Archive for December, 2009

Why Obama Must Continue Releasing Yemenis From Guantánamo

Sana'a, Yemen (Photo: Evelyn Hockstein for The New York Times)The weekend before Christmas, 12 prisoners were released from Guantánamo. In two previous articles, I told the stories of six of these men — two Somalis and four Afghans — and in this final article I look at the stories of the six Yemenis who were also released. These releases were enormously important, because Yemenis make up nearly half of the remaining 198 prisoners in Guantánamo, and until these six men were repatriated, only 16 Yemenis had been freed from Guantánamo throughout the prison’s long history.

Back in October, when the Obama administration’s interagency Task Force announced that it had cleared 75 prisoners for release — and explained that this figure included 26 Yemenis — I took exception to the administration’s unwillingness to release any of the Yemenis. This was revealed in the case of Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, a Yemeni whose release had been ordered in May by a District Court judge, who had granted his habeas corpus petition. Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the government had based its case on 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.

However, when it came to releasing Ali Ahmed, the government balked, and administration officials told the New York Times in October that, “Even if Mr. Ahmed was not dangerous in 2002 … Guantánamo itself might have radicalized him, exposing him to militants and embittering him against the United States.”

As I explained at the time, “only at Guantánamo can fear trump justice to such an alarming degree” that, “if [the officials’] rationale for not releasing any of the Yemenis from Guantánamo was extended to the US prison system, it would mean that no prisoner would ever be released at the end of their sentence, because prison ‘might have radicalized’ them, and also, of course, that it would lead to no prisoner ever being released from Guantánamo.”

In the end, Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed was released — primarily, it seems, because Judge Kessler “appeared to be losing patience with the delay in complying with her May 11 release order,” and was about to criticize the government openly — and not because officials had truly considered the flawed basis of their unwillingness to release him. As a result, the release of six more Yemenis on the weekend of December 19-20 was a significant breakthrough, as it represented the first time that the Obama administration had, of its own volition, released Yemenis cleared by its own interagency Task Force.

As I hope to demonstrate below, in profiles of these six men, the administration’s reticence was unjustified, as their stories represent a cross-section of the horrendous mistakes made by the Bush administration in its search for “terrorists” to imprison without rights at Guantánamo, and also because they strongly suggest that other innocent Yemenis continue to be detained.

The importance of this should not be overlooked, especially because, in the wake of the failed bomb plot on a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day, the connections allegedly established by the would-be bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, with terrorists in Yemen has prompted lawmakers in the US to declare that no more Yemenis should be released from Guantánamo.

As Politico reported, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, claimed that the news “highlights the fact that sending this many people back — or any people back — to Yemen right now is a really bad idea,” and Rep. Peter King (R-NY) called it “a major mistake” to repatriate any Yemeni prisoners, adding, “I don’t think Guantánamo should be closed, but if we’re going to close it I don’t believe we should be sending people to Yemen where prisoners have managed to escape in the past.” Even Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the House Homeland Security Committee Chairman, expressed doubts, telling Politico, “I’d, at a minimum, say that whatever we were about to do we’d at least have to scrub it again from top to bottom.”

These claims now threaten to spiral out of control, with several media outlets reporting that two former Guantánamo prisoners from Saudi Arabia have assumed leadership positions in an al-Qaeda-inspired group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, which has claimed responsibility for the failed attack, even though the Obama administration “remains cautious in linking” Abdulmutallab to al-Qaeda, and even though drawing connections between released Saudis and released Yemenis has no sound basis, as the Yemeni authorities stated categorically in October that none of the 16 Yemenis returned from Guantánamo between 2004 and 2008 had joined terrorist groups after their eventual release from Yemeni custody.

Jamal Mar’i: one of the first victims of “extraordinary rendition” in the “War on Terror”

The first of the six Yemenis, Jamal Mar’i, was 31 years old when he was kidnapped from his house in Karachi by US and Pakistani operatives on September 23, 2001, and subjected to what appears to be one of the first “extraordinary renditions” in the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” After a month in Pakistani custody, where he was interrogated by US agents, he was flown to Jordan by the CIA, and was held by the notorious General Intelligence Directorate (GID) for four months before being sent to Guantánamo. Several years later, he told his lawyer, Marc Falkoff, that he was not subjected to torture, but was “hidden from visiting Red Cross inspectors.”

Jamal Mar’i was an unlikely terror suspect. Married with four children, he had studied petroleum engineering in Azerbaijan from 1994-98, but had found no work in his chosen field, and had worked in his family’s store in Yemen until 2001, when he was employed by the Emirates-based financier for the Saudi charity al-Wafa to buy medicine for the organization in Karachi. He explained that this involved him traveling to Kandahar in May 2001 “to find out how the work was done and how the medicine is distributed,” and that he was then responsible for purchasing medicines from specialist stores in Pakistan.

Mar’i was seized on the day that President Bush signed Executive Order 13224, which was designed to block the assets of individuals and entities that were allegedly involved with terrorism. Al-Wafa was one of the organizations blacklisted, and in the years that followed dozens of prisoners in Guantánamo were accused of being involved with terrorism because of their connections with the organization, even though all but Mar’i — and Ayman Batarfi, discussed below — were released several years ago.

In Guantánamo, little of Jamal Mar’i’s story emerged, as, after finally securing the services of a lawyer, he soon came to believe that the entire process was worthless. In June 2006, Marc Falkoff explained, “When I first met Jamal, he said all he needed was to have his case heard and everyone would see that he was innocent. Now he won’t even meet with us. He said that we initially brought him hope but that we’re now like a mirage in the desert and he can no longer live with hope.”

