Archive for June, 2009

Refugee Week at the BFI: Films By Libyan Exile Mohamed Maklouf

On Saturday, I was honoured to be invited along as a guest speaker at an event entitled, “Exile: Dreams and Nightmares” at the BFI (British Film Institute), part of an impressive week-long programme to mark Refugee Week. Saturday’s event featured four powerful documentaries by Mohamed Maklouf, a film-maker, journalist and Libyan exile, including “Home In Exile” (22 mins, 2007), which poignantly explores the experiences — and sense of loss — of Libyan exiles in the US and Germany, “Who’s Afraid of the Censor?” (11 mins, 2008) which takes an unflinching look at the ways in which the Egyptian regime stifles freedom of expression in the world of Egyptian independent cinema (2008, 11min), and “The Cage” (13 mins, 2005), a wonderfully expressionistic piece exploring the personal impact of exile. The latter is an independently produced film, but the first two were made for al-Jazeera International.

“Home In Exile” is available below (in two parts), and I urge you to watch it:

[Note 20/03/2017: The videos, which were here and here, seem to be no longer available].

Below is The Cage:

After the first two films were screened, David Somerset of the BFI’s Education Department, who organized the event, asked Mohamed to talk about his work, and also gave me an opportunity to talk about the experience of Libyan refugees (and refugees from other dictatorial regimes) who are regarded by the British government as “terror suspects,” but who, instead of being put on trial, are held on the basis of secret evidence that is not disclosed to them, and kept under virtual house arrest through the use of draconian control orders. These are topics that I have written about regularly, most recently in two articles, Death in Libya, betrayal in the West (for the Guardian), and Law Lords Condemn UK’s Use of Secret Evidence And Control Orders, and I’m delighted that, after coming across my work, Mohamed got in touch with me, and arranged with David for me to come along and talk.

The bitter irony — made all the more pointed after watching Mohamed’s films, which expose the brutality of the regimes in Libya and Egypt — is that these men, once friends to the West because of their opposition to Colonel Gaddafi, are now pawns in a deadly game that was initiated when Gaddafi, once the pariah and international terrorist, changed sides and became a friend to the West after the 9/11 attacks, and, overnight, they became terror suspects instead.

I hope to write more about Libya, and the West’s relationship to Colonel Gaddafi, in the near future, but in the meantime, for another sordid story (which involves the US, and its abominable use of “extraordinary rendition” and torture), see my recent world exclusive, New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi.

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.

It’s 25 Years Since The Last Stonehenge Free Festival

John MichellHappy solstice, everyone! As an estimated 30,000 people descend on a field in Wiltshire and its ever-inscrutable ancient stones, I’d like, first of all, to pay tribute to John Michell, English mystic, iconoclast and provocateur, who passed away on April 24, aged 76 (see obituaries in the Fortean Times, the Guardian, the Times, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph and the New York Times).

I last saw John at Megalithomania, a conference in Glastonbury in 2006. He had been asked to talk about The Old Stones of Land’s End, his pioneering work on leylines in West Penwith, and arrived, spliff in hand, with a box of slides which he promptly dropped on the floor. When he came to do his talk, his memories of trawling around Cornish fields were punctuated by a quietly hilarious slideshow, as pictures emerged in random order, and often upside down. “Here’s some lads on a stone, smoking,” he said, as a slide popped up of some Breton boys on a standing stone in the late 19th century. “They look like they’re having fun, don’t they?”

Ever the iconoclast, John had been a stout defender of the right to gather at Stonehenge, and was appalled when the free festival (see below) was terminated with appalling brutality at the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985. He immediately published one of his Radical Traditionalist pamphlets, “Stonehenge, Its History, Meaning, Festival, Unlawful Management, Police Riot ’85 & Future Prospects,” in which he cut to the heart of the conflict between the State and Stonehenge’s many non-establishment admirers, stating:

Those who knew not of Stonehenge, who had never experienced its weird and lasting attraction, were astounded. What is this old pile of rocks which inspires such intensity of popular religious feeling and such vicious expressions of official jealousy?

Stonehenge: Celebration and SubversionExactly five years ago, my first book, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion was published, which told, for the first time, the full story of “how the celebrations at Stonehenge have brought together different aspects of British counter-culture to make the monument a ‘living temple’ and an icon of alternative Britain,” and in the acknowledgments, I wrote that John’s “multi-faceted mysticism hovers over the whole book like a guardian angel,” an appraisal that still strikes me as true.

This year’s solstice is one of many anniversaries, not just the fifth anniversary of the publication of Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion (which, I’m glad to say, is still in print and available to buy), but also the 35th anniversary of the first Stonehenge Free Festival, and the 25th anniversary of the last Stonehenge Free Festival, before the events of the Battle of the Beanfield, which are chronicled in The Battle of the Beanfield (also still available) — a book I edited and compiled in 2005, and recalled in this recent article for the Guardian (and here) — brought the people’s celebrations at Stonehenge to an end for 16 long and strange years, in which, every solstice, the temple and its environs resembled a war zone.

It is also, I’m glad to note, the tenth anniversary of the reopening of Stonehenge on the summer solstice, following a momentous House of Lords ruling in 1999, which prevented the government from establishing an exclusion zone around the temple, and so, to mark all these anniversaries, I’m reproducing below some excerpts from Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion that deal with that first free festival in 1974 (inspired, elliptically, by John Michell), and its last manifestation, as a riotous outpouring of dissent in the midst of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, in 1984.

We begin in 1973, when the organizer of the first Stonehenge Free Festival, a charismatic young man called Phil Russell, first enters the picture.

1974: Phil Russell and the first Stonehenge Free Festival

Wally Hope (Phil Russell), founder of the Stonehenge Free FestivalAn orphan from a wealthy background, [Phil] was due to inherit land and property in Hertfordshire on his thirtieth birthday, but in the meantime was funded by a private allowance that left him free to pursue his own interests. In many ways, Phil was typical of the free festival agitators of the time — part acid prankster and part well-heeled dandy. In London, he fell in with a group called the Dwarves, “a kind of Notting Hill version of the Yippies in America: a joke-prankster group,” and adopted the name by which he became better known: Wally Hope. He took the name Wally from a popular festival cry (a kind of “Everyman” joke that arose when the crowd began echoing the name of a lost dog being summoned by his owner at the last Isle of Wight festival) and he had the word “Hope” embroidered on a shirt that “became his trademark: a riot of spectacular colour with the eye of Horus in the middle banked by a rainbow.”

Phil’s allowance also left him free to travel. He regularly visited America, where he sympathized with the plight of the Native Americans, Cyprus, his birthplace, and Ibiza, where he became entranced by the mythology of the sun. According to his friend Jeremy Ratter, who took the name Penny Rimbaud and who later co-founded the anarcho-punk collective Crass, it was at a well-known hippie café on the White Island that Phil first came up with the idea of a free festival at Stonehenge. He “wanted to claim back Stonehenge (a place that he regarded as sacred to the people and stolen by the government) and make it a site for free festivals, free music, free space, free mind.”

The two had met in the early 70s. Phil’s guardians lived near Jeremy’s commune in Essex, and one day Phil just turned up. Here the festival developed from its Mediterranean origins, filtered through his exposure to other cultures, his interest in the legends of King Arthur, and his central fascination with sun worship. It was at the commune, moreover, that he revealed aspects of himself that were significantly different from the other privileged individuals who had set up the festivals in Hyde Park and Glastonbury.

According to Jeremy, it was during the preparations for the first Stonehenge Free Festival that Phil performed miracles: “One day in our garden, it was early summer, he conjured up a snowstorm, huge white flakes falling amongst the daisies on the lawn. Another time he created a multi-rainbowed sky — it was as if he had cut up a rainbow and thrown the pieces into the air where they hung in strange random patterns. Looking back on it now it seems unbelievable but, all the same, I can remember both occasions vividly.” On another occasion, beating out rhythms with sticks on the dying embers of a fire, Jeremy was convinced that he and Phil were “speaking to each other ritually by ESP in an acid-religious ceremony without drugs.” It was after this experience that he allowed Phil to use the facilities of the commune to organize the first festival at Stonehenge.

The first Stonehenge Free Festival duly took place at the summer solstice in 1974, alongside a by-way just a few hundred yards to the west of the stones. Despite a leafleting campaign and promotion by Radio Caroline, it was a small gathering, numbering about 500 people at the most. The only music was provided by early synth pioneers Zorch, who set up stage facing the stones, and who had to compete with a wonky PA system.

It was obviously a slightly surreal affair. Tim Abbott, a friend of Russell’s and later a councillor in Wilton, recalled that “Rhonan O’Rahilly of Radio Caroline sat in his limousine suffering badly from hayfever and muttering about private television coverage of the proceedings being broadcast to Europe from an aircraft above the North Sea.” Nik Turner of Hawkwind, who stopped by for a few hours on the way back from Wales to London, seems to have been at a different event: “There were no bands, no PA, no stage. It was just a gathering of people to celebrate the solstice.”

Roger Hutchinson's poster for the second Stonehenge Free Festival, 1975

Roger Hutchinson’s poster for the second Stonehenge Free Festival in 1975. © Roger Hutchinson.

Phil Russell’s fence-hopping antics may have had little impact if the festival had stopped soon after the solstice was over, but by this time he’d persuaded thirty people to stay on in the field beside the stone circle. They styled themselves “The Wallies of Wessex” and lived a makeshift, communal lifestyle in tents, a rickety polythene-covered geodesic dome and a small fluorescent tipi. Nigel Ayers, who visited at the time, said, “It was an open camp, inspired by a diversity of wild ideas, but with the common purpose of discovering the relevance of this ancient mysterious place by the physical experience of spending a lot of time there.”

