue to cause suffering, I will go to the courts and take action against them.

Although I know that the Bush administration has done so much harm, I still think that it’s not too late for these people to make up for their mistakes.

A distinction must be made between the administration and the people. The Guantánamo detainees know that they have friends in America, like the lawyer who came to Guantánamo and fought for my case [Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the British-based legal charity Reprieve].

Silvia Cattori: Am I right in thinking that they were not able to break you?

Sami al-Haj: Because I am not alone, and there are people supporting me, this feeling gives me strength. In prison, I drew my strength from the belief that no free man can accept being in this position of inferiority and dehumanisation. You feel pain and sorrow but you are determined to keep alive the hope that there will be an end to it; and the idea that even in prison, it is possible to carry on your work as journalist, makes suffering easier to bear.

Silvia Cattori: When you were in Guantánamo, did you know that outside there where people who were fighting for you to be released?

Sami al-Haj: In fact I didn’t know about them, because in prison it is very difficult to receive news, even if you have a lawyer, because he is not allowed to tell you anything. Now I do know those who work for human rights, and those who do not agree with the Bush administration. I think that every day their voice becomes stronger.

Silvia Cattori: Your brother, when he saw you again, said that you looked like an old man. Is that how you feel?

Sami al-Haj: Personally, it is my heart that counts, and not my face or my body. I feel that my heart is as young as ever, and stronger than before.

Silvia Cattori: So it was a very painful experience, but in fact you have emerged from it with unforeseen benefits?

Sami al-Haj: That’s right. I have been able to reap some benefits from my time spent in Guantánamo. Before going there, I only had a small family. Now I have a large family as I have gained hundreds of friends from around the world. This is very positive: I may have lost six and a half years but now, I have more friends.

Silvia Cattori: Are you still considered an “enemy combatant”?

Sami al-Haj: I don’t know, but when they released me, they said, ”Now you are no longer a danger to America.”

Silvia Cattori: And your name is not on the “terrorist list” anymore?

Sami al-Haj: I don’t know. I think that for them, all the people they labelled as “terrorists” will remain so. And that now they are afraid of us because they made us suffer for no reason.

Silvia Cattori: Do you think CIA agents will still spy on you?

Sami al-Haj: Yes. The truth is that I have nothing against the country and its people. If the Bush administration makes amends for its errors, I will have nothing to complain about.

Silvia Cattori: Were you surprised when, as you were leaving, an officer from the Pentagon who saw you with a walking stick accused you of being manipulative?

Sami al-Haj: The Pentagon officials claim that the Guantánamo detainees were criminals, but in fact 500 of them have now returned home. How could they have been allowed to leave if they really were criminals? They are still lying.

Silvia Cattori: Two other Sudanese men were released at the same time as you — Amir Yacoub al-Amir and Walid Mohamed Ali. How are they now?

Sami al-Haj: The Sudanese government has treated them very well. They greeted all three of us personally at the airport. Despite the fact that the Americans had taken my passport, I was given a new one within two hours, and they did not prevent me from travelling outside Sudan.

Silvia Cattori: In Guantánamo, did the soldiers call you by your name or by your detainee number, “number 345”?

Sami al-Haj: They never called me by my name, just “three, four, five”, my prison number. Towards the end they called me “al-Jazeera”. Only the Red Cross officials called me by my name.

Silvia Cattori: Did these officials visit you often?

Sami al-Haj: When they were authorised to visit us, every two or three months. I talked to them and they brought me letters from my family.

Silvia Cattori: The Bush administration and the officers who had the job of torturing you knew that you were a good man, a journalist merely trying to expose the brutality with which they were treating the Afghan people, not a “terrorist.” Do you know why they treated you so badly?

Sami al-Haj: Most of the soldiers there were following orders from their superiors. They carried out torture with no conscience. But to be true to what happened I must say that some of them were good men. Some soldiers did use their brains.

Silvia Cattori: The CIA agents wrote a report on the torture in Guantánamo. When they were torturing you, did you feel that they were observing you, carrying out experiments on you?

Sami al-Haj: We were under the constant supervision of military psychologists. They were not there to treat us, but to take part in the interrogations, observing the tortured prisoners so that no detail of their behaviour would escape them. The interrogations were the responsibility of Colonel Morgan, a specialist psychiatric doctor. This colonel was stationed in Guantánamo from March 2002. He had served at the Afghan prison in Bagram from November 2001. He gave instructions to the officers who were torturing us, studied our reactions, then noted every detail in order to be able to adapt the torture techniques to each detainee, which had profound psychological consequences.

I spoke to them. I told them that the mission of a doctor is an honourable one, to help people, not torture them. They replied, “We are military personnel and we must follow the rules. When an officer gives me an order, it is my duty to carry it out, otherwise I will be imprisoned just like you. When I signed a contract with the army, I realised at the time that I must obey all orders.”

Silvia Cattori: Amongst the torture techniques used at Guantánamo, I see similarities with those used in Israel on Palestinian political prisoners. Sleep deprivation, for example, is their speciality.

Sami al-Haj: I think that most of the world’s intelligence services came to Guantánamo. I saw British and Canadians. They came to find out about the interrogation techniques, and also to supply the CIA and FBI with advice on how to torture and interrogate from what they had learned.

Silvia Cattori: Are you able to sleep easily?

Sami al-Haj: Not like before Guantánamo. I only sleep three to four hours now. Today, when I met people from the Red Cross, I asked them to help me to overcome my problems and recommend a doctor who could help me. Seven years is not a short period of time.

Silvia Cattori: Wasn’t going on hunger strike a kind of self-inflicted torture? Why did you do it for such long periods, while your jailers took advantage of it to inflict even more suffering and humiliation on you?

Sami al-Haj: Because we felt we couldn’t stay silent — we had to do something. That is the only way we had of making our voices heard. Going on hunger strike is of course a very painful way of taking action and is difficult to endure. But when your freedom is taken away you have to fight to restore it. It was our last resort for telling the Bush administration that a detainee has dignity, that he cannot live on bread alone and that freedom is more important.

Silvia Cattori: What was it like when they force-fed you?

Sami al-Haj: When there were more than 40 detainees on hunger strike, the administration of the camp tried to break our resistance by subjecting us to more torture. We were locked in cold rooms, stripped naked, and prevented from sleeping for long periods. Twice a day the soldiers tied us to a special chair. They put a mask over our faces and inserted a large tube into our noses, not into the stomach. The normal ration was two cans but they punished us by injecting 24 cans and six bottles of water. Having shrunk through long hunger strikes, the stomach cannot hold such quantities. They added products which induce diarrhoea. The detainee, now sitting on that chair for more than three hours, would vomit continuously. They left us in the vomit and excrement. When the session was over they would rip the tube out violently, and when they saw the blood flowing they laughed at us. As they use infected tubes which are never cleaned, the detainees suffer from untreated illnesses.

Silvia Cattori: Is it thanks to that long hunger strike that you were released?

Sami al-Haj: Not only because of that, but it was one of the factors that led the administration to release me.

Silvia Cattori: What should one make of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s confessions, where he admits to organising more than 30 terrorist attacks in seventeen countries?

Sami al-Haj: It is possible that they tortured him to the point where he was no longer himself. I never met him because they put him in a special camp. An officer told me that he was very badly injured. I’m sure you can imagine — they subjected him to horrific torture.

Silvia Cattori: When America says that he is the “number 3 al-Qaeda terrorist,” does that bear any resemblance to the truth?

Sami al-Haj: Quite honestly I believe nothing that comes from the Bush administration. Because I was also accused of being a “terrorist.” And I know better than anyone what the truth is. Those people lie too much. I never believe a single word coming from that government. I know a prisoner who was tortured so much that in the end he said, “I am Osama Bin Laden.” He said what they wanted to hear so that the torture would end.

Silvia Cattori: So, is al-Qaeda a creation of the western intelligence agencies?

Sami al-Haj: As far as I’m concerned, I have never in my life met anyone who has said to me, “I belong to al-Qaeda.”

In Guantánamo, I met most of the detainees because the policy of the guards was not to allow the prisoners to live together for a long time in the same cell. They transferred us every week. So we got to know other people. The men I met there are all peaceful people.

Since I left, I have spoken to over a hundred of them. Those who were married have picked up their lives again and the others have got married.

Silvia Cattori: Do those who draw strength from prayer have a better chance of escaping madness?

Sami al-Haj: Of course! If you feel that someone is there with you, especially God, you will be patient and always aware that God is more powerful than human beings. I must pray to God and thank him. I must also thank all those who supported me. I think that even if I spent my whole life saying thank you, I would not manage to thank them all. Now, through my work concentrating on human rights, perhaps I will be able to contribute to making other people’s lives happier.

Silvia Cattori: I feel that the media and the NGOs in this country have not given the importance that was due to defending the rights of these Muslim prisoners. For a long time denouncing the abuses committed against them was seen as a sign of sympathy for the “terrorists.” Did you know that the leaders of Reporters Without Borders, for example, whose mission is to protect journalists, were criticised for waiting five years before talking about your case?

Sami al-Haj: Unfortunately people believed whatever the Bush government told them. Now they know this wasn’t true, they will put the record straight. As I have already said, if someone makes a mistake, it’s not a problem: the problem lies in pursuing the mistake.

