Archive for January, 2009

How Cooking For The Taliban Gets You Life In Guantánamo

Those of us who prefer justice to arbitrary and unaccountable detention without charge or trial were delighted when, last week, Barack Obama fulfilled a long-stated promise and issued a presidential order stating that Guantánamo will be closed “as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order,” and establishing an immediate review of the cases of the remaining 242 prisoners to work out whether they can be released.

A year is a long time, of course, if you’re unfortunate enough to have been imprisoned in Guantánamo for up to seven years with no way of asking why you’re being held, but some of us were prepared to give the new President the benefit of the doubt, and to consider that perhaps he didn’t want to make a rash promise that he might find himself unable to fulfill, such as pledging to close the wretched place in a matter of months.

Recent events, however, have demonstrated that, although President Obama has set in motion a policy that addresses the prisoners’ future, their long desire to have an opportunity to question the basis of their detention is currently being addressed not in the White House but in the District Courts, following an epic, four-year struggle between the Supreme Court and Congress to grant them their wish. Since the justices of the Supreme Court decisively ended this struggle last June, by ruling that Congress had acted unconstitutionally when it stripped the prisoners of the habeas corpus rights that the Supreme Court had granted them in June 2004, a raft of previously marooned habeas cases has been making its way through the District Courts.

Justice and the habeas reviews

Although frequently becalmed by pleas from the Justice Department, whose lawyers have had the nerve to claim, after seven years, that they are having trouble rustling up any evidence, a handful of these cases have actually made it to the point where a judge has ruled on their merits. The results have been a vindication for those who have struggled for years to get the prisoners a day in court, and, of course, for the prisoners themselves, because in 23 of the 27 cases reviewed to date, the judges have dismissed the government’s evidence for being empty and unsubstantiated — in one case comparing it to a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — and have ordered the prisoners to be released.

Sadly, the impact on the prisoners has so far failed, for the most part, to match the significance of the rulings. In the case that drew comparisons with Lewis Carroll — that of Huzaifa Parhat, a Uighur from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province — the government lodged a miserable and unprincipled appeal to stop Parhat and his 16 compatriots from settling in the United States, after District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled in October that their continued detention in Guantánamo was unconstitutional. In November, Judge Richard Leon, an appointee of George W. Bush, ordered the release of five Bosnians of Algerian origin, after he concluded that the government had failed to establish that, as alleged, they had intended to travel to Afghanistan to fight US forces, but to date only three of the men have been repatriated, and the other two still languish in Guantánamo, as the Bosnian government wrangles over their status. The last case is that of Mohammed El-Gharani, a Chadian national and Saudi resident who was just 14 years old when he was seized in a raid on a mosque in Pakistan. Two weeks ago, Leon comprehensively demolished the government’s supposed evidence against El-Gharani, but he too remains stranded, pending a possible appeal.

To be or not to be (an enemy combatant)

In many ways, however, these prisoners are the lucky ones. In four other cases, the scales of justice have tipped the other way, into an alarming arena in which it has become apparent that the Supreme Court failed to address whether, in cases where the government is judged to have produced sufficient evidence to indicate that prisoners were “enemy combatants,” it is justifiable to continue holding them indefinitely.

The problem, as these other four cases have revealed, is that, according to the definition accepted by Judge Leon, an ”enemy combatant” does not have to be someone who actually engaged in terrorism or in combat against the United States, but rather someone who was “part of or supporting Taliban or al-Qaeda forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the US or its coalition partners,” which “includes any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported hostilities in aid of enemy armed forces” (emphasis added).

What this means in reality is that Judge Leon ruled in November that Belkacem Bensayah, the sixth Bosnian Algerian, was an “enemy combatant” not because he had been involved in a specific al-Qaeda plot, and not because he had raised arms against the United States in Afghanistan or anywhere else, but because the government provided what Leon regarded as “credible and reliable evidence,” establishing that he “planned to go to Afghanistan to both take up arms against US and allied forces and to facilitate the travel of unnamed others to Afghanistan and elsewhere,” and that he was “link[ed]” to a senior al-Qaeda operative (identified elsewhere as the mentally troubled training camp facilitator Abu Zubaydah, whose specific links to al-Qaeda have been questioned by the FBI).

This may be sufficient evidence to put Bensayah on trial, although it is surely not adequate to warrant his indefinite detention in Guantánamo, but in the cases of the other three men the noose-like nature of the “enemy combatant” definition was even more pronounced. On December 30, Judge Leon ruled that two more prisoners — the Tunisian Hisham Sliti and the Yemeni Muaz al-Alawi — were also correctly detained as “enemy combatants;” in Sliti’s case because, despite being a cynical and dissolute drug addict, he was associated with individuals connected to al-Qaeda, and, in al-Alawi’s case, because, although he had traveled to Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks and was not alleged to have raised arms against US forces, he “stayed at guest houses associated with the Taliban and al-Qaeda … received military training at two separate camps closely associated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban and supported Taliban fighting forces on two different fronts in the Taliban’s war against the Northern Alliance.”

Cooking for the Taliban

This ruling in particular cried out for an immediate overhaul of the “enemy combatant” definition, but yesterday the absurdity of holding prisoners as “enemy combatants” who were associated with the Taliban before the 9/11 attacks but never raised a finger against the United States was highlighted even more forcefully when Judge Leon ruled, in the case of the Yemeni Ghaleb Nasser al-Bihani, that he too was an “enemy combatant.”

Leon based his ruling on the fact that the government had established, primarily through interrogation, that al-Bihani had worked as a cook for the Taliban. Concluding that it was “not necessary” for the government to prove that he “actually fire[d] a weapon against the US or coalition forces in order for him to be classified as an enemy combatant,” Leon declared, “Simply stated, faithfully serving in an al-Qaeda-affiliated fighting unit that is directly supporting the Taliban by helping prepare the meals of its entire fighting force is more than sufficient to meet this Court’s definition of ‘support.’” He added, “After all, as Napoleon was fond of pointing out, ‘An army marches on its stomach.’”

Al-Bihani listened to Leon’s ruling in a teleconference call from Guantánamo, but was cut off before hearing Leon’s line about Napoleon. His lawyers, Shereen J. Chalick and Reuben Camper Cahn, of the Federal Defenders of San Diego, said that they would take a rush transcript of the ruling to al-Bihani, adding that he would be “disappointed” with the decision, but the reality, I can reveal, is that al-Bihani gave up on US justice many years ago.

“I am definitely an enemy combatant”

In 2004, at his Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantánamo — a toothless administrative review that was designed, essentially, to confirm that, on capture, he had been correctly designated an “enemy combatant” — al-Bihani was acutely aware of Guantánamo’s failings, and addressed all the issues raised yesterday by Judge Leon. Firstly, he admitted that he had traveled to Afghanistan in April or May 2001 “to fight the jihad with the Taliban” against Ahmed Shah Massoud (the leader of the Northern Alliance), and added, “There is nothing wrong with that in our religion. Is it acceptable for Americans and not for us?”

He then disputed an allegation that he “was an associate of the Taliban and/or al-Qaeda,” pointing out that he had admitted “many times” that he was with the Taliban, but that the statement as it stood “suggests that you are [not] giving me a choice between Taliban and al-Qaeda,” and also denied an allegation that he participated in hostilities against the United States, explaining, “I went to Afghanistan before the Americans. If I wanted to fight the Americans I would have gone there after the Americans arrived.”

It was, however, at the conclusion of his hearing that he demonstrated what can now be seen as a prescient awareness of the inescapable bind in which he found himself. With evident sarcasm, he stated, “I am definitely an enemy combatant. There is no question about that. I am sure that you will find me as an enemy combatant. Nobody has been found to not be an enemy combatant. Everybody has been found to be an enemy combatant. I am certain that I will be found to be an enemy combatant.”

If you want a final demonstration of the ongoing absurdity of Guantánamo, compare the case of Salim Hamdan to that of Ghaleb al-Bihani. Last August, Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, was tried at Guantánamo in the Military Commissions conceived by Vice President Dick Cheney and his advisers, sentenced and sent home in November to serve the last few weeks of a five-month sentence delivered by a military jury. Hamdan is now a free man, whereas al-Bihani, a man who never met Osama bin Laden, let alone driving him around, has just been told, by a judge in a US federal court, that the government is entitled to hold him forever because he cooked dinner for the Taliban.

If President Obama is genuinely concerned with justice, he needs to act fast to tackle this squalid state of affairs, which does nothing to undo the previous administration’s disdain for and mockery of the laws on which the United States was founded.

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.

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

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

The Guantánamo Files: Additional Chapters Online – Seized in Pakistan (Part One)

As part of my ongoing project to record the stories of all the prisoners held at Guantánamo, I’ve just posted the ninth of 12 additional online chapters supplementing my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, and available from Amazon here and here). This additional chapter complements Chapter 12 of The Guantánamo Files, looking at the stories of 21 prisoners not mentioned in the book.