Ayman Batarfi: the doctor who met Osama bin Laden

Ayman BatarfiThe second of the released Yemenis, Ayman Batarfi, was a skilled orthopedic surgeon, who had traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 to care for those less fortunate than himself. He too had worked for al-Wafa, and was clearly referring to Jamal Mar’i when, at his tribunal in Guantánamo, he said that al-Wafa’s representative in Karachi “was taken to Jordan ‘on a special flight.’” Unlike Mar’i, however, Batarfi was not subjected to “extraordinary rendition,” but he came under suspicion when he explained that, through a series of accidents, he had met Osama bin Laden and had also found himself in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains in December 2001, when remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban were fighting the US and their Afghan allies, and the US military allowed bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and numerous other senior figures in al-Qaeda and the Taliban to escape across the unguarded Pakistani border.

The delay in releasing Batarfi is clearly unconscionable, as, earlier this year, when his habeas corpus petition finally reached a District Court, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan was outraged by government lawyers’ “repeated” delays in providing unclassified exculpatory material to the defense. At a status hearing on April 1, he referred to a hearing on March 19, in which he required the Justice Department “to show cause why the government and its attorneys should not be held in contempt for violating” an order in January to produce relevant information, including exculpatory evidence.

This was typical behavior on the part of the Justice Department, but Judge Sullivan’s patience was clearly exhausted when Batarfi’s lawyers explained that they had discovered, in Batarfi’s medical records (which had, after some delay, been provided by the government), “a highly exculpatory record” pertaining to one of the government’s main witnesses against their client, and added that they “believed they were entitled to all other similar records” regarding this particular prisoner, and the government responded, as Judge Sullivan described it, by taking the position that “this had been a, quote, inadvertent production, and sought to, in the government’s words, sequester the document.”

As I explained in an article in summer, analyzing the habeas corpus cases:

Outraged by this, and clearly struggling to contain his anger, Judge Sullivan told the government lawyers, “To hide — and I don’t use that word loosely — to hide relevant and exculpatory evidence from counsel and from the Court under any circumstances, particularly here where there is no other means to discover this information and where the stakes are so very high and do indeed include indefinite detention, is fundamentally unjust, outrageous and will not be tolerated.”

He added, “Fortunately, Dr. Batarfi’s counsel have been diligent and tireless in their efforts, but no one, Dr. Batarfi and not this Court, should have to rely on luck to discover evidence critical to a just resolution … In the face of repeated failures to comply with this Court’s orders, to produce exculpatory evidence, even after orders to show cause and the requirement of no fewer than four declarations from officials at the highest levels of our government, how can this Court have any confidence whatsoever in the US government to comply with its obligation and to be truthful to the Court?”

In response to the meltdown of Batarfi’s case, the government took matters into its own hands, expediting a review by the Justice Department, and announcing that he had been cleared for release. Judge Sullivan accepted this, of course, as he would clearly have granted Batarfi’s habeas petition had the case proceeded, but he made a point of telling the government that, “While the Court on the one hand applauds the government’s belated decision to transfer Dr. Batarfi, the Court must note the disturbing pattern in this and other cases. Time and again we have seen that only once finally pressed to present evidence to justify a petitioner’s detention does the United States belatedly, quote, withdraw, end quote, charges or allegations and/or transfer the detainee.”

Judge Sullivan added that he had “some serious concerns” about whether the sudden decision to release Batarfi was “another ploy not to return Dr. Batarfi to his country of origin but to continue with his deprivation of his fair day in court” — and with good reason, as it took nearly nine months to release him, despite the judge’s devastatingly critical analysis of the government’s actions:

I’m not going to continue to tolerate indefinite delay on the part of the United States government. I mean, this Guantánamo issue is a travesty. It ranks up there with the internment of Japanese-American citizens years ago. It’s a horror story in the American system of jurisprudence, and quite frankly, I’m not going to buy into an extended indefinite delay of this man’s stay at Guantánamo, or anyone else on my calendar.

Farouq Ali Ahmed: a victim of Guantánamo’s “notorious liar”

The story of the third of the Yemenis, Farouq Ali Ahmed, a young man who went to Afghanistan to teach the Koran, has been known since February 2006, when Corine Hegland wrote a series of extraordinary articles for the National Journal, examining a number of Guantánamo cases. In one of these articles, Hegland wrote about the case of Farouq Ali Ahmed, explaining how he had been judged as an “enemy combatant” because of two false allegations. The first — that he was a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden — was directed at 30 prisoners in total, and was made under duress, and later retracted, by Mohammed al-Qahtani. One of several purported “20th hijackers” for the 9/11 attacks, al-Qahtani made the allegations during a seven-week period, from November 2002 to January 2003, when he was subjected to an array of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which “met the legal definition of torture,” according to Susan Crawford, the Convening Authority for Guantánamo’s Military Commissions, who explained to Bob Woodward in January 2009 that she had refused to press charges against him in the Military Commissions because of the torture.

The second allegation — that Farouq Ali Ahmed had been seen at Osama bin Laden’s private airport in Kandahar, where he was “wearing camouflage and carrying an AK-47” — proved so intolerable to his Personal Representative (a military officer assigned to the prisoners in place of a lawyer during the tribunals at Guantánamo in 2004-05) that he submitted a written protest, in which he stated that the government’s sole evidence that Ahmed had been at bin Laden’s airport was the statement of another prisoner, who, according to an FBI memo that he presented to the tribunal, was a notorious liar. According to the FBI, he “had lied, not only about Farouq, but about other Yemeni detainees as well. The other detainee claimed he had seen the Yemenis at times and in places where they simply could not have been.”

The Personal Representative wrote, “I do feel with some certainty that [the accuser] has lied about other detainees to receive preferable treatment and to cause them problems while in custody. Had the tribunal taken this evidence out as unreliable, then the position we have taken is that a teacher of the Koran (to the Taliban’s children) is an enemy combatant (partially because he slept under a Taliban roof).”