If journalists do not feel concerned when other journalists are imprisoned carrying out their job, perhaps one day those very journalists will find themselves in prison and there will be nobody to defend them. We must work together, taking up each and every case. So if we find out that a journalist has been imprisoned it is our duty to support them, no matter what their colour or religion.

As a journalist, I want to commit myself to supporting journalists who work to defend rights and freedom. There is an enormous amount of work to do. We must stop at nothing to ensure the liberation of those who are locked away in Guantánamo and the countless secret prisons where the Bush government is depriving tens of thousands of others of their rights.

That experience in Guantánamo affected us profoundly. What I want to focus on is the need for and the importance of the defence of human rights. After all the damage that has been done, everyone now feels more concerned, I think. It is not acceptable to abandon these people who are suffering. We have an urgent responsibility to show solidarity with them.

Al-Jazeera hopes to work with the free media to gather information relating to human rights and freedoms. I ask all journalists to cooperate with us in this. There were more than 50 nationalities in Guantánamo — it is a worldwide issue, and not just about individual detainees.

It is shameful that in our society, innocent people who have been sold find themselves locked in cages, and that this violation of basic rights should be the doing of a country which claims to be the guarantor of rights and freedoms.

I feel no hatred. We respect the citizens of the USA. It is their present government which should take responsibility for the consequences of these actions.

Human rights and security are inseparable — there can be no security without the respect of fundamental rights.

Silvia Cattori: You are right to call on decent people and journalists not to accept the violation of international laws and the cruel and degrading treatment of human beings. But this policy could not have lasted if it had not had the tacit support of the superpower governments — it was with their consent that those labelled “enemy combatants” were tortured. The Patriot Act, for example, passed after the 11th September in the US, was supported by all the European countries. It was within the framework of these secret agreements that CIA and FBI agents were able to kidnap and torture thousands of innocent men like you in Europe.

Sami al-Haj: I want to say this to you: I do not believe in the actions of governments. Because any government, in any country, prefers to govern without confronting the people’s real problems. It may, at times, speak out in support of a certain cause, but in reality it does not support it. It is only for opportunistic political reasons that governments speak out. And they may even, through political expediency, claim to support something in which they do not believe. Forget governments, because they have their own agenda. Yes, we must keep working hard to defend the rights and freedoms of everyone.

Silvia Cattori: Is it fair to conclude that the “terrorists” as presented to us by the Bush administration and the media do not exist?

Sami al-Haj: I can assure you that the Guantánamo detainees that I met are not “terrorists.” I had the opportunity to talk to them and get to know them — they are pacifists.

Silvia Cattori: So you were arrested, then, because it had to be proven to the other European countries that the Muslim “terrorists” really existed?

Sami al-Haj: We were arrested after the attacks of the 11th September, for which no one has yet been able to find those responsible. President Bush did not want to say, “I have made mistakes, I was not able to maintain national security.” He said, “We are going to start a war against terror.” The outcome is that he has brought security to no one.

He bombed Afghanistan, sent soldiers to wage war against whole nations, but did not arrest the people that he set out to arrest. He paid the Pakistanis in return for starting to arrest people and hand them over to his administration.

Eighty-nine percent of the prisoners in Guantánamo were bought, for hard currency, from the Pakistani authorities. Where did they find them? They found them in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

Silvia Cattori: These prisoners were then tortured with the promise that it would end if they accepted becoming spies for the CIA? What a terrifying system!

Sami al-Haj: Yes. Let’s wait for President Bush to leave power. When he has left his seat, I am sure that many people will have something to say about his wrongdoing.

Silvia Cattori: Your testimony is very important. Your youth has been destroyed. And yet you have the magnanimity to transform this disaster into something constructive. You refuse to see yourself as a victim. You are truly amazing! So many prisoners must be hoping for help from people like you.

Sami al-Haj: We must work hard, so that all those who continue to support the Bush administration feel ashamed of their actions. At that point, no one will help them. And when no one helps them, they will stop.

The whole Guantánamo episode is a huge black stain. The Bush administration tried to deceive the public by saying we were terrorists. But the great majority of those men who were imprisoned are innocent, like me.

Silvia Cattori: Thank you for giving us this interview.

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.

Three prisoners released from Guantánamo, including the brother of US “enemy combatant” Ali al-Marri

A prisoner at GuantanamoOn Monday July 28, the US Department of Defense announced that it had transferred three prisoners — a Qatari, an Afghan and a prisoner from the United Arab Emirates — to their home countries from the prison at Guantánamo Bay. Adding that they “were determined to be eligible for transfer following a comprehensive series of review processes,” the DoD also claimed that the men’s release from Guantánamo is “a demonstration of the United States’ desire not to hold detainees any longer than necessary,” which “underscores the processes put in place to assess each individual and make a determination about their detention while hostilities are ongoing — an unprecedented step in the history of warfare.”

While critics might point out that holding prisoners without an effective screening process, labeling them all as “enemy combatants,” to be held without charge or trial, transporting them halfway round the world to an illegal offshore interrogation center, and depriving them of the protections of the Geneva Conventions might also be regarded as “an unprecedented step in the history of warfare,” what is distressing about this latest batch of releases (which brings the total number of prisoners released to 506) is that two of the men — those from Afghanistan and the UAE — have left Guantánamo as unknown as they arrived: ghost-like and anonymous, and not even identified by the Internment Serial Numbers which replaced their names for the last five or six years of their life.

As some sort of compensation, however, the third prisoner — Jarallah al-Marri, Guantánamo’s sole Qatari prisoner — has been identified, and his story is fascinating for various reasons. Married with children, al-Marri was 28 years old when he was seized by Pakistani forces crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001 at a time when around a third of Guantánamo’s total population (at least 250 prisoners) were captured. As I explain in my book The Guantánamo Files, many of these men were missionaries, humanitarian aid workers, economic migrants or drifters enticed by rumors that the Taliban were crafting a “pure Islamic state in Afghanistan.” Others — al-Marri included — had been encouraged to travel to Afghanistan “to participate in the jihad,” as described in al-Marri’s tribunal at Guantánamo in 2004 or 2005. However, not all of these men were aware of the reality of the jihad, and al-Marri was one of many who stated that he had been tricked.

Arriving in Afghanistan just days before the 9/11 attacks, al-Marri admitted that he had met people in Saudi Arabia who had arranged his trip to Afghanistan, and also admitted attending the al-Farouq training camp (a camp for Arabs, established by the Afghan warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf in the early 1990s, but associated with Osama bin Laden in the years before 9/11). However, he only arrived at the camp on September 10, and left the following day, without receiving any training, when the camp was shut down. After hiding out at various locations in Afghanistan — including a stint in the mountains near Kabul — he said that “an individual in Afghanistan arranged for [him] to be smuggled across the border into Pakistan,” and that he “crossed the border on a motorcycle, using a gate at which the smuggler seemed to know the guard.” He was then seized “while taking a bus from one town to another in Pakistan … after a guard boarded the bus and questioned [him] on his nationality.” At no point was he accused of raising arms against US forces, and in his tribunal, at which he authorized his Personal Representative to speak on his behalf, after requesting the services of a lawyer, he explained, “I never fought anyone. I did not want to continue because it was wrong.”

In statements made to interrogators, al-Marri elaborated on his misgivings about the situation in Afghanistan. He said that he “was misled” about the jihad and explained that he did not realize, until he was in Afghanistan, that it “was a battle of Muslim against Muslim.” He also stated that he “learned after his arrival in Afghanistan that the Taliban were not as good as he was told,” and made a point of adding that “he had second thoughts and wanted to return to Qatar after learning that the al-Farouq camp was owned by Osama bin Laden.” In addition, when questioned about al-Qaeda, he made a point rarely mentioned by other prisoners: that he did not hear the name “al-Qaeda” until after his capture, because “al-Qaeda, along with all the fighters and trainees, were called Mujahideen.”

Despite the fact that he did not undertake military training in Afghanistan, and never raised arms against US forces, al-Marri was treated abysmally in Guantánamo. In 2005, his lawyer, Jonathan Hafetz, reported that “Mr. al-Marri has been in solitary confinement for over 16 months and often goes as long as 3 weeks without being allowed outside his cell for recreation. The lights in Mr. al-Marri’s cell remain on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and he has been denied adequate bedding and clothing. Mr. al-Marri is able to sleep only 2 hours a night, and his physical and mental health have deteriorated significantly.”

In summer 2005, he was one of at least 200 prisoners who undertook a mass hunger strike to protest about their daily living conditions and the injustice of their seemingly endless imprisonment without charge or trial. As a result, although he only weighed 122 pounds (8 stone 10 pounds) on arrival at Guantánamo, his weight dropped to 105 pounds (7 stone 7 pounds) and he was hospitalised and placed on an IV, his situation complicated by a deteriorating heart condition. He explained to Jonathan Hafetz that “the government had a nurse make sexual advances towards him while he was lying in his hospital bed in a vain attempt to convince him to give up his hunger strike.”