With just a few more online chapters to complete, I’m close to accomplishing the mission I set myself three years ago: to record the stories of all the prisoners. Once these last chapters are complete, in just a few weeks’ time, I’ll be able to create the first definitive prisoner list identifying who is still held, who has been released and the dates they were released. The list will also contain links to 350 prisoner stories on my website and references to the rest in The Guantánamo Files, providing what I hope will be a useful research tool for those concerned with closing Guantánamo, and for others who are interested in knowing who has been held, how and where they were captured, and what their stories reveal about the Bush administration’s conduct in the “War on Terror.”

In the meantime, this ninth chapter recounts more stories that are largely unknown, even though Guantánamo has now been open for seven years and it ought to be a shock to the conscience to realize that men are still being held in US custody who have never had a chance to challenge the basis of their detention, or to utter a word to the outside world.

Now that President Obama has declared that Guantánamo will close, and a variety of shallow and pessimistic critics have started to rise up to warn that the prison is still full of dangerous men, it is my hope that this project to record the prisoners’ stories will also provide further useful material for those who wish to refute these sweeping generalizations with something closer to the truth: that even now, after 528 prisoners have been released, the majority of those who remain do not constitute a threat to the United States, and would never have been imprisoned at all if the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” detention policies had not been such a catastrophic failure of justice, and of common human decency.

As I explain in the introduction to this latest online chapter, “Taken from cars and buses, seized in the street, or kidnapped in house raids, their capture seems largely to have been based on dubious intelligence on the part of both the US and Pakistani intelligence agents, a desire by the Pakistani authorities to be willing associates in the ‘War on Terror,’ or the naked appeal of money, as the Americans were offering bounty payments averaging $5000 a head for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects,” and any stray foreigner was therefore an attractive proposition.”

Note: See the column on the left for the first eight online chapters, and the last three.

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Andy Worthington on Antiwar Radio: Obama, Guantánamo and Torture

On Saturday, I was delighted to be invited once more to discuss Guantánamo and the “War on Terror” with Scott Horton of Antiwar Radio (the show is available here — and the MP3 is here). This was the first time Scott and I have talked since George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (who had morphed into Dr. Strangelove for his farewell appearance) left the White House, and Barack Obama marked his first few days in office with three Presidential orders requiring Guantánamo to be closed, banning torture, and ordering the CIA to close any secret prisons. These, of course, are the secret prisons that the CIA may have been operating since President Bush declared, in September 2006, that the previously undisclosed secret prison program, which he had, to that point, strenuously denied, had come to an end with the transfer of 14 “high-value detainees” to Guantánamo, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

As ever, it was a delight to have a decent amount of time to talk about the crimes of the Bush administration — and the new broom — with Scott, whose recent move to L.A. from Austin has clearly not dampened his sense of outrage, and in a detailed discussion we also talked about the recent confession by Susan Crawford, the Convening Authority of Guantánamo’s Military Commission trial system, that Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, could not be prosecuted because he had been tortured in US custody.

As we attempted to work out what Crawford’s ulterior motive may have been, I made a point of noting that Barack Obama is now required to prosecute the architects of the torture policy — although I don’t expect this to happen without a struggle — and had the opportunity to inform Scott and Antiwar Radio’s listeners that the kind of abuse that al-Qahtani suffered, though horribly severe, was part of a system of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” introduced in 2002, which were applied to over a hundred prisoners in Guantánamo.

We also discussed what might replace the Guantánamo trials, which Obama halted on Day One, and this gave me the opportunity to dismiss proposals to create a new trial system, or to create legislation to endorse “preventive detention,” because, of course, both proposals are, in effect, almost indistinguishable from their reviled predecessors, and we also talked about the Pentagon’s latest salvo of empty propaganda regarding the number of ex-prisoners who have allegedly “returned to the battlefield,” and the recent claims that a former prisoner is now the deputy leader of an al-Qaeda unit in Yemen. This also gave me the chance to discuss how even the most exaggerated estimates of recidivism rates are far less than in any other penal system, and to wonder why it is that, when it comes to the “War on Terror,” members of the public allow themselves to be swayed into thinking that, in order to avoid a single prisoner “returning to the battlefield,” it is somehow justifiable to hold terror suspects forever without charge or 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.

Refuting Cheney’s Lies: The Stories of Six Prisoners Released from Guantánamo

In the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” the gulf between rhetoric and reality was always pronounced, and never more so than when Vice President Dick Cheney spoke out. Cheney’s lies and distortions were on open display in the last month before his departure from the White House, as he sought to leave his legacy of fear burnished on the nation’s consciousness, and in a final fling he told Rush Limbaugh, in no uncertain terms, that when it came to Guantánamo, “now what’s left, that is the hardcore.”

Cheney’s statement came just days after Judge Richard Leon, an appointee of George W. Bush, had ruled in the habeas corpus review of one of the supposed “hardcore” prisoners  — a Chadian national called Mohammed El-Gharani, who was just 14 years old when he was seized in a random raid on a mosque in Karachi, Pakistan, and was later sold to US forces — that the government had failed to establish a case against El-Gharani, and ordered his release “forthwith.”

Leon ruled that what purported to be evidence had been supplied by two of El-Gharani’s fellow prisoners whose reliability had been called into doubt by government officials, and when it came to a key allegation, which, in Cheney’s version of reality, ought to have bolstered his claims — an allegation that El-Gharani had been part of an al-Qaeda cell in London in 1998 — Leon was particularly dismissive. “Putting aside the obvious and unanswered questions as to how a Saudi minor from a very poor family could have even become a member of a London-based cell,” he wrote, “the Government simply advances no corroborating evidence for these statements it believes to be reliable from a fellow detainee, the basis of whose knowledge is – at best – unknown.”

Leon’s words, delivered in sober language, were nonetheless witheringly dismissive, but El-Gharani’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, had been advancing the same argument for years in rather more colorful terms. After noting that El-Gharani was just 11 years old at the time that he was supposed to have been plotting in London, Stafford Smith explained, “he must have been beamed over to the al-Qaeda meetings by the Starship Enterprise, since he never left Saudi Arabia by conventional means.”

Judge Leon’s dismissal of Mohammed El-Gharani’s case was not the only development that fatally undermined the Vice President’s words during his last weekend in power. Largely unnoticed, as most of the mainstream media prepared the bunting for Barack Obama’s inauguration, was the release of six prisoners from Guantánamo — an Afghan, an Algerian and four Iraqis — whose stories also demonstrate that, when the facts are examined rationally, rather than being spun through a veil of paranoia, Dick Cheney’s “War on Terror” was largely a “War on Truth.”

A pro-American Afghan, betrayed by the Taliban

One of these cases — that of Haji Bismullah, an Afghan who was 23 years old when he was seized in February 2003 — was reported in the New York Times last Monday, and his story alone discredits Dick Cheney’s words. As the Times explained, and as Bismullah insisted during his imprisonment at Guantánamo, at the time of his capture he was working for the government of Hamid Karzai as the chief of transportation in a region of Helmand province. In a story that echoes dozens of others from Guantánamo, it transpired that he was removed from his job by unscrupulous rivals, connected with the Taliban, who cooked up a false story to impress the US military.

Bismullah’s long imprisonment is particularly disturbing, as his brother, a spokesman for the pro-American provisional governor, had filed a sworn statement with officials at Guantánamo in 2006, declaring that Bismullah and his entire family “fought to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan,” and Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, a member of the Afghan Senate and an ally of Hamid Karzai, had also declared in a sworn statement that “he had known Bismullah and his family for years,” and that, when they had fought the Taliban, “Haji Bismullah was with us.”

However, while the Times is to be credited for picking up on the injustice of Haji Bismullah’s story, the cases of the other five prisoners released at the same time also do nothing to bolster Cheney’s claims, and in fact reveal, in shocking detail, how Guantánamo has been sustained not by evidence that it contains “hardcore” prisoners bent on the destruction of the United States, but on false allegations, which, in the majority of cases — like the supposed evidence against Mohammed El-Gharani — wither away under scrutiny.

A lack of evidence

The first of the five, Hassan Mujamma Rabai Said, was 25 years old when he was seized in Pakistan and sold to US forces, having traveled across the mountains with an Afghan guide. According to the account compiled by the military during his seven years of imprisonment, he left his homeland in August 2000, traveled to Syria, where he lived for ten months, and then made his way, via Iran and Pakistan, to Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Said may have become involved in militancy during the few months that he was in Afghanistan prior to the 9/11 attacks, and in the three months before his capture, but the authorities failed to establish that this was what had happened.

Instead, the case against him relied on unsubstantiated allegations made by his fellow prisoners in unknown circumstances. These included claims that he “was identified as training at al-Farouq” (the main training camp for Arabs, established by the Afghan warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf in the early 1990s, but associated with Osama bin Laden in the years before 9/11), that he “was identified” as being “in charge of weapons inventory” in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains, where Northern Alliance soldiers (with US back-up) fought al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in late November and early December 2001, and that he “was identified as having been chosen to be a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.” This latter allegation is particularly suspicious, as it is incomprehensible that someone would have been chosen to be a bodyguard for bin Laden after such a short amount of time, but it was also noticeable that Said himself persistently refuted all the allegations. Although he conceded that “political motivation and a properly declared fatwa are legitimate reasons for participating in jihad,” he maintained that he “did not participate in jihad actions.”

