Folly and Injustice: Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo Trial

24.7.08

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).

3 Responses

  1. Folly and Injustice: Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo Trial | freedetainees.org says...

    […] By Andy Worthington […]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    After this article was published I received the following message:

    Hello Andy,
    I do not understand how and why a person of your qualifications does not conclude that the Guantánamo trial is nothing but a show of the Hollywood type. Don’t you see that the American government is making the rules as required from time to time? By now you should have understood that the American ruling elite is a bunch of people with serious mental disorders elected by the brain washed American electors.
    Have my Regards
    Anteo Sergovich

  3. Military Commissions Revived: Don’t Do It, Mr. President! « freedetainees.org says...

    […] 2008), 9/11 trial defendants cry torture (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo […]

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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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