Ali al-MarriWhat has not been made clear about Jarallah al-Marri’s case is his relationship with his brother Ali, a legal US resident who was seized by the FBI in Peoria, Illinois in December 2001 and has been held in complete isolation as an “enemy combatant” on the US mainland since June 2003, without charge or trial. Although the government alleges that Ali al-Marri was part of a US-based al-Qaeda sleeper cell, references to him are scant in the documentation relating to Jarallah, and relate primarily to the grand jury indictment of May 2003, in which he was accused of “making false statements to the FBI” in relation to the 9/11 attacks. What is curious is that Jarallah was released from Guantánamo just two weeks after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, although Ali has some vague right to appeal his untested designation as an “enemy combatant,” the President’s dictatorial powers, granted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, remain intact, and he has the right to imprison any American, either citizens or residents, and hold them forever without charge or trial if he believes them to be “enemy combatants.”

The timing of Jarallah’s release may be coincidental, particularly as Jonathan Hafetz explained to me that he was cleared for release after an administrative review in April, and it may be that, in an attempt to reduce the population of Guantánamo in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that the prisoners have constitutional habeas corpus rights, his repatriation — and those of his unknown fellow prisoners — was a straightforward process, which enabled a quietly desperate administration to prevent a few more prisoners from challenging the basis of their detention in the District Courts in the coming months.

Certainly, the case against him would, I am sure, appear dismally weak when scrutinized by a proper court rather than the mockery of justice served up at Guantánamo, where, as noted by former insider Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, the tribunal system was designed merely to rubber-stamp the prisoners’ designation as “enemy combatants,” without any meaningful way for them to challenge the “evidence” against them. Jonathan Hafetz also wondered if his release was timed to avoid a court showdown over a motion regarding the destruction of evidence relating to Jarallah, which, he stated, “was presumably about to go forward.”

I can’t help wondering, however, if Jarallah’s release was not also timed to remove a potential witness from his brother’s case, one who might have exculpatory evidence proving that Ali was a legitimate student in the United States, and that the case against him, which is based solely on information provided by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed during the first few months of his torture in secret CIA custody in spring 2003, is nothing more than a web of lies spun by a prisoner who, as torture victims do, told his captors whatever they wanted to hear to get the torture to stop.

POSTSCRIPT: The prisoner from the UAE has been identified as Abdullah al-Hamiri. What little is known of his story can be found here.

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

Note:

The prisoners’ numbers are as follows:

ISN 334: Jarallah al-Marri (Qatar)
ISN 48: Abdullah al-Hamiri (UAE)

The Afghan, whose identity was unknown at the time of his release, is:

ISN 1165: Mohammed Mussa Yakubi (his story will be described in a forthcoming online chapter, but I can reveal that he was a security officer working for the government of Hamid Karzai)

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the eleven prisoners released from February to June 2009, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here).

Andy Worthington on YouTube: Torture, Ineptitude and the Omar Khadr Guantánamo tapes (the illustrated Antiwar Radio interview)

The Guantanamo FilesMy thanks to Scott Horton and the Antiwar Radio crew, who have gone to the effort of putting images to our recent interview and have made the whole package available on YouTube (see below). For my fourth Antiwar Radio interview, Scott and I ran through the issues relating to Guantánamo and the “War on Terror” in the week that the Omar Khadr interrogation tapes were released, District Judge James Robertson gave the go-ahead for Salim Hamdan’s trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed, in the case of Qatari citizen and US resident Ali al-Marri, that the elected President of the United States is in fact a dictator, empowered to seize Americans (citizens as well as residents) and hold them forever without charge or trial, so long as, somewhere in the recesses of the President’s mind, he has designated them as “enemy combatants.”

Just another week in the law-free zone that is the “War on Terror” …

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). 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.

Folly and Injustice: Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo Trial

On June 12, when the Supreme Court ruled, in Boumediene v. Bush, that the prisoners at Guantánamo had constitutional habeas corpus rights, it was not immediately clear if the decision would have an impact on the Military Commissions at Guantánamo, the alternative legal system for trying “War on Terror” prisoners that was stealthily established in November 2001 (bypassing the Justice Department, the State Department and the National Security Agency) by Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief counsel David Addington.

Logic dictated that Boumediene would extend to those facing trial by Military Commission, because, under the terms of the Military Commissions Act (MCA), which was passed by Congress after the Supreme Court struck down the first version of the Commissions as illegal in June 2006, prisoners could only be put forward for trial by Military Commission if they had been designated as “enemy combatants” in the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), the administrative review process established at Guantánamo in 2004.

As with justice, however, logic is in short supply in the executive’s approach to terror suspects, who have been deprived of the protections of the Geneva Conventions, tortured, coerced or bribed to make false confessions, and, essentially, designated as “enemy combatants” by Presidential whim alone, with the intention, in most cases, of holding them forever without charge or trial.

So here’s the problem: In Boumediene, the Supreme Court ruled that the habeas-stripping provisions of the MCA and its predecessor, 2005’s Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), which provided for limited review of the prisoners’ CSRTs, did not provide an adequate substitute for habeas, and instructed the lower courts to allow the prisoners’ habeas cases to proceed. This process is now underway, as I reported here, but those facing trial by Military Commission were not necessarily included, even though their cases involve the same problems relating to habeas, the DTA and the MCA as all the other cases.

Salim HamdanOn July 3, lawyers for Salim Hamdan, one of 20 prisoners facing trial by Military Commission, raised this unresolved issue, filing legal papers asking District Judge James Robertson to delay the start of Hamdan’s trial, and arguing that he should be allowed to challenge his detention in a federal court, based on the Supreme Court’s Boumediene verdict. In a 46-page court filing, his lawyers wrote, “This case raises the question of whether the constitutional right to habeas corpus can be rendered illusory by subjecting an individual to an unconstitutional trial by military commission. Trying Hamdan under a dubious regime whose very legality has been called into question would reduce the legitimacy of the proceedings in this country and in the eyes of the world.”

Last Thursday, Judge Robertson heard oral arguments from government lawyers and from Hamdan’s civilian lawyer, Neal Katyal. Robertson and Katyal had met before. In 2004, in what the New York Times described as “a theatrically timed federal court injunction,” Judge Robertson called a halt to the Commissions, on the basis that the CSRTs did not reach the level of a “competent tribunal,” as demanded by the Geneva Conventions. He also ruled that, until a “competent tribunal” determined that Hamdan was not a Prisoner of War (PoW), as defined and protected by the Geneva Conventions, he had the right to be tried under the same judicial system as US soldiers, and added that, even if he was determined not to be a PoW, the Military Commissions as they stood were inadequate and would not be allowed to proceed until their rules were revised to accord with the federal laws governing the trial of soldiers. In a final blow to the administration, Judge Robertson specifically addressed Hamdan’s detention in Guantánamo, ruling that he was not to be held indefinitely in solitary confinement and should be returned to the rest of the prisoner population.

This was a significant victory for Hamdan, of course, and although it only lasted until July 2005, when it was overturned by the Court of Appeals, that decision ultimately led all the way to the Supreme Court, where Hamdan gained his second victory in June 2006, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the ruling that finally derailed the first version of the Commissions.

Last week, however, Hamdan’s run of significant court victories came to an end, after a two-hour hearing with Judge Robertson in which both sides put their cases. Defending the process, and Hamdan’s eligibility for the trial, lawyers for the government said, as the Christian Science Monitor explained, that the Commission process “was created by Congress and features an impartial judge and jury, as well as a ‘full panoply’ of trial rights.” In a court filing, Justice Department lawyer Alexander Haas declared, “Such rights for an alien charged with war crimes are utterly unprecedented and far exceed the protections given to the defendants [in prior war crimes tribunals].”

In response, Neal Katyal’s brief stated, “The Government notes that the public has a strong interest in the prompt, effective, and efficient administration of justice. Hamdan could not agree more. But … rushing to try him just weeks after the Supreme Court has upended the foundations for his commission and acknowledged his right to habeas will lead to confusion, inefficiencies, and uncertainty.” He added, “All he wants is a fair trial. If individuals merely being detained have a right to challenge their detention, then detainees who are set to be tried must have an even stronger right to challenge a trial that may result in life imprisonment or death.”

Judge Robertson, however, had other ideas. Siding with the government, who had also declared, “The purpose of constitutional habeas is to test the legality of detention, not to challenge a trial in advance” (even though there were obvious chicken-and-egg conclusions to be drawn from the statement), Judge Robertson agreed that, under the terms of the MCA, Hamdan’s lawyers were required to wait until a verdict was reached in the trial before raising constitutional challenges. Curiously, however, he made no mention of how ironic it was that he had ended up defending a much-criticized piece of legislation that had only come about because of the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the original Commission system in which he, of course, had played a major part.

And so, on Monday, despite having twice secured significant legal victories, Salim Hamdan was brought from his cell to face the first full US war crimes trial since the Second World War. Noticeably, however, the administration refrained from trumpeting the proceedings as the 21st century’s answer to the Nuremberg Trials, even though comparisons with the Nazi war trials have often featured in the government’s rhetoric.

Perhaps this was because of Col. Morris Davis. The Commissions’ former chief prosecutor, Col. Davis resigned in October 2007, complaining that his superiors had politicized the process, and explaining that he could not continue in his job because he refused to take part in trials that allowed evidence obtained through torture. In February 2008, Col. Davis reported that, during a discussion of the Nuremberg Trials with the Defense Department’s chief counsel William J. Haynes II, in which Davis noted that there had been some acquittals, which had “lent great credibility to the proceedings,” Haynes told him, “We can’t have acquittals. We’ve been holding these guys for years. How can we explain acquittals? We have to have convictions.”