Even vaguer allegations were leveled against Hassan Abdul Said, an Iraqi who was also 25 years old when he “turned himself in” to US forces in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif on January 1, 2002. With the exception of two unsubstantiated allegations — that he stayed at a Taliban guesthouse in Mazar-e-Sharif for three months, and was “an Arab fighter on the Northern Front” — the authorities failed to come up with any evidence to justify holding him as an “enemy combatant.”

Instead, the last summary of allegations against him (in November 2005) focused on complicated and often contradictory claims about his life in Iraq and allegations of his involvement in drug smuggling, and stated that he was briefly imprisoned in Uzbekistan for two and a half months for having false documents, and was then “turned over to the Taliban and imprisoned for one month.” This is hardly the type of treatment that would have encouraged Said to support the regime, and it seems probable that the authorities realized this two years ago, when he was cleared for release after the first round of the annual Administrative Review Boards, which came to an end in February 2006.

“Many people died”: testimony from the survivor of a massacre

For the other Iraqis in Guantánamo, life seems to have been even harder. Ali al-Tayeea, who was 28 years old at the time of his capture, was a mechanic, who had been imprisoned under Saddam Hussein, and had also been imprisoned in Turkey. He then made his way to Afghanistan, where, he said, he found paid work driving a truck for the Taliban.

In November 2001, after the fall of the city of Kunduz, al-Tayeea was one of several hundred men who, after surrendering to the forces of General Rashid Dostum, a US ally and one of the leaders of the Northern Alliance, were subsequently imprisoned in Qala-i-Janghi, a fort in Mazar-e-Sharif. After some of the prisoners seized weapons and started a battle against their captors, he was one of around 85 prisoners who survived by hiding in the basement, which was bombed and flooded over the course of a week. One of his companions was John Walker Lindh (photo, left), the so-called “American Taliban,” who received a 20-year sentence for supporting the Taliban in October 2002.

Al-Tayeea’s description of his experience in Qala-i-Janghi is one of the most harrowing first-hand accounts available:

Now, all the people were outside and we hear the bomb and someone from Dostum’s army had a machine gun on his shoulder. He opened fire on people. People were yelling, “please don’t shoot” and he opened fire… There were RPGs and Kalashnikovs. There was nothing we could do. We were in the centre and fire came from everywhere. A lot of people died. I laid down because my hands were tied. I asked someone to just open my hands a little bit. I begged for someone to just open my hands because they had been tied for a long time with wire and they were blue and cold. They opened my hands and I went inside the shelter. There was bombing and fire for the first three days. It was dark and you couldn’t see who your neighbor was. Like, 70 people had died and it smelled bad. After three days, Dostum’s army … they thought we had guns. There were some people fighting outside … We were inside the shelter. I didn’t fire because I’m not a jackass. I stayed inside. After three days, they opened the window and put fire inside the shelter and there was nothing we could do about it. Many people died in the fire and it smelled like steak. I looked and I was beside John Walker. After this they put water in through the window. John Walker was tall and he’s beside my shoulder. Some of the detainees that were short were under water.

Like Hassan Abdul Said and the other Iraqis released the weekend before last, Ali al-Tayeea had been cleared for release from Guantánamo for two years before he was eventually dispatched to an unknown fate in his homeland, but his time in the prison was particularly uncomfortable, as, by his own account, he had provided information to the interrogators, and had been threatened as a result. Whilst it is understandable that prisoners would crack under the pressure of their harsh treatment in Guantánamo and their seemingly endless incarceration, and provide false information to the interrogators, it is, unfortunately, clear from the statements of other prisoners that al-Tayeea’s allegations were particularly troublesome. Moreover, despite appealing for “the American government to help me with asylum,” his experience shows that cooperation was no guarantee of any kind of reward.

Can a beggar befriend bin Laden?

In contrast to al-Tayeea’s case, the other two Iraqis had to contend with their own barrage of false allegations. Abbas al-Naely, who was 33 years old at the time of his capture, appears to have entered Afghanistan as a refugee from the Iraqi army in 1994. Seized in Pakistan in April 2002, he was described by a fellow Iraqi prisoner, Jawad Jabber Sadkhan (the only Iraqi still imprisoned in Guantánamo), as a beggar with a hashish problem. In a written statement, Sadkhan explained that, when al-Naely came to his house begging for help, “I did not have anything to offer [him]. But when I looked at his overall look and his dirty clothing he had on, he looked so miserable. So I went to a friend of mine and asked him for money.” He added, “He is a peaceful man and he does not pose a threat on nobody and he has parents that need him.”

In spite of this, and al-Naely’s statement that, when he was seized, the Pakistani authorities “told us that every Arab person has to go to the Americans for an investigation,” he came to be regarded by the US military as a fighter for the Taliban who had “trained at the al-Farouq camp in Kabul,” had met Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader, and had sworn bayat (an oath of loyalty) to Omar. In response, he denied ever meeting bin Laden, and, although he acknowledged that he had met Mullah Omar, explained that he had only asked him for financial help and assistance in returning to Iraq.

When it came to the allegation about al-Farouq, an extraordinary exchange took place between al-Naely and the Presiding Officer of his review board. “I never went to Farouq,” al-Naely explained, also pointing out that the camp was in Kandahar, not Kabul, to which the Presiding Officer replied, “Well I beg to differ with you because this source we have is very reliable. I have no problem if you admit to it. I would just prefer if you tell me the truth.”

The identity of the supposedly reliable source was not revealed, of course, but it was clear from Jawad Sadkhan’s statement that he had lied about al-Naely under duress, and there is no reason to suppose that any other sources were any more reliable. “Anything that happened between him and me, like some kind of animosity, was a result of the investigators here on this facility,” he wrote. “I was exposed to a lot of abuse, psychological abuse from the investigators and God only knows what happened. This person ISN 758 [al-Naely] is innocent from any allegations and God knows everything.”

Tortured testimony and Guantánamo lies

For the last of the four Iraqis, Arkan al-Karim, who was 25 years old when he was taken by US forces from a prison in Kabul in June 2002, even Abbas al-Naely’s experiences were tame. In an extraordinary list of allegations, al-Karim was accused of being “part of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle,” and an al-Qaeda member “who ate frequently with Osama bin Laden,” and who “commanded 200 Arab and Taliban fighters in Kabul, and was also responsible for sending Arab fighters to Chechnya.”

It was also alleged, inter alia, that he had “worked for Osama bin Laden for 13 years conducting weapons maintenance,” was “an expert in the areas of poisons, explosives, martial arts and weapons,” had “carried out an operation in Kuwait in which he blew up a building he believed was being used by the Israelis,” and had “taken up jihad in the Philippines, Chechnya and Bosnia.” Another claim involved an unidentified “al-Qaeda member” naming him as an understudy of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, the cleric who had founded the first organization that supported the mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and who was assassinated in 1989.

As al-Karim pointed out, the allegations about Abdullah Azzam, and about being a member of al-Qaeda for 13 years, were patently ludicrous, as he was just 13 years old in 1989, and had been in Iraq until 1994, when he drifted to Iran, and then Afghanistan, after deserting from the Iraqi army, but it also seems clear, from his experiences in Afghanistan and in Guantánamo, that every other allegation was equally worthless. As he explained to his review board, far from working with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, he was actually imprisoned by the Taliban for two years. During this time, a fellow prisoner, a Syrian Kurd called Abdul Rahim al-Ginco (photo, left), who was also transferred to Guantánamo and is still held, “was tortured by al-Qaeda and eventually told them he and [al-Karim] were spies for the United States.”

Al-Karim explained that al-Ginco had “confessed in front of the interrogator [in Guantánamo] and said that he made me suffer and told a lot of lies on me in front of all those Arabs,” and added, “His confession is on a piece of paper and is here in Cuba.” He also reassured his review board that there were no problems between the two men, and explained, “I told him that I forgave him and I knew what they did to him. He was suffering just as I was.” In a separate statement, al-Ginco confirmed that he had identified al-Karim as an American spy, but said that he did it “because of the torturing that I was receiving,” and added that he chose to identify al-Karim and not someone else “because they pressured me and they told me to say that he was a spy.”

However, while this accounts for some of the false information masquerading as evidence in al-Karim’s case, it’s also clear that other prisoners were responsible for some of the other allegations. As he told his review board, he was a victim of the long-standing religious divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The overwhelming majority of the prisoners in Guantánamo were (and are) Sunni Muslims, and as al-Karim — a Shiite — explained, “I have no friends in this camp at all; most of them, if they don’t give me a hard time or they don’t give me a problem, they will not talk to me. But also, they’ve threatened me more than five or six times. They will say things about me.”

As these men struggle to rebuild their lives, or to avoid being arbitrarily imprisoned once more — in Afghanistan, where even government officials had no influence on the Bush administration; in Algeria, where justice resembles a game of Russian Roulette: and in Iraq, where no one seems to know what fate awaits them — their stories demonstrate conclusively the utter contempt that Dick Cheney showed for notions of truth and justice, and they will, I hope, act as an encouragement to those in the new administration who are preparing to review the cases, to see who can be released and who should still be held, to scrutinize the evidence — such as it is — with profound skepticism.