The Wallies went to court in August, in the newspapers’ silly season, and the story was widely reported. They included in their number Sir Wally Raleigh and Wally Woof the Dog, they gave their address as “Fort Wally, c/o God, Jesus and Buddha, Garden of Allah, Stonehenge Monument, Salisbury, Wiltshire,” and they had a snappy motto: “Every Body is Wally, Every Day is Sun Day.” The fancy dress went down well too, with Phil appearing in the uniform of an officer of the Cypriot National Guard. When they lost the case, Phil told the press: “These legal arguments are like a cannon ball bouncing backwards and forwards in blancmange. We won, because we hold Stonehenge in our hearts. We are not squatters, we are men of God. We want to plant a Garden of Eden with apricots and cherries, where there will be guitars instead of guns and the sun will be our nuclear bomb.”

1984: the biggest free festival in British history

My first visit to the Stonehenge festival took place in 1983, and in Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion I described how “this seasonal settlement of impossibly weathered and wildly decorated tents, tipis, vans, buses and old army vehicles was little short of a revelation, an alternative state within Thatcher’s Britain that seemed to have rooted itself to the ancient sacred landscape with nonchalant ease.”

In The Battle of the Beanfield, I added, “I returned the following year, to discover, like so many others in their late teens and early twenties, that this edgy, exuberant, anarchic jamboree still provided a thrilling antidote to the grim reality of everyday life under the Tories.”

And this was how I described the 1984 festival in Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion:

Against [a] backdrop of concerted political activity, widespread social agitation and a deeper, darker undercurrent of anger and frustration that was to see riots breaking out across the inner cities once more, the Stonehenge Free Festival grew even larger in 1984. Despite the continuing problems of managing the unmanageable without any official leadership, conspicuous problems were tackled head-on. Heroin dealers were dealt with even more sharply than the year before, and a burnt-out car, dumped at the entrance, carried an explicit warning: “This was a smack dealer’s car.”

The main drag at the Stonehenge Free Festival, 1984

The main drag at the Stonehenge Free Festival, 1984. © Ian Oakley.

Overall, there were reasons for those involved in the organization of the festival to feel, as the Festival Zone website put it, that “the fun far outweighed the fear.” The unprecedented mingling of the tribes continued unabated, breaking down social barriers that were all too noticeable in the “real” world, and [festival veteran] John Pendragon tried to counter the drift towards chaos by establishing a mini-festival within the larger festival, a dealer-free zone with its own stage that sought to recreate the spirit of the early gatherings. He was also one of the founder members — along with the pagan George Firsoff — of “Robin’s Greenwood Gang,” another internal organization that was set up to counter the damage caused to the nearby woods through a process of guidance and education.

Musically, there was a more diverse line-up than ever before, and even the traditional headliners, Hawkwind, tried to top their performance of the year before (when they’d played a two-hour set at sunrise on solstice morning) with a conceptual performance — Earth Ritual — that was spread over two days.

Most spectacularly of all, on solstice morning the fences came down, the sun shone out in all its summer glory, and the Druids and the festival-goers were once more at the stones together. There were pagan weddings, children were blessed, there was nakedness, and all manner of other rituals were performed, from the profound to the impenetrable. For myself, the occupation of Stonehenge was an opportunity to appreciate for the first time the sheer scale of the monument and the skill of its construction, giving me a visceral rush of astonishment and admiration that has not left me to this day, despite the fact that, behind the scenes, the authorities responsible for the temple and its immediate environment — the government, English Heritage (a quango that took over management of the monument on 1 April 1984), the National Trust, local landowners and the police — were already working on plans that would deny access to the stones at the summer solstice for the overwhelming majority of people for another sixteen years.

Summer solstice in the stones, 1984. Photo by Alan Lodge.

Summer solstice in the stones, 1984. © Alan Lodge.

I wish everyone a peaceful and happy solstice. Have fun for John Michell, who knew more than most that it was not worth taking life too seriously. In an interview with the Observer, he said, “My pursuits are a joke in that the universe is a joke. One has to reflect the universe faithfully.”

Also see: Stonehenge and the summer solstice: past and present (June 2008), which has more photos.

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.

WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi

Ibn al-Shaykh al-LibiIn a world exclusive, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files, reveals new information, from a source in Libya, about Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the former US “ghost prisoner” who died in a Libyan jail last month, focusing, in particular, on the prisons in which he was held, and the ways in which torture was used by his interrogators.

Since the story first emerged last month that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (whose real name was Ali Abdul Hamid al-Fakheri) had died in a Libyan prison, speculation has been rife that the Libyan newspaper Oea, which claimed that he had died by committing suicide, was covering up the fact that he had actually been murdered.

Once the Bush administration’s most famous “ghost prisoner,” al-Libi had been the emir of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, but his notoriety stemmed not from his own activities, but from the fact that, after his capture in December 2001, he was rendered by the CIA to Egypt, where, under torture, he made a false confession that two al-Qaeda operatives had been receiving information from Saddam Hussein about the use of chemical and biological weapons, which was subsequently used to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

The death of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi

There were several signs to indicate that the story of al-Libi’s death was suspicious. Oea is owned by one of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons, and, as Hafed al-Ghwell, a Libyan-American and a prominent critic of the Gaddafi regime, explained to Newsweek, “This idea of committing suicide in your prison cell is an old story in Libya.” He added that, throughout Gaddafi’s 40-year rule, there had been several instances in which political prisoners were reported to have committed suicide, but that “then the families get the bodies back and discover the prisoners had been shot in the back or tortured to death.”

In addition, two Human Rights Watch researchers had briefly met al-Libi in the courtyard of Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison just two weeks before his death, and, although he refused to talk to them, they said that he “looked well,” and it was also revealed in the days after his death that lawyers for Abu Zubaydah, another former “ghost prisoner,” who was sent to Guantánamo in September 2006, had been attempting to make contact with al-Libi as a possible witness in any forthcoming trial involving their client.

A week after the death, Newsweek reported that US officials “are skeptical about the supposed suicide,” and that the Obama administration “is pressing the Libyan government to explain” al-Libi’s death. Speaking anonymously, an administration official “familiar with the case” told Newsweek, “We want answers. We want to know what really happened here.”

The Newsweek article also explained that US officials feared that al-Libi’s death “could reopen questions about the [CIA]’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program and further complicate the president’s plans to shut down the Guantánamo Bay detention center.” I have no idea how al-Libi’s death could possibly impact on President Obama’s plans to close Guantánamo, but when it comes to asking uncomfortable questions about the Bush administration’s program of “extraordinary rendition” and torture, involving secret prisons run by the CIA, and other prisons in third countries, the Newsweek article was certainly accurate.

New revelations about al-Libi’s torture

Following al-Libi’s death, disturbing details of his detention in at least seven different locations around the world have emerged in statements made by a source inside Libya. This source, who wishes to remain anonymous for his own safety and for the safety of his family, has stated that he met al-Libi at the prison before his death, and that al-Libi explained to him what had happened to him in the four years and three months between his capture and his rendition to Libya in the spring of 2006.

The story that al-Libi told to this source in Abu Salim prison was related to me by former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes, who was just a teenager when he arrived in the UK in the 1980s from Libya, where his father, a lawyer and trade union activist, had been murdered by the Gaddafi regime. I cannot, of course, verify the details of the story Deghayes told me via the source in Libya, as al-Libi’s death brought to an end any possibility that he would one day be able to explain what happened to him at the hands of US forces, the Libyan authorities and others involved in his rendition and torture, but so many of the details correspond with facts that have already been established through other research, that it seems certain to me that the story is true.

According to Deghayes, the Libyan source explained that al-Libi told him that, after his capture, when he was held briefly in Afghanistan (in the US prison at Kandahar airport, and on the USS Bataan, according to a previous report – PDF), he was rendered to Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Jordan, and was then rendered back to Afghanistan, where he was held in three separate prisons run by, or under the control of the CIA. He also explained that he was subjected to torture in all these locations, and provided disturbing details of how he was manipulated by his interrogators.

Torture in Egypt and Mauritania

These countries have all been mentioned in previous reports, but some of the details are new. Al-Libi’s time in Egypt, of course, is where the notorious lie about al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein was extracted, which, incidentally, should be hurled in the face of former Vice President Cheney, every time he is invited onto a TV show to repeat his claims that torture saved the US from further terrorist attacks — and to ignore the crucial role he played in actually using torture to launch an illegal war.

The purported secret prison in MauritaniaFrom Egypt, according to the Libyan source, al-Libi was rendered to a prison in Mauritania. This too has been mentioned before, in an article in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh in June 2007, which followed revelations in the Washington Post in November 2005 that the CIA had used a secret prison in Poland to hold “high-value detainees” (and, apparently, another in Rumania for “lower-level prisoners from Afghanistan and Iraq”). In December 2005, ABC News reported that eleven “high-value detainees” — including al-Libi — had been held in Poland (a list is here), and in the New Yorker Hersh explained how he had been told that Mauritania was chosen as a new location when the existence of the Polish prison was revealed:

I was told by the former senior intelligence official and a government consultant that after the existence of secret CIA prisons in Europe was revealed, in the Washington Post, in late 2005, the Administration responded with a new detainee center in Mauritania. After a new government friendly to the US took power, in a bloodless coup d’état in August 2005, they said, it was much easier for the intelligence community to mask secret flights there.