Or perhaps it was because, in the absence of Adolf Hitler, Nuremberg’s convenors did not respond by putting one of his drivers on trial instead.

The government alleges that Hamdan was more of a player in al-Qaeda than merely part of the motor pool, and it’s possible, I suppose, that his trial will reveal who is telling the truth. More likely it will reveal more about the sleep deprivation (50 days straight) that Hamdan endured, the sexual humiliation, the prolonged isolation, and the cruel effect of all this treatment on his mind, as well as more about an explosive revelation by the former FBI interrogator and “al-Qaeda expert” Ali Soufan, who explained on the trial’s second day that Guantánamo, as the Associated Press described it, “is the only place in the world where he has not informed suspects of a right against self-incrimination.” “The way it was explained to us,” Soufan said, “is Guantánamo Bay is an intelligence collection point.”

Salim Hamdan at his trial by Military Commission, July 22, 2008

Salim Hamdan at his trial by Military Commission, July 22, 2008. Sketch by court artist Janet Hamlin.

Judge Allred, presiding over the case, has already stated that he will rule out testimony obtained coercively while Hamdan was held in Afghanistan, but it seems unlikely that he will be able to explain how Hamdan’s treatment in Guantánamo was justified — and how it continues to be justified. It also seems unlikely that Judge Allred will be able to explain why, after being imprisoned for almost as long as the Second World War, Salim Hamdan is not in fact a Prisoner of War, protected from sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, prolonged isolation and sustained interrogation by the Geneva Conventions, and entitled to ask, as a prisoner who can be held until the end of hostilities, if it is really feasible for the government to declare that it is engaged in a “war” that might last for generations.

This, I think, is the conversation we should be having, but it will clearly not happen until something else forces the collapse of the administration’s foolish and unjust substitute for a fair trial.

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 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), 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), 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).

Film review: Standard Operating Procedure

Standard Operating Procedure - film posterOn Sunday July 13, I had the pleasure of taking part in a panel discussion, following a special preview screening at the Curzon Cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue, of Standard Operating Procedure, a documentary about the Abu Ghraib scandal by acclaimed film-maker Errol Morris. The event was organized by the Frontline Club, an excellent journalists’ club (and restaurant) in Paddington, which holds regular events, mostly on “frontline” topics that are not covered adequately in the mainstream media.

Morris’ film focuses, specifically, on the Military Police soldiers working at the prison’s “hard site” — Tiers 1A and 1B of Saddam Hussein’s old torture prison — where the supposed “high-value” prisoners were held, although in this, as in every other facet of the “War on Terror,” the “intelligence” that had led to their capture was not necessarily reliable.

The soldiers — none of whom received specific training as prison guards in wartime — were instructed not merely to guard the prisoners but also to subordinate their roles to the requirements of Military Intelligence and visiting representatives of the CIA by “softening up” the prisoners for interrogation. The ironic upshot, of course, was a regime of abuse that did more than almost anything else to blacken the name of the US occupiers in Iraq.

As well as featuring in-depth interviews with many of the soldiers who were later charged and imprisoned for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which humanizes them (although not always in a flattering manner), the film also focuses on the “evidence” that led to their convictions: the notorious photos taken by three of the soldiers, which have been the most horrifically iconic images of the “War on Terror” since they were first broadcast by CBS in April 2004.

Morris’ great achievement is to examine the stories behind the photos by talking to those involved, and what he discovered not only propels the viewer into the claustrophobic horrors of Abu Ghraib, but also allows the participants in that horror to explain how the photos came about, and what they actually portray.

Conceived, in some cases, as providing “evidence” of what the soldiers were required or encouraged to do, the photos certainly chronicle the abuse of prisoners — the notorious human pyramid of naked prisoners, for example, which was followed by a sickening session in which the prisoners were forced to masturbate — although other photos, which seem to capture other forms of creative abuse, actually record the guards’ attempts to restrain some of the many violent prisoners with severe mental health problems who were placed in their care.

Abu Ghraib - the The film also reveals that some of the most notorious photos — the hooded man, for example, standing on a box in a pose reminiscent of the Crucifixion, with wires trailing from his fingers — was put in that position partly for the benefit of the cameras, and partly as a failed attempt to “soften him up” for interrogation, as required. The soldiers reveal that the wires were not electrified, and also explain that the prisoner in question — a man named Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh (although he is not named in the film, and there has been confusion about his identity) — was soon discovered to be one of the many prisoners seized by mistake. They state that he subsequently became part of a team of prisoners, trusted by the guards, who were regularly allowed out of their cells to help with the cleaning of the cell blocks.

The effect of all these explanations is, frankly, disconcerting. On the one hand, the viewer is encouraged to question his or her assumptions about photos that seem to show sadistic abuse when this was not apparently the case, but on the other hand some of this abuse was all too real. Where the film fails, I think, is in its unwillingness to keep reminding the viewers that, although sadism was part of at least some of the guards’ approach to their work, their behaviour was only possible because those responsible for defining the parameters of their mission — at the highest levels of government — had shredded the Geneva Conventions, the rules prohibiting physical violence or torture in the Army Field Manual, and the UN Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory.

Though often brutal, the guards were not merely, as the President described them, a “few bad apples,” and nor was the abuse the result of “Animal House on the night shift,” as former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger described it in a report on the abuse that failed to look up the chain of command for explanations. Their actions were, instead, the direct result of telling soldiers, who are trained to follow orders and to observe the Geneva Conventions, that the Conventions no longer apply, that their orders are to indulge in behaviour that was previously regarded as illegal, and that, moreover, they are to use their imaginations to find new ways of indulging in behaviour that was previously regarded as illegal. This is not to excuse their crimes, or to deflect attention from the manner in which they were corrupted in their mission (à la Lord of the Flies, or, perhaps more accurately, the Stanford Prison Experiment); it is, instead, meant to keep in mind the biggest villains of all — in the White House and the Pentagon.

After the film was shown, Richard Watson of the BBC’s Newsnight moderated the panel discussion, in which Tom Porteous, the UK Director of Human Rights Watch, Leanne Macmillan, the Director of Policy & External Affairs for the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and myself, as the author of The Guantánamo Files and a representative of the legal action charity Reprieve, answered questions from an audience that was clearly engaged with the issues raised in Morris’ film. We also dealt with additional questions from Richard Watson himself, who, in the absence of anyone willing to put the US government’s case for abandoning the Geneva Conventions and sanctioning the use of torture, occasionally played Devil’s Advocate in true BBC fashion.

The questions focused largely on torture — how it is defined, what steps the US administration took to redefine torture (as the inflicting of pain that “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”), and why it is both morally corrosive and counter-productive as a method of gathering reliable intelligence. The questions also included an interesting detour into the Baha Mousa scandal, in which British soldiers murdered a hotel worker in their custody, overriding prohibitions against torture and abuse in the British army, and demonstrating, it seems, that signing up as a US ally in the “War on Terror” also involved signing up to the whole sordid package of abrogation from the Geneva Conventions, and the resuscitation of torture.

While fascinating in and of themselves, however, the lines of questioning also highlighted the film’s weaknesses, as mentioned above. Beyond hints dropped by various players in the scandal, the film refuses to focus on the abuse in a wider context; in other words, to spell out clearly how the drivers of the post-9/11 policy of detention and interrogation — in particular, Vice President Dick Cheney, his legal counsel David Addington, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush — had, through a series of secret memos, deliberately excluded the prisoners from the protections of the Geneva Conventions, had approved the use of torture, had specifically imported harsh interrogation techniques — or the lack of restraints on harsh interrogation techniques — to Abu Ghraib from Guantánamo and from the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and had, moreover, granted seemingly limitless freedom to the CIA and other agencies to behave however they wanted.

Manadel al-Jamadi, murdered in Abu Ghraib, November 2003In the film, the soldiers describe how the unaccountable CIA agents brought in “ghost prisoners,” who were never accounted for, and some of the film’s most shocking scenes concern the “ghost prisoner” Manadel al-Jamadi, who died while in CIA custody and was then packed in ice and stored in a cell on the block, while the agency and those in charge of the military operations worked out how to dispose of the corpse. As a kind of forensic exercise, one of the soldiers took photos of the corpse; actions for which she was later charged. Significantly, the charges were dropped when it became apparent to the authorities that pursuing them would bring the murder — and the CIA’s actions — out into the open. To this day, however, although the photographer was convicted for conspiracy, dereliction of duty and cruelty and maltreatment relating to the rest of her actions while on duty at Abu Ghraib, no one from the CIA has been charged in connection with the murder. In a detailed investigation for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer concluded that it was possible that, “under the Bush Administration’s secret interrogation guidelines, the killing of Jamadi might not have broken any laws.”

In conclusion, then, it may be that sidelining the bigger picture was required to create the claustrophobic atmosphere that defines Standard Operating Procedure. Behind the big-budget graphics and technical wizardry that punctuate the film — in which the backers, Sony, seem perversely delighted by Morris’ focus on the Sony cameras that were used to take the photos — the viewer is trapped in Abu Ghraib with little to focus on beyond the abuse, the photos and the soldiers who took them. It works well as a sordid and distressing chamber piece, but I’d be sorely disappointed if viewers left the cinema unaware of the puppet masters who set up the whole malign experiment in the first place, and who have never been called to account.

