Archive for March, 2009

Britain’s insane secret terror evidence

A month ago, when Britain’s Law Lords ruled that three men who have each spent between six and eight years imprisoned without charge or trial, or held without charge or trial under strict bail conditions amounting to house arrest, could be deported to their home countries, even though there was a risk — or, perhaps, even a probability — that they would be tortured or subjected to ill-treatment, the British media briefly woke up to the story. This was almost exclusively because one of the men was Omar Mahmoud Othman (more commonly known as Abu Qatada), a man routinely described as “al-Qaeda’s spiritual ambassador in Europe,” even though this claim has never been tested in a court of law.

The Law Lords’ ruling was immediately challenged by the men’s lawyers, and their deportation halted while an appeal is made to the European Court of Human Rights, but the following day there was tabloid outrage when Qatada and 10 other men were awarded around £26,000, plus £53,000 in legal costs, as compensation for their detention without charge or trial in Belmarsh, between December 2001 and March 2005, which, the judges ruled, had breached their human rights.

Qatada’s share, which was flashed up in headlines across the nation, was £2,500, considerably less than the £170,000 he had been seeking, and, as the Guardian explained, “the judges said the detainees’ cash compensation was ‘substantially lower’ than in previous cases of ‘unlawful detention,’” because “they recognised that the government’s detention scheme was ‘devised in the face of a public emergency, and as an attempt to reconcile the need to protect the UK public against terrorism with the obligation not to send the applicants back to countries where they faced a real risk of ill-treatment.’”

Despite the widespread disgust in the media, the Independent pointed out, to those who could see beyond the narrow rhetoric, that the ECHR was only upholding the Law Lords ruling in 2004 that the government’s action in imprisoning Qatada and the other men had been “disproportionate and unlawful,” and added, “Unpleasant as Qatada is, there was no evidence (certainly none that would stand up in a regular court) that he had broken the law since arriving in Britain in 1993. The government’s response to this lack of proof was to lock him up indefinitely under the authority of a secret immigration tribunal, thus undermining the principle that everyone in Britain should receive a fair and open trial before being imprisoned. This £2,500 payout is more than the loathsome Qatada deserves, but it is a small price to pay if it helps to preserve our civil liberties from the assaults of a government that seems unable to comprehend the very concept.”

Outside of this bold editorial, few other major media outlets focused on the bigger picture: whether it was justifiable to risk contravening the UN Convention Against Torture by sending people back to countries where they could be tortured, and, even more critically, the reason why they had been imprisoned without charge or trial (and, latterly, under house arrest), which was, simply, because the government refused to follow the rest of the world in finding a way to test the supposed evidence it had in a court of law, whilst also protecting its intelligence sources (PDF).

No one cared either about the other two men — known only as RB and U — or others possibly facing similar deportation orders in decisions that will be made in the coming weeks by the Special Immigration Appeal Court (SIAC), a place where the secrecy that underpins the whole of Britain’s Guantánamo-style regime is most clearly seen in the role of the Special Advocates. These are lawyers appointed to act on behalf of the prisoners in closed court sessions (deemed essential for reasons of national security), but who are then not allowed to breathe a word about what has taken place either to the prisoners or to their lawyers.

Three weeks ago, few media outlets even noticed when, as a result of the ECHR appeal, the government testily urged SIAC to revoke the bail orders of RB and U — and of three others, known only as Y, Z and VV — which established their confinement under strict conditions amounting to house arrest, and to order their imprisonment, yet again, in Belmarsh, on the basis that, since the Law Lords’ ruling, there was allegedly a greater risk of them absconding. When the judge, Mr. Justice Mitting, refused, arguing instead that the bail conditions were sufficient until SIAC was able to complete a thorough review of the men’s cases, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, intervened in the most extraordinary manner, kidnapping U and VV as they were delivered to their homes, seizing the other three men in house raids, and delivering them all to Belmarsh, without informing their lawyers or their families in advance.

The following day, Mr. Justice Mitting responded with admirable restraint, refraining from savaging the government for riding roughshod over his ruling, and ordering the release of all but one of the men, with the promise that the reasons for holding this last man, U, in Belmarsh, which apparently relied on brand-new “secret evidence” in the possession of the government, would be reviewed the following week.

When SIAC reconvened two weeks ago, to consider in more detail the government’s reasons for claiming that U should be held in Belmarsh, rather than under the strict bail conditions in which he has been held since July 2008, another extraordinary story of governmental hyperbole and ineptitude unfolded.

Unlike some of the detainees held under control orders, who have been deliberately moved by the government to barely habitable flats in deprived areas of the UK, where they face racist hostility and can also be harassed with impunity by the government’s agents, who can raid their homes in security checks at any time of the day or night, and can accuse the men of allegedly breaking their bail conditions without the presence of inconvenient witnesses, the detainee known only as U was — after much negotiation with the government — allowed to take a room in a house in a well-known town in southern England in which other rooms are let to students, where he has the support not only of the homeowner, but also of other members of the local community.

An educated man with an inquiring mind, U had already undertaken a degree course while imprisoned, and responded to the strict curfew imposed on him, which, effectively, held him in the house permanently, with no opportunities whatsoever to go outside, by embarking on a Masters course with the Open University in European Governance. In recent months, however, the Treasury Solicitors, who are responsible for approving routes that prisoners under house arrest may make as pedestrians, had allowed him to leave the house for an hour twice a week.

It was a sign of the government’s disproportionate response to the purported threat posed by U that, for these short, bi-weekly excursions, he had to be accompanied by two members of his support team (his friends, who have to be security-cleared by the government) as well as four Home Office representatives — two walking behind, and two following in a car.

When SIAC heard the government’s “secret evidence,” which was supposed to justify U’s return to Belmarsh, observers were appalled to discover that the argument put forward by Robin Tam QC, the Treasury Solicitor, was that, even though the route had been approved by his own government department, there was allegedly a risk that U would abscond because the route passed by a main road, was two km from a railway station, and was not far from a number of ports. Quite how this bookish man was supposed to overwhelm four Home Office representatives and make a run for it was not explained.

In a statement, U responded by stating, “My sole lifeline in prison and on bail has been education. If I intended to abscond I would have not enrolled on an MA course. I would never abscond or run away from the proceedings.” He added, “I believe in justice,” and also pointed out, “It is not fair that I do not know the secret evidence against me.”

Witness statements in support of U came from several of the people who have come to know him, including the man whose house he shares, who described him as “my very good friend,” noted that he “has taken a keen interest in all subjects,” and added, “When I had an accident, Mr. U cared for me and cooked as I was unable to.” He also stated that U “has never broken bail conditions,” and that he “would not go to areas around the house where there was no signal” from the tag he is required to wear, and declared, “I truly believe he will not abscond. I hope he is allowed to continue to live in my home.”

Beyond the ludicrous scenario of U’s purported escape route, the prosecution’s case essentially focused on the government’s claim that U’s bail conditions were “difficult to manage,” and that the address, unlike the vulnerable hovels mentioned above, was “unmanageable.” What this means is that U is not isolated, as the government wishes. His host has had great difficulty finding students to rent other rooms in his house, not only because they are prohibited from having computers on the premises, but also because they have to put up with regular raids by up to seven Home Office representatives (who, as one of U’s support team explained, have “made no effort to get to know anyone, declaring from the start that they would not be working as a team with us, rather telling us what they would and would not permit”), seeking evidence that U is about to abscond, or is using a computer or a mobile phone. Given U’s close circle of friends, however, in addition to the other tenants, the reality, for the Home Office, is that its paranoia-fuelled raids are regularly monitored by witnesses, who watch in horror as they turn over the contents of the house, searching in vain for evidence that U is doing anything other than minding his own business and waiting — apparently in vain — for anything resembling justice.

A recent example of the Home Office’s approach took place during one of these raids, when, as another member of U’s support team noted in a letter to SIAC, four maps — of Brighton, the London bus network, Maidstone and Dieppe — were taken (although the writer also noted that, in an anonymous report about the raid, submitted to the court as part of the “secret evidence,” the Maidstone map was described as a map of Folkestone instead). “It is not clear why these four were mentioned,” U’s friend wrote. “Given the overall context, one can only assume that the writer of the document thought such maps might indicate an ‘escape route,’ although since no ferries operate between Folkestone (let alone Maidstone!) and Dieppe, he would have had some difficulty with such a route. But in any case, it is hard to see why the Home Office would see an escape to France as a problem, since it regards his presence in the UK as a threat to national security, and is anxious to deport him.”

He added, “While the report implies that these maps were found in isolation, as though they had been put together in readiness for an escape, nothing could be further from the truth. [The] house contains many hundreds of books and maps, and the maps confiscated by the immigration officials on that day were taken from a large pile of maps on the first floor landing; it appears that they selected those four from the pile for some reason — perhaps to deliberately give the impression referred to above, or for some other unknown purpose. It is of course possible that the intention was simply to demonstrate that such items were available in the house should U wish to take them, and this is consistent with the description in the document of the house as ‘difficult to manage.’ If this is the case, I have no doubt that [the landlord] and other members of the support group would be happy to help the immigration staff identify, in advance of any future searches, any such items in the house that are considered in any way ‘sensitive’ or ‘dangerous,’ and arrange for them to be stored somewhere outside U’s reach.”

Reviewing the government’s “secret evidence,” Mr. Justice Mitting again responded with admirable restraint, hinting that, if there were problems with where U was living, then another bail address could be found, but he made it clear that the government had not established a reason to revoke his bail. However, rather than making a ruling at the time, he said that he would wait until all the cases had been reviewed. This, he said, would take about three weeks, and he added that he would notify the men’s solicitors of his decision by letter, rather than in the court.

You will, I hope, forgive me if my conclusion seems to be rather harsh about the government’s actions, but it seems clear to me that the government is particularly annoyed about U’s case because a number of British citizens, appalled by their own elected representatives’ refusal to adhere to what the Independent correctly called “the principle that everyone in Britain should receive a fair and open trial before being imprisoned,” have responded by standing together to protect a man they have come to know from further arbitrary punishment, which, to the government’s displeasure, has involved keeping a close eye on its activities.

To my mind, this is nothing more than British citizens exercising their right to monitor their own government, and, as with the men held at Guantánamo, if the government doesn’t like it, it can do the right thing: put the men on trial, find a way to produce evidence that does not compromise its sources, and allow this evidence to be challenged in a fair and open manner. Otherwise this cruel farce will continue, seemingly without end, wreaking havoc on the mental health of those subjected to the government’s whims, endangering our commitments to oppose all use of torture, undermining 800 years of habeas corpus, and incredibly, requiring that we accept at face value the assertions by politicians and the intelligence services that their supposed evidence is beyond reproach, and that they are incapable of making mistakes.

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

As written exclusively for Cageprisoners.

Note: For further information on Detainee U, see “Besieged in Britain,” Victoria Brittain’s excellent article in Race & Class (PDF) and the statement here.

For other articles dealing with Belmarsh, control orders, deportation bail, deportations and extraditions, see Deals with dictators undermined by British request for return of five Guantánamo detainees (August 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: the troubling tale of Tunisian Belmarsh detainee Hedi Boudhiba, extradited, cleared and abandoned in Spain (August 2007), Guantánamo as house arrest: Britain’s law lords capitulate on control orders (November 2007), The Guantánamo Britons and Spain’s dubious extradition request (December 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: control orders renewed, as one suspect is freed (February 2008), Spanish drop “inhuman” extradition request for Guantánamo Britons (March 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), Repatriation as Russian Roulette: Will the Two Algerians Freed from Guantánamo Be Treated Fairly? (July 2008), Abu Qatada: Law Lords and Government Endorse Torture (February 2009), Ex-Guantánamo prisoner refused entry into UK, held in deportation centre (February 2009), Home Secretary ignores Court decision, kidnaps bailed men and imprisons them in Belmarsh (February 2009).