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.

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

Note:

The prisoners’ numbers are as follows:

ISN 968: Haji Bismullah (Afghan)
ISN 175: Hassan Mujamma Rabai Said (Algeria)
ISN 435: Hassan Abdul Said (Iraq)
ISN 111: Ali al-Tayeea (Iraq)
ISN 758: Abbas al-Naely (Iraq)
ISN 653: Arkan al-Karim (Iraq)

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 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; and December 2008 — 3 Bosnian Algerians; 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).

Return To The Law: Obama Orders Guantánamo Closure, Torture Ban and Review of US “Enemy Combatant” Case

Finally! 2569 days after the prison at Guantánamo opened — but just two days into the new Presidency — Barack Obama signed three executive orders and a Presidential memorandum that mark a decisive break with the “War on Terror” policies of the Bush administration. As he signed the orders, he reiterated a comment that he made at his inauguration, when he stated, “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” and also said, ”This is me following through on not just a commitment I made during the campaign, but I think an understanding that dates back to our Founding Fathers, that we are willing to observe core standards of conduct, not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard.”

Executive Order on the Closure of Guantánamo

The first of yesterday’s four important documents orders Guantánamo to be closed “as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order.” The Order also establishes an immediate review of the cases of the remaining 242 prisoners to work out whether they can be released, to be “conducted with the full cooperation and participation” of the Attorney General, the Secretaries of Defense, State and Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and instructs the Secretary of State to negotiate repatriation, or transfer to third countries, in the cases of those who can be released.

If the review establishes that prisoners are not to be released, the Order states that the participants “shall identify and consider legal, logistical and security issues relating to the potential transfer of individuals currently detained at Guantánamo to facilities within the United States,” adding that they “shall work with Congress on any legislation that may be appropriate.” When it comes to trials, the Order states that the options for those who are not approved for release or transfer include investigating “whether it is feasible” to pursue prosecutions in federal courts on the US mainland.

Following President Obama’s request on Tuesday for the judges in the Military Commission trial system to suspend all proceedings, the Order also directs defense secretary Robert Gates to halt the proceedings pending a four-month review, and requires him to ensure that prisoners are held in conditions that comply with the Geneva Conventions regarding the humane treatment of prisoners, adding, “Such review shall be completed within 30 days and any necessary corrections implemented immediately thereafter.”

The verdict

As human rights groups have already pointed out, a year is a long time to bring an end to Guantánamo, especially as judges in the habeas corpus reviews (which followed the Supreme Court’s ruling last June that the prisoners have habeas rights) have already established that the Bush administration failed to establish a case against 23 of the 26 prisoners whose cases have been reviewed to date (see From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs, After 7 Years, Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo Kidnap Victims, and Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child). In my opinion, based on three years of detailed research, the majority of the prisoners could be released within a far shorter timescale.

The other outstanding problem — the 60 or so prisoners who were cleared for release by the Bush administration, but who cannot be repatriated because of treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture — is not specifically addressed. I anticipate that other countries may be willing to accept some of these cleared prisoners, but am disappointed that Obama did not mention the Uighurs, as he can send an extraordinarily positive message to the rest of the world by accepting these 17 innocent men into the United States, as Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered in October, before he was overruled by an appeals court.

The resuscitation of the Geneva Conventions is, of course, long overdue and gratefully received, and should — and must — lead to an improvement in the living conditions of those still detained, who are held, for the most part, in conditions of isolation more severe than those endured by convicted criminals on the US mainland. However, the refusal to commit explicitly to transferring those regarded as genuinely dangerous (somewhere between 35 and 50 of those still held) to trials in a federal court leaves the option open that a revised version of the Military Commissions, or a brand-new legal system, will be proposed instead. This is deeply troubling, as the long and bitter lessons of the last seven years should have established that novel trial systems are an inadequate and dangerous substitute for established laws, as the President well knows. In August 2007, he stated explicitly, “Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.”

Executive Orders on Interrogations and Detention Policy Options

The second Order establishes that the questioning of prisoners by any US government agency must follow the interrogation guidelines laid down in the Army Field Manual, which guarantees humane treatment under the Geneva Conventions, and, of course, prohibits the use of torture. Reverting to the “requirements” of the Federal torture statute, the UN Convention Against Torture, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and other legislation and treaties, the Order states that “in all circumstances” prisoners will be “treated humanely and shall not be subjected to violence to life and person (including murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture), nor to outrages upon personal dignity (including humiliating and degrading treatment).”

As a result, the Order states, “All executive directives, orders, and regulations inconsistent with this order, including but not limited to those issued to or by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from September 11, 2001, to January 20, 2009, concerning detention or the interrogation of detained individuals, are revoked to the extent of their inconsistency with this order.” The Order also specifically revokes President Bush’s Executive Order 13440 of July 20, 2007, which “reaffirm[ed]” his “determination,” on February 7, 2002, that “members of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces are unlawful enemy combatants who are not entitled to the protections that the Third Geneva Convention provides to prisoners of war,” sought to grant himself the right to “interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions” as he saw fit, and also sought to exclude the CIA from any oversight whatsoever.

It also orders the CIA to “close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates,” adding that the agency “shall not operate any such detention facility in the future,” and orders all departments and agencies of the government to allow representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to have “timely access” to all prisoners.

And finally, the Order establishes a Special Interagency Task Force on Interrogation and Transfer Policies, to evaluate “whether the interrogation practices and techniques in the Army Field manual, when employed by departments or agencies outside the military, provide an appropriate means of acquiring the intelligence necessary to protect the Nation, and, if warranted, to recommend any additional or different guidelines for other departments or agencies.” The Task Force is also required to evaluate “the practices of transferring individuals to other nations,” to ensure that they do not face torture.

Related to this is a third Order, establishing another Special Interagency Task Force to provide an overview of detention policy options, which is charged with “conducting a comprehensive review of the lawful options available to the Federal Government with respect to the apprehension, detention, trial, transfer, release, or other disposition of individuals captured or apprehended in connection with armed conflicts and counterterrorism operations, and to identify such options as are consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice.” Both Task Forces are to report their findings in the next six months.

The verdict

The majority of the Order regarding interrogations is a triumphant return to the rule of law, achieved by revoking all the “executive directives, orders, and regulations” that manifested the Bush administration’s slippery zeal for allowing torture, by insisting on adherence to the Army Field Manual, which prohibits the use of physical violence, and, as above, by returning to the Geneva Conventions, with their prohibitions on “cruel and inhumane treatment” and coerced interrogations. However, although a sweeping repudiation of these documents is a start, I look forward to further detailed analysis from the White House regarding the secret memos and presidential orders that purported to justify the Bush administration’s flight from the law and its attempts to justify torture.

And while it is wonderful to read that the CIA is obliged to close all secret prisons, it is absolutely imperative that this announcement is swiftly followed by the establishment of a robust means of accounting for the unknown number of prisoners (PDF) subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture, either in prisons run by the CIA or by other governments prepared to lend their torturers to the United States.

In addition, while the Order establishing a Task Force to overview detention policy insists that only “lawful options” are pursued, the Task Force on interrogation and transfer policies seems to be set up to find ways in which “extraordinary rendition” can be justified — though not, admittedly, on an industrial scale — and also seems designed to “recommend … additional or different guidance” for agencies outside the military, which is troubling, of course, as this, in essence, is exactly what has been happening for the last seven years, with such dire results. The President should resist all calls for exceptions to lawful procedures, and confirm, categorically, his absolute commitment to non-coercive methods of interrogation, which have a proven track record. See, for example, the Human Rights First report (PDF) examining 107 terror trials on the US mainland, and Jane Mayer’s article on the FBI’s interrogation of an-Qaeda informant.

I should also note that, just two weeks ago, psychologist and anti-torture activist Jeffrey S. Kaye explained, in an article for AlterNet, that, though widely praised by everyone in the new administration, including President Obama, the revised version of the Army Field Manual contains an Appendix that apparently keeps the door open for the use of the same torture techniques taught in US military schools to train US personnel to resist interrogation that were implemented by the Bush administration and that led directly to the widespread abuse of prisoners in Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, as a Senate Armed Services Committee report (PDF) explained last month.

Presidential Memorandum on the Detention of Ali al-Marri

In the memorandum, President Obama ordered the Justice Department to conduct a review of the status of Ali al-Marri, a legal US resident, who has been held for five years and eight months in total isolation as an “enemy combatant” in the US Naval Brig in Charleston, South Carolina. As he noted, “Al-Marri is the only individual the Department of Defense is currently holding as an enemy combatant within the United States.” Explaining why he ordered the review, he wrote, “Because he is not held at Guantánamo Bay, al-Marri is not covered by the review mandated in the Review and Disposition Order [the Presidential Order relating to Guantánamo]. Yet it is equally in the interests of the United States that the executive branch undertake a prompt and thorough review of the factual and legal basis for al-Marri’s continued detention, and identify and thoroughly evaluate alternative dispositions.”