The “notorious liar” had actually made false allegations against 60 prisoners in total, as was revealed after the tribunal of Mohammed al-Tumani, a young Syrian economic migrant, who had traveled to Afghanistan with other family members shortly before the 9/11 attacks (and who was finally released in Portugal in August this year). In his tribunal, he denied an allegation that he had attended the al-Farouq training camp with such vigor that his Personal Representative decided to investigate the matter further. When he looked at the classified evidence, however, he found that only one man — the same prisoner mentioned above, and probably the same man identified in the habeas petition of Ayman Batarfi — claimed to have seen him at al-Farouq, and had identified him as being there three months before he arrived in Afghanistan. As Corine Hegland described it, “The curious US officer pulled the classified file of the accuser, saw that he had accused 60 men, and, suddenly skeptical, pulled the files of every detainee the accuser had placed at the one training camp. None of the men had been in Afghanistan at the time the accuser said he saw them at the camp.”

Muhammed Taher and Fayad al-Rami: seized from a university dorm in Pakistan

The fourth and fifth Yemenis, Muhammed Taher and Fayad Yahya Ahmed al-Rami (identified by the Pentagon as Mohammed Tahir and Fayad Yahya Ahmed), were seized in a house raid in Pakistan on the same night that the “high-value detainee” Abu Zubaydah was captured, and in the same house as Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, described above, and at least a dozen other men who were subsequently transferred to Guantánamo.

When Judge Kessler granted the habeas corpus petition of Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, accepting that he was nothing more than a student, who had been seized because of some tangential connection that the guest house had with Abu Zubaydah, she also made a point of noting, “It is likely, based on evidence in the record, that at least a majority of the [other] guests were indeed students, living at a guest house that was located close to a university,” and this is clearly the case with both Muhammed Taher and Fayad al-Rami, who were also students. Moreover, both men explained that they had repeatedly been told — both in Pakistani custody and at Guantánamo — that they had been seized by mistake, and would be released. In his tribunal at Guantánamo, as I explained in an article in May, Taher said:

The army translator and the interrogator from the Pakistani intelligence said, “yes, all of what this man said … about his story in Pakistan is correct, and therefore that is why we are going to give him back his passport that we took” … I was really surprised that the American intelligence refused all of these proofs and they said no. “We still need him,” they said, and then they took me.

In al-Rami’s case, he explained to his tribunal in 2005 that he had recently been told in Guantánamo that he would be released. “The interrogator and the investigator about a month ago that met with me told [me] that there was nothing against me and that I am an innocent man and should [be] released,” he said.

However, while the release of these men is long overdue, it is noticeable that at least seven other Yemenis seized in the house are still held, including Mohammed Hassen, who was only visiting the house when he was seized. Hassen is one of only two of the guest house prisoners to be cleared for release by a military review board at Guantánamo under the Bush administration, and while the other, Abdul Aziz al-Noofayee, a Saudi, was released in June, Hassen’s continued presence at Guantánamo is, frankly, inexplicable.

Riyad al-Haf: a case of mistaken identity

In the case of the sixth Yemeni, Riyad al-Haf (identified by the Pentagon as Riyad al-Radai or Riyad al-Haj), it was alleged in his tribunal at Guantánamo that, after traveling to Afghanistan, he was “picked up in a car by a group of Taliban members and driven to Kandahar, where he stayed in a Taliban guest house for two to three months,” and that he “admitted he agreed to serve the Taliban” and was posted on the front line for a week. It was also alleged that he admitted working at a field hospital for six months as a nurse’s aide, helping to care for wounded Taliban fighters, but in response he said that he had actually spent six months as a patient in a hospital in Kabul.

When his review board met the following year, he said that “everything in the Unclassified Summary [of Evidence] was a big lie and that America had no choice but to keep him locked up since it would look bad if they released him after holding him for three years.” He “repeatedly and strenuously” stated that he had been confused with some other prisoner, and that this mistake had started in Bagram, where, presumably, the “evidence” against him was first established.

By the time of his next review, in January 2006, this confusing story had become even less clear. Al-Haf maintained that he had “wanted to find out what the Taliban was really all about,” and one allegation — that after “seeing that the Taliban was trying to serve Islam, [he] decided to serve the Taliban in any manner except for fighting” — sounded vaguely convincing, but it was surrounded by numerous other allegations that were patently absurd, which related to his previously aired claim that he had been mistaken for another man.

In this ridiculous scenario, it was stated that he “used additional aliases of al-Sharqawi aka al-Hajj, which are identifiable with a Pakistani facilitator.” This was nonsense, because the real al-Sharqawi (a man also known as Riyadh the Facilitator) was already in Guantánamo. Nevertheless, it seems probable that a host of other groundless allegations sprang from this mistake, including wild claims that he “was identified as having a lot of experience because of the long time he spent at Camp Farouq and on the front line fighting the Northern Alliance,” that he “taught others how to train people in various advanced things such as tanks and explosives,” that he “was identified as a leader of 10 to 15 men and drove a Toyota pick-up truck that was used to haul supplies to the front lines,” that he “was identified as being in Tora Bora and was in charge of delivering food supplies to the fighters and also delivered approximately $3000 to the Emir,” and that he “was one of the old senior guys in Afghanistan that was a commander with a lot of responsibility.”

As we have seen since Guantánamo was first established, nearly eight years ago, it is appallingly easy for its would-be defenders to resort to propaganda when describing the prisoners. When looked at in detail, however, the claims that the prison holds the “worst of the worst” fail to stand up to scrutiny, as is revealed in the stories related above. Running through most of these accounts is the important role played by the District Court judges examining the prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions, who, through their exposure of unreliable witnesses, and of false confessions obtained through torture, coercion or bribery, have revealed themselves to be far more capable arbiters of the truth than the lawmakers who have chosen to use these men, and others still held, as pawns in an unprincipled political game.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Truthout. Cross-posted on AlterNet.