Guantánamo: The Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants

Changing the names of things was a ploy that was used by the Bush administration in an attempt to justify some of its least palatable activities. In response to the 9/11 attacks, for instance, the nation was not involved in a limited pursuit of a group of criminals responsible for the attacks, but instead embarked on an open-ended “War on Terror.” In keeping with this “new paradigm,” prisoners seized in this “war” were referred to as “detainees,” and held neither as criminal suspects nor as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, but as “enemy combatants,” without any rights whatsoever. Later, when the administration sought new ways in which to interrogate some of these men, the techniques it endorsed were not referred to as torture — even though many of them clearly were — but were instead described as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

The Obama administration has clearly learned a trick or two from its predecessors. In its response to a court request for clarification of the meaning of the term “enemy combatant,” for use in the Guantánamo prisoners’ habeas corpus reviews (which were triggered by a momentous Supreme Court decision last June), the new government has responded to the challenge with a cunning sleight of hand. In a press release, the Department of Justice announced that it had dropped the use of the term “enemy combatant,” and that it had adjusted its definition of those who can be detained so that, instead of holding people who were “part of, or supporting, Taliban or al-Qaeda forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners,” individuals who supported al-Qaeda or the Taliban “are detainable only if the support was substantial.”

As benign-sounding propaganda, in contrast to the Bush administration’s arrogant version, which almost always manifested a tangible disdain for Congress and the judiciary, this announcement has the alluring veneer of the “change” that Barack Obama promised throughout his election campaign, but in practical terms nothing has actually changed. The prisoners are now nobodies, with no label whatsoever to define their peculiar extra-legal existence, and the entire rationale for holding them without charge or trial — and the egregious errors made along the way — remain unaddressed.

In its filing with the District Court (PDF), delivered in response to a deadline of March 13, the government made clear that it was largely business as usual. In its opening salvo, the Justice Department claimed that the laws of war, which “include a series of prohibitions and obligations … developed over time,” and which “have periodically been codified in treaties such as the Geneva Conventions,” or have otherwise “become customary international law,” are nonetheless “less well-codified with respect to our current, novel type of armed conflict against armed groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban.”

With this “current, novel type of armed conflict” standing in as a more palatable version of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” the Justice Department proceeded to defend the President’s authority, under the terms of the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was passed by Congress within days of the attacks, “to detain persons who he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible” for the attacks, as well as “persons whose relationship to al-Qaeda or the Taliban would, in appropriately analogous circumstances in a traditional international armed conflict, render them detainable.”

This statement raises a second flag of alarm, as this horrendously open-ended piece of legislation may have been appropriate at the time, but it was used by the Bush administration as the foundation stone on which all its subsequent forays into illegal and unconstitutional actions were based (including, it should be noted, holding these “detained persons” without charge or trial at Guantánamo for seven years), and it is disconcerting to realize that a conversation we should be having — which involves responding to the question, ”Is it justifiable, seven years and seven months after the 9/11 attacks, to claim that we are still involved in an open-ended and ill-defined ‘war’?” — has, instead, been swept aside.

Further disturbing signs that little, if anything has changed can be found in the government’s explanation of who, it asserted, can be held as the “Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants” in the “Current, Novel Type of Armed Conflict.” In spite of claiming that these men must have “substantially supported” the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or other associated groups, the Justice Department specifically stated that it has the authority to detain not only “those who were part of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces,” but also other “members of enemy forces,” even if “they have not actually committed or attempted to commit any act of depredation or entered the theatre or zone of active military operations,” and adds, “Evidence relevant to a determination that an individual joined with or became part of al-Qaeda or Taliban forces might range from formal membership, such as through an oath of loyalty, to more functional evidence, such as training with al-Qaeda (as reflected in some cases by staying at al-Qaeda or Taliban safehouses that are regularly used to house militant recruits) or taking positions with enemy forces.”

This, of course, renders the word “substantial” worthless, as it allows the government to detain someone who never even “attempted to commit any act of depredation or entered the theatre or zone of active military operations” and may only have stayed in a house associated with those who did engage in militancy, which, to my mind, is not “substantial” support at all. Furthermore, the government asserts that “it is of no moment that someone who was part of an enemy armed group when war commenced may have tried to flee the battle or conceal himself as a civilian in places like Pakistan,” which effectively condemns anyone who may have traveled to Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks to take the Taliban’s side against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan’s long-running inter-Muslim civil war (a conflict which had nothing to do with the United States or its allies) into a terrorist if they happened to be present in Afghanistan when the 9/11 attacks occurred.

In this, the government’s thinking was clearly in line with Judge Richard Leon, the District Court judge whose rulings on the habeas corpus cases of ten Guantánamo prisoners in the last few months resulted in decisions that six of the men (five Algerian-born Bosnians, and Mohammed El-Gharani, a former juvenile) were to be released, but that four could continue to be held. In the case of one of the four, the Yemeni Muaz al-Alawi, Judge Leon ruled that the government had established that he “was part of or supporting Taliban or al-Qaeda forces,” because 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.”

From the point of view of an impartial observer, of course, the problem with Judge Leon’s ruling was that none of these allegations related to “hostilities against the US or its coalition partners,” but he also endorsed the government’s additional claim that, “rather than leave his Taliban unit in the aftermath of September 11, 2001,” al-Alawi “stayed with it until after the United States initiated Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001; fleeing to Khowst and then to Pakistan only after his unit was subjected to two-to-three US bombing runs.”

In other words, Judge Leon ruled that Muaz al-Alawi could continue to be held because, despite traveling to Afghanistan to fight other Muslims before September 11, 2001, “contend[ing] that he had no association with al-Qaeda,” and stating that “his support for and association with the Taliban was minimal and not directed at US or coalition forces,” he was still in Afghanistan when that conflict morphed into a different war following the US-led invasion in October 2001. As Leon admitted in his ruling, “Although there is no evidence of petitioner actually using arms against US or coalition forces, the Government does not need to prove such facts in order for petitioner to be classified as an enemy combatant under the definition adopted by the Court.” In the new world of Obama’s Justice Department, all that needs changing are the words “enemy combatants” — to “Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants” — and the conclusion is the same.

I am, therefore, bitterly disappointed by the Obama administration’s cosmetic tinkering with its predecessor’s supposed justification for holding prisoners at Guantánamo, as it appears, at heart, to endorse the lawless policies introduced by the Bush administration, and also to perpetuate some of its most damaging errors. In spite of claims by the Justice Department that its position “draws on the international laws of war to inform the statutory authority conferred by Congress,” the Obama administration has, in reality, wholeheartedly endorsed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (the founding document of the “War on Terror”), has failed to demonstrate that it has any willingness to pour scorn on the Bush administration’s claims that prisoners can be held without being either criminal suspects or prisoners of war, has endorsed its predecessor’s decision to equate the Taliban with al-Qaeda, even though there was never any justification for doing so, has overlooked the fact that the majority of the prisoners were bought for bounties (PDF) and were never screened according to the Geneva Conventions, has ignored the fact that the evidence against them (whether of “substantial” support or not) was often extracted through the use of torture, coercion or bribery, and has also defended the Bush administration’s self-proclaimed right to detain demonstrably peripheral figures in the Afghan conflict as “terror suspects.”

For a final demonstration of the absurdity the Obama administration’s position, I’d like to return to another of the cases reviewed by Judge Leon, that of Ghaleb Nasser al-Bihani, a Yemeni who had served as a cook for the Taliban and an affiliated group of Arab recruits. In a verdict that also fits with the new administration’s disturbingly loose definition of “substantial support,” Judge Leon ruled that “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,’” and added, “After all, as Napoleon was fond of pointing out, ‘An army marches on its stomach.’”

To gauge how wrong this is, we need only compare al-Bihani’s case to that of another Yemeni prisoner, Salim Hamdan. 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 close advisers (including, in particular, his legal counsel David Addington), sentenced and sent home in November to serve the last few weeks of a five-month sentence delivered by a military jury. As I wrote when Judge Leon made his ruling about al-Bihani, “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.”

I added, “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.” That was just seven weeks ago, but now, despite his fine pronouncements in August 2007, when he declared, “We will again set an example to the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary,” it seems that Barack Obama doesn’t care, and that his sympathies are far more in line with the arbitrary justice instigated by those “stubborn rulers” — George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington and Donald Rumsfeld — than they are with the military judge and the military jurors involved in Salim Hamdan’s case, who, effectively, set a seven-year limit on the detention of minor players in the “War on Terror” by giving Hamdan a short sentence, despite convicting him of “providing material support for terrorism.”

In analyses over the years, intelligence officials have stated that no more than 50 of the prisoners at Guantánamo had any meaningful connection with al-Qaeda, the Taliban or other terrorist groups. By that rationale, the Obama administration should be working flat-out to release the other 190 prisoners as soon as possible. Under its own definition of “significant support” for these organizations, however, the administration has, instead, raised the possibility that, after seven years’ imprisonment in conditions that ought to be a source of shame to any civilized society, a large number of these prisoners — these “Nobodies Formerly Known as Enemy Combatants” — still have a long way to go before they can hope to see the end of their ordeal.

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

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

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), How Cooking For The Taliban Gets You Life In Guantánamo (January 2009), Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), 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).

Top 30 Guantánamo articles (December 2008 to February 2009)

In an attempt to reflect what visitors to my site are reading, the following is a list of the most popular articles based on site traffic in the last three months. I hope that it provides new readers with some help in navigating the 300+ original articles on the site, which cover most aspects of Guantánamo and the “War on Terror,” although I’m aware, as ever, that it does not take into account the large numbers of readers who have found many of these articles on other sites on which they were published: primarily, the Future of Freedom Foundation, for whom I write a regular weekly column, Cageprisoners, for whom I also write regularly, and others who publish my work; in particular, the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com, CounterPunch, ZNet, and AlterNet, as well as many other sites that regularly cross-post my articles. As this list only includes visits to the end of February, it does not include significant developments in the last few weeks, in particular the definitive Guantánamo prisoner list that I published at the start of the month.

Please note that figures in brackets refer to rankings in the last list, published in November, and that I have also included stats for my books, including The Guantánamo Files, and for the additional online chapters published over the last 16 months (see the column on the left). Also note that, if you want to receive new articles in your inbox, please sign up to my RSS feed.

1 (1): Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now, and What About the Torture? (February 2008)
The perennial chart-topper, this article followed the announcement that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and five others had been put forward for trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo, and provided a detailed background to their stories, and their torture in US custody. For other articles relating to the 9/11 trials, see 9, 16 and 29 below, and for articles dealing with Barack Obama’s suspension of the trials, see Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right To Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009) and Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009).

2 (5): Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008)
Examining the problems facing the US administration in its attempts to conceal evidence of torture during the Military Commission trial system, this article — part of a comprehensive series of articles about the Commissions from June 2007 onwards — focused in particular on misguided attempts to prosecute two juveniles: Omar Khadr (see 22, below) and Mohamed Jawad (see 19, below).

3 (-): The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison
The first book to tell the story of every man trapped in Guantánamo. Reviews, synopsis and how to buy the book.

4 (-): The Last US Enemy Combatant: The Shocking Story of Ali al-Marri (December 2008)
Revealing in detail the suffering of US resident Ali al-Marri, who was held for nearly six years in severe isolation as an “enemy combatant” on the US mainland, this article followed on from Court Confirms President’s Dictatorial Powers in Case of US “Enemy Combatant” Ali al-Marri (July 2008), and was followed by Ending The Cruel Isolation Of Ali al-Marri, The Last US “Enemy Combatant” and Why The US Under Obama Is Still A Dictatorship (both March 2009).

5 (-): The Guantánamo Files Website Extras 3: Osama’s bodyguards
The third of 12 additional chapters, looking at the so-called “Dirty 30,” alleged bodyguards for Osama bin Laden.

6 (2): Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008)
An overview of the experiences of al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj, which was published just before he was released from Guantánamo, this features five powerful drawings (based on censored drawings by Sami), which were commissioned by Sami’s lawyers at the British legal action charity Reprieve. An archive of articles about Sami is here.