The verdict

Unlike the executive orders, which had been signposted well in advance, the memo was unexpected, but is long overdue. As I explained in a detailed article last month, the torture of al-Marri and his long isolation, which is more severe than any other “War on Terror” prisoner that I know of, is a disgrace, and should be deeply troubling to all Americans, especially as the 4th Circuit Appeals Court ruled last summer that the President not only had the right to indefinitely detain al-Marri as an “enemy combatant” without charge or trial, but that the principle extended to any American.

My hope, therefore, is not only that Obama brings al-Marri’s confinement to an end, but also that he acts to reverse the decisions that have enabled prisoners to be held as “enemy combatants” on the US mainland. Slightly complicating matters is the fact that, last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear al-Marri’s case, but as his lawyer, Jonathan Hafetz, explained to the Associated Press yesterday, he “had already agreed earlier this week to the government’s request for a one-month delay,” but didn’t want the case “pushed back so far that it is not heard before the Supreme Court finishes its work in the summer.” He added, however, “Any objective review will necessarily show that al-Marri’s current detention as an enemy combatant is illegal. It’s inconceivable that the Obama administration could defend this detention while proclaiming fidelity to the rule of law.”

In conclusion, then, these three Orders and the memo are a bold start — and they would, of course, have been unthinkable just a few days ago — but more detail is required, dangerous loopholes must be shut off permanently, and other parts of the Bush administration’s dark legacy need to be swiftly addressed; in particular, the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed by Congress in September 2001, which was used by the administration as a green light for the exercise of unfettered executive power; the military order of November 2001, which established the President’s right to seize and hold indefinitely anyone he regarded as an “enemy combatant,” and which also established the Military Commissions; and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (PDF), which resuscitated Dick Cheney and David Addington’s reviled trial system after the Supreme Court ruled it illegal in June 2006.

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.

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

Sunset on Guantánamo

On Tuesday evening, as the newly inaugurated President Obama asked the judges at Guantánamo’s Military Commissions to call a halt to the proceedings for four months, “in the interests of justice,” and in order to give “the newly inaugurated president and his administration time to review the military commission process, generally, and the cases currently pending before the military commissions,” Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch took this photo of sunset over Camp Justice.

Built at a cost of $12 million, Camp Justice, which has been the Commissions’ home since September 11, 2007, was intended to provide room for six trials to take place simultaneously, in the days when the Bush administration believed that up to 80 Guantánamo prisoners would be put forward for trial in the novel, and much-criticized system that was first conceived by Dick Cheney and his close advisers in November 2001.

Its future is now uncertain, as Joanne and her colleague Stacy Sullivan explain in a report from Guantánamo for Salon, and as I also discuss in my latest article, Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right To Halt The Guantánamo Trials. If there is any justice — and President Obama certainly believes that there should be — then the last words spoken in these courtrooms will be the parting words of Col. Patrick Parrish, the judge in the case of Omar Khadr, who concluded Tuesday’s hearing by saying, “We will reconvene tomorrow, unless otherwise ordered by the commission.”

As I have reported for the last 20 months, the Commissions have been a disaster from start to finish, unanimously savaged by the government’s own military defense attorneys for being rigged and unconstitutional, ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 2006, derailed on occasion by the judges themselves, and capable of delivering only three verdicts: a politicized plea bargain in the case of David Hicks, an unexpectedly lenient sentence in the case of Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden (whose release in December demolished Guantánamo’s rationale), and a life sentence for al-Qaeda operative Ali Hamza al-Bahlul on the eve of the Presidential election, after a disturbingly one-sided show trial. Profiles of 16 of the 18 prisoners who were facing charges when the Commissions were halted can be found here, and two more were charged just five weeks ago. For analyses of some of the Commissions’ major failings, see The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim.

My thanks to Joanne for permission to use the photo, and I sincerely hope that this will be my last post about the inaptly-named Camp Justice.

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

Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right To Halt The Guantánamo Trials

Two separate universes were in evidence on Tuesday. In the world of Barack Obama, the sense of change, the optimism and the intelligence were palpable, as two million Americans from every part of the United States — and numerous visitors from around the world — flocked to Washington D.C. to watch his inauguration as the 44th President of the United States.

Meanwhile, in the world of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, 242 prisoners at Guantánamo Bay — held, for the most part, for seven years without charge or trial — spent another day in an isolation more profound than that endured by the most dangerous convicted criminals on the US mainland.

Change will come for these prisoners too, and hopefully very soon. In one of his first acts as President, Barack Obama ordered prosecutors in Guantánamo’s Military Commission trials (the much-criticized system dreamt up by Dick Cheney and his close advisers in November 2001) to ask for a four-month stay on all proceedings, “in the interests of justice,” and in order to give “the newly inaugurated president and his administration time to review the military commission process, generally, and the cases currently pending before the military commissions.” He also circulated a draft of an executive order in which he promised to review the cases of the remaining 242 prisoners, and to close Guantánamo within a year.

By Wednesday afternoon, the judges in the cases of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other prisoners accused of planning or facilitating the attacks of September 11, 2001, and Omar Khadr, a Canadian accused of killing US Sgt. Christopher Speer with a grenade during a firefight that led to his capture in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old, acceded to the President’s request, and it seems likely that other judges will follow suit.

However, what will happen over the next four months remains uncertain. As the President weighs up conflicting choices — with some advising him that the federal court system is perfectly well-equipped to deal with the cases of genuinely dangerous prisoners, and others claiming that another brand-new trial system is needed — those who advocate the latter should look closely at the events that took place at Guantánamo in the two days leading up to the inauguration.

To put it bluntly, on January 19 and 20, everything that is wrong with Guantánamo and the Bush administration’s ill-conceived, cruel and inept “War on Terror” was on display in two courtrooms at Guantánamo, where pre-trial hearings were taking place in the cases of Omar Khadr and the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators. And while these hearings, above all, cast a ghastly light on the gathering of intelligence in the “War on Terror,” and its ruinous effect on the lives of those caught up in a global web of rumors, lies and false confessions masquerading as facts, they also demonstrated the obstacles to justice that arise when innovators — of whatever political hue — attempt to replace an ancient and well-established legal system with something new.

The unforeseen empowerment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

If the homicidal wing of global jihad has a star, it is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, whose previous appearances at pre-trial hearings (in June, September and December last year) attracted substantial media attention. Commentators suggested that the timing of this latest hearing was designed to reflect glory on the Bush administration on the eve of Obama’s inauguration, but if this was the case then it was an unmitigated failure.

As with previous hearings, the system itself was plagued with problems, and Mohammed was allowed to dominate proceedings, whereas, if the allegations against him — and his own declarations — are true, he should, instead, be facing a trial in a federal court, where his outbursts would at least be circumscribed.

The hearing began with wrangling over a recent decision taken by the Commissions’ Convening Authority, Susan Crawford, who last week became the first senior official in the Bush administration to admit that a “War on Terror” prisoner in US custody had been tortured. As Reuters explained, in what was apparently intended to be a simple “technical procedure aimed at updating jury pools”, Crawford had “quietly dropped charges in all the pending cases in December and refiled them in early January.” The effect, defense lawyers argued, was to nullify all previous decisions made in the Commissions, requiring that all the cases be started again with new charges and new arraignments. The lawyers also pointed out that, as a retired military judge, Crawford “should have been well aware of the military court rules” when she acted, but the judge, Col. Stephen Henley, concluded that, although Crawford’s orders had been “inartfully expressed” and “negligently executed,” a subsequent affidavit had “made it clear that she had intended only to replace jurors who had retired or moved on to new assignments.”

When the hearing got underway, it was ostensibly to discuss ongoing questions about the mental competency of one of the defendants, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who, according to court records, is “on undisclosed psychotropic drugs,” as Carol Rosenberg explained in the Miami Herald. Instead, however, the hearing descended into a familiar farce. As the Arabic translators struggled to keep up (another recurring problem), several of the defendants attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade Henley to move their lawyers, so that they were not sitting at the same table. Even so, Mohammed managed to sneak in a quick reference to torture, as he has done in every other hearing. ”The people who have tortured me received their salaries from the American government, and the lawyers do, too,” he said.

Later, as part of a rambling disquisition, which is allowed because, under the Commissions’ rules, he is permitted to represent himself, Mohammed addressed the desire for martyrdom that has also been prominent in previous hearings. “We don’t care about capital punishment,” he explained. “We are doing jihad for the cause of God.” When Henley directed him to stick to the topic at hand, he countered with, “This is terrorism, not court. You don’t give me the opportunity to talk.” For once, however, Mohammed’s antics were overshadowed by bin al-Shibh, who interrupted legal discussions to exclaim, “We did what we did and we are proud of this. We are proud of 9/11.”

Omar Khadr’s dubious confession

But while the 9/11 pre-trial hearing demonstrated, yet again, that a novel trial system is no match for the federal courts on the US mainland, which have successfully dealt with 107 trials related to terrorism since 9/11 (as described in a Human Rights First report, In Pursuit of Justice (PDF)), the other pre-trial hearing this week — that of Omar Khadr — tackled two other questions at the very heart of Guantánamo’s credibility: whether confessions made in generally abusive circumstances can be trusted at all, and how utterly groundless confessions can, in circumstances of hysteria and fear, come to be regarded as constituting robust “actionable intelligence,” with horrendous knock-on effects on those implicated in these false claims.