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the 30 prisoners released from February to early December 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 to Bermuda, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad), 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni, 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; October 2009 — 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody, December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah).

Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo with Brad Friedman on the Mike Malloy Show

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoOn Tuesday, I was delighted to talk once more with Brad Friedman, muckraking citizen journalist and host of The Brad Blog, standing in for Mike Malloy on the progressive talk show out of Dallas, Texas.

This was a 2 am start for me, but it’s always a pleasure to talk to Brad, and I’m happy that he took the time to subject Mike’s regular listeners to what he described as “the most underreported story of the last decade,” or, as he put it on The Brad Blog, where the show is available, “Andy Worthington with a maddening hour on our disastrous, immoral, shameful and failed policy of detention at Gitmo.” The MP3 is here.

Shorn of ad breaks, the one-hour show actually came in at 38 minutes, which gave Brad the time to express his repeated exasperation at the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and Barack Obama’s failure to close the prison. Along the way, Brad aired a number of audio clips from the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by myself and Polly Nash, and available on DVD here), which he described as “startling,” and we spoke about the story of Omar Deghayes, seized while living with his Afghan wife and six-month old son in Lahore, Pakistan, many hundreds of miles from the battlefields of Afghanistan, and listened to Moazzam Begg discussing how difficult it is for ex-prisoners to build a bond with their youngest children, who, in many cases, were born while they were in Guantánamo.

Brad and I also discussed the imminent failure to close Guantánamo by Barack Obama’s self-imposed deadline of January 22, 2010, the problems regarding plans to move prisoners to Illinois, and the recent scaremongering regarding the failed plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, which prompted Brad to explain how the American people have become “cowards and sissies” who are “terrified of everything we’re told to be terrified about,” and allowed me to describe how disappointed I am that the connections being drawn by what Brad called “cowards and liars,” regarding Abdulmutallab’s purported connection to former Guantánamo prisoners in Yemen, are not being adequately challenged. Primarily, the prevailing narrative needs challenging because the alleged “terrorists” in Yemen are Saudis, and also because there is absolutely no reason for concluding that the 40 or so Yemenis in Guantánamo, who, like the six men released before Christmas, have been cleared for release by military review boards under the Bush administration, by Barack Obama’s own interagency Task Force, which has been reviewing the cases all year, and in some cases by the US courts, have anything to do with an inept would-be plane bomber and a handful of Saudis who may, or may not, have had anything to do with him.

In response to a question about whether the prisoners were “the worst of the worst,” or whether Guantánamo was nothing more than the most extraordinary scam, I had the opportunity to explain how it was certainly the latter, and to run through the story of how the Bush administration’s unprecedented arrogance and obsession with unfettered executive power led to men being seized for bounty payments, or through dismally poor intelligence, not being screened on capture (according to the Geneva Conventions) to determine whether they were combatants or not, and then being tortured when they failed to provide any “actionable intelligence.”

There was more in the show, including the neglected importance of thoroughly cleaning up the US military and its detention policies, and unequivocally reinstating the Geneva Conventions after the disastrous tenure of Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, and a lament that, when it comes to barking out loud and belittling opponents, Republicans have all the swagger and Democrats are, to put it bluntly, useless, but we then ran out of time, just as I was beginning to recap the story of how the sidelining of White House counsel Greg Craig, the driver of the Guantánamo deadline and the dismantling of Bush’s “War on Terror” policies, spelled the end of Obama’s dream of a swift resolution of the Guantánamo story. However, if you want to know more, please feel free to check out my article, “Guantánamo: Idealists Leave Obama’s Sinking Ship.”

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Video: Q&A with Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and Polly Nash at the Launch of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoOn October 21, at the launch of the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington) at the Cochrane Theatre in London, Spectacle, the production company, filmed the Q&A session following the screening, in which Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and Polly Nash took questions from the large and well-informed audience. The Q&A session, which lasted for about an hour, is available via YouTube in nine parts, which are available below.

In the first part, following introductions, Moazzam talked about the difficulties facing prisoners released from Guantánamo, and Omar talked about the most vulnerable prisoners in Guantánamo: those from countries, including Libya, who cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will be tortured on their return. Omar also spoke about the aims of the Guantánamo Justice Centre, launched in August, which hopes to provide support and legal assistance for released prisoners around the world.

In the second part, following a question about Shaker Aamer (one of three prisoners on whom the film focuses, along with Binyam Mohamed and Omar) and the role of the British government in attempting to secure his release, Moazzam spoke about the enormously significant role that Shaker played in advocating for the prisoners’ rights in Guantánamo, and how it may be that he is still held because he knows too much about the dark secrets of the prison’s long history, and Andy reprised the discussions about prisoners who cannot be repatriated, and the role that European countries can play in providing new homes for them, including the UK, which has turned its back on Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who lived here for several years. Omar also spoke about Shaker, reinforcing the notion that he has the most extraordinary recollections about events in Guantánamo.

In the third part, Polly responded to a question about the future of the film, encouraging people to organize their own screenings, and Moazzam very kindly plugged The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, the book on which the film was based.

In the fourth part, in response to a question about the future of the remaining Guantánamo prisoners, Andy discussed the obstructive nature of America’s lawmakers who, just before the launch, had threatened to pass a law preventing any prisoner from being transferred to the US mainland, even to face a trial. At the time of the launch, the administration had secured the right to bring prisoners to the mainland to face trials, but had no explanation about what was going to happen to the rest of the men still held. Andy also explained the pernicious longevity of the Bush administration’s claim that Guantánamo held “the worst of the worst,” despite the fact that they were mostly rounded up randomly, and stressed how, in the prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions, US judges have dismissed the government’s allegations in 80 percent of the cases, and Omar spoke about how prisoners were being pressed to accept plea bargains in order to secure their release, and also mentioned the horrors of Bagram, Guantánamo’s “evil twin,” telling the audience how his brother-in-law had recently ended up in Bagram, after being seized while visiting family members in Afghanistan, and how, on Obama’s watch, he had been subjected to brutal treatment in US custody. Andy also spoke about the situation at Bagram now, and how it still violates the Geneva Conventions, and Moazzam mentioned how his time at Bagram was so bleak that he looked forward to being transferred to Guantánamo.