7 (20): Guantánamo: Torture victim Binyam Mohamed sues British government for evidence (May 2008)
A Londoner’s transformation from janitor to al-Qaeda operative. All it took was 22 months of torture. The horrors of “extraordinary rendition,” in one case study. Also see 14 and 26, below, and Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story, an article based on an interview following Binyam’s release from Guantánamo last month.

8 (-) A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008)
Also known as “Hit Me Baby, One More Time,” this article reviewed how music has been subverted by the US military, transformed from entertainment, or from something more transcendental, into part of an arsenal of torture techniques. The article contains case studies, and the responses — either pro-, anti- or indifferent — of various musicians, including Britney Spears, David Gray, Deicide, Drowning Pool, Eminem, Metallica, Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine, to the misuse of their music in this manner.

9 (-) Is The 9/11 Trial Confession An Al-Qaeda Propaganda Coup? (December 2008)
The penultimate instalment of the dark farce that was the 9/11 trials, until their suspension by Barack Obama on his first day in office, this article focused on the failed attempts by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendants to be executed as martyrs before the Bush administration left office.

10 (11): Book review: Road From Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía (January 2008)
The story of Camilo Mejía, the first deserter from the Iraq war, capturing the camaraderie of the soldiers, the deranged incompetence of many of their leaders, and the encounters with brutality, including his own, that led him to desert. A few other articles about Iraq are here.

11 (-): Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008)
The first open admission of torture. Still no prosecutions.

12 (-): An interview with Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham (Part One) (December 2008)
Stephen is the former Lieutenant Colonel, and veteran of US intelligence, who served on Guantánamo’s tribunals in 2004-05, convened to assess whether the prisoners had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” who could be held without trial. I’ve covered his story since July 2007, when he first demolished the tribunals’ credibility by explaining how the tribunals were incapable of delivering anything resembling justice, and this was the first part of a detailed and very enjoyable interview. Also see Part Two.

13 (-): The Battle of the Beanfield
My second book. The State crushes dissent in a largely overlooked quasi-military operation in 1985. Maggie at her worst. Reviews, synopsis and how to buy.

14 (-): The betrayal of British torture victim Binyam Mohamed (February 2009)
Written for Cageprisoners, this article ran through the history of Binyam’s Transatlantic legal challenges in the year before his release, triggered by the latest stage in the refusal of either the British or the American governments to release information to the public that would reveal their involvement in or complicity in torture.

15 (-): Jose Padilla: More Sinned Against Than Sinning (September 2007)
Picked up on as a result of the attention focused on Ali al-Marri, this article examined the long isolation and torture of Jose Padilla, a US citizen held as an “enemy combatant” on the US mainland for three and a half years in connection with same non-existent “dirty bomb” plot in which Binyam Mohamed became ensnared. The article followed his farcical trial, after all mention of the plot — and his torture — was dropped, and for my response to his sentence see Why Jose Padilla’s 17-year prison sentence should shock and disgust all Americans (January 2008).

16 (15): In a Legal Otherworld, 9/11 Defendants Cry Torture at Guantánamo (June 2008)
Following 1, above, and preceding 29, below and 9, above, this article looked at the arraignment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendants in June, and, in particular, at Mohammed’s sly mentions of his torture by US forces. For an analysis of possible false confessions made by Mohammed, see Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man.

17 (-): A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009)
At the heart of Guantanamo’s long and ongoing injustice is the story of the Uighurs, 17 men who succeeded, after an extraordinary appeals court ruling, in persuading the Bush administration that they were not “enemy combatants.” Unable to return to China, they remain in Guantánamo, because no other country has been found that will take them, despite a District Court ruling that their continued detention was unconstitutional and they should be rehoused in the US. This article urged Barack Obama to act on their behalf — but see Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009) for the latest developments (or, rather, the lack of them).

18 (-): Return To The Law: Obama Orders Guantánamo Closure, Torture Ban and Review of US “Enemy Combatant” Case (January 2009)
An analysis of the Presidential orders issued by Barack Obama on his second day in office, when he pledged to close Guantánamo, to abide by the universal torture ban, to close all secret prisons run by the CIA, and more besides. Mostly positive, but with some caveats that are still worrying two months later. See, for example, Obama’s “Humane” Guantánamo Is A Bitter Joke (February 2009).

19 (-): Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (January 2009)
Originally published on the Raw Story, this article provided a detailed analysis of an explosive statement by Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a former prosecutor in the Military Commission trial system, who resigned last September, after becoming severely disillusioned with the whole process (also see The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials). Focused on ineptitude and obfuscation in the case of Afghan teenager Mohamed Jawad, it provides the most comprehensive breakdown of the Commissions’ inability to deliver justice.

20 (-) The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials (January 2009)
Even as the bunting was hung for Obama’s inauguration, the trials stumbled on. This last report ran through the Commissions’ ignoble history, and presented the last gasps in the pre-trial hearings of various prisoners, including Omar Khadr and Mohamed Jawad.

21 (-): Six Years of Guantánamo: Enough Is Enough (January 2008)
Despite Guantánamo marking its 7th anniversary in January, this article from a year before drew the most attention. For articles marking the 7th anniversary, see Seven Years Of Guantánamo, And A Call For Justice At Bagram (written for Cageprisoners), Seven Years of Guantánamo, Seven Years of Torture and Lies, which was circulated widely, and Will Guantánamo Bay ever close? which I wrote for the Guardian.

22 (14): The trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007)
A detailed account of Omar’s story, from his capture (at the age of 15) to pre-trial hearings in his Military Commission, including psychological analysis, legal challenges to the Commissions, the shame of putting forward a child for a “war crimes” trial, and the disgraceful suppression of evidence. For more on Omar, an archive is here, but I particularly recommend Omar Khadr: The Guantánamo Files (October 2008).

23 (8): Dick Cheney: More Horrors from the “Vice President for Torture” (June 2007)
A detailed analysis of Dick Cheney’s role as the actual Commander-in-Chief of the Bush administration, this article followed the publication of a ground-breaking Washington Post series on Cheney by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker. Also see The Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One and Part Two), published over the Christmas period, which received a lot of traffic on the Huffington Post.

24 (-) Refuting Cheney’s Lies: The Stories of Six Prisoners Released from Guantánamo (January 2009)
As Cheney was wheeled out of office declaring that those still held in Guantánamo were the “hardcore,” this article examined how the last six men to be released by the Bush administration were no such thing, and uncovered gross ineptitude and a miasma of false allegations surrounding four Iraqis, an Afghan and an Algerian. Written for the Future of Freedom Foundation.

25 (6): 20 Reasons To Shut Down the Guantánamo Trials (November 2008)
From David Hicks to the Kuwaitis charged in October (also profiled here), this article dissected the problems with all 20 of the cases put forward for trial by Military Commission — and the six that were dropped. See 20, above, for the story of Tarek El-Sawah, the last prisoner to be charged.

26 (-): British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009)
Written for Cageprisoners, this article ran through the history of Binyam’s rendition and torture, and covered attempts by his military lawyer, Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley, to discover details of the hunger strike that he embarked on before his release, as a protest against his continued detention.

27 (-): Guantánamo’s forgotten child: the sad story of Mohammed El-Gharani (April 2008)
This introduction to the torment of Mohammed El-Gharani, who was just 14 years old when he was seized in a raid on a mosque in Pakistan and sent to Guantánamo, where he was treated appallingly, was picked up on when a judge ordered his release from Guantánamo after his habeas corpus review two months ago (see Judge Orders Release Of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child). Sad to say, Mohammed still hasn’t been freed.

28 (-): High Court rules against UK and US in case of Guantánamo torture victim Binyam Mohamed (August 2008)
An analysis of the British High Court’s devastating ruling about Binyam Mohamed’s case, following a judicial review last summer, in which the judges criticized the British government for complicity in Binyam’s rendition and torture, and were appalled by the Bush administration’s entire approach to justice.

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

30 (-) The Guantánamo Files Website Extras 1: The Qala-i-Janghi Massacre
The first of the 12 additional online chapters, looking at survivors of a massacre in northern Afghanistan in November 2001.

Bubbling under:
A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008)
Why Guantánamo Must Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008)
The End of Guantánamo (December 2008)
Lost in Guantánamo: The Faisalabad 16 (December 2008)
Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008)
Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (January 2009)
How Cooking For The Taliban Gets You Life In Guantánamo (January 2009)
Guantánamo’s refugees (February 2009)
Guantánamo: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009)
Abu Qatada: Law Lords and Government Endorse Torture (February 2009)

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

In the Guardian: Intelligence failures at Guantánamo

For the Guardian’s Comment is free, “Who are ‘the worst of the worst?’” is an article I wrote in response to the news (as yet unsubstantiated by an independent source) that Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul, an Afghan prisoner released from Guantánamo in December 2007, has resurfaced as Mullah Abdullah Zakir, a Taliban leader responsible for roadside bomb attacks in Afghanistan.

As well as providing me with an opportunity to mention the important work undertaken by the Seton Hall Law School in debunking the Pentagon’s ongoing mythology about the numbers of prisoners released from Guantánamo who have “returned to the fight,” the article also gave me the chance to ask why it was considered plausible for Guantánamo to have a recidivism rate of zero (compared, for example, to the enormous recidivism rate of violent prisoners in the penal system), and also to ask why no one was examining the reasons for the Pentagon’s seeming inability to work out who it has been holding at the prison.

I didn’t address another important question: whether some of the handful of prisoners who have “returned to the fight” did so because they had been radicalized by their brutal experiences in US custody. This was for two particular reasons (above and beyond the fact that I had no room to do so). The first is that I believe that very few of the prisoners have been transformed by their experiences into men of violence. I regard it as extremely difficult to convert wrongly imprisoned men who were previously unconnected with terrorism into terrorists, and I’m also aware that the majority of the prisoners at Guantánamo survived their experiences through their faith.

The second reason is that, in the specific case of Rasoul, it seems probable — as he was captured in a car with a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Fazil, who is still held in Guantánamo — that he was, all along, a committed member of the Taliban, even though he claimed during interrogations that he was only a peripheral figure. It’s also important to note, however, that the decision to release him outright was taken not by the US authorities, but by their Afghan counterparts. Like all the Afghan prisoners released from Guantánamo since August 2007, Rasoul was not freed on his return to Afghanistan, but was imprisoned in a wing of Kabul’s Pol-i-Charki prison (refurbished by the US authorities under an arrangement that has never been adequately explained) until the Afghan authorities decided to release him.

Perhaps, under different circumstances, he would have been held by the US as a prisoner of war in accordance with the Geneva Conventions (and we would now be debating how long the US intends to remain at war in a country that has had its own elected government since October 2004), but as it stands, of course, Guantánamo was never a prisoner of war camp, and was, instead, a place outside the law, where everyone — whether a terrorist, a soldier for the Taliban or a civilian seized by mistake — was held without rights and treated abominably.

For articles examining other mistakes made by the US authorities in releasing prisoners — and other examples of blatant propaganda on the part of the Pentagon — see If the US administration had behaved intelligently, ex-Guantánamo inmate who blew himself up would never have been released and Identification of ex-Guantánamo suicide bomber unleashes Pentagon propaganda.

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.

Andy Worthington on Antiwar Radio: the Guantánamo film, Binyam Mohamed, Ali al-Marri and the definitive prisoner list

On Monday I had the pleasure of being interviewed — for the seventh time! — by the ever enthusiastic and ever indignant Scott Horton for Antiwar Radio — and the MP3 is here. We began by talking about my forthcoming documentary, which has the working title of “Outside the Law: The Story of Guantánamo,” and went on to discuss the return from Guantánamo of British resident and torture victim Binyam Mohamed, and, in particular, the accumulation of evidence confirming that the British government has been heavily involved in obtaining information through the use of torture.

We also discussed the case of Ali al-Marri, an American resident held as an “enemy combatant” for nearly six years in horrendous isolation, the Obama administration’s correct decision to transfer him into the federal court system, but the outstanding problem, which I discussed in my recent article, Why The US Under Obama Is Still A Dictatorship, that, by refusing to allow a pending Supreme Court review of al-Marri’s case to proceed, the new administration has kept open a loophole — in a lower court ruling relating to another US “enemy combatant,” Jose Padilla — concluding that the President can, if he wishes, hold any American as an “enemy combatant” without charge or trial. We also discussed “The Ratchet Effect,” whereby abuses of power enacted by governments are never fully reversed by subsequent administrations, and the importance of the Supreme Court in enforcing constitutional values in the “War on Terror.”

