Archive for December, 2008

Lost In Guantánamo: The Faisalabad 16

On the evening of March 28, 2002, an armed group of FBI agents and Pakistani commandos, accompanied by a hundred local police, stormed Shabaz Cottage, an apartment in a quiet neighborhood in the city of Faisalabad, Pakistan. Their target, who had been tracked by the careless use of a satellite phone, was Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, more commonly known as Abu Zubaydah. Acknowledged as a facilitator for recruits attending the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, Zubaydah was regarded by the CIA as a far more significant figure.

Apprehended as he attempted to flee the house, Zubaydah reportedly received gunshot wounds in his stomach, one of his legs, and his groin, and after his capture was immediately rendered to a secret CIA prison in Thailand, where, as General Michael Hayden, the CIA’s Director, acknowledged in February this year, he was subjected to the ancient torture technique known as waterboarding, a form of controlled drowning. He was later transferred to other secret prisons — in Poland, and possibly on the island of Diego Garcia — until his eventual transfer to Guantánamo, along with 13 other “high-value detainees,” in September 2006.

Disputes within the US administration over Zubaydah’s alleged significance have never been resolved. Dan Coleman, a senior FBI operative, maintains that he was “insane, certifiable, split personality,” based on an analysis of his dairies, which revealed mundane accounts of life as recorded by three different personalities, and according to Ron Suskind, in his book The One Percent Doctrine, other officials confirmed that Zubaydah appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations, and was, instead, a minor logistician. Nevertheless, the CIA took over his interrogations from the FBI and subjected him to torture, and after he arrived at Guantánamo, President Bush took the opportunity to declare, “We believe that Zubaydah was a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden.”

While the story of Abu Zubaydah has been reported extensively in the media, there has been far less coverage of the seven men seized with him during the Faisalabad raid, and almost no mention whatsoever of 16 other men seized in a raid on another house in Faisalabad that same evening, even though the stories of two of these prisoners shed light on the CIA’s policy of rendering terror suspects to third countries for torture, and others cast doubt on the Pentagon’s justifications for holding prisoners in Guantánamo.

Information about the two suspects who were rendered to torture was provided by the journalist Stephen Grey in his book Ghost Plane, following an interview with Abdullah Almalki. A joint Syrian-Canadian national, Almalki was seized by Syrian intelligence agents in May 2002, at the request of the Canadian authorities, and imprisoned and tortured for 22 months in the notorious military prison known as the “Palestine Branch,” before being released without charge. He explained to Grey that two suspects seized with Zubaydah — Omar Ghramesh and an unnamed teenager — were rendered to the “Palestine Branch” on May 14, 2002, along with Abdul Halim Dalak, a student seized in Pakistan in November 2001. Ghramesh, he said, had explained to him that in Pakistan US agents had shown him photos of Abu Zubaydah looking battered and bruised, and had told him, “If you don’t talk, this is what will happen to you.”

As in the cases of dozens of other “ghost prisoners,” the US government has never acknowledged its role in the rendition and torture of Ghramesh, Dalak and the unnamed teenager, and their current whereabouts are unknown.

However, more is known about the prisoners who were transferred to Guantánamo. Four of the men seized with Zubaydah — Ghassan al-Sharbi and Jabran al-Qahtani (both Saudis), Sufyian Barhoumi (an Algerian) and Noor Uthman Muhammed (a Sudanese) — were put forward for trial by Military Commission in June this year, accused of various plots involving explosives, and, in Muhammed’s case, of being the deputy emir of the Khaldan training camp.

Their cases are notable because the charges against them were dropped by the Pentagon in October, after their prosecutor, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, resigned, stating that the trial system was designed to prevent the disclosure of evidence essential to the defense, and citing examples in one of the cases he was prosecuting, that of an Afghan prisoner named Mohamed Jawad. The Pentagon gave no explanation for dropping the charges, but commentators suggested that officials were concerned that, if the cases proceeded to trial, Vandeveld would cause them further embarrassment by testifying for the defense.

It is not known whether Vandeveld possesses information that undermines the Pentagon’s claims against these men, but the recent release from Guantánamo of another prisoner captured with Abu Zubaydah indicates that not everyone seized in the Faisalabad raids was connected with al-Qaeda.

Labed Ahmed, a 50-year old Algerian (also identified as Abdallah Husseini), was repatriated on November 10, after being “approved for transfer” by a military review board. During a review in 2006, he explained that he had ended up at Zubaydah’s house by accident.

A former drug dealer in Europe, Ahmed told the military panel that he had been imprisoned many times in Germany and Italy, and explained that he decided to go to Afghanistan in March 2001, after someone he met at a mosque in Hamburg recruited him by showing him videos of mujahideen in Afghanistan and Chechnya, although he added that he actually hoped to buy heroin to sell in Europe so that he could buy his own nightclub.

Ahmed said that he arrived in Afghanistan at the start of September 2001, trained at al-Farouq (the main camp for Arabs) for 12 days until the camp closed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and then fought with the Taliban until December, when he left for Pakistan with a group of 20 other people, staying for three months in safe houses in Bannu and Lahore. He said that he was then told to go to Faisalabad, where some people would come to give him his passport and send him back to Germany. He explained that he was with two other people, a Russian and a Yemeni, but that, after they arrived at Shabaz Cottage, they were told that they had been brought there by mistake and would be moved to another house after the evening prayer.

Ahmed insisted that he didn’t want to leave, because the previous houses had been crowded, whereas this house was “big and nice” and “everybody had their own room,” and explained that he refused to leave in the vehicle that was brought in the evening. Several days later, he said, “The guy from al-Qaeda, Daoud [identified in the hearing as Zubaydah] questioned me as to who I was, what I was doing here and who brought me. I said I’m from Germany waiting on my passport. When I get it, I will leave. He said, no problem, you can stay here for a week. I stayed there for about 12 days and the Pakistani police came. They took us to prison. Daoud was arrested with us, you can ask him about us.”

The house to which Ahmed and his companions were supposed to have been delivered was the Crescent Mill guest house (also referred to as the “Issa” guest house, after its owner, and “the Yemeni house,” after most of its guests), and it was here that the Russian and the Yemeni who arrived at Shabaz Cottage with Ahmed were seized, along with another 14 prisoners. Mostly aged between 18 and 24, there were 11 Yemenis, an Algerian, a Palestinian and a Saudi, and all are still in Guantánamo, with the exception of Ali Abdullah Ahmed al-Salami, one of three prisoners who died in Guantánamo in June 2006, apparently after committing suicide.

Of the remaining 15 prisoners, only one has been approved for release from Guantánamo, even though there is little in any of the men’s stories to suggest that they were involved in any kind of militant activity. Nine of the 15 have maintained that they were students at Salafia University, run by the vast missionary organization Jamaat-al-Tablighi, and that the guest house was a university dorm, two have stated that they traveled to receive medical treatment, and another, Fahmi Ahmed, said that he went to Pakistan to buy fabrics, taking money that he had borrowed from his mother, but explained that he actually spent most of his time “like a wild man,” drinking and smoking hashish. The prisoner cleared for release, Mohammed Hassen, was not even living at the house, and was caught up in the raid after visiting for dinner and staying the night.