In the fifth part, following a question about how Moazzam and Omar had survived their long years in US custody, Moazzam explained how his faith had enabled him to survive, and also how his faith in people — his fellow prisoners, the lawyers, and, in some cases, American soldiers — had also contributed enormously.

In the sixth part, following a question about the use of secret evidence in terror-related cases in the UK, and whether evidence extracted in Guantánamo and Afghanistan was used in the UK — Moazzam responded by stating that information from Guantánamo and elsewhere was definitely used by the British intelligence services, and stated his belief that it was definitely part of the reason that the supposed evidence is being discussed behind closed doors, and Omar spoke about how the British resident Jamil El-Banna had been interrogated incessantly about his knowledge of Abu Qatada in the UK, and had been offered rewards if he provided information (whether true or not), and also spoke about Lahsen Ikassrien, a Spanish prisoner who had been pressurized to act as an informer in connection with people in Spain whom he didn’t know.

In the seventh part, in response to a question about losing faith in humanity (based on a statement made by Clive Stafford Smith about prisoners who have been tortured), Moazzam spoke about how a tiny gesture of revulsion at what was happening by a solitary American guard could be enough to revive one’s hope for humanity, and Omar spoke about how suspicion became part of the fabric of Guantánamo, because interrogators lied so persistently, pretending to be lawyers or Red Cross representatives, for example, and also spoke about how important it was to receive letters from supporters.

In the eighth part, in response to a question about the prisoners who died in Guantánamo, Omar described the deaths as murders, spoke once more about Shaker’s knowledge of the deaths, and explained that there were many ways to drive someone to death, and in response to another question about how prisoners would be tried, in Guantánamo and elsewhere, Moazzam stated that it would be extremely difficult to prosecute prisoners who have been tortured, and also lamented the fact that prisoners in Bagram, who have not even been adequately screened according to the requirements of the Geneva Conventions, will never receive trials, because that prison remains deliberately and defiantly outside the law. Moazzam also spoke about how Bagram was a major contributing factor to losing the battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan, which Andy reinforced with an anecdote about an Afghan prisoner in Guantánamo.

In the ninth part, in response to a question about other torture victims around the world, who are being overlooked as the world focuses on the crimes of the US administration, Moazzam spoke about how he had indeed heard stories from people tortured by other regimes which made his own experiences pale in comparison, and Andy mentioned how sad it was that an increase in racism and xenophobia in the UK has led to a situation in which few people in Britain care.

About the film

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a new documentary film, directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, telling the story of Guantánamo (and including sections on extraordinary rendition and secret prisons) with a particular focus on how the Bush administration turned its back on domestic and international laws, how prisoners were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan without adequate screening (and often for bounty payments), and why some of these men may have been in Afghanistan or Pakistan for reasons unconnected with militancy or terrorism (as missionaries or humanitarian aid workers, for example).

The film is based around interviews with former prisoners (Moazzam Begg and, in his first major interview, Omar Deghayes, who was released in December 2007), lawyers for the prisoners (Clive Stafford Smith in the UK and Tom Wilner in the US), and journalist and author Andy Worthington, and also includes appearances from Guantánamo’s former Muslim chaplain James Yee, Shakeel Begg, a London-based Imam, and the British human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.

Focusing on the stories of three particular prisoners — Shaker Aamer (who is still held), Binyam Mohamed (who was released in February 2009) and Omar Deghayes — “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” provides a powerful rebuke to those who believe that Guantánamo holds “the worst of the worst” and that the Bush administration was justified in responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by holding men neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects with habeas corpus rights, but as “illegal enemy combatants” with no rights whatsoever.

For further information, interviews, or to inquire about broadcasting, distributing or showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” please contact Andy Worthington or Polly Nash.

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a Spectacle Production (74 minutes, 2009), and copies of the DVD are now available.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

An Interview With Andy Worthington About Guantánamo, “Outside the Law” and New Media

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoRecently, Amelia King, an independent journalist and community activist based in Brighton, asked me for an interview by phone. Amelia recently created her own website and is beginning to publish online as a way of exploring her interest in human rights issues and sharing ideas through interviews and research, and the following interview was originally published there.

Amelia King: How did you become involved in making the documentary “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”?

Andy Worthington: After I wrote my book, The Guantánamo Files, it became apparent from conversations I had that the key themes in the book might translate well into film. I have a good friend Polly Nash, who is a filmmaker and who secured some funding from the London College of Communication, where she works. We then set about writing a structure for a film that would tell the story of the Bush administration’s flight from the law.

We focused on the human stories of those who got caught up in the cruel and incompetent system of rounding up people who had nothing to do with terrorism.  We approached a number of people who were well informed about these issues, including Tom Wilner and Clive Stafford Smith. Tom is an American lawyer who was very involved in the Guantánamo cases from the beginning and was deeply involved in the 2004 US Supreme Court case that secured habeas corpus rights for the prisoners. Clive is the director of Reprieve, here in the UK. It was also clearly important for us to speak to some of the former prisoners.

Amelia King: Which specific stories does the documentary tell?