These issues were under examination as the result of a long campaign by Khadr’s defense team to have the right to question US personnel who had interrogated Khadr in Bagram and Guantánamo, in an attempt to show that he had only made apparently incriminating statements through coercion, or as an attempt to avoid punishment or gain favors from his interrogators.

The question of dubious confessions arose when a female agent, identified only as “Interrogator 11,” who had interrogated Khadr at Guantánamo, testified that he had admitted throwing the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer. According to the agent, the incident took place after three other men had been killed and Khadr “cowered under a bush as the soldiers moved in,” as a CBC News report explained. “He pulled the pin and just chucked it over his shoulder,” the agent said. “He had never thrown one before, so he just threw it over his shoulder, like he had seen in the movies.”

Although the interrogator claimed that Khadr was “very happy” to speak to her, and that, “when he would come to the room, he was always smiling,” there are three major problems with her story.

The first, as has been demonstrated in several hearings in the last 14 months, is that other reports by eyewitnesses are completely at odds with her account. In November 2007, for example, it was revealed, just 36 hours before Khadr’s trial was supposed to begin, that his defense team had just been informed of the existence of “potentially exculpatory evidence” from a “US government employee,” who was an eye-witness to the gunfight in Afghanistan that led to Khadr’s capture. The news prompted Khadr’s military defense attorney, Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, to complain, “It’s an eye-witness the government has always known about.” He also asked, “How much other exculpatory evidence is out there behind the black curtain that we cannot see?” and added that the disclosure was symptomatic of the underlying problem with a system that was “designed to produce convictions.”

Further disturbing revelations followed last year. In March, Kuebler explained that the report of the circumstances that led to Khadr’s capture, written by an officer identified only as “Lt. Col. W.,” had been altered after the event to implicate Khadr, and at another hearing on December 12 a witness identified only as “Soldier No. 2” produced further evidence indicating that Khadr could not have thrown the grenade, explaining that he “was buried under rubble from a collapsed roof before he was captured.” In a motion submitted by Khadr’s lawyers, the soldier stated that he “thought he was standing on a ‘trap door’ because the ground did not seem solid.” He then “bent down to move the brush away to see what was beneath him and discovered that he was standing on a person; and that Mr. Khadr appeared to be ‘acting dead.’” Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler explained that photographs taken at the scene, which were not shown to observers of the trial proceedings, “show a pile of rubble from the collapsed roof, and then show the debris moved aside to reveal Khadr lying facedown in the dirt,” which “make it abundantly clear Omar Khadr could not have thrown the hand grenade that killed 1st Sgt. Speer.”

The second reason for doubting the agent’s account, as CBC News also reported, is that she was “unable to explain why she destroyed her notes of the interrogation sessions after she had typed them up,” which strikes me as deeply suspicious, and the third, which cuts to the heart of the defense team’s doubts about whether any confession by Khadr is reliable, concerns the circumstances of his treatment in Guantánamo at the time the statement was made.

Although a date was not given for when Khadr supposedly made his confession, he was subjected to appalling mistreatment both in Bagram, where he was held for three months after his capture, and in Guantánamo, where he was subjected to an array of abusive techniques — derived from torture techniques taught in US military schools to train US personnel to resist interrogation, and to provide false confessions — which were heavily criticized by the Senate Armed Services Committee in a damning report last month (PDF) that blamed senior administration officials for instigating a pervasive culture of prisoner abuse.

In Khadr’s case, these techniques included prolonged isolation in a freezing cold cell, beatings, and being short-shackled in painful positions until he urinated on himself. On one particularly humiliating occasion, he reported that the guards “poured a pine-scented cleaning fluid over him and used him as a ‘human mop’ to clean up the mess.”

Under these circumstances, it is difficult to see how any confession can be trusted. As Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler explained on Monday, Khadr “regularly lied to his interrogators to avoid being abused.”

No one is safe from rendition and torture

This was disturbing enough, but testimony by another interrogator on Monday, FBI Special Agent Robert Fuller, added a chilling new dimension to the ways in which dubious confessions have been interpreted in the “War on Terror,” providing a rare insight into the bleak world of “extraordinary rendition,” secret prisons and outsourced torture that Barack Obama must also tackle if he is to have any hope of fulfilling his ambition to restore America’s moral standing in the world.

According to Fuller, who interrogated Khadr in the US prison at Bagram airbase for two weeks in October 2002, when Khadr was shown a photograph of Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer of Syrian origin, who was seized at New York’s JFK airport on September 26, 2002, he identified him by name and said that he recognized him because he had seen him at an al-Qaeda “safe house” in Kabul, Afghanistan “on several occasions,” adding that he also “might have seen him” at an al-Qaeda training camp.

Fuller’s testimony was largely ignored outside Canada, but it sent shockwaves through the Canadian media, and for good reason. On October 9, 2002, the day after Khadr reportedly identified him, Arar was subjected to “extraordinary rendition” by the US authorities. Flown to Syria, he was tortured for ten months before being released, and after his return to Canada was awarded 10.5 million Canadian dollars in compensation. Despite this, the US authorities had never explained why they had sent Arar to Syria, and had refused to remove his name from a terrorist no-fly list.

Now, of course, it appeared that they had sent Arar to Syria because of what Omar Khadr had told an FBI interrogator, and that they refused to clear his name because they still harbored suspicions that he was connected to terrorism, even though Arar had only been seized initially because he had been placed on a watch list by the over-vigilant Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who had alerted the US authorities, and even though he had insisted all along that he had never been to Afghanistan.

Those who knew about Arar’s case were, of course, appalled. Lorne Waldman, Arar’s former lawyer, explained to the Toronto Star that before Arar’s compensation was paid, Stockwell Day, the Canadian public safety minister, “was apparently shown the entire Arar file” by the US government, and “later asserted there was no reason in his view that Arar should remain on a watch list.” Waldman added that if Day “was told he was shown the whole file, either we have a major problem if he wasn’t shown this, or he was shown it and he attached no credibility to it.”

Waldman was right, of course, but the truth only emerged during the cross-examination of Fuller, when it turned out that the FBI agent’s notes did not mention Khadr identifying Arar by name, and that they revealed that Khadr only “stated that he looked familiar.” Fuller added in his notes that “in time” Khadr “stated he felt he had seen” Arar in Afghanistan, but neglected to mention in his testimony that the period when Khadr “felt” he had seen Arar was in late September and early October 2001, when he was in Canada, under surveillance by the RCMP.

Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler described Fuller’s testimony as a “gift” from the government, and there is, I think, no doubting that he was right, but what is particularly chilling about the testimony of both “Interrogator 11” and Robert Fuller is not just how false confessions can so easily be dressed up as the truth, and how a prisoner saying that someone in a photo “looked familiar” can lead to that person’s rendition to horrendous torture, but how both of these responses are typical of the supposed evidence that is used to hold numerous other prisoners in Guantánamo, to this day, and that has also, presumably, been used as an excuse to fly other prisoners to torture prisons around the world, either run by the CIA or in third countries prepared to act as proxy torturers.

Secret prisons and Guantánamo lies

On this latter point, we still have disturbingly little evidence to go on, because so few prisoners have emerged from the secret prisons to tell their tales, although the number of innocent men who have resurfaced, to be freed without charge, suggests that the process has been both disturbingly widespread, and as generally lacking in evidence as the case of Maher Arar. They include, to name but a few, Khalid El-Masri, a German who was kidnapped in Macedonia and rendered to torture in the CIA’s “Salt Pit” prison in Afghanistan because he had the same name as a man who allegedly provided assistance to the 9/11 attackers, Laid Saidi, an Algerian seized in Africa, who spent 16 months in the “Salt Pit” and the “Dark Prison,” another secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, and Marwan Jabour, a Palestinian seized in Pakistan in May 2004, who spent over two years in another secret prison in Afghanistan (PDF).

As for Guantánamo, confessions that do not equate with other known evidence, and statements that other prisoners “looked familiar” — accompanied by accounts of their presence in places they had never been — are a cornerstone of the Bush administration’s approach to intelligence-gathering. I discovered numerous examples while researching my book The Guantánamo Files, and others have been exposed by diligent military officials, including Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who worked on Guantánamo’s tainted tribunals, and an unnamed Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army, who discovered that one particular prisoner, described by the CIA as a notorious liar, had made false allegations against 60 prisoners in total.

Another example surfaced just last week, during the habeas corpus review of Mohammed El-Gharani, a Chadian national and Saudi resident who was seized in a raid on a mosque in Karachi, Pakistan, when he was just 14 years old. Ordering his release “forthwith,” Judge Richard Leon lambasted the government for attempting to build a case that El-Gharani had been in Afghanistan — and had been part of an al-Qaeda cell in London when he was 11 years old — by relying on statements made by two other prisoners whose unreliability had been flagged by government officials.

As President Obama prepares to sign his executive order announcing that Guantánamo will be closed within a year, these are the kinds of stories we need to know, both to make sure that he sticks to his timetable, and, I believe, to ask him why, after seven years, he needs a whole year to dismantle a prison built on lies.