The problem with this story for the chronology that al-Libi told the Libyan source is that he did not mention being held in Poland at all, and indicated that he had been moved to Mauritania after being held in Egypt, presumably sometime in 2002 or 2003. It may be that the source was mistaken, although it is also possible that the US administration arranged a deal at this time, as officials were working closely with the Mauritanian government after the 9/11 attacks. Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian national who lived in Germany and had been in contact with the 9/11 attackers, was handed over to US agents in November 2001, prompting him to state, in his tribunal at Guantánamo, “My country turned me over, shortcutting all kinds of due process of law, like a candy bar to the United States.” Slahi also stated that US agents had interrogated him in Mauritania a month before, when one of them threatened to bring in “black people” to torture him.

Torture in Morocco and Jordan

From Mauritania, al-Libi said that he was taken to Morocco. Little has emerged about this claim previously, although the author and journalist Peter Bergen noted in a major survey of “extraordinary rendition” last year that Morocco was one of the countries in which al-Libi was held, and if he was indeed rendered there in late 2002 or sometime in 2003, it would have corresponded with the time that the British resident Binyam Mohamed was held (between July 2002 and January 2004), when there was clearly an active relationship involving the use of torture that was negotiated between the US and Moroccan governments.

Double Jeopardy, a 2008 report by Human Rights WatchFrom there, al-Libi said, he was rendered to Jordan, to a detention facility run by the notorious GID (General Intelligence Department). In a report in April 2008, entitled “Double Jeopardy,” Human Rights Watch found that at least 14 non-Jordanian prisoners had been rendered by the CIA to Jordanian custody between 2001 and 2004, and a former prisoner held in 2004-05 told a researcher that “a guard spoke of a Libyan prisoner who had been rendered by the Americans,” and that he “thought the prisoner’s name was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, but he was not certain.” The ex-prisoner also explained that this Libyan prisoner was “held on the very top floor of the GID facility, away from all the other prisoners,” and that a guard had told him,

They were hiding some Libyan guy who had been handed over by the Americans to be interrogated. They didn’t want the ICRC to know about him. And they didn’t want the Libyan to know where he was. So they chose dark-skinned guards, and they put the guards in green trousers and yellow shirts, so the Libyan thought he was in Africa.

Human Rights Watch also noted that another source, who had had contact with al-Libi, said that he believed that he was held in Jordan “for a couple of months,” and I find this mention of “a couple of months” particularly interesting, because it fits with the Libyan source’s proposal that al-Libi was not held for up to two years in Egypt, as previous reports have tended to suggest, but was in fact moved over a two-year period between Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Jordan until, if the author and journalist Stephen Grey is correct, he was rendered back to Bagram on November 22, 2003, to a secret part of the prison, run by the CIA, that was known as “The Hangar.”

Identifying other prisoners through the use of torture

What makes this scenario even more compelling, however, is the Libyan source’s comment — never previously reported — that, in each prison, other “terror suspects” were brought before al-Libi, and he was required to identify those that he knew — or, under torture, those that he didn’t know.

This partly ties in with the report of his death in the Oea newspaper, which noted that “he had left Libya in 1986 to travel to Morocco, Mauritania and then to Saudi Arabia where he was recruited in 1990 to join Islamist militants in Afghanistan” (in other words, that he spent time in two countries where he was later rendered by the CIA), and also indicates that he was, essentially, taken on a torture tour of prisons in Africa and the Middle East to identify those who had trained at Khaldan — or, again, those who hadn’t, but who were implicated through the use of torture.

Under non-coercive conditions, with skilled interrogators like the FBI operatives who initially interrogated al-Libi after his capture (before CIA agents took over, sealed him in a tiny box and sent him to Egypt, while one agent told him, “You’re going to Cairo, you know. Before you get there I’m going to find your mother and I’m going to f*** her”), it’s possible that this approach would have yielded genuine intelligence, but in the circumstances that actually prevailed — in which waterboarding produced the false confession about the link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein — the picture conjured up is of a terrifying kind of international witch hunt, about as far removed from notions of justice, the pursuit of truth and government accountability as is imaginable.

Moreover, the story becomes even more chilling with the realization that prisoners were also repeatedly shown photographs of other “terror suspects” to identify. No reports confirm that this also happened to al-Libi, but it is inconceivable that it did not take place, and on a regular basis, because it happened to every other prisoner regarded as having intelligence value. One was Ali al-Hajj al-Sharqawi (also identified as Abdu Ali Sharqawi), a Yemeni seized in Karachi in February 2002. Rendered by the CIA to Jordan, where he was held for two years before being rendered to Afghanistan and then Guantánamo, where he is still held, al-Sharqawi explained, in a note written while in GID detention in 2002, which was later smuggled out of the prison,

I was being interrogated all the time, in the evening and in the day. I was shown thousands of photos, and I really mean thousands, I am not exaggerating … And in between all this you have the torture, the abuse, the cursing, humiliation. They had threatened me with being sexually abused and electrocuted. I was told that if I wanted to leave with permanent disability both mental and physical, that that could be arranged. They said they had all the facilities of Jordan to achieve that. I was told that I had to talk, I had to tell them everything.

Al-Sharqawi also explained, as Human Rights Watch described it, that “GID interrogators were extremely eager to provide information to the CIA.” In his prison note, he stated,

Every time that the interrogator asks me about a certain piece of information, and I talk, he asks me if I told this to the Americans. And if I say no he jumps for joy, and he leaves me and goes to report it to his superiors, and they rejoice.

Human Rights Watch also stated that al-Sharqawi “later told his lawyers that one of his Jordanian interrogators acknowledged that he was asking questions that the Americans had provided.”

Another detailed account was provided by Abu Hamza al-Tabuki, a Saudi national, seized in Karachi, Pakistan, in late 2001 and returned to Saudi Arabia in late 2002 or early 2003 (and later released), who wrote an account of his experiences that was made available to Human Rights Watch by a former prisoner who had been held with him.

As Human Rights Watch explained in its report, “Al-Tabuki claimed that the point of the abuse was to obtain information, even false information” and in his account he wrote,

The questions focused on Osama bin Laden and his wives and children, his location, and on members of al-Qaeda. I was shown pictures of bearded and non-bearded Yemeni, Saudi, Jordanian, and Egyptian individuals. I was asked the names of these individuals, and forced to identify them even if I didn’t know them. Many times, I even made up names for them because I did not know who they were and was forced under physical duress to identify them.

They tortured me a great deal in order to make me confess to them about the American targets that al-Qaeda was planning to hit, even though I had no knowledge about that. They even forced me, through torture, to make up fictitious targets, about which they could report to the Americans. Their [American] masters would later discover that these were empty threats, and that such targets were made up under torture.

Torture in Afghanistan

The US base - and prison - at BagramAccording to the Libyan source, after his imprisonment in Jordan, al-Libi was rendered to Afghanistan, where he spent time in three prisons run by the CIA: “The Hangar” inside Bagram airbase, the “Dark Prison” near Kabul, where dozens of prisoners were held, and another prison in the Panjshir valley, in the mountains north of Kabul, which was the home of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, who was assassinated just two days before the 9/11 attacks.

Few researchers have come across the use of the Panjshir prison as part of a network of secret prisons used by the CIA in Afghanistan, but it was mentioned briefly last summer in the trial by Military Commission of Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, when the judge in the case, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, ruled out the use of any testimony obtained when he was held in the Panjshir prison shortly after his capture — and where, according to Hamdan, CIA agents “repeatedly tied him up, put a bag over his head and knocked him to the ground” — because of the “highly coercive environments and conditions under which they were made.”

Furthermore, Omar Deghayes told me that, in Guantánamo, another prisoner had spoken about being held with al-Libi in the Panjshir prison. That prisoner — who is still held — is Sanad al-Kazimi, a Yemeni seized in the United Arab Emirates in January 2003, who was then rendered to secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan — including the “Dark Prison” — where he was tortured for a year and eight months before being transferred to Guantánamo.

abuyahyaallibiIn my book The Guantánamo Files, I also discussed the Panjshir prison, as it was mentioned by Abu Yahya al-Libi, one of four prisoners who escaped from Bagram in July 2005, in a post on an obscure French language website, which has since disappeared from the Internet. Abu Yahya al-Libi described 12 prisoners who were held with him in Bagram (only some of whom were subsequently transferred to Guantánamo), and explained how they had passed through a network of secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan, including Panjshir, where they had all endured “hard torture.” He did not mention Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, but he did provide the most extraordinary insight into the location of the prison, explaining that, in February 2004, he and an Algerian prisoner called Abdul Haq (whose current whereabouts are unknown) had actually escaped from the Panjshir prison for a day and a half, before being recaptured in the “driving snow and freezing cold” of the mountains.

A disturbing conclusion

As with many of the details of al-Libi’s story, it is difficult to know how accurate is the chronology proposed by the Libyan source. It seems plausible to me that, after 22 months in Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Jordan, he arrived at Bagram on November 22, 2003, as Stephen Grey stated, and was then held in Afghanistan for approximately two years and four months before his return to Libya.

However, it’s also possible that he was held in Poland, but did not know where he was (as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross that he only worked out that he was held in Poland when he saw a label in Polish on a bottle of mineral water), and it’s also worth noting that what is also missing from the Libyan account is any mention of Guantánamo, even though it has long been suspected that the CIA ran a secret prison within the grounds of the naval base, but separate from the other prison blocks.

This was first reported in the Washington Post in December 2004, when Dana Priest wrote that, inside the naval base, “the CIA has maintained a detention facility for valuable al-Qaeda captives that has never been mentioned in public, according to military officials and several current and former intelligence officers.” Priest also noted that the secret prison “housed detainees from Pakistan, West Africa, Yemen and other countries under the strictest secrecy,” according to her sources, and that a US official who had recently visited the base told her, “People are constantly leaving and coming.”