Only three of the men have admitted that they ever set foot in Afghanistan: Ahmed Abdul Qader, a Yemeni, who said that he went to Afghanistan for charitable work, and Ravil Mingazov and Jamil Nassir, the Russian and Yemeni who were taken to Abu Zubaydah’s house by mistake just two weeks before the raid. Nassir’s story involves conflicting claims that he either undertook military training in Afghanistan, was a humanitarian aid worker, or had traveled to Pakistan for medical treatment, and Mingazov, a former ballet dancer, fled religious persecution in his homeland, and has stated that he was with Jamaat-al-Tablighi in Lahore when he joined Labed Ahmed on the ill-fated trip to Faisalabad.

The allegations made against these prisoners give little reason to doubt their stories. They contain claims by the US authorities, as with many other prisoners involved with Jamaat-al-Tablighi, that the organization was “used to mask travel and activities of terrorists,” but this allegation has never been regarded as legitimate outside Guantánamo. For the most part the prisoners’ insistence that they traveled from their home countries to study in Faisalabad via Karachi (and often via Jamaat-al-Tablighi mosques in Lahore and Raiwand, where the organization has its headquarters) is at odds with a catalog of other allegations made under unknown circumstances by unidentified “al-Qaeda operatives” and other unidentified “sources,” who claimed to have seen the men at various times in Afghanistan.

With Labed Ahmed now released, it is unclear how the Pentagon can maintain that it has any reason to hold the 16 other prisoners seized in the Crescent Mill guest house. One particular comment that Ahmed made during his military review, when he stated that, because he, Mingazov and Nassir “did not have a connection or relationship with Abu Zubaydah,” they “should have been placed in the Yemeni house,” indicates that, although Abu Zubaydah had some sort of contact with the house, it was not a place that had any connection with terrorism, and was, at best, a place where a few foreigners fleeing from Afghanistan could be concealed alongside a group of students.

Mohammed Hassen’s lawyer, David Remes, says his client has paid dearly for being at the wrong place at the wrong time: “Mohammed has spent a quarter of his life behind bars because he made the mistake of visiting a friend at a guest house the night it was raided.” Noting that Hassen was cleared for release nearly three years ago but remains imprisoned at Guantánamo, Remes added, “This is more than injustice. It’s a nightmare. My client is particularly unfortunate, because he was not even living at the house, but nothing I have either seen or heard, in my discussions with other lawyers and my analysis of Mr. Hassen’s case, indicates that any of these men constitutes a threat to the United States.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). A more detailed analysis of the Faisalabad story is available in Chapter 13 of the book. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

Note: Another Algerian, Soufian al-Hawari, was repatriated from Guantánamo with Labed Ahmed. His story is discussed in Chapter 16 of The Guantánamo Files, and will also feature in a forthcoming article.

Note:

The prisoners’ numbers are as follows:

ISN 703: Labed Ahmed
ISN 1016: Soufian al-Hawari

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; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 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).

Is The 9/11 Trial Confession An Al-Qaeda Propaganda Coup?

In a genuinely surprising announcement from Guantánamo, the five men accused of plotting and facilitating the 9/11 attacks — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who stated in his tribunal at Guantánamo last March that he was “responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z,” Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Walid bin Attash — have declared at today’s pre-trial hearing that they “request an immediate hearing session to announce our confessions.”

From the top: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Walid bin Attash.

The hearings, which are supposed to last all week, have already attracted significant media attention, partly because relatives of some of the victims of the 9/11 attacks are in attendance, and partly because they were seen as the Bush administration’s last attempt to justify its much-criticized “War on Terror” detention policies. In the run-up to the Presidential election, the Military Commissions had dropped off the media’s radar, and almost no one turned up at Guantánamo in the last week of October when Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, an alleged al-Qaeda propagandist, received a life sentence after a disturbing one-sided show trial in which he refused to mount a defense.

This week’s hearings were widely expected to involve further attempts to resolve some long-standing complaints regarding bin al-Shibh, whose lawyers maintain that he is mentally unfit to stand trial, and al-Hawsawi, whose lawyers contend that he has been bullied by his co-accused. It was also expected that, as in the arraignment in June, and a previous round of pre-trial hearings in September, Mohammed would take the opportunity to dominate the proceedings and to make sly references to his torture at the hands of US forces.

What no one foresaw, however, was that Mohammed would use the global media spotlight to return to another theme that he mentioned during the arraignment six months ago: his desire to be martyred.  And yet this, it seems, is exactly what has happened. The trial’s new judge, Col. Stephen Henley, read from a document that was filed by all five defendants on November 4, the day of the Presidential election, following a number of previously undisclosed meetings between the men.

“We all five have reached an agreement to request from the commission an immediate hearing session in order to announce our confessions … with our earnest desire in this regard without being under any kind of pressure, threat, intimidations or promise from any party,” their statement said.

As Mohammed lived up to expectations, slipping in a reference to torture when, after telling Henley, “I do not trust you,” he added that he didn’t trust an “agreement between Bush and the CIA who tortured me,” Ali Abdul Aziz Ali also spoke out, assuring Henley that all five had reached their decisions willingly. “All of these decisions were undertaken by us without any pressure or influence by Khalid Sheikh,” he said. “What was said or will be said by Khalid Sheikh will be repeated by us, also.”

Quite what this means is not yet clear. As the Guardian explained, “The letter implies they want to plead guilty but does not make clear whether they will admit to any specific charges,” although it does establish that they “wish to drop all previous defense motions.” Bloomberg added that “Henley asked military prosecutors to submit legal briefs on whether the commission can ‘accept a plea of guilty to a capital offense,’” and doubts also remain about the status of bin al-Shibh and al-Hawsawi, who are still represented by military attorneys.

As we await further clarification, I can only wonder if Mohammed and his co-defendants have indeed chosen to focus unerringly on their pursuit of martyrdom, and have decided that their best hope for advancing al-Qaeda’s cause lies in trying to secure a conviction in the tainted Military Commissions of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney before Barack Obama can dismantle them.

This interpretation would seem to be borne out by an additional comment attributed to Mohammed by AFP: “We don’t want to waste time.” And as with every previous occasion when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has had the eyes of the world’s media upon him, I can only wonder who’s really running the show.

UPDATE 11 pm GMT: As suggested above, Col. Henley delayed a verdict on the request by Mohammed and his co-accused, giving lawyers time to investigate whether he is allowed to accept guilty pleas in capital cases, and also whether this would prevent the imposition of the death penalty. He set a deadline of January 5, when the next pre-trial hearings are scheduled to take place, for the lawyers to submit briefs.

