Archive for June, 2009

Guantánamo: Charge Or Release Prisoners, Say No To Indefinite Detention

A prisoner in GuantanamoSo what’s happening now? According to a joint Washington Post / ProPublica article on Friday, “The Obama administration, fearing a battle with Congress that could stall plans to close Guantánamo, has drafted an executive order that would reassert presidential authority to incarcerate terrorism suspects indefinitely,” according to “three senior government officials.”

The administration moved swiftly to refute the story, with the Justice Department maintaining that it would not comment on specific plans until after July 21, when the administration’s inter-departmental Guantánamo Task Force is scheduled to complete its review of all the Guantánamo cases, and an unnamed official telling AFP that “no such draft order existed, though internal deliberations were taking place on how to deal with those inmates who could not be released or tried in civilian courts.” The Post accordingly revised its story online, stating that administration officials were only “crafting language for an executive order.”

However, it is certainly true that the administration is struggling to deal effectively with the closure of Guantánamo, having recently suffered a defeat in Congress, when politicians of both parties supported a passage in a $106 bn. War Funding Bill, which “prohibits the use of any funds … to release or to transfer … any individual detained at Guantánamo Bay into the continental United States,” and also authorized legislation that “requires the President to report periodically to Congress on the status of Guantánamo Bay detainees and plans for their transfer.”

As a result, an executive order would indeed enable President Obama to “reassert presidential authority” over issues relating to the closure of Guantánamo, although whether indefinite detention is part of the plan is still unclear. Since last month, when the President first made public the options being looked at regarding the closure of Guantánamo (during an important national security speech), it has been clear that all options were being kept on the table.

Is the administration testing the waters?

It also appears that the administration is willing to test out responses to various proposals through strategic media leaks, as happened three weeks ago, when the New York Times published an article about a proposal, in draft legislation to be submitted to Congress, which was apparently designed to pave the way for the prisoners accused of involvement with the 9/11 attacks to plead guilty in a trial by Military Commission (the “terror trials” introduced by former Vice President Dick Cheney in November 2001), and to be executed — thereby fulfilling their stated aim of becoming martyrs — without the government having to go through a full trial process. This latest story may, therefore, represent a similar testing of the waters.

Last month, President Obama spelled out the options being discussed: release or transfer, trials in federal courts, trials in a revamped version of the Military Commissions, and indefinite detention. At the time, civil liberties groups, lawyers and numerous commentators — myself included — responded with undisguised hostility towards the last two options.

Ahmed Khalfan GhailaniAs I explained in an article following Obama’s speech and the simultaneous announcement that one of Guantánamo’s “high-value detainees,” Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an alleged associate of the African embassy bombers, would be tried in a federal court in New York, “setting up a two-tier system — of federal courts on the one hand, and Military Commissions on the other — appears to be nothing but a recipe for disaster.” I was even more worried about the prospect of indefinite detention, writing that I “would urge anyone who believes in the fundamental right of human beings, in countries that purport to wear the cloak of civilization with pride, to live as free men and women unless arrested, charged, tried and convicted of a crime, to resist the notion that a form of ‘preventive detention’ is anything other than the most fundamental betrayal of our core values.”

As a result of opposition to Military Commissions and preventive detention, it was somewhat surprising that the Washington Post / ProPublica article also claimed that unspecified civil liberties groups had “encouraged the administration, that if a prolonged detention system were to be sought, to do it through executive order,” and added that civil liberties groups “generally oppose long-term detention, arguing that detainees should either be prosecuted or released.” To the best of my knowledge, civil libertarians always oppose long-term detention without charge or trial, and no group has hinted that it would support plans for preventive detention, whether through an executive order or through legislation in Congress.

However, while this passage seems to me to provide another indication that the entire article was viewed by the “three senior government officials” behind it as another attempt to test responses to ongoing discussions within the administration, the article was more useful in its discussion of the government’s current analysis of the 229 prisoners who are still held.

The figures don’t add up

After noting that, during congressional testimony last week, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that 50 prisoners have been approved for release, and, with some hesitation, responded affirmatively to a suggestion that no more than 25 percent of those still held (in other words, around 60 prisoners) would be put forward for trials, the authors added that one of the officials who spoke to them noted that the administration was “still hoping that as many as 70 Yemeni citizens will be moved, in stages, into a rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia.”

Excluding the one prisoner already sentenced (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, who received a life sentence in a one-sided trial by Military Commission on the eve of the Presidential election), that leaves 48 prisoners facing indefinite detention, rather less than the figure quoted in the article by “several” Justice Department officials, who apparently “said they have found themselves agreeing with conclusions reached years earlier by the Bush administration: As many as 90 detainees cannot be charged or released.”

Reading between the lines, therefore (and excluding, for a moment, the laughable suggestion that the Bush administration had any basis for reaching objective “conclusions” about the Guantánamo prisoners it had rounded up so randomly), what this means is that 48 prisoners face indefinite detention, plus 42 Yemenis if plans to put them through the Saudi rehabilitation program do not work out — and the lack of logic involved in that suggestion is, I hope, abundantly clear.

I also have my doubts about the figure of 60 or so prisoners to be put forward for trials (as intelligence estimates over the years — mentioned most recently by Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff — have indicated that no more than two to three dozen of the prisoners had any meaningful connection to terrorism), but I was at least reassured that two Justice Department officials involved in a review of possible prosecutions told the Washington Post / ProPublica that the administration “is strongly considering criminal charges in federal court for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and three other detainees accused of involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.”

This contradicts the earlier leak, mentioned above, indicating that they would face a fast-track trial by Military Commission, and, I hope, for two particular reasons, that it is true: firstly, because any trial by Military Commission — however tweaked by Obama — would lack legitimacy in the eyes of many at home and abroad, after the Commissions’ manifest failures throughout the Bush years; and secondly, because, if any genuine evidence exists whatsoever to prove that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-accused were actually involving in planning and facilitating the 9/11 attacks, then no jury in the US will fail to convict them, despite their government-sanctioned torture at the hands of the CIA.

The strange case of Walid bin Attash

Walid bin AttashEven so, all is not well, as the Washington Post / ProPublica article also indicated. According to “one senior official,” one of the men who could be subjected to preventive detention is Walid bin Attash, one of the five men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Bin Attash (also known as Khallad, or Tawfiq bin Attash), who is also accused of involvement in the African embassy bombings in 1998, and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, was seized in April 2003 and was held in secret CIA prisons for nearly three and a half years before his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2006.

In the leaked report on the “high-value detainees” that was compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross, based on interviews with the men after their transfer to Guantánamo (and the subject of a major New York Review of Books article by Mark Danner in April), bin Attash, who lost a leg in Afghanistan many years before his capture, described some of the ways in which he was treated in a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan:

On arrival at the place of detention in Afghanistan I was stripped naked. I remained naked for the next two weeks. I was put in a cell measuring approximately [3 1/2 by 6 1/2 feet]. I was kept in a standing position, feet flat on the floor, but with my arms above my head and fixed with handcuffs and a chain to a metal bar running across the width of the cell. The cell was dark with no light, artificial or natural …

After some time being held in this position my stump began to hurt so I removed my artificial leg to relieve the pain. Of course my good leg then began to ache and soon started to give way so that I was left hanging with all my weight on my wrists. I shouted for help but at first nobody came. Finally, after about one hour a guard came and my artificial leg was given back to me and I was again placed in the standing position with my hands above my head. After that the interrogators sometimes deliberately removed my artificial leg in order to add extra stress to the position …

Noticeably, however, when bin Attash was brought before a tribunal at Guantánamo in 2007, he produced what appeared to be an unprompted confession, when he said that he was the link between Osama bin Laden and the Nairobi cell during the African embassy bombings in 1998, and also admitted that he had played a major part in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, explaining that he “put together the plan for the operation for a year and a half,” and that he bought the explosives and the boat, and recruited the bombers.

Despite this, it was noticeable that the senior official did not even mention bin Attash’s own confession, and focused instead on what was described as the Justice Department’s conclusion that “none of the three witnesses against him can be brought to testify in court. One witness, who was jailed in Yemen, escaped several years ago. A second witness remains incarcerated, but the government of Yemen will not allow him to testify [and] Administration officials believe that testimony from the only witness in US custody, Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, may be inadmissible because he was subjected to harsh interrogation while in CIA custody.”

Abdul Rahim al-NashiriIt is difficult to know quite what conclusion to draw from this. Certainly, there is a problem with the case against al-Nashiri — one of three prisoners subjected to waterboarding, according to Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA — although the problem is less to do with the manner in which he was treated in CIA custody, and more to do with the fact that, in his tribunal in Guantánamo, he denied every allegation against him.

He stated that he made up stories tying him to the bombing of the USS Cole and confessed to involvement in several other plots — including plans to bomb American ships in the Gulf, a plan to hijack a plane and crash it into a ship, and claims that Osama bin Laden had a nuclear bomb — in order to get his captors to stop torturing him. “From the time I was arrested five years ago,” he said, “they have been torturing me. It happened during interviews. One time they tortured me one way, and another time they tortured me in a different way. I just said those things to make the people happy. They were very happy when I told them those things.”

Considering that, in the 9/11 Commission Report (PDF), bin Attash was specifically mentioned in connection with investigations by the CIA, the FBI and Yemeni intelligence following the bombing of the USS Cole, and information provided during his interrogations in CIA custody was quoted from extensively, it strikes me as remarkable that no reliable evidence apparently exists that can be used to prosecute him in a US federal court. Is this because no evidence really exists, or is it because of reticence in providing information on the part of the intelligence agencies? If the former, then I fail to see how a case can be made for continuing to hold him; if the latter, then the administration should find a way to put him on trial.