At the time, Priest noted, “It is unclear whether the facility is still in operation today,” but the widespread presumption is that it closed down sometime after June 2004, after the Supreme Court ruled, in Rasul v. Bush, that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights, paving the way for lawyers to visit the prisoners, and thereby breaking the shroud of secrecy, which, until that point, had successfully covered the prison and its workings. Perhaps even more significantly, however, Omar Deghayes told me that rumors of the secret prison’s existence — and of the presence of “high-value detainees,” including Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi — were also widespread within Guantánamo.

In the end, though, what is most significant about al-Libi’s torture tour through US proxy prisons and prisons run by the CIA is the realization that, throughout his long ordeal, US interrogators or their proxies were persistently using torture to secure information from him about other prisoners and other suspects — either in the presence of these men, or through the use of photographs — that was just as unreliable as his “confession” about the connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and that these other “confessions” must, in turn, have led to further arrests and further torture, with a cumulative effect that is truly mind-boggling in its scale.

A corollary about Khaldan

As if this were not disturbing enough, what no one wants to talk about is the fact that, throughout his years as the emir of the Khaldan training camp, al-Libi was not connected to al-Qaeda. An independent operator, and a veteran of the mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, al-Libi was committed to providing military training to mujahideen from around the world, including those who wanted to continue the struggle against the Soviet Union in Chechnya.

This does not, of course, mean that he was not a dangerous figure, as alumni of his camp apparently included Zacarias Moussaoui, a failed 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, and the failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid (both of whom are serving life sentences in the US), and the interest of others who attended the camp was focused on terrorist operations in North Africa and Europe, but it does indicate that the Bush administration’s insistence on relating all mujahideen activity to al-Qaeda was severely misplaced, and also demonstrates that “terrorist training” — or “preparation for jihad” — was a broad field that included training in self-defense and preparation for military activity on behalf of other Muslims, as well as what we generally understand as terrorism.

Abu ZubaydahIn the case of the Khaldan camp, for example, it is rarely, if ever mentioned that al-Libi’s refusal to cooperate with Osama bin Laden led to the Taliban closing the camp in 2000, even though this story emerged at Guantánamo on two separate occasions, and has ramifications not only for al-Libi’s case, but also for that of Abu Zubaydah. A supposed “high-value detainee,” Zubaydah is routinely described as a “senior al-Qaeda operative,” even though, according to Dan Coleman of the FBI, an old-school interrogator who was involved in his case before the CIA took over, and who was implacably opposed to the use of torture, he was nothing more than “a ‘safehouse keeper’ with mental problems who claimed to know more about al-Qaeda and its inner workings than he really did.”

Coleman’s view was reinforced at Guantánamo by Khalid al-Hubayshi, a Saudi who was subsequently released from Guantánamo, who explained in his tribunal that, far from being a mastermind, Abu Zubaydah was responsible for “receiving people and financing the camp [Khaldan],” that he once bought him travel tickets, and that he was the man he went to when he needed a replacement passport. Al-Hubayshi also noted that Zubaydah did not have a long-standing relationship with bin Laden. When asked, “When you were with Abu Zubaydah, did you ever see Osama bin Laden?” he replied, “In 1998, Abu Zubaydah and Osama bin Laden didn’t like each other,” and adding, “In 2001, I think the relationship was okay.” Although al-Hubayshi did not mention al-Libi, he also explained that bin Laden put pressure on Zubaydah to close Khaldan, essentially because he wanted to run more camps himself.

In 2007, after Abu Zubaydah and 13 other “high-value detainees” had been transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons, Zubaydah was finally allowed to speak in his tribunal, when he explained that he was tortured by the CIA to admit that he worked with Osama bin Laden, but insisted, “I’m not his partner and I’m not a member of al-Qaeda.” He also explained that his only role was to operate a guest house used by those who were training at Khaldan, and confirmed al-Hubayshi’s analysis of his relationship with bin Laden, saying, “Bin Laden wanted al-Qaeda to have control of Khaldan, but we refused since we had different ideas.”

His comments took on even more significance this week, when the ACLU, having managed, through a Freedom of Information lawsuit, to force the CIA to review passages in his testimony that had been censored in 2007, released a new version of the tribunal transcript (PDF), which included Zubaydah stating that, after CIA operatives tortured him to admit that he was bin Laden’s partner and the number three in al-Qaeda, “They told me sorry we discover that you are not number three, not a partner even not a fighter.”

Moreover, Abu Zubaydah explained that he opposed attacks on civilian targets, which brought him into conflict with bin Laden, and although he admitted that he had been an enemy of the United States since childhood, because of its support for Israel, pointed out that his enmity was towards the government and the military, and not the American people. The same may have been true of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, whose motivation appears to have focused more on providing training for Muslims to overcome oppression in their homelands, and in countries where Muslims were being oppressed, than on signing up for bin Laden’s global jihad against the United States. However, unless documents ever come to light providing details of his interrogations, his death last month — in circumstances that seem to have benefited both the Libyan and American governments, as the US flag was raised over the American embassy in Tripoli for the first time in 30 years, just three days after his death — means that we will never know for certain.

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?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison , Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA). 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.

Guantánamo’s Youngest Prisoner, Mohammed El-Gharani, Is Imprisoned In Chad

Mohammed El-Gharani, photographed before his captureDisturbing news from the legal action charity Reprieve, which reports that Mohammed El-Gharani, who was released from Guantánamo one week ago, “is still detained by the police in Chad — with no prospect of release.” Seized by Pakistani forces in a random raid on a mosque in Karachi and sold to US forces, El-Gharani was just 14 years old at the time, and was treated appallingly in Pakistani custody, and in US custody in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, before a judge finally ruled in January that the US government had failed to establish a case against him — having relied solely on information provided by unreliable witnesses in Guantánamo — and ordered his release.

Chris Chang, an investigator with Reprieve, and Ahmed Ghappour, an attorney, returned yesterday from a trip to Chad in which they had hoped to celebrate Mohammed’s freedom, but were “dismayed and disappointed” to discover that he is now a prisoner of the Chadian authorities, “sleeping on a cot in a police station while his family waits anxiously outside.” They added, “Mohammed cannot leave the main police headquarters without authorization from the Head of the Judicial Police, and even after obtaining that permission he is accompanied by a police officer wherever he goes. He has asked on several occasions to be released and reunited with his family but continues to be told, ‘Just another night, Mohammed.’” They also said that there has been no public announcement in Chad regarding his return and that he has been forbidden from speaking to the media.

In a press release, Chris Chang stated, “For over two years the Chadian government has worked with Reprieve to fight for Mohammed’s freedom and resettlement in his native Chad. It is appalling that he continues to be held. This is not freedom.” Ahmed Ghappour added, “Mohammed’s detention defies even Chadian law, where you cannot be held longer than 48 hours without being charged with a crime. What is disturbing about this ordeal is the Chadian government’s insistence that Mohammed is not a prisoner, mirroring the doublespeak used by the US towards the end of Mohammed’s term. He was designated a ‘freed detainee’ for months before his transfer to Chad.”

In spite of the media ban, Reprieve managed to secure a single poignant comment from El-Gharani, after asking him what his hopes are for the future. “I just want to be free,” he said.

Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s director, added, “Enough is enough. Mohammed has suffered seven years of abuse and illegal imprisonment from the age of 14. Our lawyers have proved his innocence and it is disgraceful that he is still not free. We call on the Chad government to show compassion to Mohammed and his family and release him immediately.”

UPDATE 7 pm: AFP reports that El-Gharani has now been freed. National police chief General Youssouf Chakir told the agency, “He was freed at 4:30 pm (1530 GMT). He was handed over to his uncle to return to his home.” He added that he was “not charged with any crime.” AFP also reported that Interior Minister Ahmat Mahamat Bashir said before his release that El-Gharani was subject to “our own investigations and verification of his Chadian nationality.” He added, “We were sent someone without any documents, no papers on him, not even a legal paper. We don’t know on what judicial basis he was freed.”

This explanation seems highly unlikely, as Reprieve had been working closely with the government of Chad for many years, to establish who El-Gharani was, and why the basis for his detention was groundless. This suggests that his detention for a week was perhaps related to internal politics, and that his sudden release this afternoon, just hours after Reprieve issued its press release, came about because the Chadian government was unwilling to put itself in a position where it faced scrutiny from outside the country, which would not have reflected well on its reluctance to send El-Gharani back to his family.

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.

Britain’s Torture Troubles: What Tony Blair Knew

Former British Prime Minister Tony BlairIn a front-page story today, “Tony Blair knew of secret policy on terror interrogations,” the Guardian follows up on the story of Britain’s secret interrogation policy for terror suspects abroad (which I reported here, based on David Miliband’s testimony on Tuesday to the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs), stating that former Prime Minister Tony Blair “was aware of the existence of a secret interrogation policy which effectively led to British citizens, and others, being ­tortured during counter-terrorism investigations.”

The Guardian explained that the post-9/11 policy “offered ­guidance to MI5 and MI6 officers ­questioning detainees in Afghanistan whom they knew were being mistreated by the US military,” providing intelligence agents with written instructions that they could not “be seen to condone” torture and must not “engage in any activity yourself that involves inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners,” although, as the Guardian described it, “they were also told they were not under any obligation to intervene to prevent detainees from being mistreated.” As stated in the policy, “Given that they are not within our custody or control, the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this.”