In addition, although he accepted the request from Mohammed, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Walid bin Attash, he ruled that competency hearings were required for Mustafa al-Hawsawi and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, because of doubts about their ability to stand trial. As a result, the defendants stated that they would wait until the results of these investigations were known before entering pleas. As Ali Abdul Aziz Ali explained, “Our plea request was based on joint strategy and I would rather wait.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, 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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post 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), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (five trials dropped, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), An empty trial at Guantánamo (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, October 2008), Life sentence for al-Qaeda propagandist fails to justify Guantánamo trials (al-Bahlul, November 2008), Guilt by Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials at Guantánamo (December 2008), 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).

Obama and Holder must return to a September 10th mind-set

During the election campaign, one of the sticks with which John McCain’s team attempted to beat Barack Obama was a claim that he was soft on terrorism, or, as Senator McCain’s national security director Randy Scheunemann declared to reporters in June, “Senator Obama is a perfect manifestation of a September 10th mind-set … He does not understand the nature of the enemies we face.”

Far from providing a rebuke to Barack Obama, this simple phrase encapsulated all that was wrong with the counter-terrorism policies of the last seven years: a misguided belief that an appropriate response to the 9/11 attacks was to launch an ill-defined but far-reaching global war on terrorism, to grant the President the power to seize anyone he regarded as a terrorist — or a terrorist sympathizer — and imprison them indefinitely without charge or trial, to wage an unprecedented assault on the US Constitution, and to discard the UN Convention Against Torture, the War Crimes Act, the Army Field Manual and the Geneva Conventions.

Even now, apologists for the crimes of the last seven years refuse to concede that the 9/11 attacks had anything to do with US foreign policy, with the failures of the intelligence services to monitor the threat posed by al-Qaeda, and with the failure of successive administrations — both Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s — to take the threat on board.

And yet, a September 10th mind-set is exactly what is required to begin undoing the damage inflicted on America’s moral standing by President Bush and those closest to him, who were responsible for driving the country on a fear-filled journey to the “Dark Side.” Specifically, those most culpable are Vice President Dick Cheney, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Cheney’s former legal counsel and now chief of staff, David Addington, all exponents of the “unitary executive theory” of government, for whom the declaration of a state of permanent war provided the perfect opportunity to grant the President dictatorial powers.

It remains to be seen whether, in dismantling the tyrannical aspirations of the Bush administration, President Obama will be able to call the crimes to account without implicating the perpetrators. My hope is that it will be impossible to let Cheney, Addington and Rumsfeld off the hook as more is revealed about the extent of their crimes, but in the meantime Barack Obama’s most important course of action is to adhere to the promises he made over the last year and a half: to close Guantánamo, to repeal the Military Commissions Act, to uphold the absolute ban on torture, and to trust the federal court system to bring criminals to justice. He will, in addition, need to make sure that the CIA’s post-9/11 job revision — involving the industrial-scale “extraordinary rendition” of prisoners to torture, and running secret prisons — is also brought to an end.

Much of this return to the law — as it existed on September 10, 2001 — will involve breaking the chain of command that led from the Office of the Vice President to the Pentagon, but if Obama does repeal the Military Commissions Act, then those most closely involved with Cheney and Addington’s pet project will also be out of a job; in particular, Susan Crawford, the retired judge who is the Commissions’ supposedly impartial “Convening Authority,” despite being a close friend of Cheney and Addington, and Daniel Dell’Orto, the acting general counsel who took over from the torture ideologue William J. Haynes II in February, when Haynes resigned following severe criticism by Col. Morris Davis, the Commissions’ former chief prosecutor.

Even more crucial, therefore, is Obama’s choice to overhaul the Justice Department, which, under orders from Cheney and Addington, was ruthlessly purged of any critics of the administration’s law-shredding policies, as it is here that effective plans to close Guantánamo will have to be implemented. These, presumably, will involve a rapid and dispassionate review of the existing cases, the release of the majority of the prisoners, and the transfer of those considered truly dangerous (perhaps three dozen at most) to the US mainland to face trials in federal courts.

Though largely overlooked in the column inches devoted to the return of Hillary Clinton, Obama’s choice of Attorney General, Eric Holder, a partner at the law firm Covington & Burling (where some of his colleagues represent 17 Yemeni prisoners at Guantánamo), seems admirably equipped to oversee the necessary transformation of the Justice Department. Snipers have already picked up on the fact that, in January 2002, Holder made comments about Guantánamo that could have been scripted by David Addington — full of references to the limitations on interrogation imposed by the Geneva Conventions, and his impression that terror suspects were not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions — but as Glenn Greenwald recently pointed out, few lawyers were demanding rights for the Guantánamo prisoners back in January 2002.

More significant, therefore, are the comments that Holder made about the conduct of the “War on Terror” in June this year, to a meeting of the American Constitution Society, in which his rhetoric matched that of Barack Obama. After stating that the Bush administration had taken many steps that were “both excessive and unlawful” in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, he explained,

I never thought I would see the day when a Justice Department would claim that only the most extreme infliction of pain and physical abuse constitutes torture and that acts that are merely cruel, inhuman and degrading are consistent with United States law and policy, [and] that the Supreme Court would have to order the president of the United States to treat detainees in accordance with the Geneva Convention … This disrespect for the rule of law is not only wrong, it is destructive in our struggle against terrorism.

He then signaled his willingness to close Guantánamo, transfer the remaining prisoners to the US mainland, and adopt an “expedited and procedurally fair” review process for evaluating the status of the prisoners, which, of course, is just what long-term critics of Guantánamo have been suggesting. As with all speculation, of course, we will have to wait for January 21 to see what will actually emerge, but for now, at least, the omens are good.

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

As published exclusively on Juan Cole’s Informed Comment.

The Last US Enemy Combatant: The Shocking Story of Ali al-Marri

In brighter times, before a fog of fear descended on the United States, and the discourse of decent men and women was coarsened by an acceptance of the use of torture as a “no-brainer,” it would have been inconceivable that an American could have been held for seven years without charge or trial on the US mainland, in a state of solitary confinement so debilitating that he is said to be 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.”

And yet, this is exactly what has happened in the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri. A Qatari national — and legal US resident — al-Marri had studied computer science in Peoria, Illinois in the 1980s, had graduated in 1991, and had legally returned to the United States on September 10, 2001 to pursue post-graduate studies, bringing his family — his wife and five children — with him. Three months later, on December 12, 2001, he was arrested at his home by the FBI, and taken to the maximum security Special Housing Unit at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, where he was held in solitary confinement as a material witness in the investigation into the 9/11 attacks.

In February 2003, al-Marri was charged with credit card fraud, identity theft, making false statements to the FBI, and making a false statement on a bank application, and was moved back to a federal jail in Peoria, but on June 23, 2003, a month before he was due to stand trial, the charges were suddenly dropped when President Bush declared that he was an “enemy combatant,” who was “closely associated” with al-Qaeda, and had “engaged in conduct that constituted hostile and war-like acts, including conduct in preparation for acts of international terrorism.” Also asserting that he possessed “intelligence,” which “would aid US efforts to prevent attacks by al-Qaeda,” the President ordered al-Marri to be surrendered to the custody of the Defense Department, and transported to the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, South Carolina.