As was explained in a press release that accompanied the transfer of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani to the US mainland, the Justice Department has “a long history of … successfully prosecuting terror suspects through the criminal justice system,” and, to prove it, the DoJ attached a list of successful prosecutions over the last 16 years. Surely the case of Walid bin Attash should be no different.

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.

UK protestors mark 13th anniversary of Libyan prison massacre

A protestor holds up a poster outside the Libyan embassy in London on the 13th anniversary of the Abu Salim prison massacre, June 29, 2009Befriending dictators, as the UK and US have been doing with Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi since British Prime Minister Tony Blair made an official visit to Libya in March 2004, brings with it its own set of unprincipled compromises. In Libya’s case, the resultant hypocrisy has been starkly delineated. Although reviled as a sponsor of international terrorism for decades, Gaddafi was instantly transformed into an ally in the “War on Terror,” when Blair stated that he “had been struck by how Colonel Gaddafi wanted to make ‘common cause with us against al-Qaeda, extremists and terrorism.’”

The British Prime Minister conveniently ignored the fact that, while he was meeting Gaddafi, it was revealed (as the BBC put it) that “Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell had signed a deal worth up to £550m for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast,” and also failed to mention that, as a result of this new relationship, the UK’s main involvement with Libya on issues related to terrorism would apparently focus not on al-Qaeda, but on exiles opposed to Gaddafi’s regime, as the British government moved to deport a handful of Libyan dissidents back to their homeland on the basis of secret evidence that was not disclosed to them.

The government was subsequently thwarted by two courts: SIAC, the Special Immigrations Appeal Court, which deals with cases related to terrorism, deportation and the use of secret evidence, and the Court of Appeal. In October 2008, the Court of Appeal upheld an earlier ruling by SIAC (in October 2007), in which the secret terror court ruled that two suspects — alleged to be members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a group dedicated to removing Gaddafi from power — would be at risk of torture and a “complete” denial of a fair trial if returned to Libya. The Court of Appeal affirmed SIAC’s ruling that Gaddafi could not be relied upon to abide by a “memorandum of understanding” signed with the UK in 2005 and supposed to guarantee that returned prisoners would be treated humanely, and also affirmed the court’s conclusion that torture is “extensively used against political opponents among whom Islamist extremists and LIFG members are the most hated by the Libyan Government, the Security Organisations and above all by Colonel Gaddafi.” SIAC also noted that the incommunicado detention of political opponents without trial, often for many years, “is a disfiguring feature of Libyan justice and punishment.”

Although the British government did not appeal the ruling and abandoned plans to deport Libyan terror suspects, the Home Office has continued to hold the men under control orders, a form of house arrest that, as the Law Lords ruled recently, breaches Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to a fair trial.

As a result of this cynical manoeuvring on the part of the British government, official criticism of Libya has come to an end. In the latest Foreign and Commonwealth Office profile of Libya, no mention is made of human rights issues (unlike other countries — see, for example, Morocco), and in its latest report on human rights (PDF), the FCO did not include Libya in its study of 20 “Major countries of concern,” and also failed to include Algeria, Jordan and Tunisia, with whom it has also signed “memoranda of understanding,” or, in Algeria’s case, an even less binding “exchange of letters.” This is in spite of the fact that, as Human Rights Watch noted in October 2008, “All the governments in question have well documented records of torture and ill-treatment, particularly of persons suspected of involvement in terrorism or radical Islamism.”

On Monday the extent of the British government’s hypocrisy regarding human rights was highlighted in the starkest manner possible as Libyan exiles and human rights campaigners marked the 13th anniversary of a prison massacre in Libya which involved the cold-blooded murder of at least 1,200 prisoners, and which, had it occurred elsewhere, would surely be held up as a particularly vile example of state-sanctioned mass murder.

Protestors outside the Libyan embassy in London on the 13th anniversary of the Abu Salim prison massacre, June 29, 2009

Protestors outside the Libyan embassy in London on the 13th anniversary of the Abu Salim prison massacre, June 29, 2009

Protestors outside the Libyan embassy in London on the 13th anniversary of the Abu Salim prison massacre, June 29, 2009.

The Abu Salim prison massacre, June 29, 1996

In an account of the massacre published in 2007, an eye-witness to the events began by explaining that the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli (also known as Abu Saleem), where the massacre took place (and where the CIA’s most notorious “ghost prisoner,” Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, recently died in mysterious circumstances), had been overcrowded for eight years before the massacre took place, after “Islamic groups became more politically active and faced a brutal, large-scale crackdown from the various Security apparatuses.” The witness explained that, in 1996, the prison held between 1,600 and 1,700 prisoners, even though there were just 112 cells, and that, in addition to the overcrowding, prisoners were forced to endure “unsanitary conditions, scarcity of food, lack of any medical attention, and inhumane treatment by the guards.”

Conditions at the prison apparently grew worse after a number of prison breaks in 1995 and early 1996. As the witness explained,

All visitations were cancelled, and all prisoners’ belongings, including clothes, were confiscated. Prisoners were allowed to have nothing more than their prison uniforms, mats to sleep on and two blankets … Penalties increased, prisoners were beaten every time they walked out to get their meals, quality of food, when available, deteriorated even further, garbage was not removed, and prisoners were forced to live with backed-up and overflowing sewers. The difference between life and death became very blurry. Many attempts were made to meet with the warden to discuss these conditions to no avail. At that point some of the prisoners decided to try a different method; they decided to protest.

According to the eye-witness, and to Hussein al-Shafa’i, another eye-witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2004 and 2006, the events leading up to the massacre began sometime between 4.30 and 4.40 pm on June 28, when prisoners in one cell overpowered a guard — “push[ing] him from behind [so that] he fell hard on his face, hitting the concrete floor” — and immediately set about liberating other prisoners. Within a short amount of time, according to al-Shafa’i, who was held in Abu Salim from 1988 to 2000, and who was working in the prison’s kitchen at the time, hundreds of prisoners from three of the prison’s eight cell blocks had been set free, but as they emerged into the prison’s courtyard, guards on the roof began shooting. According to both witnesses, 17 prisoners were either wounded or killed as a result.

Within half an hour, as al-Shafa’i described it, senior security officials and “a contingent of security personnel” arrived at the prison. Negotiations then took place, and, according to al-Shafa’i, “who said he observed and overheard the negotiations from the kitchen, the prisoners asked … for clean clothes, outside recreation, better medical care, family visits, and the right to have their cases heard before a court, because many of the prisoners were in prison without trial.” One of the officials, Abdullah Sanussi, who is married to the sister of Gaddafi’s wife, “said he would address the physical conditions, but the prisoners had to return to their cells” and release two hostages they had taken. One was released, but the other, mentioned above, had died from his injuries.

As al-Shafa’i described it, security personnel then “took the bodies of those killed and sent the wounded for medical care.” He added that “[a]bout 120 other sick prisoners boarded three buses, ostensibly to go to the hospital,” although “he saw the buses take the prisoners to the back of the prison.” The other eye-witness had a slightly different explanation. He said that

Those who were accused of belonging to opposition groups were ordered to get off the buses. All others were taken outside the prison section to a different part of the compound. They were lined up and shot, execution-style, by young conscripts whose choices were shoot, or stand with them to be shot. This was later reported by an officer, who defied orders that night and was able to escape.

Around 5 o’clock the following morning, according to al-Shafa’i, “security forces moved some of the prisoners between the civilian and military sections of the prison,” and by 9 am “they had forced hundreds of prisoners from blocks 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 into different courtyards. They moved the low-security prisoners in block 2 to the military section and kept the prisoners in blocks 7 and 8, with individual cells, inside.”

Again, the other eye-witness had a slightly different explanation. He said that the prisoners in cell block 2, “and all other prisoners accused of opposition activities were taken out of their cells and into the courtyard,” and that “[t]he same happened to cell blocks 1, 3, 4, 5, 6,” and added that the prisoners in blocks 7 and 8 — who numbered approximately 60 prisoners — were not removed because their “cell locks could not be broken.”

Both eye-witnesses, however, agreed on what happened next. In al-Shafa’i’s words, “At 11:00 a grenade was thrown into one of the courtyards. I did not see who threw it but I am sure it was a grenade. I heard an explosion and right after a constant shooting started from heavy weapons and Kalashnikovs from the top of the roofs. The shooting continued from 11:00 until 1:35.” He added that it was a “special unit” of six men that conducted the massacre, and that, at 2 pm, the forces used pistols to “finish off those who were not dead.”

Al-Shafa’i also said that the security forces killed “around 1,200 people,” explaining, as Human Rights Watch put it, that he “calculated this figure by counting the number of meals he prepared prior to and after the incident.”

He added that, the following day, “security forces removed the bodies with wheelbarrows” and “threw the bodies into trenches — 2 to 3 meters deep, one meter wide and about 100 meters long — that had been dug for a new wall.” He also said, “I was asked by the prison guards to wash the watches that were taken from the bodies of the dead prisoners and were covered in blood.”

The other witness largely corroborated this explanation. He put the number of the dead at 1,170, and also explained that looting of the corpses had taken place. “Most of the guards rushed to strip the dead bodies of their watches, rings, glasses, and search their pockets,” he wrote. “They took everything they could find. They also confiscated all the clothes, blankets, radios, which belonged to the dead, and divided them among themselves. The warden’s share was all the fans, space heaters, and other electronic devices. He then sold these items to his guards, who in turn sold them to prisoners brought in after 1996.”