Andy Worthington: We decided to tell the broad story but within that, we would focus on certain people’s stories. Their stories covered all the bases with what had happened in the War on Terror. We focused on Binyam Mohamed, who was subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture, Omar Deghayes, another British man who was seized in Pakistan, and on Shaker Aamer, who is a British resident still held in Guantánamo. We also spoke to Moazzam Begg, who is a good friend of Shaker. Moazzam has generally been asked about his story so it seemed like a good opportunity to focus on the story of his friend — which is an extraordinary story. The US government has no evidence of wrongdoing against Shaker apart from the fact that he has advocated for the human rights of prisoners while in Guantánamo, and this has made them think he is some kind of al-Qaeda big shot.

Amelia King: Can you tell me a bit about what the film-making process involved?

Andy Worthington: We took over a year on and off to record the various interviews which form the basis of the film. A key component was an interview we did with Omar Deghayes after his release in December 2007. We interviewed him about a year after that and he spoke at length and very openly about his experiences. In many ways, I think that he provides the heart of the film. As well as the interviews, I play a part in providing a lot of the explanation of the background.

We did the film on a low budget and kept it quite simple. We hoped that we would tell the story most effectively by just having a handful of people, who are engaging and knowledgeable, to talk through the story. From the feedback we got from the launch night showing, I think we managed to achieve that.

Amelia King: How is the film going to be made available?

Andy Worthington: We are not quite sure at the moment because we are in discussion with various broadcasters and distributors to see whether any avenues might open up to an audience that way. Increasingly, there are different ways in which you can get films out to people. One important development is the growth of distribution networks for activists. We are in discussion with a few human rights groups on that basis.

We are planning a certain amount of screenings in the UK where a number of us featured in the film will take part, and in November I undertook a short tour of the film in America. I’m under no illusions that Guantánamo and the abuses of the “War on Terror” are things which are attention grabbers, and I’ve learnt that a lot of people don’t even want to go near these kinds of subjects, so we will see how it goes. It is a little bit early to say, but after the reception the film had at the launch and in the US, I would hope that if we can get showings at major towns and cities, we would be able to draw people in. The film is also available to buy on DVD through the website of the production company, Spectacle.

Amelia King: How has your work been received in the UK compared to America?

Andy Worthington: In the UK I have a fairly good following but it is much more of a peripheral issue.  In the early days of Guantánamo and the “War on Terror,” substantial support built up for the British men who were imprisoned without charge and trial. The Bush administration indulged in a set-up which meant legal ways of addressing issues became an incredibly long and drawn-out process, so the more immediate way of getting people released was through diplomatic pressure. I think the release of the British nationals in 2004 and 2005 was influenced by the media interest and pressure from human rights groups. For example, in Brighton, there was a big campaign to release Omar Deghayes, and I know Moazzam Begg’s dad was actively campaigning to get his son released too. The question of British involvement on an official level in securing prisoner releases stopped when the British nationals came back but of course that left a number of British residents still in Guantánamo.

Over in America, I have an audience that is more engaged in these issues because their government was the driver of it all. Now the new administration is attempting — sometimes with success and sometimes not, sometimes with great bravery and sometimes with cowardice — to address the problems that remain. It is in so many ways an American issue but over in the UK I think the question is really about British complicity in what the Bush administration got up to.

Amelia King: Can you tell me a bit more about the British residents?

Andy Worthington: The first British resident to be released was Bisher al-Rawi, who was originally from Iraq, but had lived in this country for a very long time. He did not have a British passport as his family wanted to leave some avenue open to Iraq as they had been forced to abandon their home through persecution by Saddam Hussein. It was only an imminent confrontation in court that finally provoked the Government to act on behalf of Bisher al-Rawi as a British resident.

In fact, the pattern of release of the British residents has always involved some potential showdown in court where the government feared what might be aired.  This is a big issue that is not covered enough; the complicity of the British intelligence services in the kidnapping and rendition of British men to Guantánamo, be they citizens or residents.

Amelia King: Binyam Mohamed has taken his case to the British courts. What is happening with his case?

Andy Worthington: Binyam Mohamed’s case has been going on for over a year and a half. A judicial review took place last summer after his lawyers had persuaded the High Court that they needed to review his case. He was facing a trial in Guantánamo, which potentially carried the death penalty. He alleged that he had been subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture by the Americans and to some extent the British had been complicit in this. His lawyers needed documents in the possession of the British government to be made available to help fight his court case.

This opened the most extraordinary can of worms about the Americans’ policies, their involvement in torture and about British complicity. Now there is a struggle between the judges trying to get this information out and the Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, trying to suppress it. He is doing this on the basis of national security and particularly threatening that it would cause damage to the intelligence-sharing relationship between the UK and the US. I think what we are actually talking about is that it would be embarrassing for this material to be released, but more than that is the fact that it involves complicity in war crimes and nobody wants to talk about that [also see here and here for the latest on a court case launched on behalf of Shaker Aamer].

Amelia King: What should there be more focus on in the UK?

Andy Worthington: I think we should focus more on what the British government is still doing by looking at the counter-terrorism policies that involve some kind of complicity in the torture of prisoners and reliance on intelligence that may have been contaminated by the use of torture, and as an extension of that, how people have been deprived of their liberty in the UK, with control orders and people facing deportation on the basis of secret evidence which all stems from this network of very dubious intelligence, some of which was extracted through torture or duress.

A very serious problem with contaminated evidence from torture is that Western countries are relying on it, sharing it amongst themselves and using it to assess the threat posed by those regarded as being terrorist suspects. The fundamental underlying problem is not only that torture is unreliable, which makes the intelligence unreliable, but that it is of course illegal.

Amelia King: Dealing with politically sensitive issues, have you come across barriers to your investigations?

Andy Worthington: No, I haven’t really. The whole way I’ve been able to do my work is because the American system has checks and balances. The American government was obliged to release hundreds of thousands of documents relating to what they actually got up to and so information was publicly available. In the UK, there is a certain amount of publicly available information but I don’t think we have such a transparent system.