Al-Marri had already been held for 18 months, and had suffered in the Metropolitan Correction Center, where, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Muslim immigrants — 762 of the 1,200 men in total who were rounded up for investigation — were subjected to physical and verbal abuse, held in conditions of confinement that were “unduly harsh,” and often denied basic legal rights and religious privileges, according to a 2003 report by the Justice Department. However, his ordeal began in earnest at the brig.

The Consolidated Naval Brig, Charleston, South Carolina.

As was recently revealed through the disclosure of military documents following a Freedom of Information request (PDF), al-Marri, along with two American citizens also held as “enemy combatants” — Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla — was subjected to the same “Standard Operating Procedure” that was applied to prisoners at Guantánamo during its most brutal phase, from mid-2002 to mid-2004. This involved the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including prolonged isolation, painful stress positions, exposure to extreme temperature, sleep deprivation, extreme sensory deprivation, and threats of violence and death.

Although the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo was disturbingly harsh, it can be argued — with some confidence, I believe — that the treatment of al-Marri, Hamdi and Padilla was worse than that endured by the majority of the Guantánamo prisoners, as all three suffered in total isolation. The exceptions to this are the handful of Guantánamo prisoners who also endured years of solitary confinement — including the released British national Moazzam Begg, and British resident Shaker Aamer, who is still held at the prison, and has been in solitary confinement since August 2005.

Held alone in cellblocks that were otherwise unoccupied, al-Marri, Hamdi and Padilla had to survive without even the small comforts available to most of the Guantánamo prisoners, who, when not held in isolation as a punishment or as a prelude to interrogation, could at least communicate with the prisoners in the cells adjacent to them, and could take advantage of what lawyer Clive Stafford Smith has called the “incredible prisoner bush telegraph,” through which information is conveyed around the prison.

In the case of Hamdi (who was picked up in Afghanistan in November 2001 and initially held in Guantánamo until it was discovered that, although he had lived in Saudi Arabia since he was a child, he was born in Baton Rouge and was an American citizen), the effects of this near-total isolation were already apparent in June 2002, just a month after his transfer from Guantánamo. As one of the officers responsible for him explained in an email to his superiors, “with no potential end in sight and no encouraging news and isolated from his countrymen, I can understand how he feels … I will continue to do what I can to help this individual maintain his sanity, but in my opinion we’re working with borrowed time.”

In the case of Jose Padilla, who was held in strict solitary confinement for 21 months, the effects of his isolation were so intense that it has been reported that he literally lost his mind (his warders described him as “so docile and inactive that he could be mistaken for ‘a piece of furniture’”). Al-Marri’s experience was similar. As his lawyers explained in May this year, in court documents protesting his treatment (PDF), for the 16 months that he was held incommunicado,

He was denied any contact with the world outside, including his family, his lawyers, and the Red Cross. All requests to see, speak to, or communicate with Mr. al-Marri were ignored or refused. Mr. al-Marri’s only regular human contact during that period was with government officials during interrogation sessions, or with guards when they delivered trays of food through a slot in his cell door, escorted him to the shower, or took him to a concrete cage for “recreation.” The guards had duct tape over their name badges and did not speak to Mr. al-Marri except to give him orders.

Noting his exposure to the “enhanced interrogation techniques” mentioned above, al-Marri’s lawyers also explained that interrogators told him that “they would send him to Egypt or to Saudi Arabia to be tortured and sodomized and forced to watch as his wife was raped in front of him.” They also threatened to make him “disappear so that no one would know where he was,” and on several occasions stuffed his mouth with cloth and gagged him with duct tape. “One time,” the lawyers noted, “when Mr. al-Marri managed to loosen the tape … interrogators re-taped his mouth even more tightly. Mr. al-Marri started to choke until a panicked agent from the FBI or Defense Intelligence Agency removed the tape.” On other occasions, “for periods of up to eight days at a time, Mr. al-Marri was placed in a completely bare and cold cell simply for refusing to answer questions.”

Perhaps the most disturbing treatment al-Marri suffered during this period was the suppression of his religious freedom. His lawyers observed that

Mr. al-Marri’s observance of Islam was restricted and degraded so severely that he could not adhere to the most elemental tenets of his faith. He was denied water to purify himself and a prayer rug to kneel on when praying. Mr. al-Marri was also denied a kofi to cover his head during prayer; when he used his shirt as a substitute, he was punished by having his shirt removed. Mr. al-Marri was prohibited from knowing the time of day or the direction of Mecca, preventing him from properly fulfilling the Islamic requirement of praying five times a day. The only religious item that Mr. al-Marri was permitted was a Qur’an, and his copy of the Qur’an was sometimes taken away to facilitate interrogation and at other times was degraded and abused.

In June 2004, the US Supreme Court made two significant rulings regarding the rights of prisoners detained in the “War on Terror.” One, Rasul v. Bush, granted habeas corpus rights to the Guantánamo prisoners, allowing lawyers access to the prison to begin filing briefs asking why the prisoners were being held, and the other, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, did the same for US “enemy combatants,” although in a rather more muddled manner. Although eight of the nine justices determined that the President could not indefinitely imprison a US citizen without basic due process rights, they were unable to agree about the extent of the prisoners’ rights.

The most immediate impact of these rulings on the “enemy combatants” held on the US mainland was the repatriation of Yaser Hamdi to Saudi Arabia in August 2004. Padilla (photo, left) and al-Marri were less fortunate. Although both gained access to lawyers, and the brutal interrogations came to an end, the government was unwilling to grant them any further rights. In Padilla’s case, the government continued to hold him until November 2005, when, with the Supreme Court circling once more, the supposed justification for holding him — his alleged involvement in a “dirty bomb” plot — was dropped, and he was moved to the federal court system to face sketchy charges of providing material support for terrorism, which, nonetheless, led to a conviction in August 2007, and a 17-year sentence in January 2008.

Al-Marri was even unluckier. Although he too was granted access to counsel — in October 2004 — his lawyers noted, in the submission in May regarding his treatment, that “access initially was monitored and severely curtailed,” and, crucially, that, because he was a resident and not a citizen, the government “refused to recognize that Mr. al-Marri had a legal right of access to counsel (and still refuses to recognize that right to this day”).

Moreover, his lawyers explained that, although there was an improvement in his conditions of detention, these conditions “remained unbearably brutal and harsh.” They noted that he “continued to be confined to a 9 by 6 foot cell,” and was “denied regular opportunity for exercise,” and also stated:

The single window in Mr. al-Marri’s cell remained darkened with an opaque covering that prevented Mr. al-Marri from seeing the outside world or knowing the time of day. His cell had only a sink, toilet and hardened (metal) bed affixed to the wall. Mr. al-Marri had no chair on which to sit and no blanket, pillow, or any other soft item inside his cell. For more than two years, Mr. al-Marri was denied a mattress, causing him discomfort and pain whenever he lay down …

Mr. al-Marri was confined to his cell for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months at a time. Once Mr. al-Marri was forced to spend more than 20 days in his metal bed in his freezing cell, shivering under a thin, stiff “suicide blanket,” unable even to stand because the floor was too cold and his socks and footwear had been taken away from him.