However, the witness disputed Hussein al-Shafa’i’s claim that the bodies had been buried in the prison. “The bodies could easily be discovered within the compound,” he wrote, adding, “The regime is too smart to implicate itself.” According to his version of events, two refrigerated trucks — one belonging to the Meat Transportation Company, the other to the Marine Fisheries Company — took corpses away on two successive days, and on the third, when, “because of the sun and the heat, the stench of the corpses became unbearable,” a large container was brought instead, “and they used a forklift to load the remaining corpses into the container.” He added, “This continued through Tuesday, but the stench persisted despite the disinfectants and chemicals they used inside and outside the prison.  Residents of the Abu Salim district know and remember this well.”

No justice: the aftermath of the massacre

Crucially, for the first five years after the massacre, the regime dealt with its aftermath by denying that it took place. It was not until 2001, as Human Rights Watch described it, that the authorities “began to inform some families with a relative in Abu Salim that their family member had died, although they did not provide the body or details on the cause of death.” Libyan Human Rights Solidarity, a Libyan group based in Switzerland, stated in 2006 that the authorities had notified 112 families that a relative held in Abu Salim had died, and, in addition, 238 families said that they had lost contact with a relative who was held in the prison.

People holding up photos of their missing relatives at a protest to mark the 12th anniversary of the Abu Salim prison massacre, on June 17, 2008, in Benghazi

People holding up photos of their missing relatives at a protest to mark the 12th anniversary of the Abu Salim prison massacre, on June 17, 2008, in Benghazi.

It was not until April 2004 — just after Tony Blair’s bridge-building mission to Tripoli — that Colonel Gaddafi “publicly acknowledged that killings had taken place in Abu Salim, and said that prisoners’ families have the right to know what took place,” but despite this, the Libyan government has continued to deny that “any crimes took place,” according to Human Rights Watch. In May 2005, the organization explained that the head of the Internal Security Agency told them that “prisoners had captured some guards during a meal and taken weapons from the prison cache,” and that “[p]risoners and guards died as security personnel tried to restore order.” Adding that the government had opened an investigation on the order of the Secretary of Justice, he claimed, “When the committee concludes its work, because it has already started, we’ll give a detailed report answering all questions.”

Three years later, no detailed report has been forthcoming, and last year, when Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, claimed that a “genuine” investigation was underway, and that “those found guilty will be punished,” observers responded by wondering what kind of political machinations the announcement was meant to disguise.

On this shameful anniversary, the British government’s relationship with Libya stands in marked contrast to that of the United Nations. In October 2007, the UN Human Rights Committee “found Libya responsible for torture and other serious human rights violations” in the case of Edriss El-Hassy, who was arbitrarily arrested in 1995. The Committee based its decision on the fact that El-Hassy “was detained in prolonged incommunicado detention” and was “tortured and then disappeared,” and because, “[a]lthough it is probable that he was summarily executed in the notorious prison massacre … the Libyan authorities have refused to acknowledge this fact.”

For the majority of those whose relatives disappeared, the similarities with El-Hassy’s case are striking, and, in addition, even those who have received some sort of notification from the government about the deaths of their relatives are appalled that they have been provided with so little information, and that the bodies have not been returned to them.

A typical example is the family of Ibrahim al-Awani, who was seized from his family’s home in July 1995 and was never heard from again. Three years ago, on the tenth anniversary of the massacre, his brother, Farag al-Awani, who lives in Switzerland, said that in 2002 members of the Internal Security Agency “told the family that Ibrahim had died in a Tripoli hospital due to sickness.” A death certificate stated that he had died on July 3, 2001, but no cause of death was provided, and, “[d]espite repeated requests, the authorities never returned the body, as required under Libyan law.” As Human Rights Watch explained, “It is unclear if Ibrahim al-Awani died in the June 1996 incident or at another time.” Farag al-Awani’s response to this ongoing mystery was simple — and reflects the concerns of everyone who lost a relative in the massacre on June 29, 1996. “We just want to know what happened and to have the body back,” he said.

People holding up photos of their missing relatives at a protest to mark the 12th anniversary of the Abu Salim prison massacre, on June 17, 2008, in Benghazi

People holding up photos of their missing relatives at a protest to mark the 12th anniversary of the Abu Salim prison massacre, on June 17, 2008, in Benghazi.

Note: The photos of people holding up photos of their missing relatives are from the website Libya-alyoum. The other photos were provided by one of the protestors outside the Libyan embassy in London on June 29, 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 see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Mohammed El-Gharani, Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, speaks to al-Jazeera

Speaking for the first time since his release from Guantánamo after seven years’ imprisonment without charge or trial, following a successful habeas corpus appeal in January, Mohammed El-Gharani, now a free man in Chad, told Mohamed Vall of al-Jazeera, in an exclusive interview, how he felt about being imprisoned from the age of 14 to the age of 21. “Seven of the most beautiful years of youth were lost in prison,” he said. “I couldn’t learn or work. Seven years were just lost — for nothing.” Recounting the torture he experienced, which I reported last April in my article, “Guantánamo’s forgotten child: the sad story of Mohammed El-Gharani,” Mohammed also revealed, for the first time, that the interrogators in Guantánamo tried to force him to spy on his fellow prisoners.

The interview, via YouTube, is available below:

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.

Andy Worthington: Four radio interviews on Guantánamo and torture

The Guantanamo FilesThis was a busy week for interviews. On Tuesday, after trekking down to Westminster to record an interview for Democracy Now! I returned to the leafy retreat of my home in south London to talk to Peter B. Collins for a show that doesn’t appear to be online, and then stayed up horribly late — the interview began at 2.15 in the morning, London time! — with Brad Friedman of the Brad Blog, who was the guest presenter for the week on the Mike Malloy Show on LA’s KTLK AM 1150 radio station.

The show is available here (it starts about 13 minutes into “Hour 1” — and can be found on the MP3s here and here), and, in between copious ad breaks, Brad and I (who have emailed many times, but have never spoken before) ran through Guantánamo’s history, discussed the Obama administration’s unfortunate wavering over Guantánamo’s future (despite Obama’s bold promise to close the prison within a year) and the possible prosecution of “high-value detainees,” and talked about the most significant recent stories, including my exclusive article about the torture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, and recent events relating to Guantánamo: the release of nine prisoners, and the habeas corpus review of the Syrian prisoner Abdul Rahim al-Ginco, which — to those paying attention — has done enormous damage to the Obama administration’s credibility, for the simple reason that al-Ginco was tortured by al-Qaeda as a spy and imprisoned by the Taliban for nearly two years before he was “liberated” by US forces and sent to Guantánamo. At the end of the show, while keeping Ed Asner waiting, I answered some questions from callers about the many ways in which prisoners came to be at Guantánamo who had no connection with terrorism — or often any form of militancy whatsoever — and about whom the government knew nothing.

On Thursday I had two more interviews. The first was with Linda Olson-Osterlund for her new show, “A Deeper Look,” on KBOO FM in Portland, Oregon. Linda has interviewed me many times before, and it was a pleasure to talk again. The show is available here, and, as Linda described it in her notes for the show, she asked, “What progress is being made since Obama has become President?” and we duly discussed the failures of US politicians (of both parties) to put notions of justice before political maneuvering, the recent releases of prisoners including the transfer of four Chinese Uighurs to Bermuda (and the failures of Obama to overturn the Bush administration’s lawlessness by tackling, head-on, the egregious failures of the “War on Terror” detention policies, and bringing the Uighurs to the US mainland to demonstrate, first-hand, that they are not terrorists at all), the release of three Saudis and Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, Mohammed El-Gharani, and the torture and suspicious death of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. This included, of course, a discussion of al-Libi’s notorious claim, produced under torture in Egypt, that there was a working relationship between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, which was, in turn, used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and led to further discussion of the role that information obtained through torture — or through other forms of coercion, or bribery — constitutes the majority of the government’s so-called evidence against prisoners in Guantánamo. We also, I’m glad to say, discussed Britain’s “War on Terror,” and my home country’s version of indefinite detention without charge or trial, which have echoed the Bush administration’s policies, and which I discussed most recently here, and also the UK’s involvement in the use of torture abroad.

Thursday’s second interview was with Scott Horton of Antiwar Radio. On our ninth outing (available here — and here as an MP3), under the snappy heading on Antiwar.com, “Al-Libi Tells No More Tales, Because He’s Dead, says Andy Worthington,” Scott and I did indeed discuss Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, and, as Scott also put it, “Guantánamo habeas corpus cases that reveal most ‘evidence’ is from confessions by other prisoners made under duress, Bagram’s function as a SCOTUS-free zone and Dick Cheney’s supposed 9/11 transformation into, well, Dick Cheney.” The first (as also discussed with Linda) is a key topic of mine — and crucial to undermining former Vice President Dick Cheney’s persistent claims that the remaining prisoners are the “hardcore,” the second concerns the Obama administration’s refusal to accept a recent court ruling that foreign prisoners held at Bagram for up to seven years have habeas corpus rights, and the last concerns my belief that the entire “War on Terror” was fueled, in particular, by the psychotic paranoia of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

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

Torture In Guantánamo: The Force-feeding Of Hunger Strikers

The logo for the ACLU's "Accountability for Torture" initiativeIn a guest column for the “Accountability for Torture” initiative organized by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files, follows up on an article about the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (and a cross-post of an interview with the wife of rendition victim Abou Elkassim Britel) with an article examining how the Bush administration’s torture regime included not only the waterboarding of “high-value detainees” and the reverse-engineering of torture techniques taught in US military schools, but also the brutal force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners in Guantánamo, which continues to this day.