Scott also gave me the opportunity to publicize my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published last week, which provides links to the stories of around 400 prisoners, and references to where other stories can be found in my book The Guantánamo Files. This led to a discussion of how, even though over two-thirds of the prisoners have been released, they remain branded as “enemy combatants,” and another discussion about the reliability of the police and the intelligence services (with a particular focus on how, in the “War on Terror,” we’re encouraged, incredibly, to believe that the intelligence services are infallible), and I was also able to point out how important it is to establish the truth about the prisoners now that the Obama administration is actually conducting a detailed review of the prisoners’ cases, and how critical it is for people to know that, according to intelligence estimates established over the years, only 35 to 50 of the remaining 241 prisoners have any meaningful connection to al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

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.

Forgotten in Guantánamo: British resident Shaker Aamer

For three and a half years, since an account was first made public detailing the suffering of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident and a victim of “extraordinary rendition” and particularly brutal torture, he was one of the better-publicized prisoners held in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

There have, in that time, been other compelling stories, of prisoners, who, like Binyam, eventually secured their release from the notorious prison that was initially designed to hold them outside the law for the rest of their lives. They include other British residents: Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil El-Banna, for example, who were seized by the CIA on a business trip to the Gambia, after disturbing intervention by the British intelligence services, and Omar Deghayes, seized from a villa in Lahore with his wife and six-month old son, whose supporters in Brighton mounted an extraordinary campaign for his release. Others include two particular Sudanese prisoners: Adel Hassan Hamad, a hospital administrator whose lawyers and supporters mounted an impressive campaign that included a website and a YouTube video, and Sami al-Haj, a cameraman for al-Jazeera, who became a cause célèbre in the Middle East.

Unlike these prisoners, the stories of the majority of the other 278 men released in the last three and a half years are largely unknown, and the same is true of most of the 241 men who are still held, with the exception of a number of cleared prisoners (principally the Uighurs, Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province), and a number of other prisoners — including two former juveniles, Omar Khadr and Mohamed Jawad, and five men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks — who were put forward for trial by Military Commission.

Spotlight on Shaker Aamer

However, while I urge readers to examine the stories of the remaining prisoners — and a good starting point is the definitive prisoner list that I published last week, which features links to the men’s stories online and references to other stories in my book The Guantánamo Files — it’s clear that, with Binyam’s release, the spotlight, in Britain at least, must now be focused unerringly on the last British resident in Guantánamo, Shaker Aamer, a man so bright, so articulate, so charismatic and so passionately opposed to injustice that the authorities at Guantánamo named him “The Professor.” This sounds like a mark of respect, but, despite the fact that Shaker had no involvement whatsoever with terrorism, and was one of hundreds of Guantánamo prisoners who were sold to US forces for a bounty payment, his eloquence and influence unnerved the authorities at Guantánamo to such an extent that they mistakenly concluded that he was a leader of al-Qaeda.

Shaker’s resistance to injustice began long before his capture by US forces. Arriving in the UK from Saudi Arabia in 1996, he was granted leave to remain, and soon met and married a British woman, with whom he has four children (although he has never seen his youngest child, who was born after he was seized). Pursuing his passion for justice, he volunteered with a law firm as a translator, helping to advise other immigrants of their rights, but in 2000, after hearing about the opportunities for practical humanitarian aid in Afghanistan that were available through a Saudi-funded children’s charity, he and his friend Moazzam Begg, whom he had met in 1997, decided to travel with their families to Kabul to establish a girl’s school, and also to pursue a number of well-digging projects that they had funded separately.

In an interview for the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by myself and Polly Nash, and released in October 2009), Moazzam explained to me that, although the Taliban had been “shunned by the rest of the world, there was at that time a drive, within certain sections of the Muslim community, not to shun the country but to inject it with support to help it, to bring it up to the standards of the rest of the world.”

The men’s compassionate adventure was, however, short-lived. They arrived in Kabul in the summer of 2001, and within a few months the 9/11 attacks took place. Unsure of what would happen next, they waited until the US-led invasion began before fleeing the country. As Shaker’s wife explained to the Independent in 2007:

The bombs were falling every night and we had to leave the city to stay in a village. The children were terrified and kept telling us to be quiet in case our noise made the bombs come. Shaker was frightened too and I can remember his face now, it was almost as pale as the colour of the cream suit he was wearing. Shaker left the village to find a safer place for us. But in the middle of the night the villagers told us we had to go with a group travelling to the safety of Pakistan. I was pregnant with our fourth child and we were all scared. In the end, I just went. I didn’t see Shaker again. Sometimes I regret that decision. What if I stayed — would we all be together now?

The answer to that question is, of course, unknown, but what is certain is that, having been separated from his family, Shaker soon fell prey to Afghan bounty hunters, taking advantage of the rewards, averaging $5000 a head, that were offered by US forces for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects,” who seized him and sold him to a group of Afghan soldiers, who in turn sold him to US forces.

A notorious US PsyOps leaflet offering Afghan and Pakistani villagers money for life in exchange for handing over “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.”

“If no justice is offered then I will resist”

Once in US custody, in the brutal and rudimentary US prison at Kandahar airport, which was used to process prisoners for Guantánamo, Shaker’s command of English not only unnerved the US authorities; it also made him an invaluable bridge between the prisoners and their captors, as so few of the prisoners spoke any English. It was also in Kandahar that Shaker’s passionate sense of justice and fair play was immediately outraged by the prisoners’ treatment. As Moazzam explained to me:

When I was first taken into Kandahar, Shaker had been there a few weeks before I was, and he’d been in the first group of people that was sent to Guantánamo. And having spoken to interrogators there who’d asked me about him, first of all they were very impressed by his behaviour, his attitude, his willingness to speak to them, to try to explain things to them, and yet they were also worried about his character, in that, if no justice is offered then I will resist. And part of his resistance began, I think, at that time in Kandahar, which included a hunger strike … and not just a hunger strike, but also telling other people, “We can’t accept this type of behaviour with us. We’re human beings and we need to be treated like human beings.”

Shaker’s resistance to injustice continued in Guantánamo, of course, where, for three and a half years, he spoke up incessantly on behalf of his fellow prisoners.  In 2004-05, after a Supreme Court ruling had granted the prisoners the right to file habeas corpus petitions asking why they were being held, he helped a number of prisoners with their petitions by designating himself as their “next friend,” which authorized him to file suits on their behalf. In an affidavit filed in a court in Washington D.C., he wrote, “I am their close friend as a result of being placed with them in Guantánamo. And I know they want me to act on their behalf as their next friend.”

In August 2005, he was briefly part of a six-man Prisoners’ Council that was allowed — over the course of a few weeks — to meet to discuss how to end a hunger strike that involved around 200 prisoners, but when the Council was brought to an abrupt end by the authorities, apparently because Shaker in particular had been agitating for their right to have a fair trial or to be released, they were so worried about what they regarded as the influence that he wielded over the other prisoners that they moved him to Camp Echo, a state-of-the-art isolation block in which the technology is so refined that prisoners have almost no contact with any other human being, where he was held in solitary confinement for at least 18 months until he was moved to Camp 3 — for prisoners regarded as having significant intelligence value, or, like Shaker, significant leadership qualities — where he is still held.

Some indication of the authorities’ fear of Shaker can be gleaned from the fact that, while he was held in solitary confinement, two other members of the Council were released from Guantánamo. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s representative in Pakistan, was released in September 2005, and Ala Muhammad Salim, an Egyptian cleric and one of eight freed prisoners that the Pentagon refused to repatriate because of fears that they would be tortured in their home countries, was released to Albania in December 2006.

The other three men who are still held are: Sabir Lahmar, a Bosnian of Algerian origin, and an Islamic scholar, who remains at Guantánamo even though three of his compatriots were released three months ago, after their habeas corpus case was reviewed in a US court, and the judge found that the government had failed to establish a case against him and four other Bosnian prisoners; Adel Ali Fattough El-Gazzar, a former officer in the Egyptian army, who has been cleared for release; and Ghassan al-Sharbi, a Saudi who was scheduled to face a trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo until Barack Obama called a four-month halt to the Commissions on his first day in office, to facilitate a review of the much-criticized trial system.

Further evidence of the authorities’ disproportionate fear of Shaker can be gleaned from the fact that, although Col. Mike Bumgarner, the warden of Guantánamo who initiated the Prisoners’ Council, had initially been in awe of him, noting that, on a tour of the cell blocks when Shaker almost single-handedly called an end to the hunger strike, “I have never seen grown men — with beards, hardened men — crying at the sight of another man,” and adding, “It was like I was with Bon Jovi,” he never spoke to him again after the Council’s activities were abruptly curtailed, and Shaker was sent to Camp Echo. This was in marked contrast to Col. Bumgarner’s attitude to al-Sharbi, a self-confessed member of al-Qaeda (one of the few in Guantánamo), who had been captured with Abu Zubaydah, a training camp facilitator — and alleged senior al-Qaeda operative — in a house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan, with whom he maintained an unlikely friendship.

Long-term isolation as a form of torture

The chronic isolation to which Shaker was subjected — amongst the longest endured by any prisoner in Guantánamo — was, of course, demonstrably cruel and inhuman. This was recognized in December 2002 by Defense Department lawyers, when the use of isolation was approved by Donald Rumsfeld for implementation at Guantánamo as part of a package of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (PDF). At the time of Rumsfeld’s memo, the lawyers, drawing on advice issued by the CIA in a definitive manual in the 1960s, warned that isolation was “not known to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days.”

In spite of this, and in spite of high-level opposition to the implementation of all the techniques, which also included forced nudity, sensory deprivation, hooding, 20-hour interrogations, the use of stress positions, forced grooming (shaving of the head and beard), and playing on prisoners’ phobias, such as a fear of dogs, it’s clear that prisoners were routinely subjected to isolation as punishment — often in cells where the air conditioning was either turned up full, so that they were freezing cold, or turned off completely, so that they had difficulty breathing — for periods in excess of a month, and that isolation is still a key component of the regime at Guantánamo, despite a change of administration.

As was reported by Murat Kurnaz, the German prisoner released in August 2006, in his book Five Years of My Life, isolation as punishment often pushed prisoners to the brink of suffocation, but when their time came to an end they were at least reunited with their fellow prisoners. For Shaker, held for so much longer, and deprived of even the barest crumbs of human comfort, the effect was far more harrowing. When Clive Stafford Smith, his lawyer, saw him in 2007, he declared that he was clearly suffering from psychosis, and one of the reasons that his story then slipped off the radar was because he appeared to have become so paranoid and withdrawn that he refused to engage with his lawyers, and therefore had almost no contact with the outside world.

To make matters worse, Shaker, who weighed 17 stone before his capture, has also spent much of the last three and a half years on a hunger strike, and at one point weighed only eight and half stone. Embarking on a hunger strike at Guantánamo is a gruesome process, which involves being strapped into a restraint chair and force-fed twice a day through a tube inserted into the stomach through the nose, but as long ago as November 2005, Shaker appealed for his right to die by starving himself, seeing no other way in which to protest the conditions in which he and his fellow prisoners were held, “I am dying here every day, mentally and physically,” he wrote. “This is happening to all of us. We have been ignored, locked up in the middle of the ocean for years. Rather than humiliate myself, having to beg for water, I would rather hurry up the process that is going to happen anyway … I want to make it easy on everyone. I want no feeding, no forced tubes, no ‘help,’ no ‘intensive assisted feeding,’ This is my legal right.”

Why is Shaker still at Guantánamo?