As part of a deliberate policy of controlling almost every aspect of his life “to cause disorientation, discomfort, and despair,” al-Marri continued to be deprived of all external stimuli — he had no access to books, newspapers, magazines, TV or radio — and began showing evidence of the mental collapse mentioned at the start of the article.

His conditions of confinement improved after August 2005, when his lawyers first filed a formal complaint about his treatment, and they noted in May this year that he is “now permitted to move about his cell block (though he remains the only prisoner there) and is given adequate time for recreation.” He is also in regular contact with his family by telephone, although his first phone call was not allowed until April 29, 2008, and was only arranged after his lawyers discovered that his father had died.

Nevertheless, the naked truth about al-Marri’s detention is that the five and a half years that he has spent in solitary confinement in the Charleston brig — on top of the 15 months that he was isolated in the Metropolitan Correction Center — makes him possibly the most isolated prisoner in American history. This would be disturbing enough if he had actually been convicted of a crime, but is all the more distressing because he has never been allowed anywhere near a courtroom.

This is not for want of trying on the part of his lawyers — and of certain judges. Last June, a panel of three judges in the Fourth Circuit appeals court 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.’”

At the time, it looked as if this ruling might stand, but the government appealed, and when the Fourth Circuit reconvened en banc to deliver a second ruling in July this year, the voices of reason — four judges led by Diana Gribbon Motz — were overruled by their five colleagues. 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.”

Judge Motz and the dissenters took exception to the mention of “the duration of the relevant hostilities.” After citing the 2007 State of the Union Address, in which President Bush claimed that “the 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.”

What disturbed the dissenters the most, however, were other elements of the ruling. Judge Motz noted that her colleagues had endorsed the President’s dictatorial right to imprison US citizens — as well as US residents — as “enemy combatants” without charge or trial, and also noted that they had claimed that the President did not even have to allege, as he did with Hamdi and Padilla, that an “enemy combatant” had either been in Afghanistan or had ever raised arms against US forces.

The dissenting judges also supported al-Marri’s lawyers, who had pointed out that the Constitution “prohibits the military imprisonment of civilians arrested in the United States and outside an active battlefield,” and that, although a District Court had 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.

Judge Motz’s conclusion — “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,” — should have sounded the alarm for anyone concerned with the Constitutional rights of Americans, but although Judge Traxler joined Judge Motz and her colleagues in ruling that al-Marri was entitled to some sort of review of the basis of his detention, there has been no progress in the intervening months. Al-Marri is now waiting to see if the Supreme Court, which was deciding whether to take up his case on November 25, will indeed challenge what Judge Motz called “a claim to power that would … alter the constitutional foundations of our Republic.”

The question remains, of course, as to why al-Marri was held as an “enemy combatant” in the first place, and although there are many unexplained elements in his story — involving the alleged large-scale credit card fraud that led to his initial arrest, an unexplained visit to New York in 2000, and questions about research on his computer into chemicals that could be used in explosives — he has always maintained that the allegations against him, as laid out in an FBI declaration, are untrue: specifically, that he “associated with high-level al-Qaeda members, met with Osama bin Laden, volunteered for a ‘martyr mission,’ and was ordered to enter the United States before September 11, 2001, to facilitate terrorist activities and explore the possibility of disrupting [the US] financial system via computer hacking.”

What’s particularly worrying about the FBI’s declaration is that the primary source for the allegations is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who was seized in Pakistan in March 2003, just three months before al-Marri was declared an “enemy combatant,” and subjected to the ancient torture technique known as waterboarding. During his tribunal at Guantánamo in March 2007, Mohammed stated 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 in an article last summer, including Majid Khan, one of 13 supposedly “high-value” detainees transferred with Mohammed 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.

It’s possible, therefore, that al-Marri is another victim of Mohammed’s false confessions, obtained through torture, and that other allegations may have come from Mustafa al-Hawsawi, an alleged al-Qaeda financier, captured with Mohammed, who was also held in CIA custody before his transfer to Guantánamo. The government has alleged that al-Marri was in contact with al-Hawsawi before his arrest, but al-Marri has repeatedly denied the allegation.

Whatever the truth, however, the correct venue for ascertaining Ali al-Marri’s guilt or innocence has never been, and never will be, through long years of torture and extreme isolation in a military brig in South Carolina. I can only hope that the Supreme Court, which now has a long track record of opposing the Bush administration’s attempts to justify holding prisoners without charge or trial, will realize the importance of his case, recognizing not only how it degrades America’s moral standing and her “constitutional foundations,” but also how — in terms of what has been done to Ali al-Marri on behalf of the American people — it is a repugnant way to treat a fellow human, whether a foreigner, a “resident alien,” or a US citizen.

In one sentence that reveals the depths to which the Bush administration has sunk in the treatment of Ali al-Marri, Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist and an expert on the effects of solitary confinement, explained, after being allowed to meet him at the Charleston brig, that he had “only very uncommonly encountered an individual whose confinement was as onerous as Mr. al-Marri’s, except for individuals who had been incarcerated brutally in some third-world countries.”

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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners.

Note: See here for a detailed archive of legal documents relating to the case.

POSTSCRIPT: On December 5, the Supreme Court announced that it would “decide whether President George W. Bush can order the indefinite imprisonment in the United States of an al Qaeda suspect without charging him,” as Reuters explained, adding that the Court “most likely will hear arguments in Marri’s case in March, with a decision expected by the end of June.” SCOTUSblog has links to the legal documents, including impressive support for al-Marri from law professors, former federal judges and retired military officers.

For a sequence of articles on Ali al-Marri’s case, see The Ordeal of Ali al-Marri (June 2007), The torture of Ali al-Marri, the last “enemy combatant” on the US mainland (November 2007), Court Confirms President’s Dictatorial Powers in Case of US “Enemy Combatant” Ali al-Marri (July 2008), 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), 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).

Top 20 Guantánamo Articles (November 2008)

The Guantanamo FilesAnother busy month, as the architects of America’s moral collapse (primarily Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff David Addington, but also the figurehead of the seven-year Torture Nation, President George W. Bush) were swept from power by Barack Obama, a non-WASP, non-Halliburton candidate promising change. As a result, the closure of Guantánamo figures prominently in the following list of the Top 20 Articles based on site traffic in November, although there are also several articles detailing the manifest failures of the “War on Terror” experiment.

As usual, this analysis does not take into account the large numbers of readers who found the articles on other sites on which they were published: primarily, the Future of Freedom Foundation, for whom I have recently started writing, the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com, CounterPunch and ZNet, and also Cageprisoners and others who regularly cross-post my articles, including, of late, Lew Rockwell, Global Research and Information Clearing House. It also does not include visitor stats for my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (available from Amazon here), or the first eight of 12 additional online chapters of The Guantánamo Files, available in the column on the left (with two new chapters added last month). Note: Figures in brackets indicate the positions last month.