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 Nth Position.

For other articles on Abu Ghraib, see: Remember Abu Ghraib? (a review of Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), In the Guardian: The 5th anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal (April 2009), The Torture Photos We’re Not Supposed To See (May 2009).

For other articles on Iraq, see: Book Review: Road From Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía (January 2008), Iraq’s refugees in Syria: Mike Otterman reports (February 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Refuting Cheney’s Lies: The Stories of Six Prisoners Released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison (May 2009), Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq (May 2009), Cheney’s Lies Undermined By Iraq Interrogator Matthew Alexander (May 2009).

Moazzam Begg recalls the suffering of Omar Khadr

Omar KhadrI don’t normally cross-post articles from other sites, but I was moved by this article, in which Moazzam Begg, author, former Guantánamo prisoner, and spokesman for the British human rights group Cageprisoners, recalls the time he spent with Omar Khadr in the US prison at Bagram airbase, Afghanistan, in 2002, when Omar, who was severely wounded, had just turned 16. The article first appeared on the Cageprisoners website.

Who Cares For This Boy?

His hair has grown, his voice sounds a little deeper and his wounds appear to have healed somewhat. But what isn’t clear from the first ever Guantánamo interrogation video to be released for public consumption is that Omar Khadr is blind in one eye.

The Bagram airbase lies some 30 miles north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Inside the airbase is a prison, a converted machine factory built by the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan. Inscriptions in Russian are still visible on the walls and doors. During the day, this place is usually deathly quiet. But at night, the sounds of soldiers as they patrol — chains clinking along the concrete floor as prisoners are frog-marched to and from interrogation rooms, and the screams of interrogators and interrogated — usually keep you awake.

It is worse than Guantánamo. In this place I witnessed two separate killings by American soldiers — the subject of this year’s Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side — before I too was sent to Guantánamo. It is here too that I first met Omar Khadr, a boy from Canada who’d just turned sixteen.

I never really understood why, but our military police guards would always refer to Khadr as “Buckshot Bob” or simply “Buckshot.” His wounds didn’t seem to me as if they had been caused by the blast of a shotgun. They were much more horrific. Chunks of his chest and shoulder had been blown out — or so I’d assumed — and he was unable to see through one of his eyes because of the injuries he’d sustained, allegedly in a firefight with US troops. His chest looked like he’d just had a post mortem operation performed on him — whilst he was still alive.

He was emaciated, fragile and quiet. But the rumour spread around about Khadr claiming that he’d launched a grenade attack on unsuspecting US forces. Consequently, the military police units guarding us all treated Omar Khadr with open contempt and hostility. He was sometimes screamed at all night long; made to stack up crates of water bottles which were thrown down again; a hood placed over his head whilst his wrists were shackled to the ceiling.

But, three years after my release from Guantánamo, and five since I last saw Khadr, I have come to realise the logic behind the name “Buckshot.” Photographs released by the US military this year show Khadr when he was first captured. The missing chunks of flesh were exit wounds from shotgun rounds fired. It is now clear, based on statements by the soldiers who captured him, that Khadr had been shot in the back — at point-blank range.

Khadr and I shared a communal cell where walking, talking, standing or simply looking in the wrong direction would earn us a few hours with our hands chained above our heads to the cage door and a hood placed over our faces. Still, I managed some whispered conversations with Khadr, who, just like me, had begun to comprehend that his ordeal had only just started.

Omar’s treatment varied according to the perception various soldiers and interrogators had of him: most of it bad. But a handful of them, who actually got to know him and speak to him like a human being, told me how bad they felt about having a child like him in custody. I recall the last words Omar Khadr said to me before he was shipped off to Guantánamo: “You’re fortunate, people here care about you. No one cares about me.”

Omar was later accused of causing the death of a US Special Forces operative with a grenade. Yet a report given by the soldier who shot him says that not only was Mr. Khadr alive there, an adult man was also alive at the time he, the US soldier, rushed in shooting. This contradicts the testimony of another solider who said that only Mr. Khadr was alive at the time. Whatever the case may be, Omar is fast approaching the seventh year of his detention in Guantánamo. He is now twenty-one.

In January this year, a training document produced by the Canadian foreign ministry, which referred to Guantánamo Bay, listed the United States as a country known to practice torture. Despite this assertion, the only western citizen remaining in the world’s most infamous prison at Guantánamo Bay is the Canadian, Omar Khadr. And his government, which accepts that the abuses faced by others at such places are very real, will do nothing for its own citizen, who was bought there in chains as a child.

In the video that made headlines this week Khadr is heard repeating some words in a very distressed state. Whilst there is some dispute about whether he’s saying “help me, help me” or “kill me kill me,” his family believe he’s simply saying “ya ummi, ya ummi” — Arabic for “my mother, my mother.” Although this video was recorded (in secret) over five years ago, the words I last heard from this gaunt, softly-spoken child all those years ago echo yet again. But this time the world can see and hear him: “No one cares about me.”

Moazzam Begg is the author of Enemy Combatant. 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, Ineptitude and the Omar Khadr Guantánamo tapes: Andy Worthington on Antiwar Radio

The Guantanamo FilesLast week was a busy week for matters relating to Guantánamo and the “War on Terror,” and after the successes of the last month, in Boumediene v. Bush and Parhat v. Gates, not entirely reassuring. On Tuesday, the Fourth Circuit appellate court ruled, in the case of US resident Ali al-Marri, that the President can, indeed, indefinitely imprison Americans without charge or trial on the US mainland. That, really, should have been enough for the week, but on Wednesday videotapes were released showing 16-year old Omar Khadr crying during interrogations by Canadian agents at Guantánamo in 2003, and far too many viewers demonstrated what a callous world we live in by choosing to side with the administration in disregarding the rights of children in wartime.

To cap a dreadful week, on Friday, District Judge James Robertson, in what I can only regard as an extremely narrow reading of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the prisoners’ rights in Boumediene, closed his brief review of whether or not the trial by Military Commission of Salim Hamdan could go ahead by taking the government’s side, and ensuring that the ridiculous and unjust trial system invented by Dick Cheney and David Addington in November 2001 can go ahead.

My thanks, however, go to Scott Horton of Antiwar Radio, who called me up on Friday to run through this litany of injustices with our usual exasperated indignation. The interview’s available here — and the MP3 is here — and it was a delight, as ever.

On the home front, a busy week began on Sunday July 13, when I joined Tom Porteous, the UK Director of Human Rights Watch, Leanne Macmillan, the Director of Policy & External Affairs for the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and Richard Watson of the BBC’s Newsnight for a panel discussion following a special preview screening of Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, a fascinating and claustrophobic documentary about the Abu Ghraib scandal. A full report will follow soon.

On Thursday I hotfooted it to Willesden Green for a lively Q & A session following a screening, arranged by the London Guantánamo Campaign and Brent Stop the War, of Rendition, Hollywood’s take on the horrors of “extraordinary rendition” and torture, and on Friday (after a long working day that began, at 6.50 am, with a discussion of Hamdan’s case on BBC Radio Scotland), I paid a visit to the start of the LGC’s 6 Days for 6 Years Vigil for British resident Binyam Mohamed outside the US embassy. If you get the chance, go along and show your support. I met some excellent people there, some of whom already had their sleeping bags ready for a long cold night watched over by a distant guard and his gun.

A report on the first evening of the vigil is available here, and the event culminates on Thursday July 24 (Binyam’s 30th birthday, six years and three months after he was first seized) with an authorized birthday celebration outside Downing Street.

And finally, on Sunday, I made a trip to Brighton to help persuade an audience at the annual Peace Picnic, just a stone’s throw away from the beach, to write a birthday card to Binyam (cards were provided at a stall run by the Save Omar campaign, now renamed Brighton Against Guantánamo) and a letter to Gordon Brown demanding his return to the UK.

I also raised the topic of Britain’s forgotten resident, Ahmed Belbacha, who lived down the coast in Bournemouth until he took an ill-fated holiday to Pakistan in 2001 and ended up in Guantánamo. Cleared by the US military in February 2007, Ahmed still languishes at Guantánamo, because he is terrified of being repatriated to Algeria, which he fled because he had been threatened by Islamist militants. His lawyers have, to date, successfully persuaded the US courts to block his forcible and illegal return, but the British government has refused to act on his behalf. Technically, Ahmed was not a legal resident at the time of his capture, but his supporters maintain — with some justification, I believe — that the British government should act to rescue an innocent man from an otherwise unending limbo in one of the world’s most notorious prisons.

For light relief, I then chatted to various local musicians about supporting Reprieve’s Pull the Plug on Torture Music initiative, and soaked up a little of the wind-blown sunshine with Jackie Chase, the mobilizer of much of the above, whose boundless energy is always an inspiration.

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). 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.

Court Confirms President’s Dictatorial Powers in Case of US “Enemy Combatant” Ali al-Marri

The seal of the Court of Appeals for the US Fourth CircuitWake up, America! On July 15, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled by 5 votes to 4 in the case of Al-Marri v. Pucciarelli (PDF) that the President can arrest US citizens and legal residents inside the United States and imprison them indefinitely, without charge or trial, based solely on his assertion that they are “enemy combatants.” Have a little think about it, and you’ll see that the Fourth Circuit judges have just endorsed dictatorial powers.