There is no good reason why Shaker is still held, beyond the fact that he long ago carved out a niche for himself as a particularly significant prisoner because of his eloquence, his command of the English language and his resistance to injustice. The US authorities have made feeble attempts to implicate him in terrorist activities, but have never substantiated any of them. In August 2007, for example, shortly after the British government requested the return of five British residents, including Shaker, Sandra Hodgkinson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs in the Pentagon, responded by conjuring up allegations that had never surfaced before, including a claim that Shaker “lived on stipends in Afghanistan paid by [Osama] bin Laden.” As Moazzam explained in response, “I find that really funny because we used to live together in the same house … I know he didn’t have any stipends from anybody.”

What makes his continued detention particularly galling is that he has, officially, been cleared for release from Guantánamo by the authorities, as part of a series of annual reviews designed to ascertain who is still regarded as dangerous and/or of ongoing intelligence value, and who can be released. On this basis, he should have been on the plane that flew Binyam Mohamed back from Guantánamo on February 23, but he was not. Compounding this lingering injustice — and demonstrating that, when it comes to releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, the whims of the Bush administration are still in effect — the Independent reported that a party of Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials, who visited Binyam at Guantánamo before his release, also had “limited contact” with Shaker, and that a spokesman for the FCO explained that “the Americans had told the British Government that they still had security concerns about Mr. Aamer and would not release him.”

It is, surely, time for this long travesty of justice — which has appalled Shaker Aamer to the core of his being and has driven him to the edge of his sanity — to come to an end.

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 Cageprisoners.

To write letters to the British government requesting Shaker’s immediate return, please see the following Cageprisoners action sheet.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the hunger strikes at Guantánamo, see Shaker Aamer, A South London Man in Guantánamo: The Children Speak (July 2007), Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that he will die (September 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo (October 2007), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth? (October 2007), Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo (Yousef al-Shehri and Murtadha Makram) (November 2007), A letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj) (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest Guantánamo charges (June 2008), Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo (June 2008), Guantánamo Suicide Report: Truth or Travesty? (August 2008), Seven Years Of Guantánamo, And A Call For Justice At Bagram (January 2009), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), Obama’s “Humane” Guantánamo Is A Bitter Joke (February 2009), Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent Home (March 2009). Also see the following online chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 2 (Ahmed Kuman, Mohammed Haidel), Website Extras 3 (Abdullah al-Yafi, Abdul Rahman Shalabi), Website Extras 4 (Bakri al-Samiri, Murtadha Makram), Website Extras 5 (Ali Mohsen Salih, Ali Yahya al-Raimi, Abu Bakr Alahdal, Tarek Baada, Abdul al-Razzaq Salih).

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), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 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). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

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), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

Why The US Under Obama Is Still A Dictatorship

Two weeks ago, when the Obama administration announced that it was bringing to an end the disturbing isolation endured by Ali al-Marri, a US resident who has been held without charge or trial for seven years and two months — and who, most worryingly, has spent the last five years and nine months as an “enemy combatant” in solitary confinement in the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina — it was clear that one of the Bush administration’s most arrogant and un-American policies was coming to an end.

President Obama clearly regarded al-Marri’s imprisonment as significant, as he issued a Presidential memorandum on his second day in office ordering the Justice Department to review the Qatari national’s case, and the announcement that al-Marri was to be moved out of his seemingly endless legal limbo and into the federal court system demonstrated that, in this specific case at least, the President was sticking to his word.

However, what worried al-Marri’s lawyers — and those, like myself, who have been following his case closely — was that the President’s decision would also bring to an end al-Marri’s pending Supreme Court challenge, in which the nation’s most powerful judges were scheduled to review whether or not the President — any President, not just a member of the Bush family — had the right to designate as an “enemy combatant” any American, whether a citizen or a resident, and to imprison them indefinitely without charge or trial.

This was not merely an academic exercise. When al-Marri’s case was reviewed by the 4th Circuit Appeal Court last July, a majority of the judges decided that the President was indeed entitled to subject Americans to arbitrary imprisonment, despite the complaints of the dissenting judges, led by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, who argued that, if the ruling were allowed to stand, it “would effectively undermine all of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”

The 4th Circuit majority also ignored the complaints of al-Marri’s lawyers, even though they were clearly more aware of the restraints on executive power that had been enforced by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks than most of the judges. In a brief to the court, the lawyers pointed out that the President lacked the legal authority to designate and hold al-Marri as an “enemy combatant” for two particular reasons: firstly, because the Constitution “prohibits the military imprisonment of civilians arrested in the United States and outside an active battlefield,” and secondly, because, although a district court had previously held that the President was authorized to detain al-Marri under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (the September 2001 law authorizing the President to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those involved in any way with the 9/11 attacks), Congress explicitly prohibited “the indefinite detention without charge of suspected alien terrorists in the United States” in the Patriot Act, which followed five weeks later.

When the Obama administration announced its decision to move al-Marri to the federal court system, Justice Department officials also asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the pending case as “moot,” and on Friday the justices agreed, although, to their great credit, they also made a point of overruling (“vacating”) the horrendous decision made by the 4th Circuit Appeals Court last summer.

As a result, you may be thinking that the President no longer has the power to hold Americans without charge or trial as “enemy combatants,” but if this is the case then you may be — and should be — dismayed to learn that a previous ruling to this effect still stands, which was not addressed by the Supreme Court, and which has not been addressed by the Obama administration either.

In February 2005, in the case of Jose Padilla, an American citizen who was also held in prolonged solitary confinement as an “enemy combatant,” District Court Judge Henry F. Floyd ruled against the government, and ordered Padilla’s release. Noting that the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus “belongs solely to Congress” under the Constitution, Judge Floyd declared, “Since Congress has not acted to suspend the writ, and neither the President nor this Court have the authority to do so,” Padilla had to be released. “It is true,” he added, “that there may be times during which it is necessary to give the Executive Branch greater power than at other times. Such a granting of power, however, is in the province of the legislature and no one else — not the Court and not the President … Simply stated, this is a law enforcement matter, not a military matter.” Echoing the decision taken by President Obama’s Justice Department in the case of Ali al-Marri, Judge Floyd added that the government could avoid releasing Padilla if it filed criminal charges against him, or acted to hold him as “a material witness.”

However, Judge Floyd’s ruling only stood for seven months. On September 9, 2005, three 4th Circuit judges — J. Michael Luttig, M. Blane Michael and William B. Traxler Jr. — overturned it (PDF), based on their belief (contested by Padilla’s lawyers, and also, as noted above, by al-Marri’s) that Congress had granted these sweeping and otherwise unconstitutional powers to the President as part of his wartime prerogative under the Authorization for Use of Military Force.

As with al-Marri, this ruling was never tested in the Supreme Court. Just before a review was scheduled to begin, the Bush administration got cold feet, and moved Padilla into the federal court system, where, in August 2007, he was convicted of providing material support for terrorism in a lop-sided trial — in which all mention of his long years of torture in solitary confinement were excluded by the judge — and, in January 2008, received a sentence of 17 years and three months.

In many ways, of course, history is repeating itself with al-Marri, even though the man at the top has changed, but what is most worrying is that the Padilla ruling still stands. Without the Supreme Court being given the opportunity to rule decisively on this question, what is needed is a clear repudiation of the policy by the Obama administration.

Instead, the Justice Department explained, in a brief filed with the Supreme Court last Wednesday, that, while the government “did not defend its power to detain Mr. Marri at present” (as Glenn Greenwald described it for Salon), “it left open the possibility that he or others might be subject to military detention as enemy combatants in the future.” In the Justice Department’s exact words, “Any future detention — were that hypothetical possibility ever to occur — would require new consideration under then-existing circumstances and procedure.”

It’s one thing, I suppose, to keep your options open, but quite another to defend the indefensible. Instead of fudging, in anticipation of future emergencies, President Obama and Attorney General Holder need to spell our clearly that no President will ever again imprison Americans as terror suspects beyond the law. Otherwise, Barack Obama’s fine words, in August 2007, when he declared, “We will again set an example to the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary,” will be meaningless, and Judge Rogers’ opinion — that the very constitutional foundations of the Republic had been fatally undermined — will be as applicable to the Obama administration as it was to that of George W. Bush.

Note: The photo at the top of the article, which was taken recently, is the first photo of an “enemy combatant” that the US administration has allowed to be released publicly. Taken by a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, it was released to al-Marri’s family, and was then published in the New Yorker. Jane Mayer noted that a source had indicated that “This change in policy regarding the release of detainee photos may soon extend to Guantánamo.”

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.

For a sequence of articles on Ali al-Marri’s case, see The Ordeal of Ali al-Marri (June 2007), The torture of Ali al-Marri, the last “enemy combatant” on the US mainland (November 2007), Court Confirms President’s Dictatorial Powers in Case of US “Enemy Combatant” Ali al-Marri (July 2008), The Last US Enemy Combatant: The Shocking Story of Ali al-Marri (December 2008), Ending The Cruel Isolation Of Ali al-Marri, The Last US “Enemy Combatant” (March 2009), Dictatorial Powers Unchallenged As US “Enemy Combatant” Pleads Guilty (May 2009).

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

Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story

In his first interview since his release from Guantánamo, British resident and torture victim Binyam Mohamed has reinforced all the horrendous claims made about his treatment since he was first seized in Pakistan in April 2002 — in particular, his torture in Pakistani custody (supervised by US agents), and his torture in Morocco and at the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Kabul — in a wide-ranging discussion with David Rose for the Mail on Sunday.

Most worryingly for the British government, he has also revealed more of the British role in his interrogations by the Americans’ proxy torturers in Morocco than has previously been publicly available, which will only add to the pressure on the government to explain its role in actively gathering intelligence obtained through torture, rather than hiding behind blanket statements that “We never condone or authorize the use of torture.”

In the wake of his lawyers’ long struggle to secure the facts about Binyam’s case, this is a claim that looks increasingly evasive and untenable, especially in light of more recent revelations that the British intelligence services regularly feed questions to Pakistani interrogators, in the cases of British suspects seized in Pakistan, even though they are aware that the Pakistani authorities use torture, and also with reference to comments made last week by Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan.

In an appeal on his website for supporters to write to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, urging the members to hear his evidence on the UK government’s policy of using intelligence gained through the use of torture, Murray wrote, “I can testify that beyond any doubt the British government has for at least six years [had] a considered but secret policy of cooperation with torture abroad,” and that, at an FCO meeting in March 2003, “I was told … that it is not illegal for us to obtain intelligence gained by torture, provided that we did not do the torture ourselves. I was told that it had been decided that as a matter of War on Terror policy we should now obtain intelligence from torture, following discussion between Jack Straw and Richard Dearlove” (the head of MI6).

The background to Binyam’s story

Over the years, the outline of Binyam’s story before he made his ill-fated trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan has been available, but has never been provided in much detail. Speaking to David Rose, Binyam gave the most comprehensive account to date, explaining how, in 1992, when he was just 14, his father, a senior executive with the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, fled to the United States with his three children after the dictator Haile Mengistu was overthrown and his colleagues were being arrested. The family settled in a suburb of Washington D.C., but Binyam was subjected to racist bullying at school, and so, after around two years, his father decided to see if the UK would be a better home for him. “I didn’t like the US at all,” Binyam said. “It just didn’t feel right for me to be there and I wanted to get out.”

Binyam and his father arrived in London in the spring of 1994, but after a week, when they stayed in a hotel, his father returned to the States, leaving him to fend for himself. After being housed in a hostel by Social Services, he was placed in a housing association flat, applied for asylum — and was given leave to remain — and enrolled at Paddington Green sixth-form college, where he passed an A-level in electronic engineering, and then began studying at the City of Westminster College.

His troubles began in the summer of 1996, when, he was persuaded to smoke some cannabis at the Notting Hill Carnival. Within two years, he said, he was smoking heroin and, on occasion, crack cocaine. “Often I didn’t even bother to go to college,” he said. “I was surrounded by people who were doing the same thing. I was also drinking a lot. Finally, I dropped out.”