The fundamental principles of free speech, which we have in both countries, are not to be underestimated. For anyone who is involved in questioning governments at the highest level about their potentially illegal activities, it’s clearly a minefield in some kind of way, but we genuinely do have the freedom to ask questions of our governments.

Amelia King: What has been the most memorable conversation you’ve had during your investigations?

Andy Worthington: I am constantly impressed by a lot of the lawyers I’ve met, not just civilian lawyers, but also the military lawyers as well. The Military Commissions was the system that was established to put the prisoners regarded as serious terrorist suspects on trial, a horribly flawed system designed to hide evidence of torture and secure convictions. Many military defense attorneys reacted by campaigning vigorously to end the use of the Commissions and risked their careers to do so, as did a number of prosecutors. There is something about these men and women in uniform, speaking out because of their allegiance to the Law and the Constitution and not to the whims of a President, which is particularly powerful. I have been genuinely impressed by these people whose strong conviction is that the Law is the foundation of the United States, and that it was wrecked deliberately and flagrantly by the Bush administration. This shocked them to the core of their being.

The lawyers — both civilian and military — have been to Guantánamo and met the prisoners and are the only outsiders, apart from the Red Cross representatives, who are not allowed to speak publicly, who have been able to establish relationships with some of these men. I’ve been very moved by these relationships that have built up, because they add that very human element to a system which is designed to dehumanize and “disappear” people. So they are in a particularly unique position of being the only mediators between the outside world and the men in the prison. They tell the world not only about the abuses that have been done to US and international law, but also about the abuses that have been done to these people, and reveal to the world that we are talking about human beings here.

Amelia King: Recently your blog was listed in the Technorati Top 100 World Politics Blogs. Why do you think that blog culture has become important?

Andy Worthington: I think blogs have become important because often the kind of detailed information that a certain number of people would like to see is simply not covered by the mainstream media. If a newspaper publishes a news story relating to Guantánamo, it will probably be about 1,000 words. It may well give you a good outline but if you want more detail they are not going to provide that to you. Generally, I would say that there is a shortage of investigative journalists and serious features, so bloggers have stepped in to fill these gaps to include more detailed coverage of what is in the news and stories that are just not being covered.

I think what I have been doing for the last two and half years of blogging is a combination of both. Some of it is addressing things which are just not raised at all, and some of it amplifies stories in the news to provide more detailed information to those who are looking for it.

Amelia King: And how have you established your blog?

Andy Worthington: The way the Internet works is that it rewards dedication, perseverance and specialization by picking up on consistent themes. So what happened with my writing, and how it got into the Technorati listing, is in part down to having a web presence that became well recognized by search engines.  I also use Twitter and Facebook. I prefer Facebook because it allows more conversational possibilities but as a writer online I think they are both useful tools for putting the word out. The other interesting part of this is that the Internet essentially rewards co-operation, so that if you share your work it all adds to your online presence.

Amelia King: Your work is available for free online. How do you finance yourself?

Andy Worthington: That’s a key point. We are somewhere between the old media and the new media and funding is a problem that everyone is looking at. I do a lot of writing for free, and I’ve chosen to do that because I have a lot to say, but also I think it is true that the more you do the more you get noticed through the Internet.  So in this way the new media encourages people to be busy.

I am still slightly shocked that entrepreneurs haven’t picked up on the possibilities provided by the new media, now that you can run a newspaper or magazine without premises or printing presses. The time is really ripe for some new online newspapers and magazines to tap into the independent writers that are already online.

Amelia King: How could the potential for independent writers to earn money online be realized?

Andy Worthington: Generally, the people I work for who pay do so by having subscribers or people who donate to them. People who enjoy what they read on the Internet will pay a certain amount of money, maybe on a regular basis or as a one-off donation, to help pay for the running costs. A lot of the US sites that have been going for a long time pay for their running costs this way. Some will hold a fundraiser every few months and raise, say, $70,000-$100,000, which pays for the maintenance of their network and a small staff of people. Unfortunately, it has not necessarily reached out far enough to pay the writers, but there are some sites that are beginning to make sure writers get paid and I think we are going to see more of that. The question is how the business model will change and whether donations will become more a part of things. Obviously it’s difficult, with the recession, to ask people to put their hands in their pockets and give money for something they are already getting for free.

Online publications can easily attract tens of thousands of readers. You can get the readership that a lot of the political magazines have very easily on the Internet without any of the associated costs. Securing advertising to fund that ought to be the way forward. I’m just waiting for people to figure that out.

Amelia King: What are your plans for upcoming projects?

Andy Worthington: I’m generally pretty happy acting as a commentator on political events in my particular field and I have support from a number of places that makes it viable for me to do that. I do really hope to get this film out and that it might provide possibilities to do more TV or film work. I would love to write another book but they are the most difficult things to sustain financially. You really need to be subsidized while writing a book. Like most writers, I am not getting a big fat check up front and so sometimes it involves trying something different, such as obtaining funding from foundations.

I’ll keep plugging away at all these different fronts, really. I think they are all exciting media and whichever one you choose, as a creator, you now have many more opportunities to get your work out there than in the pre-Internet age.  Clearly, it is an extremely competitive world, but the possibilities for being motivated as a creator and getting the word out have never been greater.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

At Christmas, Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Is Reunited With His Family

Composite image by ABC NewsOn December 21, the following article, written by Kevin Cullen, was published by the Boston Globe. It brings up to date the story of Oybek Jabbarov, an innocent man from Uzbekistan, held in Guantánamo for nearly eight years, who was finally freed in September and given a new home in Ireland. As I reported at the time, Jabbarov had been cleared for release by a military review board in 2007, but was unable to return home because of fears that he would be tortured if he was repatriated. It took almost three years for the US State Department to find him a new home, but even after being freed it seemed that Jabbarov’s life had been irredeemably ruined through his lost years in Guantánamo, because he had no idea where his wife and two young sons were, and no way of knowing if he would ever be reunited with them. In his article, Kevin Cullen explained what happened to Oybek Jabbarov’s wife and sons, and I can think of no better way to mark Christmas than to cross-post his article.