In the words of Judge William B. Traxler, whose swing vote confirmed the court’s otherwise divided ruling, “the Constitution generally affords all persons detained by the government the right to be charged and tried in a criminal proceeding for suspected wrongdoing, and it prohibits the government from subjecting individuals arrested inside the United States to military detention unless they fall within certain narrow exceptions … The detention of enemy combatants during military hostilities, however, is such an exception. If properly designated an enemy combatant pursuant to legal authority of the President, such persons may be detained without charge or criminal proceedings for the duration of the relevant hostilities.”

As was pointed out by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, who was steadfastly opposed to the majority verdict (and whose opinion was endorsed by Judges M. Blane Michael, Robert B. King and Roger L. Gregory), “the duration of the relevant hostilities” is a disturbingly open-ended prospect. After citing the 2007 State of the Union Address, in which the President claimed that ‘[t]he war on terror we fight today is a generational struggle that will continue long after you and I have turned our duties over to others,’” Judge Motz noted, “Unlike detention for the duration of a traditional armed conflict between nations, detention for the length of a ‘war on terror’ has no bounds.”

Ali al-MarriThe Court of Appeals made its extraordinary ruling in relation to a habeas corpus claim in the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, whose story I reported at length here. To recap briefly, al-Marri, a Qatari national who had studied in Peoria, Illinois in 1991, returned to the United States in September 2001, with his US residency in order, to pursue post-graduate studies, bringing his family — his wife and five children — with him. Three months later he was arrested and charged with fraud and making false statements to the FBI, but in June 2003, a month before he was due to stand trial for these charges in a federal court, the prosecution dropped the charges and informed the court that he was to be held as an “enemy combatant” instead.

He was then moved to a naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina, where he has now been held for five years and one month in complete isolation in a blacked-out cell in an otherwise unoccupied cell block. For the first 14 months of this imprisonment, when he received no visitors from outside the US military or the security agencies, he was subjected to sleep deprivation and extreme temperature manipulation, frequently deprived of food and water, and interrogated repeatedly.

In August 2004, representatives of the International Red Cross were finally allowed to visit al-Marri, and two months later he was permitted to meet with a lawyer, when he finally had the opportunity to explain that his interrogators had “threatened to send [him] to Egypt or to Saudi Arabia where, they told him, he would be tortured and sodomized and where his wife would be raped in front of him.”

Based on advice given to Donald Rumsfeld by Defense Department lawyers regarding the use of isolation at Guantánamo, when the lawyers warned that it was “not known to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days,” al-Marri has now been held in solitary confinement for 67 times longer than the amount of time recommended by the Pentagon’s own lawyers (this figure includes the six months that he spent in isolation in Peoria County Jail and the Metropolitan Correction Center in New York, before being transferred to Charleston).

It is, therefore, unsurprising that his lawyer, Jonathan Hafetz of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, has explained that he is suffering from “severe damage to his mental and emotional well-being, including hypersensitivity to external stimuli, manic behavior, difficulty concentrating and thinking, obsessional thinking, difficulties with impulse control, difficulty sleeping, difficulty keeping track of time, and agitation.”

So what is Ali al-Marri supposed to have done to justify being held in solitary confinement for almost as long as the duration of the Second World War? The presidential order declaring him an “enemy combatant” stated simply that he was closely associated with al-Qaeda and presented “a continuing, present, and grave danger to the national security of the United States.” Elaborating, in subsequent statements, the government has claimed that he was part of an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, who had been instructed to carry out further terrorist attacks in the United States, targeting reservoirs, the New York Stock Exchange and military academies.

Khalid Sheikh MohammedWhat’s particularly worrying about these charges is that, by the government’s own admission, the primary sources for its supposed evidence against al-Marri are confessions made by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks, during the three months following his capture in March 2003, when, as even the CIA has admitted, he was subjected to waterboarding, a form of controlled drowning, which the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition at least had the honesty to call “tortura del aqua.”

As I discussed at length in an article last summer, KSM stated during his tribunal at Guantánamo in March 2007 that he had given false information about other people while being tortured, and, although he was not allowed to elaborate, I traced several possible victims of these false confessions, including Majid Khan, one of 13 supposedly “high-value” detainees transferred with KSM to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006, Saifullah Paracha, a Pakistani businessman and philanthropist held in Guantánamo, and his son Uzair, who was convicted in the United States on dubious charges in November 2005, and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

As I also stated last November, “It’s possible, therefore, that al-Marri is another victim of KSM’s tangled web of tortured confessions, but whether or not this is true, the correct venue for such discussions is in a court of law, and not in leaks and proclamations from an administration that appears to be intent on holding him without charge or trial for the rest of his life.”

Jose PadillaWhen I wrote these words, it seemed possible that the Fourth Circuit judges would act to prevent al-Marri from having the dubious distinction of being the last “enemy combatant” on the US mainland, and would put pressure on the government to transfer him to a federal prison to face a trial in a US court, as happened with Jose Padilla (left), a US citizen and one of two other “enemy combatants” imprisoned without charge or trial — the other being Yaser Hamdi, a US-born Saudi, who was held in Guantánamo until it was ascertained that he held US citizenship. In Hamdi’s case, however, a brief stay at the Charleston brig was followed by a deal that allowed him to return to Saudi Arabia.

In June 2007, a panel of three Fourth Circuit judges dealt a blow to the administration’s claims by ruling that “the Constitution does not allow the President to order the military to seize civilians residing within the United States and then detain them indefinitely without criminal process, and this is so even if he calls them ‘enemy combatants.’” Last week’s decision followed a successful appeal by the government, but when the Fourth Circuit court met en banc to reconsider al-Marri’s case in October, it seemed possible that they would uphold the panel’s June verdict. When Judge Michael asked the government’s representative, Gregory J. Barre, “How long can you keep this man in custody?” and Garre replied that it could “go on for a long time,” depending on the duration of the “war” with al-Qaeda, Judge Michael stated, “It looks like a lifetime.”

I now realize, of course, that it was always highly improbable that the Fourth Circuit court — widely regarded as the most right-wing court in the country — would end Ali al-Marri’s legal limbo, although it was somewhat ironic that, in a separate ruling, the swing-voting Judge Traxler ruled in al-Marri’s favor when it came to a decision to grant him some as yet unspecified ability to challenge the basis of his definition as an “enemy combatant.”

This, at least, earned him the gratitude of Judge Motz, who stated that “the evidentiary proceedings envisaged by Judge Traxler will at least place the burden on the Government to make an initial showing that ‘the normal due process protections available to all within this country’ are impractical or unduly burdensome in al-Marri’s case and that the hearsay declaration that constitutes the Government’s only evidence against al-Marri is ‘the most reliable available evidence’ supporting the Government’s allegations.”

Yaser HamdiIn other respects, however, the court only added to its reputation as a defender of the indefensible. Not content with endorsing the President’s dictatorial right to imprison “enemy combatants” without charge or trial on the US mainland, the judges responsible for the majority verdict ruled that the President did not even have to allege, as he did with Yaser Hamdi (left) and Jose Padilla, that an “enemy combatant” had either been in Afghanistan or had ever raised arms against US forces.

The injustice of this was pointed out in the opinion of Judge Motz, who stated that, “unlike Hamdi and Padilla, al-Marri is not alleged to have been part of a Taliban unit, not alleged to have stood alongside the Taliban or the armed forces of any other enemy nation, not alleged to have been on the battlefield during the war in Afghanistan, not alleged to have even been in Afghanistan during the armed conflict, and not alleged to have engaged in combat with United States forces anywhere in the world.”

Judge Motz added, however, “With regret, we recognize that this view does not command a majority of the court. Our colleagues hold that the President can order the military to seize from his home and indefinitely detain anyone — including an American citizen — even though he has never affiliated with an enemy nation, fought alongside any nation’s armed forces, or borne arms against the United States anywhere in the world. We cannot agree that in a broad and general statute, Congress silently authorized a detention power that so vastly exceeds all traditional bounds. No existing law permits this extraordinary exercise of executive power.”

Disturbingly, as Judge Motz mentioned above, the court also indicated its presumption that its ruling applies not just to legal residents like Ali al-Marri, but to US citizens as well. Judge Traxler noted, “it is likely that the constitutional rights our court determines exist, or do not exist, for al-Marri will apply equally to our own citizens under like circumstances,” and Judge Motz explained that the lack of distinction between citizens and residents had become apparent at oral argument, when the government “finally acknowledged that an alien legally resident in the United States, like al-Marri, has the same Fifth Amendment due process rights as an American citizen. For this reason, the Government had to concede that if al-Marri can be detained as an enemy combatant, then the Government can also detain any American citizen on the same showing and through the same process.”

We have, to be honest, been here before. In September 2005, a three-member panel upheld, in Padilla’s case, the President’s power to hold US citizens indefinitely without charge or trial (PDF). This verdict was never tested, as the government took Padilla out of the brig and into the court system (where he was convicted in January) before the Supreme Court could rule on his case, but as Glenn Greenwald noted in an article in Salon, the upshot is that the 2005 Padilla verdict still stands. To that extent, all that has changed now is that the Fourth Circuit court has reinforced its former ruling en banc.