In 1988, when Ronald Reagan signed the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and declared that it marked “a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment,” the commitment of the United States to eradicating the use of torture was made clear, as were the terms of reference regarding the meaning of torture.

As defined in Article 1 of the Convention, torture means “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person,” whether to secure information or a confession, as punishment, or as intimidation or coercion of any kind. There are, moreover, no excuses for this absolute prohibition to be broken. As Article 2 states, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

After the 9/11 attacks, however, when senior officials in the Bush administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, declared a “War on Terror,” they also decided that numerous national and international laws and treaties — including the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture — were an inconvenience, which prevented them from seizing prisoners and interrogating them as they saw fit. As a result, prisoners in the “War on Terror” were held neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects to be put forward for trials, but as “enemy combatants” with no rights whatsoever.

Having deprived prisoners of any rights, it was then just a small step for the administration to decide that the torture ban was also irrelevant, and in the summer of 2002, senior officials commissioned lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (which interprets the law as it applies to the Executive branch), to redefine torture so narrowly that the President would be able to claim, as he did repeatedly, that America “does not torture.”

The OLC’s conclusions were contained in an infamous memo — known as the “torture memo” (PDF) — that was issued on August 1, 2002, signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, but largely written by John Yoo, a lawyer in the OLC. According to Yoo, for torture to be committed, the pain inflicted must be “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” or the infliction of mental pain which “result[s] in significant psychological harm of significant duration e.g. lasting for months or even years.”

This specific wording was chosen so that a number of techniques that were already being used on at least one “high-value detainee” — Abu Zubaydah, the gatekeeper of a military training camp in Afghanistan, who was regarded by the US government as a significant al-Qaeda operative — could be defended, even though there was, in fact, no justification whatsoever for unilaterally rewriting Article 1 of the UN Convention, and ignoring Article 2 altogether.

The most notorious of these techniques is waterboarding, a form of controlled drowning, and it was a sign of the administration’s arrogance that senior officials felt justified in using the technique, even though it has a long and well-chronicled history as a form of torture. The Spanish Inquisition — more honest than the Bush administration — referred to it as “tortura del agua,” and in January, when Eric Holder was confirmed as Attorney General, he stated unequivocally, “Waterboarding is torture,” and noted, as the New York Times described it, that “waterboarding had been used to torment prisoners during the Inquisition, by the Japanese in World War II and in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.” Perhaps most crucially, he also explained, “We prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam.”

However, although the use of waterboarding has, in many ways, been the focus of media and public interest in the Bush administration’s use of torture, it is, in fact, just the most extreme example of an approach to torture that permeated every aspect of the Bush administration’s detention policies in the “War on Terror,” and was found not only in the “black sites” — the secret, CIA-run prisons for “high-value detainees” — but also in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo.

Last December, after a two and a half year investigation into the treatment of prisoners in the “War on Terror,” the Senate Armed Services Committee produced a damning report (PDF), implicating senior officials, from President Bush down, for implementing systemic abuse. As the report’s authors explained,

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

The Committee focused in particular on the reverse engineering of techniques “considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions,” and drawn largely from torture techniques used on captured US personnel in the Korean War to extract false confessions, which are taught in the US military’s SERE schools (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) to enable US personnel to resist interrogation if captured. Despite being designed to produce false confessions, these techniques formed the basis for the Bush administration’s post-9/11 treatment of prisoners, and, in addition to waterboarding, included “stripping detainees of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures.”

Opposition to the use of these techniques, from agencies including the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, has been well-chronicled over the years, as has a leaked November 2004 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which concluded that the procedures were “tantamount to torture.” Moreover, it is clear that the widespread implementation of these techniques — in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in Guantánamo, where a former interrogator told the New York Times that they were applied to “about one in six” of the prisoners (in other words, at least a hundred men) — and the use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” on a number of “high-value detainees” means that the senior officials who authorized their use should be prosecuted, according to the laws of the United States.

However, these are not the only techniques whose use amounts to torture, and on the International Day In Support of Victims of Torture, as I join calls for Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the responsibility of senior officials in the Bush administration for implementing the use of torture and committing war crimes, I would like to remind readers that, although President Obama swept into office ordering an end to the use of torture, his wavering over the closure of Guantánamo has meant that another aspect of the Bush administration’s torture regime — the violent force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantánamo — remains in place.

Hunger strikes have punctuated Guantánamo’s long and ignoble history, and, since January 2006, in response to a prison-wide hunger strike, the authorities’ have fastened long-term hunger strikers into restraint chairs twice a day, and have force-fed them through tubes inserted into the stomachs through the nose, even though, as Clive Stafford Smith, the lawyer for several dozen Guantánamo prisoners, has explained, “Medical ethics tell us that you cannot force-feed a mentally competent hunger striker, as he has the right to complain about his mistreatment, even unto death.”

And yet, even as this process began, the UN Commission on Human Rights concluded, in a detailed report about Guantánamo in February 2006 (PDF), following an 18-month investigation, that “[t]he excessive violence used in many cases during transportation … and forced-feeding of detainees on hunger strike must be assessed as amounting to torture,” and it is clear that nothing has changed in the three years since the report was published. Instead, five long-term hunger strikers have died at the prison, and official reports that they committed suicide have persistently been challenged. In the most recent case — that of Muhammad Salih, a Yemeni who died just three weeks ago — former prisoner Binyam Mohamed explained in the Miami Herald on June 11 that his death defied logic, and wondered whether he had been “killed by US personnel — intentionally or otherwise,” or whether he had died because of “some type of organ failure,” as a result of “the years of hunger strikes (since 2005) in protest against unjustified incarceration.”

Two weeks ago, I produced a report, “Guantánamo’s Hidden History: Shocking Statistics of Starvation” (PDF), for the British human rights group Cageprisoners about the effect of the hunger strikes at Guantánamo, in which, by analyzing a series of documents detailing the prisoners’ weights (which were released by the Pentagon in 2007), I was able to demonstrate the effects of arbitrary, and apparently endless imprisonment without charge or trial, which, in my opinion, is itself a form of torture. What I discovered shocked me, as the Pentagon’s own figures revealed that, at various times between between January 2002 and February 2007, 80 prisoners in Guantánamo (or one in ten of the total number of prisoners held) weighed less than 112 pounds, and 20 of those weighed less than 98 pounds.

If photos of the men were available, I have no doubt that there would be international uproar about conditions in Guantánamo, but in the absence of photos I’d like to conclude by quoting from a recent article by law professor Scott Horton, who wrote, in his column for Harper’s, that there was an aspect of Muhammad Salih’s death “that US officials are particularly anxious to avoid discussing: it appears to be tied to practices that the Pentagon defends as ‘force-feeding’ but other officials decry as ‘torture.’” He continued:

Pentagon officials seem extremely eager not to be associated with it or to be quoted defending it, particularly if they are health care professionals. There’s a good reason for that. The techniques do not comply with the international standards for actual force-feeding, established in the World Medical Association’s Malta Declaration of 1991. Instead they have a darker and more distressing progeny. From the use of restraint chairs down to the specific brand of commercial diet supplement used by the doctors, the force-feeding techniques now in use at Guantánamo replicate the methods used by the CIA at black sites under Bush. At the black sites, those methods were not part of any medical regime. Instead, they were a part of a carefully designed torture regime, the very same regime that Obama claims to have abolished in his first executive order.

Horton concluded by asking if this torture regime had just claimed another life. No answer has been forthcoming from the administration, but for anyone concerned with eradicating the use of torture by the United States, the truth about the force-feeding regime at Guantánamo should lead to renewed pressure on the White House to close Guantánamo as swiftly as possible, and to repatriate, or find new homes for the majority of the prisoners, who, like Muhammad Salih, were never the terrorists that the Bush administration apparently had in mind when it established Guantánamo in the first place.

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.

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? and 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 (May 2009, and follow the links for further articles about al-Libi). 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), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009) and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

ACLU Interviews Wife Of Rendition Victim Abou Elkassim Britel

Abou Elkassim BritelTo mark the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (in addition to an article here), I’m cross-posting an interview conducted by the ACLU’s Nahal Zamani with Khadija Anna Lucia Pighizzini, the wife of Abou Elkassim Britel, an Italian citizen (of Moroccan origin), who was subjected to the CIA’s program of “extraordinary rendition” and torture, and is currently serving a nine-year sentence on spurious terrorism charges in a Moroccan jail.

Abou Elkassim Britel is one of five victims of “extraordinary rendition” and torture represented by the ACLU in a lawsuit against Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing that was involved in the CIA’s rendition program as the CIA’s travel agent. I have previously exchanged emails with Khadija (see the comments following my article, “Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Messages On Torture”), and am pleased to reproduce this interview, not only for the insight it provides into the arbitrary nature of the Bush administration’s rendition program, but also to mark the ACLU’s “Accountability for Torture” project on an important day, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which was initiated by the UN eleven years ago.

Awaiting an End to Injustice: Rendition Victim’s Wife Speaks About Accountability and Torture
By Nahal Zamani

Today [June 25], the ACLU’s Human Rights Program and Alkarama for Human Rights sent a request to two UN Special Rapporteurs (human rights experts) asking them to investigate the “extraordinary rendition”, detention and torture of Italian citizen Abou Elkassim Britel.