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.

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

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), 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), 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).

The Tale of Two Tortured Teenagers (in Bagram and Guantánamo)

On Monday, as Barack Obama prepared for his inauguration, and even though George W. Bush had already made his last speech to the nation, hearings resumed at Guantánamo in the cases of a number of prisoners facing trial by Military Commission, the novel and much-criticized system of trials for terror suspects that was conceived by Vice President Dick Cheney and his close advisers in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

In one of his first acts as President, Barack Obama has requested a 120-day suspension of the Commissions, “in the interests of justice,” but as the week began it was business as usual at Guantánamo. Monday’s cases (which were scheduled to continue throughout the week) involved the last scheduled pre-trial hearing in the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian prisoner who was seized in Afghanistan when he was just 15 years old, and a mental competency hearing in the case of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, one of five prisoners accused of planning or supporting the 9/11 attacks.

As bin al-Shibh’s four alleged co-conspirators, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were also in the courtroom, the world’s media took more of an interest in the trials than usual. They joined a small number of regular reporters, as well as relatives of victims of the attacks, who were flown in by the Pentagon in an effort to shore up the last tattered remnants of the Commissions’ legitimacy.

In truth, however, the game was up before Obama’s inauguration. Last week, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a former prosecutor who resigned in September, after explaining that he changed from being a “true believer to someone who felt truly deceived,” when he discovered that the system was both unwilling and incapable of providing the defense teams with exculpatory evidence, submitted an extraordinary declaration in the habeas corpus review of the Afghan prisoner Mohamed Jawad, which exposed, in excruciating detail, how the Commissions’ prosecution office was “chaotic,” and how only a combination of luck and diligence led to his discovery that Jawad was almost certainly not responsible for the grenade attack on two US soldiers and an Afghan translator, for which he was charged, and was, instead, a dirt-poor refugee who was tricked into joining an insurgent group and was drugged at the time of the attack.

Like Omar Khadr, Jawad was a juvenile when seized, and according to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (on the involvement of children in armed conflict), to which the US has been a signatory since January 23, 2003, both young men should have been cared for through physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration, rather than being put forward as the first juveniles to face war crimes charges in the United States since the Second World War.

Lt. Col. Vandeveld’s declaration was not the only blow to the Commissions last week. In an even more damaging incident, Susan Crawford, the Commissions’ Convening Authority, who is responsible for overseeing the trial system and deciding who is to be charged, admitted that she had refused to proceed with a trial last year in the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi suspected of trying and failing to become one of the 9/11 attackers, because he had been tortured. “We tortured Qahtani,” she told Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture.”

This extraordinary admission — the first by a senior administration official — was so significant that it immediately became apparent that, under the terms of the UN Convention Against Torture, to which the US is also a signatory, President Obama would be obliged to pursue those responsible for war crimes.

Moreover, while it has been apparent since a log of al-Qahtani’s interrogation was released in 2005 (PDF) that his 50-day ordeal in late 2002 and early 2003 was indeed torture, the techniques to which he was subjected did not include waterboarding, an ancient torture technique involving controlled drowning, which was reserved for the supposedly “high-value detainees,” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, but rather a combination of other techniques that were applied to over a hundred other prisoners in Guantánamo.

As a Senate Armed Services Committee report concluded last month (PDF), these techniques, which included “stripping detainees of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures,” were partly derived from techniques used by Chinese Communists in the Korean war to produce false confessions. Taught in US military schools as part of a program known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), which was designed to teach US personnel how to resist interrogation if captured, the techniques were reverse engineered for use in the “War on Terror” with baleful results.

As the Committee explained:

The abuse of detainees in US custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of “a few bad apples” acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.

It remains to be seen how far-reaching the effects of Crawford’s confession will be, as the use of torture has infected every aspect of the detention policies instigated by the Bush administration in the “War on Terror,” but it is already clear that her words should have brought an end to the disgraceful pre-trial hearings that began on Monday.

In her interview, Crawford attempted to explain that she “let the charges go forward” in the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendants “because the FBI satisfied her that they gathered information without using harsh techniques,” using so-called “clean teams” who gained fresh confessions without using torture. This is a ludicrous assertion, of course, as it ought to be apparent that a voluntary confession made by a torture victim may well be tainted by the original effects of the torture.

Moreover, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators are not the only prisoners put forward for trial by Military Commission who have been tortured in US custody. Others include Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, who was charged last July, and another “high-value detainee,” Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who was charged last March, and, as I reported in an article last March (Torture Allegations Dog Guantánamo Trials), Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi seized in Azerbaijan, who has claimed that he was tortured in the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and Ibrahim al-Qosi, an alleged al-Qaeda operative. In December 2005, Lt. Col. Sharon Shaffer, who was assigned to represent al-Qosi during the Commissions’ first incarnation (before the Supreme Court ruled them illegal in June 2006, and they were then revived by Congress), explained that she “characterized his treatment as possibly torture but certainly inhumane treatment; he was held in stress positions for protracted periods, subjected to military dogs and sexually humiliated.”

When it comes to Mohamed Jawad and Omar Khadr, the two former juveniles facing trials, the situation is no better. Jawad’s judge has already effectively destroyed the case against him by ruling that the only evidence against him — a confession made in Afghan custody after his capture in December 2002 — was the fruit of torture, and that a second confession, made hours later to US forces, was produced under the effects of that torture. In addition, as was made clear in Lt. Col. Vandeveld’s declaration last week, Jawad was also subjected to abuse at Bagram airbase and at Guantánamo, where, over a two-week period in 2004, he was moved from cell to cell 112 times to prevent him from sleeping, under what was euphemistically termed the “frequent flier program,” but which, in the real world, would be known as prolonged sleep deprivation, which is itself a form of torture.

Similar problems afflict the case of Omar Khadr, who was tortured from the moment he was taken into custody at Bagram, despite being severely wounded after the firefight that led to his capture. Amongst other cruelties, Khadr was refused any medication for his wounds, was hung from his wrists for long periods of time, and, as an article in Rolling Stone explained, was “ordered to clean floors on his hands and knees while his wounds were still wet.”

In Guantánamo his torture continued, when he was subjected to the reverse engineered SERE techniques. He told his lawyers that he was “short-shackled by his hands and feet to a bolt in the floor and left for five to six hours,” and that “occasionally a US officer would enter the room to laugh at him.” He also said that he was “kept in extremely cold rooms,” “lifted up by the neck while shackled, and then dropped to the floor,” and “beaten by guards.” In one particularly notorious incident, the guards left him short-shackled until he urinated on himself, and then “poured a pine-scented cleaning fluid over him and used him as a ‘human mop’ to clean up the mess.”

All this abuse took place even though, like Mohamed Jawad, Khadr was almost certainly not responsible for the main crime for which he was charged: killing a US soldier with a hand grenade. In Khadr’s case, it was not until November 2007 that it became apparent that the prosecution had suppressed or even altered evidence that conflicted with the story that the Commissions were trying to sell: that Khadr was not a teenager but a terrorist.

As the ACLU calls on Barack Obama to close Guantánamo, to scrap the Military Commissions, and to call off the proposed trials of two young men who have been brutalized for over six years in US custody when they should have been rehabilitated, I leave the last word to Damien Corsetti, a former US interrogator at Bagram. Accused of abusing Ahmed al-Darbi, Corsetti was cleared of the charges, and has since become a fierce critic of the administration’s “War on Terror” detention policies.

On Monday, as Corsetti arrived at Guantánamo to testify about what happened to Khadr at Bagram, where he was one of the few guards to befriend him, he explained to Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, “I firmly believe it was torture and unfortunately I took part in it … I was a believer at one time, I was. I guess this is just me trying to make it a little bit right. You know? Maybe get some closure to it. We’ll see.”

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.

As written exclusively for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

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), 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), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009).

Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession

Forget the outgoing President’s lame, reality-defying farewell speech, and Dick Cheney’s last-ditch attempts to claim that the administration in which he served as Vice President never engaged in torture. The Bush era came to an end last Wednesday when, in one short interview, Susan J. Crawford, the senior Pentagon official overseeing the Military Commissions at Guantánamo — the novel system of trials for terror suspects that was conceived in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — condemned the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” detention policies, and paved the way for criminal proceedings against senior administration officials, more acutely than anyone had managed before her.

Crawford, a retired judge who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general when Dick Cheney was defense secretary for George W. Bush’s father, has served as the Convening Authority for the Commissions since February 2007. In the interview, with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, she explained why, last May, she had decided in the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi accused of trying and failing to become one of the 9/11 operatives, that she would not refer his case for prosecution.

“We tortured Qahtani,” she told Woodward. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture.”

The admission was extraordinary for a number of reasons, not least because it was the first time that a senior official in the administration had admitted that a prisoner had been tortured at Guantánamo (or anywhere else, for that matter). Last February, Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, admitted in a Senate hearing that three “high-value detainees” — the supposedly senior al-Qaeda operatives Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri — had been waterboarded in secret CIA custody, but although lawyers and torture experts are well aware that use of the technique — a form of controlled drowning — is torture, and that the Spanish Inquisition had explicitly referred to it as “tortura del agua,” senior government officials either equivocated or continued to deny that US forces had ever engaged in torture.