1 (1): Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now, and What About the Torture? (February 2008)
Still on top (because it’s now on Page 1 of “Google Images” for 9/11, and probably because the world is full of conspiracy theorists), this article followed the announcement that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and five others had been put forward for trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo, and provides a detailed background to their stories, and to their treatment (i.e. torture) in US custody. For links to other articles chronicling my assiduous coverage of the Commissions, see the bottom of the article, and for the latest on the trials, see 18 below.

2 (4): Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008)
An overview of the experiences of al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj, which was published just before he was released from Guantánamo, this features five powerful drawings (based on censored drawings by Sami), which were commissioned by Sami’s lawyers at the British legal action charity Reprieve. An archive of articles about Sami is here, and UK readers should know that Sami is on a UK tour with Moazzam Begg (former Guantánamo prisoner) and Chris Arendt (Iraq war resister), which starts in January. Details from Cageprisoners.

3 (-): Guilt by Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008)
The latest twists and turns in the case of British resident Binyam Mohamed, tortured for nearly two years — in Morocco and the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan — to produce a confession that he took part in a non-existent “dirty bomb” plot. Judges in the US and the UK have been examining his case, and all are distressed by the actions of their governments. For a detailed history of Binyam’s rendition and torture, see 20, below, and for an analysis of his UK court case, see High Court rules against UK and US in case of Guantánamo torture victim Binyam Mohamed. Also see US Justice Department Drops “Dirty Bomb” Plot Allegation, Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials, and Torture cannot be hidden forever. For an archive of articles about Binyam, see here.

4 (-): Life Sentence for al-Qaeda Propagandist Fails to Justify Guantánamo Trials (November 2008)
Al-Qaeda member Ali Hamza al-Bahlul is given a life sentence on the eve of the Presidential elections in a one-sided show trial that would have shamed a dictator, after he refused to take part in the trial and did not mount a defense. Final score in the Propaganda League: Al-Qaeda 1, US 0. It’s time to scrap the Military Commissions. For three recent articles about the Commissions’ inbuilt corruption, see The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, and Corruption at Guantánamo: Military Commissions Under Investigation.

5 (10): Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008)
Examining the problems facing the US administration in its attempts to conceal evidence of torture, this article focuses in particular on misguided attempts to prosecute two juveniles: Omar Khadr (see 14, below) and Mohamed Jawad.

6 (-): 20 Reasons To Shut Down the Guantánamo Trials (November 2008)
From David Hicks to the Kuwaitis charged in October (also profiled here), this handy guide dissects the problems with all 20 of the cases put forward for trial by Military Commission — and the six that were dropped. A cut-out-and-keep guide to the Western world’s most monstrously flawed military trial system.

7 (-): Why Guantánamo Must Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008)
Since Barack Obama’s extraordinary election victory, it seems that everyone and their keypad has an opinion about closing Guantánamo. This article examines the critical errors that were made by the administration, which led to the prison holding innocent men and low-level foot soldiers unconnected to al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks, and how torture was introduced in an attempt to extract “actionable intelligence” from prisoners with no knowledge of terrorism. Also see the follow-up article, How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: More Advice for Barack Obama, in which I specifically propose solutions to the problems of the three categories of prisoners still held.

8 (7): Dick Cheney: More Horrors from the “Vice President for Torture” (June 2007)
A detailed analysis of Dick Cheney’s role as the actual Commander-in-Chief of the Bush administration, this article followed the publication of a ground-breaking Washington Post series on Cheney by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker.

9 (-): A bright new day, but what now, President Obama? (November 2008)
A post-election salute, a farewell to Cheney and Addington, and a reminder of the constitutional pledges that the President-Elect needs to keep if he is to restore America’s moral standing.

10 (-) Release of three prisoners highlights failures of Guantánamo (November 2008)
A Kazakh teenager, who may or may not have grown vegetables for the Taliban, an Uzbek taxi driver who once drove a regional Taliban leader, and a 63-year old Somali refugee kidnapped for no reason from his home in Pakistan. Prisoners like this are still in Guantánamo. Here are a few more stories from the last few months: Three prisoners released from Guantánamo, including the brother of US “enemy combatant” Ali al-Marri, Clearing Out Guantánamo: Two More Algerians Transferred, Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo, and Two Afghans released from Guantánamo: a farmer and a teenager.

11 (14): Book review: Road From Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía (January 2008)
The story of the first deserter from the Iraq war, Camilo Mejía, capturing the camaraderie of the soldiers, the deranged incompetence of many of their leaders, and the encounters with brutality, including his own, that led him to desert. Also see On Veterans Day, my correspondence with Brandon Neely, Iraq war resister and former Guantánamo guard. A few other articles about Iraq are here.

12 (13): A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008)
A comprehensive account of the first US war crimes trial since Nuremberg, this article highlighted many of the problems that have plagued the Commissions since their conception in November 2001. Also see 13, below.

13 (-): Bin Laden’s Driver To Be Released From Guantánamo; Government Defeated (November 2008)
How Salim Hamdan’s repatriation to Yemen to serve out the last month of the meager sentence he received after a trial in the summer (see 12, above) spells the end of the whole malign Guantánamo project. Also see The End of Guantánamo.

14 (8): The trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007)
A detailed account of Omar’s story, from his capture (at the age of 15) to pre-trial hearings in his Military Commission, including psychological analysis, legal challenges to the Commissions, the shame of putting forward a child for a “war crimes” trial, and the disgraceful suppression of evidence. For two other recent articles about juveniles at Guantánamo, see The Pentagon Can’t Count: 22 Juveniles Held at Guantánamo, and Trampling The Rights Of The Child: The Treatment Of Juveniles In Guantánamo. An archive of articles about Omar is here.

15 (16): In a Legal Otherworld, 9/11 Defendants Cry Torture at Guantánamo (June 2008)
Following 1, above, and preceding 17, below, this article looked at the arraignment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendants in June, and, in particular, at Mohammed’s sly mentions of his torture by US forces. For an analysis of possible false confessions made by Mohammed, see Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man.

16 (2): Dick Cheney Shreds Secret Documents (September 2008)
A bit of fun drawn from Philip Toledano’s new online installation, America: The Gift Shop, featuring clever takes on the “War on Terror” imagined as merchandise, this was largely picked up through a picture link on the last page of the news aggregator Cursor. For a more heavyweight take on Dick Cheney’s role, see 8, above.

17 (18): Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008)
The pre-trial hearings of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four alleged 9/11 co-conspirators, in which another facet of the Commissions’ extraordinary ineptitude was highlighted when Mohammed was allowed to use his right to self-representation as a platform to mock the judge and toy with the administration.