In 1999, Binyam began trying to kick his habit. Kick-boxing was a start, and, as David Rose noted, “if he was searching for a father figure, he seems to have found it in his kick-boxing instructor, of whom he still speaks reverentially.” Binyam explained, “I had to get fit again, and I started using my money to buy food again, not heroin.” He also began wondering if some help could be found through his mother’s religion, Islam, and, by the summer of 2000, was working as a janitor at an Islamic Cultural Centre. As Rose described it, he “began to spend as much time there as he could, often staying the night — largely in order to avoid his old drug-abusing friends who still clustered around his apartment.”

At the Centre, he met someone who told him about Malcolm X, and explained that he had only understood Islam properly when he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. This person then suggested that Binyam should travel to Afghanistan, to see the “pure” form of Islam implemented by the Taliban. Rose asked him how much he knew about the Taliban. “Minus one,” came the reply. “I really had no idea what it was.”

Afghanistan

In May 2001, he flew to Islamabad, using money he had saved. As he didn’t have a passport (his Ethiopian passport had expired, and, as an asylum seeker, he didn’t have a British one), he borrowed a British passport from a friend and changed the photo. From Islamabad, he crossed the porous border into Afghanistan in a truck. “No one looked at my documents,” he said. “I just kept down.”

He insisted, however, that he travelled not to fight, but to provide humanitarian assistance, and explained that, in London, he had, as Rose described it, “been moved and appalled by watching TV news stories about the plight of civilians caught in Russia’s second war against Chechnya, where thousands, mainly Muslims, had been killed and tortured.” “To me, the Chechens were the freedom fighters and the Russians were the oppressors,” he said. “It was the sight of the women and the kids being killed: innocent lives being lost for no reason. I wanted to go there to do what I could — not for fighting, but as an aid and rescue worker.”

On arriving in Afghanistan, Binyam said that he found people with connections to the Chechen resistance in a guest house in Jalalabad. “I was told,” he said, “that the Russians don’t separate between aid workers and those doing the fighting, and that if I wanted to go to Chechnya, I needed basic training. I was so young, I didn’t question it. I didn’t expect to fire a gun except in training, let alone kill someone. I would never have taken up arms against British or American soldiers, let alone attacked civilians. I wanted to protect civilians, not kill them.”

Persuaded to attend a training camp, like many others who travelled to Afghanistan through an ill-defined desire to help the Chechen resistance (and who also ended up in Guantánamo), Binyam said that he was there for 45 days, but, as Rose put it, “Much of the time … was spent sitting around doing nothing,” and that he “learnt nothing that could be construed as terrorist training: there were no lessons on bomb-making, for example.”

Afterwards, he said, he went to Kabul, where he was struck down by malaria and hospitalized. It was while he was in the hospital that he learned of the 9/11 attacks, which prompted him to try to leave the country. “All I wanted to do,” he said, “was to get back to London, to the country that I thought of as home, to continue my education and find a job; to get back to my life, minus the drugs.” As Rose explained, he was then “swept up in the tide of refugees,” fleeing from city to city until he managed to cross the border into Pakistan, where he made his way to Karachi in the hope of returning home. In the heightened paranoia of the time, however, he was turned back by officials as he tried to board a flight on April 3, because his passport “looked wrong,” and a week later, when he tried again, was detained by the authorities and taken to Landi prison.

Pakistan: the nightmare begins, and the British become involved

This was when his nightmare began. After two weeks, an American agent, who identified himself as “Chuck,” and who said that he worked for the FBI, visited him. As previously noted, this was when Binyam asked for a lawyer, but was told, “The law’s changed. There are no lawyers. Either you’re going to answer me the easy way or I get the information I need another way.” It was also at this time that he made what turned out to be his most grievous error, when, as Rose put it, he “mentioned that while he was in Pakistan he had seen a website with spoof instructions for building a nuclear device — instructions that included advice to refine bomb-grade uranium by whirling a bucket round one’s head,” unaware that the US intelligence agencies were “obsessed” with claims that al-Qaeda had acquired a nuclear device. “I mentioned the website to Chuck,” Binyam said, adding, “It was obviously a joke: it never crossed my mind that anyone would take it seriously. But that’s when he started getting all excited. Towards the end of April he began telling me about this A-bomb I was supposed to be building, and he started on about Osama Bin Laden and his top lieutenants, showing me pictures and making out I must have known them. He started asking me about operations and what type I had been trained for.”

As the joke turned into a plot that would lead Binyam to torture chambers in Morocco and Afghanistan, Binyam’s treatment between interrogations — at the hands of the Pakistani authorities — got worse. “For at least ten days,” he said, “I was deprived of sleep. Sometimes the Pakistanis chained me from the top of the gate to the cell by my wrists from the end of one interrogation to the start of the next for about 22 hours. If I shouted, sometimes I would be allowed to use a toilet. Other times, they wouldn’t let me go and I would piss myself. They had a thick wooden stick, like a kind of paddle, which they used to beat me while I was chained. They’d beat me for a few minutes, then stop, then start again. They also carried out a mock execution. A guard put a gun to my head and said he was going to pull the trigger. They were saying, ‘This is what the Americans want us to do.’”

As Rose explained, “Details of the abuse Mohamed underwent in Pakistan are contained in the ‘redacted’ section of the British High Court judgment on his case that Foreign Secretary David Miliband is refusing to release, claiming that to do so would damage the intelligence-sharing relationship with America. As the court has made clear in the open section of its judgment, when an MI5 officer known as ‘John’ went to interrogate Mohamed on May 17, 2002, he was made fully aware of what had been happening.”

Binyam elaborated. “John was a white male, 30, with short black hair and a goatee,” he said. “He was about 5ft 10in and stocky. There was another guy with him, about the same size with a full, dark beard. I don’t know if he was British or American. The Americans had already been threatening to send me somewhere where I would be tortured far worse, like Jordan or Egypt.” He then added an anecdote about British knowledge of his forthcoming rendition that has been reported before. “I was given a cup of tea and asked for one sugar,” he said. “The other guy told me, ‘You’ll need more than one sugar where you’re going.’”

He continued, “They asked me about the A-bomb website and I told them it was a joke. They wanted to know everything about my life in the UK and I gave them all the information I had. Later I realized that was part of my undoing: I told them the area I lived in had 10,000 Moroccans and was known as Little Morocco. The feedback I got later from the Americans was that because the Brits told them I had lived in a Moroccan area, they thought Moroccans would be more likely to make me talk. At the same time, they thought I must know something about what Moroccans were up to in London.”

After pointing out that a Moroccan interrogator later specifically told him, “Do you know who sent you here? The British sent you here,” Rose discussed an MI5 memo, disclosed to Binyam via the American courts, which, as Rose indicated, “suggests the British saw themselves as central to his interrogation.”

The memo stated, “We believe that our knowledge of the UK scene may provide contextual background useful during any continuing interview process. This may enable individual officers to identify any inconsistencies during discussions. This will place the detainee under more direct pressure and would seem to be the most effective way of obtaining intelligence on Mohammed’s [sic] activities/plans concerning the UK.” This was in spite of the fact that MI5 saw “inconsistencies” in Binyam’s account of the “dirty bomb” plot, and that “John” had also recorded Binyam’s statement that the website he had seen was “a joke.”

As Rose put it, “MI5 concluded that Mohamed and another prisoner being interrogated were ‘lying to protect themselves’ and ‘evidently holding back,’” and, as a result, “Day after day, MI5 kept the Americans supplied with questions and information.” As Binyam explained, “John told me that if I co-operated he’d tell the Americans to be more lenient with my treatment.”

In another confidential memo, Rose explained, “John” wrote, “I told Mohammed [sic] that he had an opportunity to help us and help himself. The US authorities will be deciding what to do with him and this would depend to a very large degree on his co-operation — I said that I could not and would not negotiate up-front, but if he persuaded me he was co-operating fully then (and only then) I would explore what could be done for him with my US colleagues.” As Rose went on to note, “John” clearly felt Binyam “wasn’t co-operating enough,” and the memo concluded, “While he appeared happy to answer any questions, he was holding back a great deal of information on who and what he knew in the UK and in Afghanistan.”

Morocco: 18 months of torture, and more British collusion

Abandoned by the British government, Binyam was then subjected to “extraordinary rendition,” and, as flight logs confirm, was flown from Islamabad to Rabat, Morocco on July 21, 2002. What happened next — 18 months of torture at the hands of the American’s proxy torturers in Morocco, who regularly cut his penis with a razor blade — has already been documented in excruciating detail, when the notes that Clive Stafford Smith compiled during a three-day interview with Binyam at Guantánamo in early 2005 were passed by the Pentagon’s military censors and published in the Guardian in August 2005. As Rose described it, Binyam did not want to talk about his experiences. “Shuddering,” he wrote, “he says the details of what he endured in Morocco are such that he cannot bring himself to relate them again.”

However, drawing on the documents disclosed to Binyam during his US court case, Rose was able to add new details of MI5’s involvement with his interrogations, which is even more shocking than the British intelligence services’ complicity in his treatment in Pakistan. The outline of this story is not new, as Binyam has explained it before, and it was something that, after his judicial review in the UK High Court last summer, the judges — Lord Justice Thomas and Mr. Justice Lloyd Jones — regarded as providing conclusive evidence that the relationship of the British intelligence services to their American counterparts “went far beyond that of a bystander or witness to the alleged wrongdoing,” but it has never been revealed in such detail in public before.

Rose noted that a document from late September 2002 explained, “The Service received a report from the US of an interview of Mr. Mohamed,” and that soon after, on September 30, “MI5 held a case conference about him with their American colleagues at MI5’s London headquarters.” This was followed, on November 5, by what Rose called “the strongest evidence to emerge of British collusion in Mohamed’s illegal ‘rendition’ and torture, in the form of a telegram from MI5 to the CIA.”

Entitled, “Request for further Detainee questioning,” the telegram stated, “This information has been communicated in confidence to the recipient government and shall not be released without the agreement of the British government. We would be grateful if the following can be passed to Binyam Mohamed.” Although much of the subsequent message was redacted, Rose explained that it included a request for his interrogators to “show him and ask him questions about a ‘photobook recently sent over,’” and added, “We would be grateful if the following could be put to Binyam Mohamed, in addition to the questioning above. Does Mohamed know [two lines redacted]? What was the man’s name? How does Mohamed know him? Can Mohamed describe him? Where did they meet? Where was the man from? Who facilitated his travel from the UK? Where did this man go? What were his intentions? We would appreciate the opportunity to pose further questions, dependent on answers given to the above.”

Six days later, on November 11, a telegram entitled, “update request,” which was otherwise heavily redacted, stated, “We note that we have also requested that briefs be put to Binyam Mohamed and would appreciate a guide from you as to the likely timescale for these too. We fully appreciate that this can be a long-winded process, but the urgent nature of these enquiries will be obvious to you.”

In his interview with Rose, Binyam said that he remembered “very clearly” when information fed to his torturers by MI5 first appeared. “They started bringing British files to the interrogations — thick binders, some of them containing sheaves of photos of people who lived in London and places there like mosques,” he explained. “It was obvious the British were feeding them questions about people in London. When I realized that the British were co-operating with the people torturing me, I felt completely naked. It was when they started asking the questions supplied by the British that my situation worsened. They sold me out.”

Understandably unable to resist the effects of the torture, Binyam proceeded to confess to whatever wild theories were put to him by his torturers. “They had fed me enough through their questions for me to make up what they wanted to hear,” he said. “I confessed to it all. There was the plot to build a dirty nuclear bomb, and another to blow up apartments in New York with their gas pipes.” As Rose noted, “This — supposedly the brainchild of the 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — always sounded improbable: it was never quite clear how gas pipes might become weapons.”

Binyam added, “I said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had given me a false passport after I was stopped the first time in Karachi and that I had met Osama bin Laden 30 times. None of it was true. The British could have stopped the torture because they knew I had tried to use the same passport at Karachi both times. That should have told them that what I was saying under torture wasn’t true. But so far as I know, they did nothing.”