Al-Marri’s lawyers will doubtless appeal, and, if justice still counts for anything, his case will go all the way to the Supreme Court. However, it remains incomprehensible to me that the whole sorry saga has lasted for so long already. As Jonathan Hafetz and his colleagues explained last November when they presented their arguments to the Fourth Circuit judges (and as Judge Motz noted last week), the President “lacks the legal authority to designate and detain al-Marri as an ‘enemy combatant’ for two principal reasons”: firstly, because the Constitution “prohibits the military imprisonment of civilians arrested in the United States and outside an active battlefield,” and secondly, because, although a district court previously held that the President was authorized to detain al-Marri under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (the September 2001 law authorizing the President to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those involved in any way with the 9/11 attacks), Congress explicitly prohibited “the indefinite detention without charge of suspected alien terrorists in the United States” in the Patriot Act, which followed five weeks later.

That seems pretty clear to me. In the “War on Terror,” however, as I have learned during my research over the last two and a half years, all forms of logical thought — sometimes in the courts, most of the time in military custody, and as a permanent fixture in the war rooms where torture was endorsed — have been engulfed in a fog of fear and barbarism.

I leave the final words to Judge Motz, and her clear-eyed awareness of the injustice of the al-Marri verdict. “To sanction such presidential authority to order the military to seize and indefinitely detain civilians, even if the President call them ‘enemy combatants,’ would have disastrous consequences for the Constitution –- and the country,” Judge Motz wrote. “For a court to uphold a claim to such extraordinary power would do more than render lifeless the Suspension Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the rights to criminal process in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments; it would effectively undermine all of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. It is that power — were a court to recognize it — that could lead all our laws ‘to go unexecuted, and the government itself to go to pieces.’ We refuse to recognize a claim to power that would so alter the constitutional foundations of our Republic.”

Unless Ali al-Marri is allowed a meaningful review of his status as an “enemy combatant,” Judge Motz’s fears have already come true.

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). 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 Antiwar.com, the Huffington Post, CounterPunch, ZNet, AlterNet and American Torture.

For updates on Ali al-Marri’s case, see my December 2008 article, The Last US Enemy Combatant: The Shocking Story of Ali al-Marri, Ending The Cruel Isolation Of Ali al-Marri, The Last US “Enemy Combatant” and Why The US Under Obama Is Still A Dictatorship (both March 2009), and Dictatorial Powers Unchallenged As US “Enemy Combatant” Pleads Guilty (May 2009).

Also see related articles on Jose Padilla: Jose Padilla: More Sinned Against Than Sinning (August 2007), Why Jose Padilla’s 17-year prison sentence should shock and disgust all Americans (January 2008), US Justice Department drops “dirty bomb plot” allegation against Binyam Mohamed (October 2008), Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (April 2009).

What’s Happening with the Guantánamo cases?

Lady JusticeYou may well ask. A month ago, the Supreme Court ruled, in Boumediene v. Bush, that the Guantánamo prisoners have constitutional habeas corpus rights; in other words, the right to ask why, after six and a half years’ imprisonment without charge or trial, they are being held. The highest judges in the land ruled four years ago, in Rasul v. Bush, that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights, but only granted them statutory rights, and the executive responded by persuading Congress to change the law.

With Boumediene, therefore, the Supreme Court sent a clear message to both the executive and the politicians in Congress that passing new laws — 2005’s Detainee Treatment Act and 2006’s Military Commissions Act — to deprive the prisoners of the right to hear why they are being held was actually unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court had been stirred to this apparently unusual ruling — granting habeas rights to foreigners detained in wartime — because of its grave concerns that the prisoners, held neither as Prisoners of War, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminals, who could face a trial in the US court system, had never been adequately screened through the administrative process that the government had established in response to Rasul, and had, literally, no recourse to justice whatsoever.

In this they were undoubtedly correct. The administrative hearings — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals — were savaged last year by a former insider, Lt, Col. Stephen Abraham, who derided them for drawing on appallingly weak, generalized and unsubstantiated information masquerading as “evidence,” and for being designed, essentially, to rubber-stamp the government’s unchecked assertions that the prisoners were “enemy combatants,” who could be held without charge or trial.

Two weeks after Boumediene, the Court of Appeals was finally allowed to scrutinize the government’s case against one of these “enemy combatants.” The case, Parhat v. Gates, had, like the prisoners themselves, been held in a legal limbo pending the Supreme Court’s decision, but once the judges were free to act they duly ruled that the four-year old designation of Huzaifa Parhat, a Chinese Muslim, as an “enemy combatant” was “invalid,” and lambasted the quality of the government’s evidence as being akin to a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Since then, however, the headline writers have moved on, because most of the response to Boumediene and Parhat is now taking place behind the scenes. After some grumbling from the President, who told a Republican party meeting, “With this decision, hardened terrorists, hardened foreign terrorists, now enjoy certain legal rights previously reserved for American citizens,” and an extraordinary tirade from John McCain, the administration was forced to concede that it had no chance of amending the Constitution any time soon, and resorted, instead, to delaying tactics.

As the US District Court moved swiftly, and Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth announced, on July 2, that Senior Judge Thomas F. Hogan had been assigned “to coordinate and manage proceedings in all Guantánamo Bay cases so that these cases can be addressed as expeditiously as possible,” the Department of Justice began dragging its heels.

When lawyers for the prisoners and DoJ representatives met Judge Hogan last week, Assistant Attorney General Gregory Katsas “asked for two months to recruit lawyers and at least another two months to amend the existing returns [roughly 100 in total] and file 100 new ones.” He claimed, additionally, that the effort would strain the Justice Department’s resources “almost to the breaking point.”

“To its credit,” as the Miami Herald explained in a pointed editorial, “the court was skeptical, to say the least. Judge Hogan said he could not fathom why evidence would suddenly have to be changed if it had been considered strong enough to warrant holding the detainees for periods of up to six years.” In Hogan’s own words, “If it wasn’t sufficient, then they shouldn’t have been picked up.”

As the Legal Times blog put it, Judge Hogan added that he “wanted the returns filed sooner,” said he had “misgivings about granting the government ‘carte blanche’ to augment its evidence ‘without saying why,’” and reminded the government of what the Supreme Court had stated in Boumediene: “The cost of delay can no longer be borne by those who are held in custody.” With a final flourish, he told the DoJ in no uncertain terms, “The time has come to move these forward. Set aside every other case that’s pending in the division and address this case first.”

The government was no more fortunate when it came up against District Judge Richard Leon, who had decided not to transfer his cases — 12 in total, involving 35 prisoners — to Judge Hogan. “This is going to be moved as fast as possible,” Judge Leon told a similar gathering of Guantánamo lawyers and DoJ representatives. “These men have waited long enough to get a decision. The Supreme Court has spoken. They want this done. By God, we’ll get this done.”

Judge Leon also explained, as Reuters described it, that he “would not allow the Department of Defense or the CIA to delay the cases while reviewing classified information used to hold the prisoners as enemy combatants.” “Let there be no doubt that the Department of Defense and the CIA must be prepared to come to the courtroom and defend their decisions if we get any sense that there is an effort by those agencies to slow down the proceedings,” he said, adding, in a comment that echoed Judge Hogan’s doubts about the government’s delaying tactics, “that he probably would require the government to show why it wants to file new evidence to justify holding a detainee.” He then “ordered both sides to provide status reports by July 18, addressing issues including when and where the detainee had been taken into custody” and “scheduled closed meetings with both sides for July 23 and 24,” adding that he wanted to decide the cases before the next President takes office in January 2009.

Lawyers for the prisoners are now working overtime preparing their cases, in the hope that the elusive justice that their clients have been seeking for so many years is almost within reach.

Problems remain, however. Even with rulings comparable to Parhat v. Gates, the difficulty of finding new homes for many of these men has not been resolved. Huzaifa Parhat remains in Guantánamo, despite his success in the Court of Appeals, because he cannot be returned to China, as a result of treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture.

The government recently announced that 54 prisoners in total (20 percent of Guantánamo’s current population) are awaiting release from Guantánamo if suitable homes can be found. As I have reported before, many of these men are from countries including Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, where they too would face torture — or worse — if repatriated, and there are fears that, even if many of the other prisoners are finally vindicated by a US court, many of them will also be unable to return home.

As the Miami Herald editorial concluded, accurately, “In cases where the government’s evidence is either weak or nonexistent, judges will be able to order suspects released, but they lack authority to bring detainees into the United States. That’s why the Bush administration should be working overtime to find countries that will take them back.”

Few are mentioning it, but it should also be asked if now is not the time for serious discussions to take place regarding finding homes for these men in the country whose government was responsible for their wrongful imprisonment in the first place.