For the outgoing administration, Susan Crawford’s confession means that equivocations and denials are no longer feasible, and for Barack Obama’s new government it is difficult to see how criminal proceedings can be avoided. As Dahlia Lithwick and Philippe Sands explained in an article for Slate, under the terms of the UN Convention Against Torture (to which the United States is a signatory), all 146 countries who have signed up to the treaty

are under an obligation to “ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law.” These states must take any person alleged to have committed torture (or been complicit or participated in an act of torture) who is present in their territories into custody. The convention allows no exceptions, as Gen. Pinochet discovered in 1998. The state party to the Torture Convention must then submit the case to its competent authorities for prosecution or extradition for prosecution in another country.

They added, “For the Obama administration, the door to the do-nothing option is now closed,” and any lingering doubts that this is the case should have been dispelled two days after Crawford’s interview was published, when, at his Senate confirmation hearing, Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s choice for Attorney General, stated unambiguously, “Waterboarding is torture” (reiterating the position Obama had taken on ABC News on January 11), and proceeded to explain that it had been used as a torture technique during the Spanish Inquisition, by the Japanese in World War II, and in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, adding, “We prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam.”

However, despite Eric Holder’s decisive contribution to the torture debate, the impact of Crawford’s confession does not end with its application to the torture of one particular prisoner or to the use of waterboarding. Although the administration attempted to redefine torture, in its notorious “Torture Memo” of August 2002, as the infliction of pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” Crawford was clearly more inclined to support the definition in the Torture Convention, which declares torture to be “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.”

In describing al-Qahtani’s treatment as torture, for example, Crawford did not object to the use of waterboarding (to which, as far as we know, al-Qahtani was not subjected), but to “a combination” of other interrogation techniques, “their duration and the impact on Qahtani’s health,” as she explained to Woodward.

“The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent,” she said. “You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge,” and to conclude that it was torture.

Al-Qahtani’s treatment was severe, of course. As Time magazine revealed in an interrogation log (PDF) that was made available in 2005, he was interrogated for 20 hours a day over a 50-day period in late 2002 and early 2003, when he was also subjected to extreme sexual humiliation, threatened by a dog, 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.

However, although the techniques that were applied to al-Qahtani were specifically approved for use on him by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, after senior officers at Guantánamo had requested approval for the use of harsher interrogation techniques, it’s clear that at least two other prisoners at Guantánamo were singled out for particularly abusive treatment: Abdullah Tabarak, a Moroccan regarded as one of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards, who (before his unexplained release from Guantánamo) was repeatedly prevented from seeing representatives of the International Red Cross due to “military necessity,” and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who had met the 9/11 hijackers in Germany, whose torture (which was arguably even more severe than that endured by al-Qahtani) was most recently reported in an article in Der Spiegel.

Moreover, as was made clear in a Senate Armed Services Committee report published last month (PDF), the techniques to which al-Qahtani, Tabarak and Slahi were subjected — which included “stripping detainees of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures” — were not techniques reserved solely for use on a handful of supposedly significant prisoners.

Instead, they were part of a deliberate policy of reverse engineering techniques taught to US military personnel “to withstand interrogation techniques considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions,” and “based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions,” which effectively became part of Guantánamo’s standard operating procedure during 2003 and 2004. According to a former interrogator who spoke to the New York Times for an article that was published in January 2005,

While all the detainees were threatened with harsh tactics if they did not cooperate, about one in six were eventually subjected to those procedures …The interrogator said that when new interrogators arrived they were told they had great flexibility in extracting information from detainees because the Geneva Conventions did not apply at the base.

To get some sense of perspective, the maximum number of prisoners that Guantánamo held at any one time was around 660, which means that, according to the former interrogator’s estimate, around 110 prisoners were subjected to these techniques. And while they may not have been applied quite as harshly as they were to al-Qahtani (although the many accounts I report in The Guantánamo Files are almost as harrowing), what Susan Crawford’s confession makes abundantly clear is that, when examining the use of torture, it is not appropriate simply to look at the application of each technique in isolation (when they may not have crossed the torture threshold), but to consider that in most cases their use was combined, as it was with al-Qahtani.

Nor is this the end of the story. In response to a question from Woodward about whether she believed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other prisoners charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks were tortured, Crawford stated, “I assume torture,” even though, as Woodward explained, she “declined to say whether she considers waterboarding … to be torture.” She then attempted to explain that she “let the charges go forward” in the 9/11 trial “because the FBI satisfied her that they gathered information without using harsh techniques,” using so-called “clean teams” who gained fresh confessions without using torture.

However, although she also attempted to make a distinction between Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohammed al-Qahtani by stating that “Mohammed has acknowledged his Sept. 11 role in court, whereas Qahtani has recanted his self-incriminating statements,” it is, frankly, disingenuous to claim that torture can be magically written off if a tortured prisoner apparently confesses of his own free will at a later date.

As a result, it is also apparent that Crawford’s confession infects the majority of the 19 cases currently scheduled for trial by Military Commission, and, moreover, that it has disturbing implications for the rest of the administration’s detention policies over the last seven years, including the widespread torture of prisoners in the US prisons at Kandahar and Bagram, before they were transferred to Guantánamo, the dozens of prisoners who were tortured in the “Dark Prison” and the “Salt Pit” (two secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan), the rest of the 14 “high-value detainees” transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006, and the unknown number of other prisoners held in secret prisons run by the CIA or rendered for torture to prisons in third countries (PDF).

As if this were not enough, Crawford’s confession also affects the many thousands of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq, who have endured wartime detention policies in which the Geneva Conventions were replaced by the reverse engineering of “Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions,” and, of course, has disturbing ramifications for investigations into the as-yet unknown number of prisoners who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq (PDF) and in secret prisons as a result of the unfettered exercise of these techniques.

As the implications of all this percolate slowly through the nation’s consciousness, the only outstanding question that remains unanswered is why Susan Crawford chose to make her confession to Bob Woodward just days before the Bush administration leaves office, having never granted an interview before.

As a protégée of Vice President Dick Cheney, and a close friend of Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington (the prime architects, with Rumsfeld, of the Bush administration’s torture regime), it seems unlikely that she would have had some kind of Damascene conversion, but her interview was peppered with statements that appear, both on the surface and on closer inspection, to constitute a genuine confession. “I sympathize with the intelligence gatherers in those days after 9/11, not knowing what was coming next and trying to gain information to keep us safe,” she explained. “But there still has to be a line that we should not cross. And unfortunately what this has done, I think, has tainted everything going forward.”

If Crawford had an ulterior motive, it is not readily apparent. Elsewhere in the interview, for example, she complained that the Military Commissions should not have been empowered to accept coerced testimony, and complained about how “unprepared” the prosecutors were to bring cases to trial, and how she had had to force them to provide exculpatory evidence to the defense. She also complained about Donald Rumsfeld’s role in authorizing torture, and complained that the torture of al-Qahtani directly endangered US forces abroad. “It did shock me,” she said. “I was upset by it. I was embarrassed by it. If we tolerate this and allow it, then how can we object when our servicemen and women, or others in foreign service, are captured and subjected to the same techniques? How can we complain? Where is our moral authority to complain? Well, we may have lost it.”

She also said that, although she believed that President Bush was “right to create a system to try unlawful enemy combatants captured in the war on terrorism,” the implementation of the policy was flawed. “I think he hurt his own effort,” she explained. “I think someone should acknowledge that mistakes were made and that they hurt the effort and take responsibility for it. We learn as children it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is for permission. I think the buck stops in the Oval Office.”

And although she called al-Qahtani “a very dangerous man,” pointedly asked, “What do you do with him now if you don’t charge him and try him?” and handed the responsibility for dealing with him over to Barack Obama, this would have happened anyway. Perhaps — though this may be a naïve interpretation, and is certainly not meant to excuse her demonstrably poor performance as the Commissions’ Convening Authority — she had looked to the future and was establishing her position accordingly, in case, one day, a Special Prosecutor for war crimes comes knocking.

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.

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), 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), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009).

And for a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Obama’s Confusion Over Guantánamo Terror Trials (June 2009).

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison, Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here) (all May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA), and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009).

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive. And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009).

President Obama: The Audacity of Hope

Today, just for a while, I’m going to let words fail me, and present you instead with an illustration to commemorate the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. The illustration is by Lewis Peake, the talented British political cartoonist who drew a series of five powerful pictures about Guantánamo last year, based on drawings by the imprisoned al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj that had been censored by the military authorities.

Sami was released last May, but it’s a measure of his influence that, although he was supposed to be taking part in “Two Sides, One Story,” a UK tour with Moazzam Begg and former Guantánamo guard Chris Arendt (organized by Cageprisoners), the British government has refused to give him a visa.

As for Barack Obama, only time will tell, of course, but today is certainly his day, and I promise to give him as much support as I can offer to aid him in his promise to close Guantánamo, ban torture, and restore the United States to the rule of law.

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.

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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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