The “Dark Prison”

In January 2004, as has long been established, Binyam was rendered to Afghanistan, to the CIA’s “Dark Prison” near Kabul, where dozens of prisoners who ended up in Guantánamo — and countless more, whose whereabouts are still unknown — were subjected to the fruits of the Bush administration’s decision to bring torture “in-house,” which officially began just after Binyam had been rendered to Morocco, when the notorious “Torture Memos” were issued, which purported to redefine torture so that the government could do without the services of proxy torturers like the Moroccans who had brutalized Binyam for 18 months.

Binyam explained that, on arrival at Kabul, the US agents he met there “responded with horror” to his injuries. “When I got to Kabul,” he said, “a female agent started taking close-up pictures of my genitals. She was shocked. When they removed my diaper she could see blood was still oozing from the cuts on my penis. For the first two weeks they had me on antibiotics and they took pictures of my genitals every day. They told me, ‘This is not for us. It’s for Washington.’ They wanted to be sure it was healing.”

Speaking of the five months that he spent in the “Dark Prison,” which I have previously described as a medieval torture dungeon with the addition of ear-splittingly loud music and noise, which was pumped into the cells 24 hours a day, Binyam stated that these were the worst days of his captivity.

“That was when I came close to insanity,” he said. “It seems like a miracle my brain is still intact.” After confirming that all of the prisoners’ time was spent in pitch darkness, except for during interrogations, and when the guards brought food by torchlight, he said, “The toilet in the cell was a bucket. Without light, you either find the bucket or you go on your bed.”

He added, “There were loudspeakers in the cell, pumping out what felt like about 160 watts, a deafening volume, non-stop, 24 hours a day. They played the same CD for a month, The Eminem Show. It’s got about 20 songs on it and when it was finished it went back to the beginning and started again. While that was happening, a lot of the time, for hour after hour, they had me shackled. Sometimes it was in a standing position, with my wrists chained to the top of the door frame. Sometimes they were chained in the middle, at waist level, and sometimes they were chained at the bottom, on the floor. The longest was when they chained me for eight days on end, in a position that meant I couldn’t stand straight nor sit. I couldn’t sleep. I had no idea whether it was day or night. You got a shower once a week, with your arms chained above you, stripped naked, in the dark, with someone else washing you. The water was salty and afterwards you felt dirtier than when you went in. It wasn’t a shower for washing: it was for humiliation.”

He also said that the food was dirty, so that he was often sick and “The weight just dropped off me,” and added, “The floor was made of cement dust. Whatever movement you made, the air would be full of cement and I started getting breathing problems. My bed was a thin mattress on the floor, surrounded by that dust.”

Binyam also said that, in the “Dark Prison,” as Rose put it, “the thrust of his interrogations had changed,” and that, “Since he made his fantastical confession, the Americans wanted him to become a prosecution witness” in the Military Commission trial system at Guantánamo, to testify against the alleged al-Qaeda leaders — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah — whose supposed involvement in the spectral “dirty bomb” plot had been pivotal to much of his torture in Morocco, where, as he has previously reported, he was, essentially, trained in what to say. In his statement to Clive Stafford Smith, he explained that, between the savage beatings and the razor cuts to his penis, his torturers “would tell me what to say,” and added that even towards the end of his time in Morocco, they were still “training me what to say,” and one of them told him, “We’re going to change your brain.”

Rose added that later, when Binyam was in Guantánamo, discussing with a fellow prisoner the time that both of them had spent at the “Dark Prison,” the unique horrors of the place were fully revealed to him. “They had just opened Oscar Block, a new Guantánamo punishment wing, and he’d been in it,” Binyam said. “I was worried — I wanted to know what it was like. He told me, ‘Binyam, it’s not even a twentieth as bad as Kabul. A hundred nights in Oscar Block is the equivalent of one night in the dark prison.’”

Guantánamo

After being moved to the US prison at Bagram airbase, where he spent another four months, Binyam arrived at Guantánamo — on a flight with nine other prisoners who had been subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture — in September 2004. There, he said, the focus of the interrogations changed again. “They said they were worried I would tell the court that I had only confessed through torture. They said now they needed me to say it freely,” he explained. The answer was to interrogate him again, without the use of torture. “We called them the clean team,” he said. “They wanted to say they had got this stuff from a clean interrogation.” A year ago, the Washington Post reported that “clean teams” of FBI agents had been sent to re-interrogate Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other 13 “high-value detainees” transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006, but until now it had not been publicly revealed that the programme had been more extensive, and had also included other victims of “extraordinary rendition” and torture.

Binyam did not apparently talk much about his experiences at Guantánamo, but he did explain, as his lawyers — and, in particular, his military defense attorney, Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley — have stated over the last two months, that the change of government in the US had made no difference to the conditions at Guantánamo. “Since the election it’s got harsher,” he said. “The guards would say, yes, this place is going to close down, but it was like they wanted to take their last revenge.”

Describing the activities of the Emergency Reaction Force, the team of armoured guards who punish even the most minor infractions of the rules with extreme violence, and who are responsible for the “forced cell extractions” of hunger strikers who do not wish to be force-fed, Binyam explained that they were “being used more often,” and described how he had suffered at their hands when he refused to have his fingerprints taken, which, as Rose noted, “despite all the torture, had unaccountably not been taken before.” He added that Binyam explained that “he feared they might use them to frame him.”

“They nearly broke my back,” Binyam said. “The guy on top was twisting me one way, the guys on my legs the other. They marched me out of the cell to the fingerprint room, still cuffed. I clenched my fists behind me so they couldn’t take prints, so they tried to take them by force. The guy at my head sticks his fingers up my nose and wrenches my head back, jerking it around by the nostrils. Then he put his fingers in my eyes. It felt as if he was trying to gouge them out. Another guy was punching my ribs and another was squeezing my testicles. Finally I couldn’t take it any more. I let them take the prints.”

As the interview came to an end, and Rose noted, significantly, “Last October, before the election, all charges against him were dropped, [as] even the Americans had come to realize there was no ‘dirty bomb’ plot,” Binyam explained how difficult his last two months in Guantánamo were, and why he decided, as a result, to embark on a hunger strike. “I kept being told, you’ll be free in ten days, and they would pass, and then I’d be told another ten days, and still it wasn’t for real,” he said.

In conclusion, he explained, as Rose put it, that he was “determined” to stay in Britain. ”It’s the only place I can call home,” he said. “I want to live a normal life, to find a wife, get married, have a family, a job. Meanwhile, I’ll do whatever I can to get the other innocent prisoners out of Guantánamo.”

NOTE: Binyam Mohamed received no payment for his interview. Instead, the Mail on Sunday will be making a donation to the Helen Bamber Foundation, which cares for the victims of torture.

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

For a sequence of articles relating to Binyam Mohamed, see the following: Urgent appeal for British resident Binyam Mohamed, “close to suicide” in Guantánamo (December 2007), Guantánamo: Torture victim Binyam Mohamed sues British government for evidence (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed’s letter from Guantánamo to Gordon Brown (May 2008), Guantánamo trials: critical judge sacked, British torture victim charged (June 2008), Binyam Mohamed: UK court grants judicial review over torture allegations, as US files official charges (June 2008), Binyam Mohamed’s judicial review: judges grill British agent and question fairness of Guantánamo trials (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Guantánamo torture victim Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), In a plea from Guantánamo, Binyam Mohamed talks of “betrayal” by the UK (September 2008), US Justice Department drops “dirty bomb plot” allegation against Binyam Mohamed (October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (October 2008), Guilt By Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Is Robert Gates Guilty of Perjury in Guantánamo Torture Case? (December 2008), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), The Betrayal of British Torture Victim Binyam Mohamed (February 2009), Hiding Torture And Freeing Binyam Mohamed From Guantánamo (February 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Coming Home From Guantánamo, As Torture Allegations Mount (February 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s statement on his release from Guantánamo (February 2009), Who Is Binyam Mohamed? (February 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009), Guantánamo, Bagram and the “Dark Prison”: Binyam Mohamed talks to Moazzam Begg (March 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Messages On Torture (includes the Jeppesen lawsuit, May 2009), UK Government Lies Exposed; Spy Visited Binyam Mohamed In Morocco (May 2009), Daily Mail Pulls Story About Binyam Mohamed And British Spy (May 2009), Government Bans Testimony On Binyam Mohamed And The British Spy (May 2009), More twists in the tale of Binyam Mohamed (in the Guardian, May 2009), Did Hillary Clinton Threaten UK Over Binyam Mohamed Torture Disclosure? (May 2009), Outsourcing torture to foreign climes (in the Guardian, May 2009), Binyam Mohamed: Was Muhammad Salih’s Death In Guantánamo Suicide? (June 2009), Miliband Shows Leadership, Reveals Nothing About Torture To Parliamentary Committee (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), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 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). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

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). 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), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

An interview with Andy Worthington, author of “The Guantánamo Files”

Andy Worthington, a London-based journalist, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, and has written over 300 articles about Guantánamo in the last two years, for publications including the New York Times, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com and AlterNet, the Raw Story and the Future of Freedom Foundation. This week he published the first definitive list of all the prisoners who have been held at Guantánamo, with links and references to their stories. In a statement, he explained, “It is my hope that this project will provide an invaluable research tool for those seeking to understand how it came to pass that the government of the United States turned its back on domestic and international law, establishing torture as official US policy, and holding men without charge or trial neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects to be put forward for trial in a federal court, but as ‘illegal enemy combatants.’” Following the publication of the list, journalist Elizabeth Ferrari interviewed Andy by email.

Elizabeth Ferrari: I have described the transfer of prisoners from Afghanistan to Guantánamo as a “rendition flight” — one that anyone who knew what to look for could recognize. Is that right, in your opinion? My memory is that the conditions of the prisoners was broadcast all over the American media and that we were shown these people, shackled and hooded, led into the prison.

Andy Worthington: You’re correct to describe the transfer of prisoners from Afghanistan to Guantánamo as a “rendition flight” — or, to be more accurate, many dozens of rendition flights. I generally describe it as rendition on an industrial scale. What’s interesting is that the US military was entitled to establish a prisoner of war camp outside Afghanistan, but, of course, Guantánamo was no such thing, and instead was — and is — an experiment in holding prisoners beyond the law, neither as prisoners of war nor as criminal suspects, who would be expected to face a trial in a federal court, but as “enemy combatants” without rights; essentially, subjects in an illegal and unconstitutional experiment in detention and interrogation.

Elizabeth Ferrari: Can you describe who these people are — these prisoners that Donald Rumsfeld said were “the worst of the worst”? Who are they and how did they get to Gitmo?

Andy Worthington: They are, for the most part, one or other of the following. The first group — roughly half of the total population — were or are completely innocent men. They were seized either through poor intelligence on the part of US forces (who had few reliable contacts in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and were often “played” by people pretending to be their allies) or through being sold as a result of substantial bounty payments offered for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.” These averaged $5000 a head, which, in US terms, is the equivalent of being asked to shop your neighbor — or a business rival, an enemy, a stranger — for around $125,000.

The second group — again, roughly half of the prison’s population — were Taliban foot soldiers, recruited, often by unscrupulous sheikhs in their homeland, to help the Taliban establish a “pure Islamic state” by defeating their rivals, the Northern Alliance, in an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that had, for the most part, nothing to do with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or international terrorism.

The Bush administration’s great mistake was to equate al-Qaeda with the Taliban, which potentially implicated the entire population of Afghanistan in a terrorist plot, and the administration’s first great acts of dangerous arrogance were, firstly, to declare that anyone who came into US custody — whatever the circumstances — was automatically an “enemy combatant” without rights, and, secondly, to refuse, against the wishes of the military, to hold “competent tribunals” — also known as battlefield tribunals — under the Geneva Conventions relating to prisoners of war.

Held close to the time and place of capture, and allowing battlefield prisoners the opportunity to call witnesses, these had, previously, been championed by the US military, and the government, as a just and effective way of separating soldiers from civilians caught up in the fog of war, and in the first Gulf War, for example, the military held around 1200 battlefield tribunals, and decided, in three-quarters of the cases, that it had detained the wrong men.