The Guardian proceeded to explain that the policy, which was “set out in written instructions sent to MI5 and MI6 officers in January 2002,” also informed them that they “might consider complaining to US officials about the mistreatment of detainees ‘if circumstances allow,’” and noted that Tony Blair had “indicated his awareness of the existence of the policy” in 2004, shortly after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke.

It was at this time, as David Miliband explained on Tuesday, that the policy changed. Miliband stated that, “Before 2004 the guidance was informal, after 2004 it was more formal. It is now comprehensive, including comprehensive legal advice to all officers.” In May 2004, Blair acknowledged his awareness of what was going on by writing to the Intelligence and ­Security Committee (the government’s own security watchdog), and stating that, rather than considering making a ­complaint, “UK intelligence personnel interviewing or witnessing the interviews of detainees are instructed to report if they believe detainees are being treated in an inhumane or degrading way.”

The Guardian added that it “has learned from a ­reliable source that MI5 officers are now instructed that if a detainee tells them that he or she is being tortured they should never return to question that person,” but there is a vagueness to that use of the word “should” that would not be there if the word “must” was used instead, and, moreover, David Miliband’s attempt to explain that the policy was “informal” before 2004 has now been revealed to have been less than honest.

What happened instead, it is clear, is that there was a formal policy in 2002, and that this was revised after 2004, but even so, recent scandals focusing on British knowledge of — or direct involvement in — interrogations involving torture in countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt suggest that Britain is still complicit in torture, and that ministers should, therefore, be worried about their accountability.

Although the Guardian noted that it “remains unclear what Blair knew of the policy’s consequences,” the article’s author, Ian Cobain, added that “the discovery that Blair was aware of the secret interrogation policy appears certain to fuel the growing demand for an independent inquiry into aspects of the UK’s role in torture and rendition,” and explained that the list of prominent figures who have so far called for an inquiry includes the Conservative leader David Cameron, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, Ken Macdonald, a former director of public prosecutions, Lord Carlile, the government’s independent reviewer of counter-­terrorism legislation, former foreign secretary Lord Howe, and Lord Guthrie, a former chief of defence staff.

In an article for the Guardian’s Comment is free, lawyers Philippe Sands and Alex Bailin explained why ministers should be worried, noting that, although the English courts have not interpreted Article 4 of the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, which criminalises “an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture,” and that any future case for prosecution “will turn on its particular facts,” existing rulings in international law, decided before 2002, when the British government’s secret intelligence policy was formulated, “­provided guidance on the standard needed to avoid charges of complicity.”

Sands and Bailin provided a few salient examples, and also pointed out that, in a House of Lords judgment in December 2005, seven Law Lords, ruling on evidence obtained through the use of torture in the cases of up to 30 foreign terror suspects held without charge or trial in the UK, declared unanimously that information extracted through the use of torture is not admissible in any British courts (reversing an appeals court ruling that stated that such evidence “could be used if it was obtained abroad from third parties and if Britain had not condoned or connived in the torture”). In the ruling, Lord Bingham added that “the prohibition of torture requires member states to do more than eschew the practice of torture.”

Sands and Bailin also cited Martin Scheinin, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, who reported in February that British intelligence personnel had “interviewed detainees who were held incommunicado by the Pakistani ISI in so-called safe houses, where they were being tortured,” and added that this “can be ­reasonably understood as implicitly condoning torture.”

Their conclusion was suitably stark:

On these principles it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the 2002 “instructions” were incompatible with Britain’s international obligations. They may have caused ­British personnel to cross a line into complicity, with ­responsibility ensnaring ministers who approved a policy which basically said: so long as you don’t directly participate in physical abuse you can press on with interviews, passing on questions.

That, presumably, is why the policy changed in 2004, after the Abu Ghraib abuses came to light. And that is why we need a full inquiry on the evolution of the policy: who decided what and when.

I would only add, in light of the post-2004 complicity mentioned above, that we also need assurances that British complicity in torture will no longer be tolerated, and that — moving beyond issues of accountability — the British government recognizes the corrosive effects that the use of information extracted through the use of torture has on those caught up in it. These include Rangzieb Ahmed, the man from Rochdale who was tortured in Pakistani custody and then sentenced to life after a trial in the UK, largely, it seems, on the basis of this information, and the many foreign and British nationals held without charge or trial in the UK based on the use of secret evidence (some of which was also obtained through torture), who are paying far too heavy a price for the government’s refusal to accept that evidence obtained through torture is unreliable and morally corrosive, and that making use of it is illegal under international law.

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

Miliband Shows Leadership, Reveals Nothing About Torture To Parliamentary Committee

David Miliband, the British foreign secretaryIs it possible to get the truth about torture out of the British government, or is it easier to get blood out of a stone? I ask only because on Tuesday, in another polished performance — which shows that he has the skills under pressure that might one day come in useful if there is a party left to lead — David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, told the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee that he was not allowed to reveal anything about the British intelligence services’ secret interrogation policy for dealing with terror suspects because of Parliament’s “sub judice” resolution.

Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the legal action charity Reprieve, came across the existence of the “sub judice” resolution three weeks ago, when he tried to tell the Committee about the previously unknown existence of a British spy who had been sent to talk to the British resident Binyam Mohamed, while he was being held incommunicado in Morocco, even though the UK government has long maintained that it had not been informed where he was being held by the United States. The resolution states that “cases in which proceedings are active in United Kingdom courts shall not be referred to in any motion, debate or question,” and it appears, from Miliband’s performance on Tuesday, that the resolution is therefore being used to prevent Parliament — and all who sail in her, however temporarily — from discussing Mohamed’s case at all.

As I explained in the Guardian at the time, Stafford Smith subsequently sent a letter to Mike Gapes MP, the chair of the Committee, stating that, “If these rules were interpreted in accordance with the advice given to you, and consistently applied, this would eviscerate parliament’s function. Indeed, if the advice given to you was truly a reflection of the parliamentary rule, then a swathe of MPs and Lords are already in violation of it. With due respect, it is clear that the advice is wrong, and serves to limit debate without furthering any legitimate interest of the courts.”

He also pointed out, “If, as is true in Binyam Mohamed’s case, the courts allow complete public discussion of the case, then parliamentarians are the only people in Britain (indeed, the world) who are not permitted to talk about something as significant as the torture of Binyam Mohamed.”

After Tuesday’s performance, Stafford Smith told me that David Miliband’s use of the resolution demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that the government was using it as “an excuse not to discuss its crimes,” and this is undoubtedly correct. What makes it even more galling is that, just three months ago, in the wake of mounting criticism of the intelligence services’ activities (and the launch of a police investigation into the MI5 agents who visited Binyam Mohamed in Pakistan before his “extraordinary rendition” to Morocco), Prime Minister Gordon Brown ordered the secret interrogation policy to be rewritten, and also promised that it would be made public. However, on Tuesday, when pressed, David Miliband essentially took a leaf out of the Bush administration’s handbook, stating that the existing policy would never be revealed, even after current court cases have come to an end, because to do so would “lend succour to our enemies.”

As the Guardian explained, Miliband sounded the right notes about torture, telling the committee, “We would never procure intelligence, or procure evidence through torture. We would never say to another intelligence agency, ‘Please get us information about X’ and, you know, abandon our legal and ethical commitments in respect of how you find that.” However, the Guardian also noted that “[e]vidence heard in court has contradicted” the foreign secretary’s assertion.

The Guardian cited the case of Rangzieb Ahmed, from Rochdale, and explained how, last September, Manchester Crown Court “heard how MI5 and Greater Manchester Police drew up a list of questions for use by a notorious Pakistani intelligence agency which was unlawfully detaining” him, adding, “By the time Ahmed was deported to Britain 13 months later three of his fingernails were missing.” What is even more disturbing about the case is that, despite fears that Ahmed produced false allegations as a result of his torture in Pakistan, he received a life sentence in December.

In addition, while not referring to the recently revealed details of the British spy who visited Binyam Mohamed in Morocco, the Guardian also mentioned how Mohamed’s ongoing court case has already “resulted in the disclosure of the questions that MI5 asked be put to him, despite knowing that he had been tortured in Pakistan and having reason to believe he was being tortured after being rendered elsewhere.”

As a result, it was rather disturbing to hear Miliband not only talk about torture as though the UK had no knowledge of its use, but also to maintain that, in general, it was impossible to be sure that torture — or “mistreatment,” to use his euphemism — was not taking place in countries with whom the UK has an ongoing intelligence relationship. In a letter to the Committee, he wrote, “It is not possible to eradicate the risk of mistreatment. A judgment needs to be made. We cannot act in isolation in order to protect British citizens.” Moreover, although he acknowledged that some countries had “different legal obligations and different standards to our own in the way they detain people and treat those they have detained,” he added that this “cannot stop us from working with them.”

Notwithstanding the underreported assertion by Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, that he was told in 2003 by Jack Straw that the use of evidence obtained through torture was “legal,” Miliband’s careful explanation of how it was impossible to be sure that material secured by the intelligence services had not been obtained through the use of torture reflects the FCO’s current policy, as described in its 2008 report (PDF, p. 16). After stating, “The use of intelligence possibly derived through torture presents a very real dilemma, given our unreserved condemnation of torture and our efforts to eradicate it,” the report’s authors added, “Where there is intelligence that bears on threats to life, we cannot reject it out of hand.”

As I noted in an article in April, discussing the government’s use of secret evidence in terror cases in the UK, “Although this was followed by a declaration that it is ‘quite clear’ that ‘information obtained as a result of torture would not be admissible as evidence in any criminal or civil proceedings in the UK,’ the passage as a whole confirms not only that the FCO is committed to keeping open a torture loophole, but also that, because that information cannot be used in a court, it will, instead, undoubtedly contribute to perpetuating the system of detaining people on the basis of secret evidence” in the UK.