The ACLU represents Britel and four other men in a civil suit in the US court system. The suit — Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen — alleges that Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing, knowingly participated in the US “extraordinary rendition” program by providing flight and logistical support services to the aircraft used by the CIA to transport Britel from Pakistan to Morocco in May 2002.

The request asks the two UN human rights experts to investigate the circumstances surrounding Britel’s apprehension, detention and interrogation in Pakistan and his clandestine transfer from that country to Morocco; his secret detention without charge or trial in Morocco; and his abusive interrogation also in Morocco. Britel is one of the few victims of the United States’ “extraordinary rendition” program whose identities are known, and the only European citizen, to our knowledge, still detained. To this day, Britel remains incarcerated in a Moroccan prison.

I recently spoke with Britel’s wife, Italian citizen Khadija Anna Lucia Pighizzini, and asked her to share their story. The following is excerpted and translated from our conversation.

Khadija Anna Lucia Pighizzini: March 10, 2002 was the last time I spoke to my husband and I remember that the phone connection was awful and scratchy. We thought we’d just continue speaking the next day. But then I didn’t hear from him — he disappeared. For 11 months I didn’t have any news. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

ACLU: On March 10, 2002, Britel, who was on a business trip in Pakistan, was arrested and detained in Pakistan on immigration charges. After several months in Pakistani detention, during which time he was interrogated by both Pakistani and US officials, Britel was eventually transferred to the exclusive custody of US officials. US officials dressed Britel in a diaper and overalls and shackled and blindfolded him before flying him to Morocco for detention and further interrogation. Britel was detained incommunicado by Moroccan security services at Témara detention center, and subjected to beatings, sleep and food deprivation, and threatened with sexual torture, including sodomy with a bottle and castration. Britel’s family only learned of his fate when Britel was released almost one year after his first disappearance, without charge, in February 2003.

Tragically, on his way back home to Italy in May 2003, Britel was re-arrested by Moroccan authorities, who detained him and under torture coerced him to sign a confession that he was involved in terrorist acts in Morocco. Britel was eventually convicted of terrorism-related charges and sentenced to nine years. To this day, he remains in a Moroccan prison.

Khadija Anna: On the evening of the day that Kassim was supposed to finally leave Morocco, May 16, 2003, there were terrorist attacks in Casablanca. This tragic event took 45 lives and prompted a large-scale police investigation. Kassim was picked up by Moroccan officials as he was leaving the country. His arrest was part of a wave of arrests that occurred immediately before these attacks. Once again, Kassim disappeared.

I had no idea where he was. I tried all over Morocco to find him. I asked the Italian embassy and the Moroccan authorities about him, but both denied they knew anything. I feared the worst because there had been a surge of disappearances by the Moroccan government; thousands were imprisoned, and others had even died during interrogations at the hands of the Moroccan police.

Later, I learned that Kassim had been secretly detained for four months at Témara; the same detention center where he had been detained and tortured only weeks before.

After four months of detention and interrogation, Kassim was whisked through a sham trial, which, according to his attorney, barely met basic fair trial standards. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but on appeal this sentence was reduced to nine years. Meanwhile, the Italian press heard of his story and reported that he was the mastermind behind the bombings in Casablanca — a lie that not even the Moroccan authorities would accuse him of.

Kassim is now incarcerated at Oukasha prison in Casablanca. He is only scheduled to be released in September 2012, yet he has done nothing wrong.

ACLU: In September 2006, following a six-year-long criminal investigation in Italy into Britel’s suspected involvement in terrorist activities, the examining judge dismissed his case, finding a complete lack of any evidence linking Britel with any criminal or terrorism-related activity. Since that time, members of the Italian parliament and European parliament have petitioned the government of Morocco to pardon and release Britel immediately. To date, Moroccan authorities have failed to act upon these diplomatic efforts, and since January 2007 the Italian government has done nothing further to represent Britel’s interests.

Khadija Anna: Official investigations have implicated four governments in my husband’s “extraordinary rendition” and torture. The Pakistani government tortured him so brutally that he confessed he was a terrorist. The CIA abducted and detained him in Pakistan before unlawfully rendering him to certain torture in Morocco; the Moroccan government detained and tortured him; and the Italian government was complicit in the whole affair; they knew full well what was going on and did little or nothing to help him.

The American government is influential, they must intervene to secure my husband’s release and bring him home to Italy. If the American government intervenes, I believe that Italy will call for Britel to be liberated and Morocco will comply. It’s the least they could do given their involvement in his “extraordinary rendition”. I’ve already asked the American embassy in Morocco for a meeting or for an intervention to liberate my husband. I’ve also visited the embassy twice, and spoken to the staff there. Suffice to say, my request has fallen on deaf ears and I don’t know where else to turn.

ACLU: Since March 2002, Britel has been subject to physical and psychological torture and cruel treatment — including severe beatings, isolation, sleep deprivation, and death threats. Britel’s experiences are part of a larger pattern of widespread torture and abuse committed by the US government under the Bush administration. Meaningful accountability for crimes committed in the name of national security must include recognition and compensation for torture victims.

Khadija Anna: Physically, Kassim is weak, and has many physical problems due to the torture and abuse he went through. This has left traces, not only on his soul but also his heart. He’s fighting to stay alive. He’s also fighting for the rights of the other prisoners detained along with him; to improve their conditions as well as his own. He’s gone on hunger strikes many times — sometimes on his own, other times with other prisoners — hoping to bring attention to the conditions inside the prison and to protest his torture.

As for me, I am always tired, and always waiting. It’s been over seven long years since Kassim disappeared. These years have been so painful, but I know that the injustice that I’ve gone through will soon be over. I haven’t given way to hate; nor has Kassim. Instead, we’re waiting for his liberation. We want to live our lives, and to reclaim our rights to live in dignity as citizens and human beings. We look towards to the future; when truth will be heard, when our rights will be restored and when justice will finally be served.

For further information, see Khadija’s website, “Giustizia per Kassim”.

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.

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? and 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 Prisonдивани (May 2009, and follow the links for further articles about al-Libi). 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), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009) and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

Never Forget: The International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

An anti-torture poster, by Octavia Roth, used by the UNEleven years ago, the United Nations designated June 26 as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Then-Secretary General Kofi Annan explained, “This is a day on which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable. This is an occasion for the world to speak up against the unspeakable. It is long overdue that a day be dedicated to remembering and supporting the many victims and survivors of torture around the world.” He added, “June 26 is not a date chosen at random. It was the day, 11 years ago, that the Convention against Torture came into force. It was also the day, 53 years ago, that the United Nations Charter was signed — the first international instrument to embody obligations for Member States to promote and encourage respect for human rights.”

As Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, explained in a speech reproduced in today’s Daily Star, Lebanon, “The prohibition of torture is one of the most absolute to be found anywhere in international law. Article 2 of the Convention against Torture is unequivocal: ‘No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.’”

She continued: “A total of 146 states have ratified the Convention against Torture (CAT) in the 25 years since it was adopted in 1984 — in other words, three-quarters of the world’s states.” However, as she also explained, “Many states that have ratified CAT continue to practice torture, some of them daily. Others, which do not practice it themselves, enable it to happen by sending people at risk back to states where they know torture is carried out. This, too, is clearly prohibited by CAT (Article 3),” which states that “No State Party shall expel, return (‘refouler’) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

The High Commissioner proceeded to explain how “The acts of terrorism that shook the world on September 11, 2001 had a devastating impact on the fight to eliminate torture,” as “Some states that had previously been careful not to practice or condone torture became less scrupulous. State lawyers began to look for ingenious ways to get round CAT, or stretch its boundaries. The Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib prisons, in particular, became high-profile symbols of this regression, and new terms such as ‘water-boarding’ and ‘rendition’ entered the public discourse, as human rights lawyers and advocates looked on in dismay.”

According to Pillay, the worst excesses of the Bush years may now be coming to an end. “I believe we are finally starting to turn the page on this extremely unfortunate chapter of recent history,” she explained, “with counter-terrorism measures starting to move back in to line with international human rights standards.” However, she added that “Leadership is required to end this grotesque practice. In January, I welcomed the fact that Barack Obama’s very first actions as the new US president included decisions to close Guantánamo and ban methods of interrogation, such as water-boarding, which amount to torture or otherwise contravene international law. He has set an example of what a leader can do, in terms of policy and practice, to uphold the total prohibition on torture.”

“But,” she continued, “there is still much to do before the Guantánamo chapter is truly brought to a close. Its remaining inmates must either be tried before a court of law — like any other suspected criminal — or set free. Those at risk of torture or other ill-treatment in their countries of origin must be given a new home, where they can start to build a new life, in the US or elsewhere. I welcome the fact that in recent weeks a number of countries have agreed to take in a few people in this position, and urge others to follow suit, including first and foremost the United States itself.”

Addressing President Obama’s proposal to push for new legislation endorsing “preventive detention” — in other words, continuing to imprison people without charge or trial, on the basis that there is insufficient evidence to try them, or that the evidence is tainted by the use of torture — the High Commissioner was rightly indignant. “There should be no half-measures, or new creative ways to treat people as criminals when they have not been found guilty of any crime,” she said. “Guantánamo showed that torture and unlawful forms of detention can all too easily creep back into practice during times of stress, and there is still a long way to go before the moral high ground lost since September 11 can be fully reclaimed.”

Today, sadly, our celebrity-obsessed world is unlikely to pay much attention to the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, as the death of Michael Jackson dominates headlines around the world, and the public’s tendency to let the allure of celebrity erase concerns about the moral failings of stars, and what the cult of celebrity does to people, will be on full display instead.