18 (-): Silence on war crimes as the US election campaign ends (November 2008)
A pre-election salvo analyzing the Bush administration’s war crimes, blasting John McCain for his flip-flopping on torture, lamenting Barack Obama’s refusal to mention war crimes on the campaign trail, and also lamenting the inability of swathes of the population to recognize the criminal regime that has been occupying the White House.

19 (-): Why Jose Padilla’s 17-year prison sentence should shock and disgust all Americans (January 2008)
Part of a profound and underreported story: the Bush administration’s insistence that the President can, if he wishes, imprison US citizens on the US mainland without charge or trial as “enemy combatants,” torture them so that they lose their minds, and then prosecute them in dubious trials in which all mention of torture is prohibited. See here for Padilla’s full story and here for more.

20 (-): Guantánamo: Torture victim Binyam Mohamed sues British government for evidence (May 2008)
A Londoner’s transformation from janitor to al-Qaeda operative. All it takes is 22 months of torture. The horrors of “extraordinary rendition,” in one case study.

Th-th-th-that’s all for this month, folks — except to say, Don’t Forget the Uighurs.

And finally, in mopping up neglected corners of the website, here’s another one that got away: Treachery at Guantánamo (or, Shameless Attempts To Send Unwanted Gitmo Prisoners Back to Torture).

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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials At Guantánamo

In the real world outside the US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Barack Obama’s pledge to close Guantánamo and scrap the Military Commissions (the system of trials for “terror suspects” that was established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks) has provoked a rare outburst of frenzied media coverage.

With no concrete plans announced by the President-Elect’s transition team, pundits and off-the-record officials of all political hues have stepped in to fill the void with speculation about the significance of the remaining 255 prisoners, some shrill demands for legislation endorsing “preventive detention,” some equally shrill warnings that robust techniques will be needed in future to deal with captured terrorists, and a range of opinions about whether the Guantánamo prisoners regarded as a genuine threat to the United States (estimates range from several dozen prisoners to around 80) should be transferred to the US mainland to face trials in federal courts or in another brand-new system.

Some of these opinions are genuinely troubling, and reveal the extent to which the government’s fear-filled “War on Terror” rhetoric of the last seven years has permeated the US psyche. Proposals to create new legislation authorizing “preventive detention,” for example, actually seek to justify much of what the Bush administration has been doing at Guantánamo, and it beggars belief that citizens in a civilized society founded on the rule of law could attempt to justify imprisoning people not for what they have done, but to prevent what they could conceivably do in future.

The proposal is doubly disturbing because the government’s assertions that some of the prisoners may be dangerous comes not from evidence that can be tested in a court of law, but from intelligence reports that may or may not be reliable, and from hearsay and confessions — made by other prisoners, or by the prisoners themselves — that may have been produced through the use of torture or other forms of coercion, or through bribery (a well-chronicled “rewards” system for prisoners regarded as “cooperative”).

In addition, calls for robust techniques to deal with terror suspects captured in the future are clearly influenced by the Bush administration’s arguments that prisoners seized in the “War on Terror” constitute a threat of a kind never encountered before, and that this threat justifies its attempts to redefine torture, and its endorsement of the use of torture by US forces. For the record, torture, as defined in the UN Convention Against Torture (to which the US is a signatory) is defined as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person,” and not, as the US administration claimed in its notorious “Torture Memo” of August 2002, an act producing pain which is “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

Those endorsing greater latitude to deal with terror suspects in future have presumably forgotten the extent to which the administration has belittled the intelligence agencies’ skilled interrogators, who contributed to 107 successful terrorist prosecutions in US federal courts without resorting to the use of torture, and its disdain for the psychological techniques enshrined in the Army Field Manual, which not only prohibits the use of torture, but of any kind of physical violence. Both, however, have a proven track record of success, unlike the torturers, whose activities constitute war crimes, however much the Bush administration has attempted to disguise them, and are also morally corrosive and counter-productive, producing, at best, ripples of truth in a sea of false confessions, with no practical way of separating fact from fiction.

Much of this has been confirmed by Dan Coleman, a senior FBI interrogator who worked on several high-profile terrorism cases before the 9/11 attacks. Coleman is on record as stating that “people don’t do anything unless they’re rewarded.” In an interview in 2006 with the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, he acknowledged that brutality may “yield a timely scrap of information,” but is “completely insufficient” in the longer fight against terrorism. “You need to talk to people for weeks. Years,” he explained.

When it comes to proposals to establish a new trial system for terror suspects, those putting forward such ideas have obviously failed to scrutinize the failures of the system conceived by Dick Cheney and his close advisers in November 2001. Thrown out by the Supreme Court in June 2006, the Commissions were revived by Congress later that year, but have struggled to establish their legitimacy, primarily because the government-appointed military judges are empowered to accept evidence obtained through coercion, to prevent all mention of evidence obtained through torture, and to blur the distinction between the two, and also because, as I reported at length in a previous article, a growing body of evidence indicates that the entire system is rigged, with Pentagon representatives who are supposed to be impartial actually taking their orders from the heavily biased Office of the Vice President.

It remains to be seen how this chain of command — which pivots on the role played by retired judge Susan Crawford, the Commission’s “Convening Authority,” and a close friend of both Dick Cheney and his chief of staff David Addington — will survive the transition to the Obama administration, but enthusiasts for the creation of another brand-new system should really take on board the sustained opposition to the Commissions that has been mounted from within.

Those who have become implacably opposed to the system are not only the military defense lawyers, who have been prepared to sacrifice their careers in defense of justice, but also Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor, and several former prosecutors, including, most recently, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who turned from being a “true believer to someone who felt truly deceived” by the system, when he discovered that evidence vital to the defense was being routinely withheld in the case of Mohamed Jawad, an Afghan teenager accused of a grenade attack on US forces in December 2002.

In the meantime, while enthusiasts for a new trial system indulge their largely abstract musings, the reality of the Commissions themselves continues to confound reality, as those in charge of the process persist in behaving as though it is business as usual.

On the eve of the Presidential election, the failure of the Commissions to deliver anything approaching justice was demonstrated when Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a self-confessed member of al-Qaeda, received a life sentence for conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism, which is supposed to be served in total isolation at Guantánamo. Al-Bahlul was convicted after a disgraceful one-sided show trial in which, because of the ill-defined rules governing the Commissions, he was allowed to score what was effectively a propaganda victory for al-Qaeda by refusing to mount a defense.

Since then, the Commissions have stumbled on as though nothing changed with the elections on November 5. On November 17, the chief judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, who had been overseeing the meandering pre-trial proceedings for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, announced his immediate retirement, scuppering any possibility that the Commissions’ flagship trial would take place before the Bush administration leaves office.

At a hearing in September, Kohlmann had admitted that he was due to retire in April 2009, prompting Mohammed to ask him to disqualify himself from the case, on the basis that he “might inappropriately rush the proceedings.” Any kind of “rush” is now completely out of the question, of course, and instead, as Lt. Cmdr. James Hatcher (the lawyer for one of the accused, Walid bin Attash) explained, Kohlmann’s departure means that “a new round of pretrial hearings [will] be required and the new judge [will] be forced to reexamine earlier rulings,” which will “make an already complex case even more complex.”