This was condemned last week by the Law Lords, in connection with the system of control orders — essentially a type of house arrest — that the government has imposed on a number of terror suspects in the UK, who, disturbingly, comprise both British and foreign nationals, but it also suggests — especially through the experience of Rangzieb Ahmed — that if information extracted through torture is obtained abroad (even with close British cooperation), it can then be used with relative impunity in the British courts.

One might presume that it should not be too difficult to work out which countries have a reputation for using torture, and that the British government therefore should know what — and whom — to avoid, but this presupposes that we are less intimately involved in the process than we actually are, in a number of countries, which include not only Pakistan and Morocco, but also Bangladesh, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

As a result, it appears that David Miliband’s entire outing on Tuesday — beyond placating China by complaining once more about Bermuda’s recent acceptance of five innocent Chinese prisoners from Guantánamo — was designed to preserve the veil of secrecy that enables the British government, both at home and abroad, to continue using evidence obtained through torture (and in some cases with active British participation), even though it is unreliable and morally corrosive, and in spite of the government’s best efforts to pretend that its actions are not illegal.

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.

Europe agrees to accept cleared Guantánamo prisoners (and I talk to the BBC)

The flag of the European UnionOn Monday, the European Union and the United States made a joint statement in Luxembourg “on the Closure of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility and Future Counterterrorism Operations, based on Shared Values, International Law, and Respect for the Rule of Law and Human Rights” (PDF), which, as the Guardian put it, “cleared the last hurdles for up to 50 Guantánamo detainees to be accommodated in EU countries.”

Expressing their desire to “help the US turn the page,” EU member states welcomed not only “the determination” of the US to close Guantánamo, but also “other steps taken, including the intensive review of its detention, transfer, trial and interrogation policies in the fight against terrorism and increased transparency about past practices in regard to these policies, as well as the elimination of secret detention facilities,” which was, of course, a clear repudiation of the Bush administration’s policies.

The fine print established that, although the EU “reaffirm[s] that the primary responsibility for closing Guantánamo and finding residence for the former detainees rests with the United States,” EU countries are prepared, on a case-by-case basis, at the discretion of each individual country, and, possibly, with financial support from the US, to assist the Obama administration in finding “residence” for cleared prisoners “who the United States has determined it will not prosecute, and who for compelling reasons cannot return to their countries of origin, but have expressed the wish to be received by one or the other EU Member State[s] or Schengen associated country.”

It was clear from the statement that security remains a problem for some countries, because of free movement within the EU, and it was, therefore, made clear that “cooperation among member states is necessary, whatever the individual decisions of the Member States on the subject matter might be,” and that an EU meeting on June 4 had addressed these issues and had established a “mechanism … on the exchange of information concerning Guantánamo former detainees.”

Despite this, problems may still lie ahead. The statement specifically asks for “all available (confidential and other) intelligence and information” about the prisoners “in order to allow [countries] to take an informed decision and conduct a proper security assessment.” This appears to have been inspired in particular by the German government, which was recently asked to take nine of the Uighurs at Guantánamo, but balked at accepting them, even though they have been cleared of any involvement in terrorism or militancy by the Bush administration, by the US military and by US courts, and the Germans are still apparently deliberating about a further request to take two other prisoners, a Tunisian and a Syrian.

In the last few days, I have been receiving calls from a number of journalists in various European countries asking me for information about the cleared prisoners. I have explained that the identities of these men are not clear, as President Obama initiated a new inter-departmental review of the prisoners’ cases when he took office, which did not necessarily involve accepting the findings of the Bush administration’s military review boards at Guantánamo, which had cleared 61 prisoners for release, as I reported in an article in February, “Guantánamo’s refugees.”

Nevertheless, this article remains a good starting point for those who want to learn something about the men who have been cleared for release — and especially, I hope, how and why men who had no connection to terrorism were seized and taken to Guantánamo.

On Tuesday, as a result of my research into the stories of these prisoners, I was invited to talk about some of these men — and their backgrounds — on “Europe Today,” on the BBC World Service, after Silvio Berlusconi, during a US visit, pledged to accept three cleared prisoners (other countries who have previously put themselves forward are Belgium, France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the UK). The discussion takes up the first ten minutes of the show, and is available on the BBC iPlayer, although it is only available until June 20.

Ahmed BelbachaI chose to speak about Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who lived in the UK, where he had fled after being threatened by Islamists for taking a job with a government-owned oil company, Shaker Aamer (who was sadly cut from the show because of time constraints), and Adel al-Hakeemy, a Tunisian who had worked for many years as a chef in Bologna, but I could have chosen many other stories, as the main thing that nervous European governments need to bear in mind, as I have spent the last three years explaining, is that very few of the 779 prisoners held in Guantánamo throughout its long and ignoble history ever had any connection whatsoever with al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group. As I put it in an article last month,

Far from being a prison for “the worst of the worst,” Guantánamo was, in fact, nothing more than a chaotic assemblage of largely random prisoners, mostly bought from the US military’s opportunistic allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or from villagers and townspeople desperate for the bounty payments for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects,” averaging $5,000 a head, which were advertised on leaflets dropped from planes.

Moreover, these randomly seized prisoners were never adequately screened to determine whether they should ever have been held, and their continued detention has been justified on the basis of information, masquerading as evidence, that was largely extracted through the interrogations of other prisoners, who were often either coerced or bribed. Given that the prison was established to stand outside the law, and to hold them forever, it should be clear that those who succeeded in convincing the Bush administration that they should be released have already had to overcome hurdles that no ordinary prisoner would ever have to endure, and that, as a result, raising alerts about the possible dangers they pose is much more suited to the old world of Dick Cheney than it is to the “new page” that the EU is turning in accommodating President Obama and his request for assistance in closing a prison based on torture, lies and paranoia.

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.

Empty Evidence: The Stories Of The Saudis Released From Guantánamo

Saudi ArabiaAt the end of a hectic week at Guantánamo, which saw the Obama administration overcome its previous inability to release prisoners (just two were released from January to May), it was announced that, following the release of four Uighurs to Bermuda, the return of Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, Mohammed El-Gharani, to Chad, and the repatriation of the last Iraqi in Guantánamo, three Saudi prisoners had also been repatriated, leaving 230 men at the prison.

As I explained in March, the release of the Saudis was long overdue, because military review boards, convened on an annual basis under the Bush administration, had approved their release from Guantánamo, having concluded that they were no longer a threat to the US (although it is also worth noting that they did not necessarily pose a threat in the first place). As a result, there appeared to be no excuse for the men not to be returned to the custody of the Saudi government, which has been running a well-respected rehabilitation program for former prisoners for several years.

In the case of one of these men, Kahlid Saad Mohammed (who was 28 years old when seized), the decision to approve his transfer from Guantánamo had taken place in 2006, but no explanation was provided as to why he was not released when 63 other Saudis were repatriated in 2007, especially as he had so clearly been seized by mistake.

In the publicly available documents from Guantánamo, he explained that he had traveled to Pakistan to provide humanitarian aid to Afghan refugees fleeing the chaos of Afghanistan, following the US-led invasion and the fall of the Taliban, and was injured while buying food and supplies for the refugees in a market at Spin Boldak, on the Pakistani border, when US forces began bombing the area.

He was then seized from a hospital in Quetta, Pakistan, by Pakistani forces, and sold, with a number of other wounded men, to the US military, but the authorities in Guantánamo had never managed to build up anything resembling a credible case against him, resorting instead to claims that he “was identified” by another, unnamed prisoner as having stayed at a guest house in Afghanistan, and that an unidentified “senior al-Qaeda member” had identified him as “possibly having clerical status amongst Saudi fighters.”

The first allegation is worrying, because, as recent court cases dealing with the prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions have demonstrated (see the stories of the Uighurs, the Bosnian Algerians, Mohammed El-Gharani and the recent case of a Yemeni, Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, discussed below), the authorities have frequently resorted to relying on claims made by other prisoners whose reliability has been called into question by military personnel and agents from the intelligence services.

The second allegation is just as troubling, because the unidentified “senior al-Qaeda member” could have been one of the supposed “high-value detainees” — including Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — who were held for many years in secret CIA prisons, where they were subjected to torture, and who, as documents released to the ACLU have just demonstrated, both stated in Guantánamo that they made false confessions as a result.

The second prisoner released is Abdul Aziz al-Noofayee, whose case I wrote about just a month ago, in an article entitled, “Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies.” He was one of 17 men seized in a guest house in Faisalabad, Pakistan on March 28, 2002, ostensibly because the house had some tangential connection to Abu Zubaydah, although, as I discussed in my book The Guantánamo Files, there appeared to be little or no evidence connecting the men seized in the house — mostly Yemenis, and mostly aged between 18 and 24 — to Zubaydah or to any kind of terrorist activity.

Most of the men stated that they were students, and that the house functioned as a university dorm for the nearby Salafia University. Al-Noofayee, who was 25 years old at the time of his capture, had a slightly different story, as he explained in Guantánamo, but this too had no connection whatsoever with terrorism or militancy. Like another house guest (Mohammed Salam, a Yemeni), he said that he had traveled to Pakistan to receive medical treatment — specifically, for a back problem — and had never set foot in Afghanistan.