Nevertheless, Navi Pillay is to be thanked for raising the issue of America’s moral leadership on this important day, and for congratulating Barack Obama on making a promising start, but warning that much more needs to be done. As well as highlighting the terrifying notion of endorsing “preventive detention,” she was, I believe, correct in stating that “first and foremost” the Obama administration should take responsibility for the injustices perpetrated by its predecessor, and should accept cleared prisoners into the United States.

Moreover, as recent events have shown, President Obama also needs to open up the prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan to some form of outside scrutiny — and, in a limited number of cases, to the US courts — and, as a recent court case revealed, he also needs to speed up plans to release prisoners, and would do well to accompany this with bold statements renouncing the failures of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” detention policies.

Inside BagramOn Bagram, the Obama administration has already lost credibility by refusing to accept, as Judge John D. Bates ruled three months ago, that foreign prisoners — seized outside Afghanistan and rendered to Bagram, where they have been held for up to seven years — have the same legal rights as the prisoners in Guantánamo. As Judge Bates explained in his ruling, the habeas rights granted by the Supreme Court to the Guantánamo prisoners last June in Boumediene v. Bush also extend to the foreign prisoners in Bagram, because “the detainees themselves as well as the rationale for detention are essentially the same.”

This is undoubtedly true, and it is, indeed, little more than an administrative accident that the foreign prisoners at Bagram — perhaps around 30 of the total population of 650 — did not end up in Guantánamo. However, although Judge Bates did not extend rights to Afghans held in a war zone — who should be treated as prisoners of war, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions — President Obama needs to make clear that this is, in fact, what is happening, and that the BBC’s recent report about the abuse suffered by several dozen Afghan prisoners, who were held at Bagram between 2002 and 2008, refers not to current conditions at the prison, but to the years when former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld sanctioned the use of torture by the US military. Without some form of transparency, the fear is that the abusive regime initiated by Rumsfeld is still in existence, and that Obama’s fine talk of banning torture and reinstating is nothing more than hot air.

On Guantánamo, Obama needs to move fast if he is to preserve any credibility, because the administration’s most recent court defeat — in the case of Abdul Rahim al-Ginco, a Syrian prisoner — is demonstrably humiliating. On Monday, Judge Richard Leon (an appointee of George W. Bush) demolished the government’s case, and was clearly incredulous that the government thought it could establish that al-Ginco had some sort of ongoing relationship with al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban when, having spent three weeks in a guest house and training camp in 2000, he was then suspected of spying, tortured by al-Qaeda for three months, and imprisoned by the Taliban for a further 18 months, until his “liberation” by US forces, and his transfer to Guantánamo.

Al-Ginco’s case is just the latest in a series of court humiliations which also revealed that, essentially, Eric Holder’s Justice Department was doing nothing more than attempting to defend the Bush administration’s idiotic detention policies on a case-by-case basis, pursuing worthless and unjust cases in which its only evidence, as Judge Gladys Kessler pointed out in another recent ruling, in the case of a Yemeni, Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, consisted of “unreliable allegations made by other prisoners who were tortured, coerced, bribed or suffering from mental health issues, and a ‘mosaic’ of intelligence, purporting to rise to the level of evidence, which actually relied, to an intolerable degree, on second- or third-hand hearsay, guilt by association and unsupportable suppositions.”

These are not the only issues that President Obama needs to address urgently. He also needs to think hard about whether it is feasible to make a stand against torture while refusing to investigate those who authorized its use during the Bush years, and also needs to reflect on the significance of his opposition to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a Boeing subsidiary that acted as the CIA’s travel agent for torture.

To highlight this issue, I’ll shortly be cross-posting an interview with the wife of Abou Elkassim Britel, one of five prisoners represented by the ACLU in the Jeppesen case, who is currently languishing in a Moroccan jail, having been initially picked up in Pakistan and rendered to Morocco by the CIA.

The logo of the ACLU's "Accountability for Torture" projectThe interview is part of a two-week project, “Accountability for Torture,” that was initiated by the ACLU in the run-up to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. This has featured a podcast with Glenn Greenwald and Philippe Sands, and articles by several experts on torture including Dr. Stephen Soldz, who wrote about the American Psychological Association’s collusion in the use of torture. Later today I’ll also be posting my own contribution, an analysis of how the Bush administration’s torture regime included not only the waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on so-called “high-value detainees” and the reverse-engineered torture techniques taught in US military schools, which were implemented throughout the “War on Terror,” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo, but also the brutal force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners in Guantánamo, which continues to this day.

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

As published on the Huffington Post. Also cross-posted on Common Dreams.

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? and 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 Prisonдивани (May 2009, and follow the links for further articles about al-Libi). 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), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009) and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

Why Did It Take So Long To Order The Release From Guantánamo Of An Al-Qaeda Torture Victim?

A prisoner at GuantanamoIn over three years of researching and reporting about the prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, I learned early on to expect, as one of Guantánamo’s first commanders, Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey explained, that many of the men were “Mickey Mouse” prisoners, with no connection to terrorism whatsoever, and, in hundreds of cases, not even a tangential involvement in the Taliban’s inter-Muslim civil war with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, which preceded the 9/11 attacks, but morphed into a war against the US after “Operation Enduring Freedom” — the US-led invasion of Afghanistan — began on October 7, 2001.

I learned about how the wrong people had ended up in Guantánamo not just from Maj. Gen. Dunlavey, but also from a former interrogator at the US prisons in Kandahar and Bagram, which were used to process the prisoners for Guantánamo. Using the pseudonym Chris Mackey, he wrote a book about his experiences, The Interrogators, in which he explained that the military commanders on the ground in Afghanistan received instructions from the highest levels of government that every Arab who ended up in US custody was to be transferred to Guantánamo, even if those on the front line had concluded that they had been seized by mistake.

The dismay that this instilled in me was only heightened when I learned from my own research, for my book The Guantánamo Files — and from research conducted by the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, based on documents released by the Pentagon (PDF) — that 86 percent of the prisoners were not seized by US forces “on the battlefield,” as senior officials alleged, but were picked up by their Afghan and Pakistani allies and handed over — or sold — at a time when the US military was offering bounty payments of $5000 a head — equivalent to about $250,000 in the US — for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects”; in other words, any Muslim with a beard who could be passed off as a terrorist.

Even so, some of the stories I came across revealed such depths of incompetence that I was repeatedly surprised: by the stories of the Afghan schizophrenic who ate his own excrement; the boys who were no more than 12 or 13 years old when they were captured; the 88-year old who was seized when his house was bombed; and another old man who was seized because he was deaf and couldn’t hear what the US soldiers who came to his house in the middle of the night were saying to him.

These stories only scratch the surface of the multitude of prisoners seized for no good reason, but although these particular prisoners were released in the first few years of Guantánamo’s existence, there has been little improvement in the last two years. While assiduously chronicling the stories of the 153 prisoners released since June 2007, I have repeatedly come across similarly wronged prisoners, because of the systemic failures in the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” including, to cite just a few examples, Sami al-Haj, the al-Jazeera cameraman, who spent his entire time in captivity fending off attempts to recruit him as a spy, and Adel Hassan Hamad, a Sudanese hospital administrator in Pakistan — hailed by almost everyone who has met him as one of the sunniest personalities on the face of the earth — who was sold to US forces by unscrupulous Pakistan soldiers who were taking revenge on him because he had complained when they had stolen supplies from his warehouse.

Habeas cases and Justice Department obstruction

Former US Vice President Dick CheneyAccording to one reading of history — the one favored by Vice President Dick Cheney, the prime architect of America’s post-9/11 flight from the law, which has been embraced by fearmongering politicians of both parties — these stories, if acknowledged at all, are mere blips in Guantánamo’s history, and the remaining prisoners are all hardcore terrorists. However, while President Obama has done far too little to counter these groundless and unprincipled claims, judges in the District Courts, empowered to review the prisoners’ cases after a Supreme Court ruling last June confirmed that they had habeas corpus rights (the right to ask a judge why they are being held), have been slowly but surely demolishing the false, self-serving rhetoric of Cheney and the hysteria of the blinkered politicians.

The judges have not been aided by the Justice Department, which has followed the lead established under the Bush administration, and has, under Attorney General Eric Holder, done all in its power to disable the habeas reviews by preventing the prisoners’ defense teams from having access to exculpatory material — or any other material essential to mounting a meaningful defense. However, despite the obstruction — which has been so severe in some cases that judges have taken the unprecedented step of dismissing the government’s lawyers — two judges have ordered Yemeni prisoners to be released, and in the most recent example, that of Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, the judge, Gladys Kessler, “paint[ed] a disturbing picture of unreliable allegations made by other prisoners who were tortured, coerced, bribed or suffering from mental health issues, and a “mosaic” of intelligence, purporting to rise to the level of evidence, which actually relied, to an intolerable degree, on second- or third-hand hearsay, guilt by association and unsupportable suppositions.”

On Monday, Judge Richard Leon, who demolished the Bush administration’s case against five Algerians and Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, a Chadian named Mohammed El-Gharani, before Obama took office, dealt what may well be the most savage blow yet to Dick Cheney and his supporters, for their lies and distortions about the men still held, and also to Barack Obama and Eric Holder, for pursuing habeas cases that were doomed to fail.