Without these safeguards, and with the administration’s frankly mind-boggling assertion that every single person who ended up in US custody was an “enemy combatant,” it becomes horribly easy to understand how farmers, taxi drivers, hospital administrators, missionaries, humanitarian aid workers, tourists, entrepreneurs, migrants and refugees all ended up at Guantánamo with the Taliban foot soldiers, and, somewhere amongst them, between 35 and 50 prisoners in total, according to a variety of intelligence estimates, who had any meaningful connection to al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

Elizabeth Ferrari: Andy, how did you get involved with these people?

Andy Worthington: I have previously been criticized for stating that I believe that the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 was both cruel and misguided, but I stand by that statement. I was doubtful from the beginning that either Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld — veterans of the Nixon administration, and, in Cheney’s case at least, a notorious believer in unfettered executive power — could be trusted with America’s response, and as the first stories emerged from Guantánamo — really, in 2004, with the release of the first European prisoners — my worst fears were confirmed.

However, it was not until the summer of 2005 that I first became seriously involved in trying to understand what was going on at Guantánamo, when I came across the lists of prisoners compiled by the Washington Post and the British human rights group Cageprisoners. These were, at the time, largely speculative, because the administration had not even released the names of the prisoners, and accurate information was hard to come by, but I began Googling the stories of other released prisoners — many of them random Afghans — and became more and more convinced that a colossal miscarriage of justice had taken place.

My project really took off in the spring of 2006, when the prisoners’ names and nationalities were finally released, after a lawsuit brought by the Associated Press, along with 8,000 pages of the tribunals convened — as an insulting and toothless parody of the battlefield tribunals — to ascertain whether the prisoners had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants.” This was the administration’s shameless response to the Supreme Court ruling in June 2004 that Guantánamo was not beyond the law, and that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights (the right to ask a judge why they were being held).

The tribunals were, essentially, a device to rubber-stamp the government’s position (as has been admirably explained by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who served as part of the process), but the prisoner lists, the allegations against the prisoners, and the transcripts of the hearings allowed me to establish an instructive chronology, explaining who was captured where and when: whether in Afghanistan, crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan, or in Pakistan, for example, many hundreds of miles from the “battlefields.” This then allowed me, through what I can only characterize as judicious detective work, to present the prisoners’ stories in their own words, and to give some context for establishing which side was telling the truth: either the prisoners themselves, or the administration, which often mustered an array of transparently coerced or superficial evidence to justify its activities.

It’s not an exact science, of course, but to this day I remain proud of the fact that I not only attempted to give a voice to the voiceless, but also to make sense of the bigger picture, which involved challenging the government’s assertions. I know that it was a difficult task to undertake, but I remain disturbed by the fact that I was able to undertake this as a solitary independent journalist, and that no major media outlet devoted the required resources to investigating thoroughly the material that was made publicly available. By abdicating responsibility, they effectively allowed the administration’s claims to go unchallenged.

Elizabeth Ferrari: Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture, is home now. Here in the US, his case has been covered much more extensively than others — not all that well, but it was something. In your opinion, what consequences is your government (and mine) looking at, now that he is free?

Andy Worthington: Keeping a lid on the torture stories, in a nutshell. It appears that the British government has been shockingly complicit in feeding questions to proxy torturers in Pakistan, during the interrogations of captured British nationals, and the example of Binyam, when they fed questions to US intelligence, while he was being tortured in Morocco, was clearly related to this. In Europe, a big issue that is still being dealt with is the complicity of various governments with the Bush administration — from turning a blind eye to rendition flights to actively assisting in rendition cases — which will be a long struggle, as complicity in rendition and torture involves war crimes and no one wants to admit liability.

In the States, I’m delighted to see that we now have a government that is, I believe, committed to ending the brutal and counter-productive lawlessness of the Bush administration. There have already been disappointments, of course — one being the Justice Department’s refusal to consider the Jeppesen case, in which a Boeing subsidiary is accused of being the CIA’s travel agent for torture — but I can understand why Obama would not want to open the floodgates to claims that all US personnel involved in the “War on Terror” are potentially guilty of war crimes.

However, I believe that it’s not enough just to end the crimes without calling the criminals to account. I’d like to see those who made the decisions — in the White House, in the Pentagon, and in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel — be pursued in the courts, and I believe that not doing so is untenable in the long-term, not only because the US is obliged to seek the prosecution of those who break the terms of the anti-torture treaties, but also because, otherwise, it sends out a message that the president and his associates are, as they essentially asserted all along, above the law, and that whatever they do can be overlooked so long as they’re voted out of office at the end of it.

“Animal House on the Night Shift,” was how former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger mistakenly described the Abu Ghraib abuses in his report on the scandal in 2004 (as the abusers were only following the rules — or the specific lack of rules — laid down by the administration), but if Bush, Cheney, Addington, Rumsfeld, Haynes and others are allowed to get away with their crimes, the truth will be established that you can have “Animal House in the White House” for eight years — with torture dungeons thrown in for good measure — and no one can do anything about it.

Elizabeth Ferrari: There have been reports here in the US that the abuse of the remaining prisoners at Gitmo is ramping up, in the twilight of that operation. Is that true as far as you know?

Andy Worthington: I would say that it’s possible, and that I have no reason to doubt the statements made to Reuters by Ahmed Ghappour, a lawyer with the legal charity Reprieve. I was pleased to see that the Pentagon’s report on conditions at the prison (PDF) recommended that prisoners should be allowed more opportunities to socialize, to address the horrendous isolation to which the majority of the men are subjected, but I was disappointed that the report concluded that force-feeding hunger strikers is humane, when it is patently not, and that the casual brutality of the guard teams who quell even the most minor infractions of the rules with extreme violence was not even addressed. The only way the prison can really conform to the Geneva Conventions is when it’s been closed down.

Elizabeth Ferrari: In the US, we have a new president. What would you like to say to him? His new head of CIA defended rendition at his confirmation hearing. What are your thoughts for Mr. Panetta and for President Obama?

Andy Worthington: I’d like to just remind him of his words in August 2007, and to ask him to fulfill all his promises. He said, “In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised our most precious values. What could have been a call to a generation has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power … When I am President, America will reject torture without exception … As President, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists … The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example to the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”

There really are no half-measures. With Obama’s promise, America has emerged from an extraordinarily bleak period in which the fear of terror — however legitimate — combined with the leadership of men devoted to something that closely resembled dictatorial power, sullied America’s reputation, and laid waste to the principles on which the country was founded. There is a better way, and it involves dialog, and not the “dark side” — dialog with one’s enemies, and dialog with those who have been captured. Only a stupid man believes that you can beat the truth out of a prisoner.

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 Democratic Underground, After Downing Street, OpEdNews and Scoop.co.nz.

Guantánamo: Establishing A Context For The Definitive Prisoner List

Since publishing the first definitive list of the 779 prisoners who have been held in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (available in four parts — Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4), I have received some wonderful feedback, but I have also been asked to consider the contributions made by other media outlets, which has led me to conclude that further analysis of the context in which the list was compiled might prove useful.

I am aware, of course, that the Washington Post compiled a ground-breaking list of prisoners in the four years before the Pentagon was forced to release the names and nationalities of the prisoners, when information was hard to come by, and I am also aware that, last December, the New York Times compiled an online database, The Guantánamo Docket, which features entries for every prisoner held at Guantánamo, including (where available) transcripts of the tribunals and review boards used to ascertain, to the Bush administration’s satisfaction, whether the prisoners had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” and whether they could be approved for release or transfer.

This was clearly a major undertaking, but I maintain that, without further detailed analysis, it fails to address the bigger picture, which involves establishing a context in which to test the validity of the government’s assertions.

We have, in recent years, accumulated a wealth of evidence establishing why the Bush administration’s unadorned assertions need careful scrutiny. Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who worked on the tribunals, has comprehensively demolished the credibility of the material used as evidence to justify holding the majority of the prisoners, as has an Air Force Major who also served on the tribunals. In addition, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a former prosecutor in the Military Commission trial system conceived by Vice President Dick Cheney and his legal counsel David Addington (the prime architects of the “War on Terror”), has done a similar job on the legitimacy of the Commissions, endorsing the views expressed over the years by numerous military defense lawyers, who, in some cases, have sacrificed their careers to oppose what they regarded as an unprecedented travesty of justice.

Lawyers for the prisoners have also made a significant contribution, revealing the prisoners’ shocking stories to the world after their accounts were, mysteriously, cleared by the Pentagon’s censors, and, in the last eight months, since the Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights (reiterating an earlier ruling that was, they decided, overridden unconstitutionally by the Executive and Congress), judges have also played a significant role.

Since last June, judges in the Appeals Court and the District Court in Washington D.C. have thrown out the government’s cases against 17 Uighur prisoners (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province), five Bosnians of Algerian origin, and Mohammed El-Gharani, a Saudi resident and Chadian national. El-Gharani was just 14 years old when he was seized in a random raid on a mosque in Pakistan, sold to US forces, and then, like the men mentioned above, subjected not only to vile treatment, but also to allegations based on groundless or inadequate intelligence, or on confessions made by other prisoners whose credibility has been challenged by military and intelligence personnel. The allegations against the prisoners are littered with these kinds of dubious claims, and it is exactly for this reason that the available documents need to be examined with a critical eye.

Researchers who have been involved in this kind of detailed analysis include staff and students at the Seton Hall Law School, who have produced several reports based on the Pentagon’s own documents, beginning with a pioneering report in 2006 (PDF), which established that, according to the government’s own evidence against 517 of the prisoners, 86 percent were captured by the Northern Alliance or Pakistani forces, 55 percent were not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the US or its allies, and only 8 percent were alleged to have had any kind of affiliation with al-Qaeda.

In a similar vein, my research for The Guantánamo Files, and much of my subsequent reporting, was based on a comprehensive analysis of the Pentagon’s prisoner lists, the allegations against the prisoners, and the transcripts of the hearings, which allowed me to establish an instructive chronology, explaining who was captured where and when: whether in Afghanistan, crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan, or in Pakistan, for example, many hundreds of miles from the battlefields of Afghanistan. This then allowed me not only to present the prisoners’ stories in their own words, giving voices to the voiceless, but also to establish a necessary context for establishing which side was telling the truth: either the prisoners themselves, or the administration, which, as mentioned above, often mustered an array of transparently coerced or superficial evidence to justify its activities.

In addition, crucial research confirmed that many, if not the majority of the prisoners handed over by US allies were bought for bounty payments averaging $5000 a head, which encouraged a vast and unprincipled trade in Arabs who could be passed off as “al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects,” and also established that, in Afghanistan, before the prisoners were transferred to Guantánamo, the administration had, against the wishes of the military, refused to hold “competent tribunals” — also known as battlefield tribunals — under the Geneva Conventions relating to prisoners of war. Held close to the time and place of capture, and allowing battlefield prisoners the opportunity to call witnesses, these had, previously, been championed by the US military as a just and effective way of separating soldiers from civilians caught up in the fog of war, and in the first Gulf War, for example, the military held around 1200 battlefield tribunals, and decided, in three-quarters of the cases, that it had detained the wrong men.

My research was not an exact science, of course, but I remain convinced that it was — and is — the only manner in which to make sense of the bigger picture, and I remain disturbed by the fact that I was able to undertake this as a solitary independent journalist, and that no major media outlet devoted the required resources to investigating thoroughly the material that was made publicly available. As we have learned over the years — and are still, in many senses, establishing under a new President — the failure to thoroughly investigate the Bush administration’s supposed evidence against the prisoners in Guantánamo effectively allowed its hollow claims that they were “the worst of the worst” to go unchallenged.

Those interested in the truth should recall, as Jane Mayer explained in her book The Dark Side, that, in the summer of 2002, when John Bellinger, then the National Security Council’s top lawyer, was informed by a senior CIA analyst and by Guantánamo’s commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, that at least half the prisoners were there by mistake, his attempts to inform the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and to seek a review of the prisoners’ cases were thwarted when a scheduled meeting was hijacked by David Addington, who declared, imperiously, “No, there will be no review. The President has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it.”

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.

A version of this article was published on the Huffington Post and ZNet.

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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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