As with most of the prisoners seized in the guest house, the US authorities had struggled, in the years following his capture, to come up with anything resembling evidence to justify his detention, and, in fact, had managed to produce only two pieces of information, neither of which appeared to be remotely reliable. The first was that an unidentified “senior al-Qaeda operative” — under the same unknown circumstances as Kahlid Saad Mohammed’s accuser — had stated that al-Noofayee had attended the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan “in approximately 1997,” and the second was that he “was captured with a Casio F-91W watch,” allegedly “used in bombings that have been linked to al-Qaeda and radical Islamic groups with improvised explosive devices,” a ludicrous allegation which, nevertheless, has been leveled at dozens of prisoners over the years.

As with the majority of the Guantánamo cases, it was, until last year, impossible for al-Noofayee’s lawyers to challenge the basis of his detention, but last June, after the Supreme Court ruled in a historic case, Boumediene v. Bush, that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights (in other words, the right to ask a judge why they were being held), his case — like those of the majority of the Guantánamo prisoners (except a handful who, either by accident or design, had not secured a habeas lawyer) — was assigned to a District Court judge, whose intention, under the directions provided by the Supreme Court, was to ensure that, after six and a half years of detention without adequate review, “The costs of delay are no longer borne by those who are held in custody.”

It was a worthy aim, but on the first anniversary of Boumediene (last Friday), only 29 cases had been decided. In 25 of these, judges had ruled that the government had failed to establish a case against the prisoners concerned. This is an 86 percent success rate, which is a vindication for those, like myself, who have maintained for years that the cases against the majority of the prisoners would not stand up to any kind of independent scrutiny, but it is disappointing that so few cases have been heard, and more disappointing still to realize that the main reason for the delay is obstruction by the Justice Department.

When a schedule for hearing the cases was first established last July, the Justice Department resorted to delaying tactics almost immediately, first by complaining that it was understaffed to deal with the task, and that it needed more time to compile allegations against the prisoners (despite having already had six and a half years to do so). The DoJ followed up with what appears to be a systemic failure to provide the prisoners’ defense attorneys with exculpatory material — in other words, material that tended to disprove the government’s claims — or, in fact, any of the material they required to mount a successful defense. More disturbing still is the realization that this policy of obstruction did not change at all when Barack Obama and Eric Holder took over from George W. Bush and Michael Mukasey.

Abdul Aziz al-Noofayee, like Kahlid Saad Mohammed, left Guantánamo a year after Boumediene without having had the opportunity to have his case heard in a US court, but he at least had the opportunity to hear about the success in court of one of the other men seized with him, Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, a Yemeni student whose habeas case was heard last month by Judge Gladys Kessler. I described this ruling in an article at the time, entitled “Judge Condemns ‘Mosaic’ Of Guantánamo Intelligence, And Unreliable Witnesses,” and summarized it as follows in “Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies”:

Authorizing Ali Ahmed’s habeas claim, Judge Kessler demolished the government’s case against him, painting 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.

Moreover, although Judge Kessler was ruling only on Ali Ahmed’s habeas case, she made it clear that, in her review of the government’s supposed evidence, she had also concluded that identical problems plagued the cases of the majority of the other men seized in the guest house. “It is likely, based on evidence in the record,” she wrote, “that at least a majority of the [redacted] guests were indeed students, living at a guest house that was located close to a university.”

For Abdul Aziz al-Noofayee, Judge Kessler’s conclusion no longer addresses the question of whether he will ever be released, but it’s noticeable, as the Obama administration finally begins to free prisoners from Guantánamo, that the rest of the men seized in the Faisalabad guest house, who are still held, have not yet received any confirmation that senior officials have taken Judge Kessler’s criticisms on board.

There is, moreover, no word from the administration about its plans for three other Saudi prisoners who were also cleared for release after military review boards at Guantánamo, but in the end what is revealed most of all through the story of Kahlid Saad Mohammed, Abdul Aziz al-Noofayee and the third released prisoner, Ahmed Zuhair (who will be discussed in an article to follow) is that the Obama administration not only dawdled on taking office when it should have acted swiftly to release prisoners whose repatriation posed no difficulties, but also that these delays prevented President Obama from seizing a priceless opportunity to refute the damaging propaganda of former Vice President Dick Cheney and the many politicians who have jumped on his fearmongering bandwagon, and who, as a result, have not only derailed the President’s plan to raise funds to close Guantánamo, but have also succeeded in putting their distortions back in the headlines, where they most emphatically do not belong.

The irony is that, while Obama did little to counter this unprincipled attack on his promise to close Guantánamo, he could have fought back by simply stating that he did not have time to address Cheney’s lies and distortions about the “hardcore terrorists” still in Guantánamo, because he was too busy ensuring that prisoners who did not pose a threat to the United States, and never had, were being released after their long, cruel and pointless ordeal at the hands of his predecessors.

Obama’s failure to do so has made his mission far more complicated than was necessary, and he is still playing from a defensive position, by refusing to state categorically why nine prisoners were released in the last week (because the courts found that the Bush administration had failed to provide evidence to justify the men’s detention, or because his own inter-departmental review reached the same conclusion), but at least while prisoners are being released the public has some opportunity to understand the lies peddled by Dick Cheney, nearly eight years after he embarked on his aberrant assault on America’s core values.

Note: The spelling of Kahlid, in Kahlid Saad Mohammed’s name, is not a typo. According to his lawyers, this is the correct spelling.

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 and Antiwar.com. Also cross-posted on RINF, which was kind enough to describe my site as “one of the most important blogs of our time.”

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 (above and here).

Obama’s Confusion Over Guantánamo Terror Trials

Barack ObamaSince sweeping into office pledging to undo all the malign results of the Bush administration’s brutal and ill-conceived “War on Terror,” Barack Obama has struggled to make as decisive a point as he did on that first day, when he pledged to close Guantánamo within a year, to ban the use of torture, and to ensure that the US military abided by the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of prisoners.

These promises resurface regularly — most recently during his recent bridge-building speech in Egypt — but in reality the torture promise has been tarnished by an unwillingness to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the legality of the Bush administration’s policies, and doubts have arisen about the treatment of prisoners of war because of the administration’s refusal to open up the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan to outside scrutiny.

On Guantánamo, too, Obama has both dawdled and sent out mixed messages. The inter-departmental review board that he established to review the Guantánamo cases has moved so slowly that only two prisoners were released in the first four months of the new administration, and a spate of releases this week — a Chadian who was just 14 years old when he was seized, an Iraqi, three Saudis and four Uighurs who were sent to Bermuda — seems to have been prompted more by the recent death of Muhammad Salih, a Yemeni prisoner (who allegedly committed suicide), than by any great desire to empty the prison as soon as possible.

In particular, Obama’s refusal to allow the Uighurs (Muslims from China, who last year managed to persuade the Bush administration that they were not “enemy combatants”) to settle in the US, as ordered by a judge last October, has shown that he is susceptible to fearmongering by unscrupulous politicians, and has also hindered efforts to persuade European countries to accept other prisoners cleared for release, who, like the Uighurs, cannot be repatriated because of a risk of torture.

However, the most shocking demonstration of Obama’s inability, or unwillingness to pursue a single, coherent policy and to draw a clear line between himself and his predecessor concerns his proposals for dealing with the relatively small number of prisoners (probably no more than a few dozen) who will be put forward for trial, and another group regarded as too dangerous to release, but who, according to the administration, will not be charged.

For this first group, the President has, in one instance, made a clean break from the Bush years, moving Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a “high-value detainee” who spent two years in secret CIA prisons before his arrival at Guantánamo in September 2006, to the US mainland to face a trial in a federal court in New York. Ghailani is accused of participating in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and when the Justice Department announced his transfer to the US, Attorney General Eric Holder also pointed out that the Justice Department has “a long history of … successfully prosecuting terror suspects through the criminal justice system,” and, to prove it, attached a list of successful prosecutions over the last 16 years.

However, at almost the same time that the Justice Department was demonstrating a principled return to the rule of law, the New York Times revealed that a Justice Department task force, looking into the proposed trial of five other “high-value detainees” (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), who are accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, not only recommended trying them in a reworked version of the Military Commission trial system introduced by former Vice President Dick Cheney in November 2001, but also drafted legislation whereby Congress could “clear the way for detainees facing the death penalty to plead guilty without a full trial.”

It is disturbing enough that the Obama administration is thinking of reviving the Commissions, which were almost universally condemned during their seven-year history, ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 2006, attacked by the  government’s own military judges and lawyers, and unable to deliver more than three dubious convictions, but to propose reviving the Commissions at the same time that the Justice Department was praising the ability of federal courts to successfully prosecute terror suspects is surely a sign of weakness and confusion.

This is, moreover, not the only indication that the Obama administration is struggling to deal coherently with the legacy of the Bush years. Six weeks ago, when the President first floated the idea of reviving the Commissions, he also let it be known that he was considering proposing legislation to authorize the “preventive detention” of 50 to 100 of the Guantánamo prisoners who were regarded as too dangerous to release, but against whom there was not sufficient evidence to pursue a trial.

What this means in reality is that the evidence would not stand up in a court, almost certainly because it was extracted through the torture or coerced interrogations of other prisoners, and the administration’s “preventive detention” proposal is therefore profoundly troubling for a number of reasons: firstly, because it involves an unacceptable willingness to accept as evidence information obtained through torture or coercion; secondly, because it reveals double standards, when, on the one hand, the government is prepared to try those prisoners regarded as the most dangerous, but is also prepared to continue holding those regarded as less dangerous without charge or trial; and thirdly, because it indicates that senior officials have missed the whole point of Guantánamo.

When the Bush administration established Guantánamo — and all its other “War on Terror” prisons — it was based on the arrogant and lawless presumption that, between the guilty and the innocent lay a third category of prisoner, who could, as Guantánamo has demonstrated for over seven years, be held in a permanent state of “preventive detention” — without charge, without trial, without justice.