The story of Abdul Rahim al-Ginco

Abdul Rahim al-Ginco, in the video "confession" he made after being tortured by al-QaedaThe case in question was that of Abdul Rahim al-Ginco (also identified as Abdul Rahim Janko). Born in Syria in 1978, al-Ginco moved to the United Arab Emirates with his family, at the age of 13, but in December 1999, as Tim Reid of the London Times explained in an article five months ago, he “fell out with his strict father,” and “left home without a passport,” in the belief that, as a friend explained to him, “if he could get to Afghanistan he could travel to Europe as a refugee.”

In Afghanistan, as he has admitted all along, he spent five days at an al-Qaeda-affiliated guest house in Kabul, and 18 days in January and February 2000 at al-Farouq, a military training camp established by the Afghan warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf but associated with Osama bin Laden in the years before the 9/11 attacks. However, he also explained that, although he cleaned guns at the guest house, he was not there voluntarily, and did not attend the training camp on a voluntary basis either. “It wasn’t my choice,” he said during a military review board at Guantánamo. “I was hated. They believed I was a spy, so they took me to the camp by force.”

Crucially, when he tried to leave the camp, after telling the instructors that he did not want to fight, and that he especially did not want to fight against Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance (who was assassinated two days before 9/11), because “the jihad does not say anything about killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan,” he was tortured by al-Qaeda for three months “to the extent that he had little use of his right arm,” and was forced to admit that he was a spy for the United States and Israel. According to Tim Reid, he was “given electric shocks, and had the soles of his feet beaten,” and his torture “was overseen by Mohammed Atef, the military chief of al-Qaeda who was killed by a US airstrike in Kabul in November 2001.”

He was then imprisoned by the Taliban for 18 months, in what Tim Reid described as a “squalid, vermin infested” prison in Kandahar, which held around 2,000 prisoners of the Taliban, but was left behind — with four other foreign prisoners — when the Taliban abandoned the prison following the US-led invasion. It was then that the story became truly surreal. Tim Reid and several other journalists arrived in Kandahar in January 2002 to find “a bizarre scene playing out in the jail.” As Reid explained, “The entire prison had been emptied except for five men who had chosen to stay there because they had nowhere else to go. There was a man from Manchester called Jamal Udeen [aka al-Harith], two Saudis, a student from Tatarstan — and Mr. al-Ginco. They became known as the ‘Kandahar Five.’”

Reid recalled that all five men asked the Americans to help them, and that “A French colleague, on a visit to the US base at Kandahar airport the next day, told an American officer about the men,” but a few days later, after two Americans — “one in uniform and a civilian” — had turned up at the jail to take photographs of the five, “they returned with armed soldiers and took the men to the US jail in Kandahar airport.”

The logic behind this was always non-existent, but whereas the other four men were eventually released from Guantánamo — the Tatar (Airat Vakhitov) in February 2004, Jamal Udeen in March 2004, and the Saudis (Saddiq Turkistani and Abdul Hakim Bukhari) in 2006 and 2007 — al-Ginco’s story was transformed into the darkest of nightmares, when, during an investigation of Mohammed Atef’s house, US soldiers found a videotape that included footage of him.

Abdul Rahim al-Ginco’s US nightmare

As al-Ginco explained in Guantánamo, the tape contained the “confession” he had made, as the result of his torture by al-Qaeda, which had led to a sentence of 25 years in prison for spying. He added, “When the Americans came I told them about the videotape the Taliban made of me. By me telling them about the video it created confusion to the point where the Americans believed I was working with al-Qaeda.” This was putting it mildly. Although the tape did indeed contain al-Ginco’s confession, and, apparently, footage of his torture, Attorney General John Ashcroft “believed otherwise,” as Tim Reid put it, adding, “On January 17, 2002, Mr. Ashcroft held a press conference naming and showing pictures of five men sought as potential terrorists. One he called ‘Abd al-Rahim’ — Mr. al-Ginco.”

Eleven days later, Time magazine “published an article containing Mr. al-Ginco’s picture and the allegation that he was a terror suspect,” which “found its way to the US jail in Kandahar airport,” and suddenly, al-Ginco said, “the Americans’ attitude towards him changed. He was accused of being a terrorist. He was subjected to long periods of stress positions, sleep deprivation and snarling dogs. In May 2002, after two years of being called an Israeli spy by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Mr. al-Ginco was sent to Guantánamo Bay, now accused of being al-Qaeda and a US enemy.”

Back in January, following discussions with al-Ginco’s lawyers, Tim Reid wrote, “When I met Mr. al-Ginco in January 2002, he was a quiet character but lucid and hopeful that things would get better. Today he is being treated inside Guantánamo for post-traumatic stress disorder.” This was not the only way in which he has suffered in Guantánamo. In his administrative review board in 2005, he explained that other prisoners were also convinced that he was a spy, and had threatened him, with the result that he had tried to harm himself in Guantánamo, “because of my emotional issues” — being picked on by the other prisoners — and had spent three years in the psychiatric ward, and added that he was receiving medication for epilepsy.

By the time Barack Obama took office, al-Ginco had been moved to Camp 4, where compliant prisoners — and those who are not regarded as a threat — are allowed to live communally, and to have ”access to books, magazines and a chance to exercise.” This was certainly an improvement, but it remains inexplicable that the Obama administration considered his case worth pursuing, and on Monday Judge Leon made this clear in the strongest terms possible (PDF).

The government’s position “defies common sense”

Judge Richard LeonAfter explaining that he was required to rule on “whether the Government has shown by a preponderance of the evidence that [al-Ginco] is being lawfully detained … because he was ‘part of’ the Taliban or al-Qaeda at the time he was taken into custody by US forces,” Judge Leon noted that, although the government “effectively concedes [that al-Ginco] was not only imprisoned, but tortured by al-Qaeda into making a false ‘confession’ that he was a US spy, and imprisoned thereafter by the Taliban for over eighteen months at the infamous Sarousa [Sarposa] prison in Kandahar,” officials still contend, “[n]otwithstanding these extraordinary intervening events,” that he was “still ‘part of’ the Taliban and/or al-Qaeda when he was taken into US custody.”

Judge Leon then ran though al-Ginco’s claims — of his short and unwilling attendance at the training camp, and his subsequent torture (which he described as arguably “barbaric”) and imprisonment at the hands of al-Qaeda and the Taliban — and noted that he “contends, in essence, that even if he had a prior arrangement with al-Qaeda or the Taliban in 2000, his subsequent torture and imprisonment for eighteen months vitiates that relationship to such a degree that he no longer was ‘part of’ al-Qaeda or the Taliban when he was taken in custody in 2002.”

Ruling for al-Ginco, Judge Leon then mocked the government for “taking a position that defies common sense,” by asking the court to address whether a relationship with al-Qaeda or the Taliban “can be sufficiently vitiated by the passage of time, intervening events, or both.” Concluding that “The answer, of course, is yes,” he then dismantled the government’s case point by point, stating, “To say the least, five days at a guest house in Kabul combined with eighteen days at a training camp does not add up to a longstanding bond of brotherhood,” adding that al-Ginco’s torture “evinces a total evisceration of whatever relationship might have existed!” and that his abandonment in the Taliban prison “is even more definitive proof that any preexisting relationship had been utterly destroyed,” and concluding that an analysis of all these factors “overwhelmingly leads this Court to conclude that the relationship that existed in 2000 — such as it was — no longer existed whatsoever in 2002 when Janko was taken into custody.”

The ruling could not have been harsher, but while Lyle Denniston on SCOTUSblog noted that it may have an impact on other cases, explaining that “Colleagues on the District Court pay attention to each other’s rulings, and Leon’s interpretation of the effects of torture during captivity, other forms of mistreatment, and lengthy confinement in harsh conditions could be read more broadly to establish breaks with past terrorism,” I have to say that, from my point of view, I hope that what it demonstrates to the Obama administration — and specifically, to Eric Holder’s Justice Department — is that, with more habeas cases forthcoming, more time and effort would be better spent on working out which cases to drop, and on doing further damage to Dick Cheney’s credibility, than on pressing ahead with cases that, when viewed objectively, are also bound to fail.

There may be no more cases that are quite as bleakly ridiculous as that of Abdul Rahim al-Ginco, but there are many, many others in which the Justice Department’s long efforts to construct a viable case have come to nothing, because there was never any evidence in the first place, and it would be better for all involved if the administration worked this out now, rather than face further humiliation as it presses ahead with what, in most cases, is nothing more than a doomed and pointless attempt to defend the bitter fruits of the Bush administration’s colossally incompetent “War on Terror” detention policy.

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

As published on the Huffington Post, CounterPunch, Antiwar.com and ZNet. Also cross-posted on Common Dreams.

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), The Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants (March 2009), Farce at Guantánamo, as cleared prisoner’s habeas petition is denied (April 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Judge Condemns “Mosaic” Of Guantánamo Intelligence, And Unreliable Witnesses (May 2009). Also see: Justice extends to Bagram, Guantánamo’s Dark Mirror (April 2009).

Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo on Democracy Now!

Today I was delighted to be invited into a London studio for an interview about Guantánamo on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. The show, which airs on over 750 stations, is described as “pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US,” and it was, therefore, a great pleasure to be able to talk about the case of Abdul Rahim al-Ginco (or al-Janko), the al-Qaeda torture victim whose release from Guantánamo was ordered yesterday following a habeas corpus review by Judge Richard Leon. Memorably, Judge Leon (an appointee of George W. Bush) lambasted the government for attempting to claim that, despite being tortured by al-Qaeda to admit to being an American spy, and then being imprisoned for 18 months by the Taliban, al-Ginco retained some sort of connection with either group that justified his indefinite detention. This was, he said, a sign that the government’s position “defies common sense.”