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). 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.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Guantánamo habeas cases, see: Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history and Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: What Happened? (both December 2007), The Supreme Court’s Guantánamo ruling: what does it mean? (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (Uighurs’ first court victory, June 2008), Government Says Six Years Is Not Long Enough To Prepare Evidence (September 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), Guilt By Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), After 7 Years, Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo Kidnap Victims (November 2008), Is Robert Gates Guilty of Perjury in Guantánamo Torture Case? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), The Top Ten Judges of 2008 (January 2009), No End in Sight for the “Enemy Combatants” of Guantánamo (January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (January 2009), How Cooking For The Taliban Gets You Life In Guantánamo (January 2009), Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), The Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants (March 2009), Farce at Guantánamo, as cleared prisoner’s habeas petition is denied (April 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Judge Condemns “Mosaic” Of Guantánamo Intelligence, And Unreliable Witnesses (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies (May 2009), Free The Guantánamo Uighurs! (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part One): Exposing The Bush Administration’s Lies (July 2009), Obama’s Failure To Deliver Justice To The Last Tajik In Guantánamo (July 2009), Obama And The Deadline For Closing Guantánamo: It’s Worse Than You Think (July 2009), How Judge Huvelle Humiliated The Government In Guantánamo Case (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), As Judge Orders Release Of Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner, Government Refuses To Concede Defeat (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), Guantánamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave (August 2009), Judge Orders Release From Guantánamo Of Kuwaiti Charity Worker (August 2009). Also see: Justice extends to Bagram, Guantánamo’s Dark Mirror (April 2009), Judge Rules That Afghan “Rendered” To Bagram In 2002 Has No Rights (July 2009).

“Screwed up” and “abused”: Omar Khadr’s Canadian interrogations at Guantánamo

As the Abu Ghraib scandal demonstrates, a photo is worth a thousand words — even if, as Errol Morris’ newly-released documentary Standard Operating Procedure demonstrates, those words are sometimes what the viewer wishes to see, rather than what actually happened.

A still from the interrogation of Omar Khadr, February 2003There is, therefore, enormous excitement in the media about the first ever release of images from interrogations in Guantánamo: seven and a half hours of footage (highlights available here) from interrogations of Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, who was just 15 years old when he was seized after a firefight with US soldiers in Afghanistan in July 2002.

In February 2003, when he was still only 16, Omar was visited by representatives of his home country’s Air Force Office of Special Investigations. As has already been widely reported, the video footage from these interrogations — released to Omar’s Canadian lawyers, Nathan Whitling and Dennis Edney, as the result of a decision in May by the Supreme Court of Canada and a decision in June by the Federal Court of Canada — shows Omar displaying his wounds, weeping uncontrollably and pulling at his hair in despair.

Despite the excitement, however, documents relating to these interrogations have been available for the last six days, and it’s my belief that they demonstrate the confusion of a desperately lonely imprisoned child without any of the dubious voyeurism that the images bring, whilst also allowing a useful distance from which to appreciate the general coldness and indifference of the interrogators. As Whitling noted in an email accompanying the documents’ release, “The documents paint a picture of a victimized and exploited boy.”

The Canadian representatives interrogated Omar for four days, and in three separate documents relating to the sessions they ran through the lines of questioning they pursued, which were mainly to do with his family history and his knowledge of al-Qaeda. Omar’s father, who funded orphanages in Afghanistan, was also friendly with Osama bin Laden, and Omar and his three brothers spent much of their childhood in Afghanistan and Pakistan, on occasion sharing a compound with the bin Laden family.

Absent from these reports, however, is any detailed questioning relating to Omar’s supposed crime — the killing of a US soldier during the firefight in which he was captured, the veracity of which has only recently been exposed to scrutiny. Also missing are the odd flashes of humanity that can be gleaned from the videotape, when, for example, one of the interrogators attempts to calm Omar, who is clearly distraught, by saying, “I know this is stressful.”

These human touches are, however, overshadowed by the interrogators’ general indifference to Omar’s plight. As Whitling and Edney noted when they released the documents, although Omar was clearly “suffering from severe emotional problems connected with his detention and interrogation, crying heavily on more than one occasion,” the Canadian officials “dismissed his claims of abuse on the flimsiest of pretexts,” writing, in one of the reports, that his allegations of torture at the US prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, which have, of course, subsequently been verified by numerous sources, “did not ring true.”

The interrogators were also indifferent when Omar broke down after describing how he was severely wounded in one eye during the firefight that led to his capture. One report relates, “Khadr stated, ‘I lost my eyes,’ indicating that when he was shot, it affected his vision. Khadr put his head back in his hands and cried heavily. The interrogators left him at this point.” On another occasion, another report states, “Khadr has not received any letters from family since being detained. The interviewers then provided Khadr with a letter, which had recently arrived at Camp Delta. The letter was from his grandmother in Canada. Khadr was left alone to review the letter. Khadr was watched using a video monitor and a one-way piece of glass. Khadr appeared to cry while reading the letter. Tears were coming from his eyes and he was rubbing his eyes and nose.”

This might not be quite so worrying if Omar was an adult at the time of his capture and interrogations — although it would still raise uncomfortable questions about Canadian complicity in the US detention of a Canadian citizen in worryingly novel circumstances, held neither as a Prisoner of War protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as a criminal suspect facing a regular trial.

Given Omar’s circumstances, however, it directly contravenes the terms of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which both the United States and Canada are signatories, which stipulates that juvenile prisoners — defined as those accused of a crime that took place when they were under 18 years of age — “require special protection.” The Optional Protocol specifically recognizes “the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities”, and requires its signatories to promote “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict.”

Clearly, these requirements have not been fulfilled in Omar’s case, and the Canadians’ complicity in Omar’s detention and interrogation also, of course, make a mockery of the Canadian government’s insistent mantra — that it would not intervene in Omar’s case since it had received assurances from the United States that Omar was being treated humanely — which, as Whitney notes, “has now been proven to have been an attempt to misinform the Canadian public.”

Also included in the documents released by Whitling and Edney, although not featured in the videotapes, are notes from a second visit with Omar, by Jim Gould of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, in March 2004. In a summary of the visit by R. Scott Hetherington, the Director of the Foreign Intelligence Division, Gould, who regarded himself as “an amateur observer of the human condition,” described Omar as “a thoroughly ‘screwed-up’ young man,” adding, pertinently, “All those persons who have been in positions of authority over him have abused him and his trust, for their own purposes. In this group can be included his parent and grandparents, his associates in Afghanistan and fellow detainees in Camp Delta and the US military.” Significantly, Gould also noted that, as during the visit in 2003, Omar “recanted all previous statements, including his confession to having thrown the grenade that killed the American soldier.”

Despite being rather patronizing about Omar, Gould’s statement included riveting details of the US military’s treatment of Omar, explaining that, “in an effort to make him more amenable and willing to talk,” the authorities had placed him on the “frequent flyer program,” the euphemistic name for a program of prolonged sleep deprivation. “For the three weeks prior to Mr. Gould’s visit,” the report continued, Omar “has not been permitted more than three hours in any location. At three hour intervals he is moved to another block, thus denying him uninterrupted sleep.” Gould was also told that Omar would “soon be placed in isolation for up to three weeks” and would then be interviewed again.

Although Gould was critical of Omar’s US interrogator, noting that he “seemed to be trying to intimidate Omar or force Omar to talk rather then trying to cajole him into cooperation,” he was unconcerned about the prolonged sleep deprivation, noting, nonchalantly, that Omar “did not appear to have been affected by three weeks on the ‘frequent flyer’ program.” Four years later, however, on June 25, 2008, Mr. Justice Richard Mosley of the Federal Court of Canada thought differently, and ruled that this treatment constituted a breach of the United Nations Convention against Torture and the Geneva Conventions. As Nathan Whitling noted, without elaboration, “The Canadian government did not attempt to appeal this decision.”

The most distressing anecdote from Gould’s report, however, which, bizarrely, he portrayed as an example of Omar “hav[ing] some feelings,” followed a session with an interrogator from the Department of Defense, who had shown him a photo of his family, only for Omar to deny that he knew anyone in the picture. “Left alone with the picture and despite his shackles,” the report continued, “Omar urinated on the picture. The MPs cleaned him, the picture and floor and again left him alone with the picture — after shortening his shackles so that he couldn’t urinate on the picture again. But, with the flexibility of youth, he was able to lower his trousers and again urinated on the picture. Again the MPs cleaned up and left him alone with the picture on a table in front of him. After two and a half hours alone and probably assuming that he was no longer being watched, Omar laid his head down on the table beside the picture in what was seen as an affectionate manner.”

This is an example of Omar “hav[ing] some feelings”? In my world, which I hope you share, it shows a horrendously isolated and abused teenager displaying mood swings that are symptomatic of extreme mental disturbance.

As Dr. Eric Trupin, who has conducted extensive research on the effects of incarceration on adolescents, explained in 2005 after reviewing the results of mental status tests administered by Omar’s US lawyers, which followed three years of interrogations that began as soon as Omar was captured, and which had a cumulative effect that the Canadians either could not or would not consider:

The impact of these harsh interrogation techniques on an adolescent such as O.K. [Omar], who also has been isolated for almost three years, is potentially catastrophic to his future development. Long-term consequences of harsh interrogation techniques are both more pronounced for adolescents and more difficult to remediate or treat even after such interrogations are discontinued, particularly if the victim is uncertain as to whether they will resume. It is my opinion, to a reasonable scientific certainty, that O.K.’s continued subjection to the threat of physical and mental abuse places him at significant risk for future psychiatric deterioration, which may include irreversible psychiatric symptoms and disorders, such as a psychosis with treatment-resistant hallucinations, paranoid delusions and persistent self-harming attempts.

For more on the background to Omar Khadr’s story, and his abuse in US detention, 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, Anti-war.com, AlterNet, ZNet and CounterPunch.

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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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