It is not too late for President Obama to redeem himself, but he needs to shed his fascination with Military Commissions and “preventive detention,” or he will enshrine America as a country forever tainted by the lawlessness of the Bush years.

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 in the Daily Star, Lebanon, as “Obama is confused over terror trials.” Also cross-posted on Common Dreams.

See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the stumbling progress of the Military Commissions: The reviled Military Commissions collapse (June 2007), A bad week at Guantánamo (Commissions revived, September 2007), The curse of the Military Commissions strikes the prosecutors (September 2007), A good week at Guantánamo (chief prosecutor resigns, October 2007), The story of Mohamed Jawad (October 2007), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), African embassy bombing suspect charged (March 2008), The US military’s shameless propaganda over 9/11 trials (April 2008), Betrayals, backsliding and boycotts (May 2008), Fact Sheet: The 16 prisoners charged (May 2008), Afghan fantasist to face trial (June 2008), 9/11 trial defendants cry torture (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), An empty trial at Guantánamo (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, October 2008), Life sentence for al-Qaeda propagandist fails to justify Guantánamo trials (al-Bahlul, November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials at Guantánamo (December 2008), Is the 9/11 trial confession an al-Qaeda coup? (December 2008), The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns Chaotic Trials (Lt. Col. Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Torture taints the case of Mohamed Jawad (January 2009), Bush Era Ends with Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009).

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

The Last Iraqi In Guantánamo, Cleared Six Years Ago, Returns Home

GuantanamoLast Thursday, while all eyes were focused on the arrival of four Uighurs from Guantánamo on Bermuda’s balmy shores — and while a few other commentators, myself included, noted that Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, Mohammed El-Gharani, had been released to his family’s home country of Chad — only one journalist, James Warren of the Atlantic, noticed that another prisoner, an Iraqi named Jawad Jabbar Sadkhan al-Sahlani, had also been released. Warren spoke to his lawyer, Jeffrey Colman of Jenner & Block, who told him, bluntly, “He should never have been there.”

Al-Sahlani (whose last name had never been registered by the Pentagon) had explained in Guantánamo that he had been seized by mistake. In his Combatant Status Review Tribunal in 2004 (a one-sided administrative review board convened to assess whether, on capture, he had been correctly designated as an “enemy combatant” who could be held without charge or trial), he said that he and his family had left Iraq because of the intolerable living conditions under Saddam Hussein, and that they had gone first to Iran, and then to the UN in Pakistan, where he sought asylum.

When it became apparent that the UN would not be able to help him, he said that he planned to return to Iran and was told that the easiest route back was through Afghanistan. However, the guides he traveled with left him in Kabul, and he said that he then approached Mullah Nitham Eddine, who worked for the police, and, after explaining that he and his family were immigrants, was found an Afghan family to live with.

He added that he then moved with his family to a village near Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, which was where he had been for most of the three and a half years he had spent in Afghanistan, working mainly as a taxi driver, but also, on occasion, selling fuel and working as a mechanic. He explained that, in 2002, he was arrested at his home by an Afghan commander, and was then sold to the Americans, who took him to Kandahar and then Guantánamo.

Despite this coherent and plausible explanation, al-Shalani was obliged, in his tribunal, to point out the huge discrepancy between the allegations against him and his own account. Although he is a Shiite Muslim, which explains why he fled the oppression of Saddam Hussein, as the Shiite majority was persecuted by Iraq’s dictator, it was alleged that in Iraq he had worked for the Amin Emergency Response Group, who were “responsible for tracking down people opposed to Saddam Hussein, and torturing and/or killing [them].” It was also alleged that, in Afghanistan, he was a Taliban commander, a Taliban recruiter, an interrogator for the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif, in charge of ten to 15 other interrogators, that he was “heavily involved in the heroin trade for the Taliban,” and that he received funds from Osama bin Laden that were funneled through a Saudi charity operating in Afghanistan.

In a rather contradictory allegation, it was claimed that he recruited a group of his own fighters, provided them with weapons, communications equipment and vehicles, and “intended to sell his fighting group’s service[s] to the highest bidding warlord in Afghanistan.” According this scenario, if a recruit refused to join his group, he was turned over to the Taliban as a spy, although, in defiance of the “highest bidder” scenario mentioned above, it was also alleged that he and his group fought with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance on the front lines. Perhaps the most ludicrous allegation of all — given his background and his religion — was a claim that he had “operated as a conduit between the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif and Saddam Hussein.”

In response, he denied ever working for the Taliban at all, and explained that, while he was in Mazar-e-Sharif, he had, in fact, worked occasionally for the Northern Alliance, repairing vehicles for a representative of General Rashid Dostum, the leader of the Alliance’s Uzbek faction in northern Afghanistan, who he also helped, after the US-led invasion began, by “pointing out Taliban locations.” He added, poignantly, “I put my life, my wife’s life and the life of my children in danger in order to help the Northern Alliance.”

When asked for his opinions about the allegations against him, he said that he thought they had come about because of disagreements with other prisoners who had told lies about him. He pointed out that he was being held in Camp V (one of the prison’s maximum-security blocks) for protection against attacks by other prisoners, because he was a Shiite Muslim (in contrast to the prison’s Sunni majority), and because “I cooperated with interrogators.” He added that he had suffered a broken arm after he was attacked by a Saudi prisoner, and blamed two particular interrogators for the incident, saying that they had deliberately left the two of them in a room together.

As the examples of other Shiite prisoners has shown — primarily other Iraqis, whose bitter experiences of false allegations I reported when four Iraqi prisoners were released in the dying days of the Bush administration — the conflict in Guantánamo between Sunni agitators and Shiites was very real, and, to be honest, reflects badly on the US authorities, who should have realized that both the radical Sunni fanatics of al-Qaeda and the radical Sunni fanatics of the Taliban (who were responsible for several massacres of Afghanistan’s Shiite minority, the Hazara) would never have accepted a Shiite Muslim into their midst.

In one of al-Sahlani’s annual review boards (convened to assess whether, having been found to be an “enemy combatant,” he still posed a threat to the US or its allies), two Iraqi witnesses provided further explanations of the Sunni/Shiite conflict, and, in addition, one pointed out that al-Sahlani had also been targeted by two particular prisoners who were known within Guantánamo as notoriously unreliable informants.

Arkan al-Karim, one of the men released in January, refuted allegations that al-Sahlani had threatened other prisoners, pointing out that it was he who had been threatened, and another, Abbas al-Naely (also released in January), who had met al-Sahlani in Afghanistan, first provided a spirited defense of his character, describing him as a man devoted to his family, who was “not a political man nor a religious man nor a war man and he is a peaceful person,” and adding, “I was in Mazar-e-Sharif addicted to hashish but in spite of that he helped me,” and then explained that the allegations against him had resulted from a disagreement with two particular prisoners whose false allegations plagued countless prisoners in Guantánamo: Ali al-Tayeea, another Iraqi (also released in January), and Yasim Basardah, a Yemeni, profiled in the Washington Post in February, whose habeas petition was granted by a judge the following month.

From the above, it is, I hope, abundantly clear that Jawad al-Sahlani’s story exemplifies many of Guantánamo’s most persistent problems: prisoners handed over to US forces by opportunists seeking the handsome bounty payments being offered for “al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects,” who were then labeled as “enemy combatants” without any screening whatsoever, and were victimized by the lies of other prisoners (whether under duress, through bribery or because they had severe mental problems), which were then regarded as the truth by credulous interrogators and administrators.

On his release, al-Sahlani’s lawyer, Jeffrey Colman, reiterated the story told by his client in Guantánamo, but added that in 2003 “senior US military leaders and the head of the Department of Defense Criminal Investigation Task Force” had “recommended he be released.” Colman was at a loss to explain why it had taken so long. He said he had asked, but had “gotten no answers,” and added that the delay was also inexplicable because, unlike other prisoners who cannot be returned to their home countries because they face the risk of torture, al-Sahlani “wanted to go home from the start.”

Colman was scathing about the way Guantánamo was run. In his 35-year career, he said, he had “represented clients in the most dire legal and physical circumstances imaginable,” visiting maximum-security prisons and working for death row prisoners in Illinois and Georgia, but representing men held at Guantánamo had been the “most depressing, difficult, frustrating experience of my legal career. Never have I seen the kind of disrespect for the attorney-client relationship as at Guantánamo.” He added, “It’s unlike any other institution. There’s a level of isolation and hopelessness unlike anything I have ever seen.” He also explained that it was almost impossible for the men in Guantánamo to understand what was happening to them. “How do you say to a client that we’ve been talking about the same question — does a court have the power to hear your case — for six years?” he asked.

Al-Sahlani’s ordeal is now at an end — and I can only hope that his optimism about how he will be treated in Iraq is justified — but there has, as yet, been no explanation of why it took the Obama administration five months to release him, nor why his release took place when it did. I don’t mean to end on a sour note, but it appears, from a comment made by Colman, that the new government was motivated less by an impulse to correct a long-standing injustice, than by a fear that it would be shown up in a courtroom.

As Colman explained, he was only informed on May 15 that al-Sahlani had been cleared for release by the Obama administration’s inter-departmental task force, which is reviewing the cases of all the remaining prisoners, and he added that his release from Guantánamo “occurred as Jenner & Block lawyers were preparing for a habeas corpus hearing that was scheduled to start on June 18 before Washington D.C. federal district court judge Rosemary Collyer.”

That, I have to conclude, is more than a little convenient.

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, 3 Saudis (here and here).

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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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