Here’s the video (in two parts):

The timing of this story allowed me to talk more about how President Obama has failed to seize the initiative on Guantánamo, despite sweeping into office and promising to close the prison within a year, and it would, indeed, be hard to find a story that demonstrated the Bush administration’s ineptitude — and Obama’s inability to deal decisively with the mess he has inherited — than the story of Abdul Rahim al-Ginco, and the refusal of anyone overseeing the case to realize that it should never have been put before a judge in the first place.

Touching on these and other issues, Amy also asked me about the case of the Uighurs from Guantánamo who were recently released in Bermuda, about the three Saudis who were also released (and especially Ahmed Zuhair, Guantánamo’s longest-term hunger striker), and about my world exclusive published last week, “New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi,” in which I presented new information about the CIA’s most notorious “ghost prisoner,” who died in a Libyan jail last month, but who, in 2002, while being tortured in Egypt, produced a false confession about a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

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.

The Lies Told About The Saudi Hunger Striker Released From Guantánamo

Ahmed Zuhair, in a photo taken before his captureAs part of a series of recent releases from Guantánamo, three Saudi prisoners were repatriated, along with Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, an Iraqi refugee, and four Uighurs who were sent to Bermuda. As I explained in a recent article, “Empty Evidence: The Stories Of The Saudis Released From Guantánamo,” all three men had been cleared for release by military review boards at Guantánamo, and, in an examination of the government’s supposed evidence against two of the men, Kahlid Saad Mohammed and Abdul Aziz al-Noofayee, I was able to demonstrate why they had been approved for release: there was, to put it bluntly, absolutely no evidence to demonstrate that either man had been involved in terrorism or any kind of militancy whatsoever.

The case of the third man, Ahmed Zuhair, is no different, although over the years he has been the victim of lies and distortions that are much more grave than anything the Pentagon was able to muster against either Mohammed or al-Noofayee, and, as I explained in an article three months ago, he was also Guantánamo’s longest-term hunger striker, having been without solid food — and subjected to painful force-feeding twice a day — since June 2005. As news of his release filtered out to the media, credulous right-wing organ the Weekly Standard gleefully pushed what it thought was a pro-Guantánamo, anti-Obama stance by dredging up long-discredited allegations and presenting them as facts, declaring, “Convicted Car Bomber and Likely Murderer Transferred from Gitmo to Saudi Arabia.”

The problem with this bold headline — and the breathless rant that accompanied it — is that it bears no relation to reality. If the Standard’s editors had been able to think rationally, they would have realized that a military review board under the Bush administration had approved Zuhair’s transfer to Saudi Arabia, which ought to have convinced them that something was wrong with their pitch, even if they were not impressed by the fact that he had also been cleared for release by President Obama’s inter-departmental Guantánamo Task Force, which, incidentally, is not known for its hasty decisions, having freed only two men in its first four months in office.

So let’s have a look at these allegations, shall we? As his lawyers, at Yale Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, explained in a submission to the Task Force two months ago, since Zuhair “was abducted while on business in Pakistan” in December 2001, the US government “has failed to provide any legitimate basis for his detention or prosecution, and has premised its allegations on compromised evidence extracted by torture and on unverified raw intelligence.”

Addressing the main allegations against Zuhair — that he was “engaged in criminal activities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, trained and fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was involved in the USS Cole attack in 2000” — his lawyers stated that they were “demonstrably baseless,” and explained that, in the 1990s, Zuhair worked in Zagreb, Croatia, for a small relief organization, the Foundation for the Sponsorship of Orphans, “because he was deeply moved by the atrocities” in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

As for allegations that Zuhair was involved in criminal activity during this time, the US government initially claimed in his tribunal at Guantánamo that he “was responsible for the 1995 death of William Jefferson, an American working for the United Nations in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” even though neither the Bosnian government nor the UN found any reason to associate Zuhair with the murder. The Bosnian government issued an arrest warrant for a different man, Fa’iz al-Shanbari, and a 200-page UN inquiry into the murder, “which identifies Mr. Shanbari as a prime suspect, does not contain a single mention of Mr. Zuhair.” In addition, on June 17, in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that Zuhair had been cleared for transfer from Guantánamo by both the Bush and Obama administrations because “there was no sufficient proof” linking him to the killing.

Most worryingly, in terms of how erroneous information was used by the authorities in Guantánamo — and was, moreover, not made available to the prisoners’ lawyers — Zuhair’s defense team added that the UN “transmitted the report to the US government pursuant to [a] request in August 2004 and the government was therefore aware of the findings when it composed its Factual Return” (in which its allegations were presented to the court). Despite this, however, the government “never shared the report” with Zuhair’s lawyers, “who obtained it independently through UN channels.”

Moving on to other allegations purportedly pertaining to Zuhair’s time in the former Yugoslavia, his lawyers also refuted claims that he “was responsible for a car bombing in Mostar, Bosnia on September 18, 1997,” and that he “was part of a group of Muslim fighters that received financial support from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.” Noting that the government had relied on media reports for the car bombing claim, the lawyers pointed out that Zuhair’s in absentia conviction for the bombing “was based on a compromised investigation that was denounced by the United Nations and rested essentially on the testimony of a single witness, Ali Ahmed Ali Hamed, a convict serving a twelve-year sentence in Bosnia-Herzegovina who has since recanted his accusations against Mr. Zuhair.”

They also noted that there was no evidence that he had been “part of a group of Muslim fighters” with connections to KSM, and cited testimony from Ajman Awad, a prominent member of the group of Arab volunteers supporting the Bosnian army, who “came to know virtually all members” of the unit of Arab fighters, and who “state[d] categorically that [he] never encountered [Mr. Zuhair] in [the] unit, nor did he ever hear of him serving in the unit.”

For the allegations relating to Zuhair’s supposed military activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the government relied — for its assertions that he “received military training at al-Qaeda camps” in both countries, and that he “fought against the United States” — not on discredited media reports, but “on the uncorroborated statements of discredited sources who were tortured, subjected to other forms of coercion, or are notorious fabricators.”

The details remain classified, but the references to the unreliable sources are remarkably similar to the opinions of Judge Richard Leon and Judge Gladys Kessler in the habeas corpus cases of six Algerians seized in Bosnia, of Mohammed El-Gharani, the former child prisoner returned to Chad last week, and of Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, a Yemeni seized in Pakistan. In these cases, both judges granted the prisoners’ habeas claims (with one exception in the Bosnian review), because the government was relying on witnesses who were simply not credible. What Zuhair’s lawyers called the “notorious fabricators” in Guantánamo also featured in these cases, as they did, most recently, in the story of Jawad al-Sahlani, the last Iraq in Guantánamo, who was released just a few days before Ahmed Zuhair.

The last major allegation put forward by the government was that Zuhair was involved in the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. This allegation was presented in the Factual Return, but was subsequently dropped in the allegations against Zuhair in his administrative review board at Guantánamo, although it was not dropped in his habeas proceedings. The fact that it was included at all is deeply shocking, however, as Zuhair said that he was told by interrogators that statements about him, presumably relating to the USS Cole, had been made by Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni, whose story I reported at length in a recent article, “Revealed: Identity Of Guantánamo Torture Victim Rendered Through Diego Garcia.” Seized in Indonesia in January 2002, even though he had no connection to terrorism, Madni (who was finally released in August 2008) was rendered to Egypt for torture, and explained after his release that he was subjected to six months of sleep deprivation in Bagram.

It was, presumably, during his time at Bagram that Madni made statements about Zuhair’s involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole, probably when he was shown a photo of Zuhair. However, as Madni explained after his release, he had no knowledge whatsoever of the attack on the USS Cole, and had no knowledge that Zuhair had been involved in any crimes or terrorist activities.

I hope that these refutations of the allegations against Ahmed Zuhair explain how shoddy intelligence and the use of confessions extracted through torture, coercion or reliance on “notorious fabricators” are at the heart of the regime created by the Bush administration at Guantánamo, and how, in this terrible, lawless world of hyperbole and paranoia, in which few allegations have actually been tested in a court of law, it is all too easy for propagandists like those at the Weekly Standard to run scare stories based not on evidence but on the largely worthless material masquerading as evidence that was compiled by the Pentagon.

This obsession with former Vice President Dick Cheney’s long-discredited claim that everyone in Guantánamo is a “terrorist” also ignores the fact that prisoners are only being released because people more qualified than biased pundits have been studying their case files in depth, and, in Zuhair’s case, have almost certainly concluded (in a decision that has more to do with pragmatism than anything else), that if the Justice Department presented Ahmed Zuhair’s case before a habeas corpus judge (which was scheduled to happen in the near future), the government would be humiliated in court, as has happened in 25 of the 29 cases so far decided.

With more habeas cases scheduled, what I find most disturbing about the ongoing story of Guantánamo is not only that it took so long for nine men to be released, but also that the cases against many of the 230 men who remain are just as hollow as the case against Ahmed Zuhair, however significant they may appear when viewed through a distorting prism of paranoia and self-righteousness. In June 2008, when the Supreme Court ruled, in Boumediene v. Bush, that the prisoners at Guantánamo had habeas rights, Justice Kennedy called for cases to be dealt with swiftly, because “The costs of delay can no longer be borne by those who are held in custody.” And yet, one year later, either through Justice Department obstruction, or the slow deliberations of Obama’s Guantánamo Task Force, Justice Kennedy’s words have brought little comfort to the majority of the men still held without charge or trial.

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

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

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

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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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