The departure of Kohlmann, a no-nonsense operator who has been involved in the Commissions since December 2005, will certainly not make the trial system’s work any easier, especially as his chosen successor, Army Col. Stephen Henley, has “shown more patience” with defense attorneys than his predecessor (as the Miami Herald described it), and was, at the time of his appointment, the only judge to have ruled that a major part of the prosecution’s evidence in one case — that of Mohamed Jawad — was inadmissible, because it had been extracted through the use of torture.

Jawad’s trial is scheduled to begin on January 5, 2009, but the day after Henley’s appointment to the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators, he struck another blow to the prosecution in Jawad’s case by ruling that a second confession, made in US custody the day after his Afghan confession, was also inadmissible, partly because, as the Associated Press described it, “the US interrogator used techniques to maintain ‘the shock and fearful state’ associated with his arrest by Afghan police, including blindfolding him and placing a hood over his head.” As Henley explained in his ruling, “The military commission concludes the effect of the death threats which produced the accused’s first confession to the Afghan police had not dissipated by the second confession to the US. In other words, the subsequent confession was itself the product of the preceding death threats.”

Elsewhere in the Commissions, developments in two other cases also failed to advance the trial system’s legitimacy. In the case of Ibrahim al-Qosi, a Sudanese prisoner arraigned on November 19, the major claim against him — that he was responsible for al-Qaeda’s payroll in Khartoum, before Osama bin Laden and his entourage moved back to Afghanistan in 1996 — has been dropped by the government, and all that remains are claims that he worked at an al-Qaeda compound from 1996 to 1998, that he fought “as an al-Qaeda mortar man near Kabul from 1998 to 2001,” and that he sometimes worked as a driver and bodyguard for bin Laden.

Moreover, al-Qosi’s civilian lawyer, Lawrence Martin, has a take on his client’s role, which, for the government, must sound uncomfortably similar to that of Salim Hamdan. A Yemeni, and one of seven drivers for bin Laden, Hamdan has just been repatriated to serve out the last month of the meager sentence he received in August, after his military jury threw out the conspiracy charge against him, accepting that he knew nothing about the workings of al-Qaeda. At al-Qosi’s arraignment, Martin declared, “Mr. al-Qosi, far from being a war criminal, was a cook,” adding, “He was not even a cook for bin Laden, but a cook for a compound where bin Laden was sometimes a visitor.”

The other arraignment on November 19 — that of Mohammed Hashim, another Afghan prisoner — was even less justifiable. Hashim was charged in June with spying for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and conducting a rocket attack on US forces, even though he was, at best, a minor Afghan insurgent. As in the cases of two other Afghans (in addition to Mohamed Jawad), it is difficult to work out how the administration construes these charges as “war crimes.” His case is complicated by the fact that his publicly available testimony — which is sprinkled with implausible references to his knowledge of the 9/11 attacks (via a member of the Northern Alliance, the implacable enemies of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban), his supposed relationship with Osama bin Laden and purported links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein — suggests that he either has mental health problems, or has dreamt up the biggest lies possible to secure more favorable treatment.

Despite all these dubious developments, the most worrying sign that the Commissions continue to operate in a parallel reality also came on November 19, when Col. Lawrence Morris, the chief prosecutor, announced that charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, which were dropped without explanation in May, were to be filed again, and that charges against five other prisoners, which were dropped last month, would also be filed again in the near future.

The case of Mohammed al-Qahtani is one of the most shocking in the whole of Guantánamo’s long and ignoble history. Regarded as the proposed 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, until he was turned away by immigration officials in Orlando, Florida, al-Qahtani was apparently being questioned by the FBI with some success (through the old-school techniques favored by Dan Coleman), when the Pentagon, in the fall of 2002, grew impatient with the FBI’s results.

After securing approval from defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld for a range of “enhanced interrogations techniques,” al-Qahtani was interrogated for 20 hours a day over a 50-day period in late 2002 and early 2003, as Time magazine revealed in an interrogation log (PDF) made available in 2005. The techniques used — beyond the persistent sleep deprivation — included extreme sexual humiliation and “forced grooming” (shaving his hair and beard), and he was also threatened by dogs, strip-searched and made to stand naked, and made to bark like a dog and growl at pictures of terrorists. On one occasion he was subjected to a “fake rendition,” in which he was tranquilized, flown off the island, revived, flown back to Guantánamo, and told that he was in a country that allowed torture.

In addition, as I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files, “The sessions were so intense that the interrogators worried that the cumulative lack of sleep and constant interrogation posed a risk to his health. Medical staff checked his health frequently — sometimes as often as three times a day — and on one occasion, in early December, the punishing routine was suspended for a day when, as a result of refusing to drink, he became seriously dehydrated and his heart rate dropped to 35 beats a minute. While a doctor came to see him in the booth, however, loud music was played to prevent him from sleeping.”

Until Col. Morris made his announcement, it had been widely presumed that the charges against al-Qahtani had been dropped because — unlike the interrogations in the secret CIA prisons in which Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other “high-value detainees” were held, which can be excluded from their trials — the details of al-Qahtani’s interrogations are not only publicly available, but were declared to be “degrading and abusive” by a Pentagon inquiry in 2005 (PDF).

However, in the parallel world of the Military Commissions, where the Bush administration’s attempts to redefine torture are clearly still embraced with enthusiasm, none of this seems to matter. Announcing his intention to charge al-Qahtani again, Col. Morris declared, as the New York Times explained, that “prosecutors had decided there was ‘independent and reliable’ evidence that Mr. Qahtani had been plotting with the Sept. 11 hijackers.”

Col. Morris also declared his intention to file new charges against the five prisoners whose charges were dropped in October, which is almost as bewildering. When the charges against Noor Uthman Muhammed, Ghassan al-Sharbi, Jabran al-Qahtani, Sufyian Barhoumi and Binyam Mohamed (photo, left) were dropped, it was widely assumed that this was because their prosecutor, Lt. Col. Vandeveld, who had just testified for the defense in Jawad’s case after turning against the government, had more revelations about the machinations of the prosecutors that would undermine their cases. This may well be true, especially in relation to Binyam Mohamed, a British resident who was sent to Morocco in 2002 so that proxy torturers could spend 18 months extracting a false confession from him regarding his role in a non-existent “dirty bomb” plot.

Mohamed is currently involved in legal wrangling over his case in courts on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is, therefore, yet another sign of the Commissions’ detachment from reality that Col. Morris is planning to file new charges against him. What it demonstrates above all, however, as with the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, is that Barack Obama will need to act swiftly and decisively after January 20 if he is to demonstrate that, under his administration, the use of torture — and of confessions obtained through torture — will no longer be tolerated.

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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (five trials dropped, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), An empty trial at Guantánamo (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, October 2008), Life sentence for al-Qaeda propagandist fails to justify Guantánamo trials (al-Bahlul, November 2008), Guilt by Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), 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).

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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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