A Holiday Reunion
By Kevin Cullen

A while back, Michael Mone Jr., a Boston lawyer, flew down to Cuba to prepare a client for life after eight years locked up in Guantánamo.

“I think I would like to go to Texas,” Oybek Jabbarov said.

Mone looked at his client and said, “I don’t think they’re going to let you go to Texas.”

One of the guards at Guantánamo was a friendly soldier from Texas who had somehow convinced Jabbarov he’d be just another good ol’ boy from Uzbekistan if he resettled in Texas.

Mone and his dad, a great lawyer named Michael Mone Sr., had other ideas.

Their forebears came from Ireland and the Irish were among the few who backed up calls for Guantánamo to be closed with a pledge to take in released detainees.

Oybek Jabbarov was a refugee, looking for work and a way to get his pregnant wife and 2-year-old son down to Kabul, when a pair of Afghan mercenaries found him sitting in a teahouse.

US forces in Afghanistan were handing out bounties for “foreign fighters” and Oybek fetched a healthy sum.

He was never charged with anything.

It took eight years to figure out that the only thing Jabbarov posed a threat to was the integrity of the Constitution.

Mike Mone Jr. convinced Jabbarov he would get a fresh start in Ireland.

Mone convinced the Irish government, too, and three months ago the plane touched down in Dublin.

Jabbarov had his freedom, a nice place to live. But he didn’t have his family.

“My wife,” he told Mike Mone Jr. “My sons. My sons.”

He had never seen his younger son.

The younger Mike Mone explained the situation to people in the Irish government, and he didn’t have to explain it twice.

They started looking for the family.

Jabbarov’s wife and kids had been moving around central Asia for years, trying to survive, trying to get him back.

There was the family friend who was in contact with the wife and sons, and he had a cellphone and Mone talked to him.

Then the Irish government talked to him.

The guy with the cellphone handed it to one of Jabbarov’s sons, the 10-year-old, and he asked his father in Ireland, “When will I see you?”

“Soon,” Jabbarov replied.

“When I see you,” the boy said, “will you have a bicycle for me?”

For the last two months, Jabbarov talked to his wife and sons every other day, and each time his son asked if he could have a bike.

Last week, the Irish government sent a plane for his family.

Jabbarov was outside the international arrivals gate at Dublin Airport, pacing.

The glass doors parted, with a whoosh.

He embraced his wife. He kissed his boys.

They drove back to their house in the west of Ireland, and when the boys walked in the front door they saw two shiny bicycles in the hallway.

The boys rode their bicycles under a dull Irish sky. Jabbarov texted his lawyer in Boston: Call me.

Mone’s phone call was answered by a little boy’s voice that asked, “Is this Mr. Michael?”

The conversation quickly shifted to laptop computers, with video and audio, and Mone sat in his 16th-floor office on Federal Street, watching two little boys squirm on their father’s lap.

“How is your wife?” Mone asked.

“She’s happy,” Jabbarov said, “but she doesn’t know how she can keep this big house clean.”

“My wife says the same thing,” Mone said.

Michael Mone Jr. was sitting there in his office, watching a father and two little boys 3,000 miles away make up for eight lost years and it dawned on him, this remarkable thing, this incredible thought: Christmas is for Muslims, too.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Who Are The Four Afghans Released From Guantánamo?

A map of AfghanistanOver the weekend, 12 prisoners were released from Guantánamo, as the Justice Department announced in a press release on December 20. I have previously reported the stories of the two Somalis who were released — emphasizing how nothing about their cases demonstrated that they were “the worst of the worst” — and will soon be reporting the stories of the six Yemenis transferred to the custody of the Yemeni government. For now, however, I’d like to turn to the four Afghans transferred to the custody of the Afghan government, because, in contrast to the fearmongering of opportunistic Republicans, who continue to claim that Guantánamo is full of terrorists, the stories of these four men demonstrate instead the incompetence of senior officials in the Bush administration, revealing how, instead of detaining men who had any connection to al-Qaeda, or those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, they filled Guantánamo with what Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, the commander of Guantánamo in 2002, described as “Mickey Mouse” prisoners.

Sharifullah, the US ally who had guarded Hamid Karzai

The first of the four Afghans, Sharifullah, who was 22 years old at the time of his capture, was seized by US forces from an Afghan military compound with another man, Amir Jan Ghorzang (identified by the Pentagon as Said Amir Jan), who was released from Guantánamo in September 2007. Both men were accused of hoarding explosives for the Taliban and being involved in various plots, but insisted that they were loyal government soldiers. In Guantánamo, Sharifullah explained that he was one of the first recruits in the new Afghan army, trained by British officers, and added that he had then spent seven months as part of a group that was responsible for guarding President Karzai. When he was unable to get a promotion, however, he returned to Jalalabad, where he had just taken up a new position as an officer when he was seized.

Amir Jan GhorzangAmir Jan Ghorzang (photo, left) was the more vociferous of the two in Guantánamo, lamenting the fact that the US soldiers who had seized them had been duped by traitors who were taking money from both the US military and al-Qaeda, and were passing off innocent men as members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. “I’m here because somebody got paid some dollars,” he explained, adding that he had been imprisoned by the Taliban for five years, because of his opposition to them, and had also worked for Haji Qadir, a commander who fought with the Americans during the battle of Tora Bora, a showdown between al-Qaeda and US-backed Afghan forces in December 2001.

The cases of both men — as with many other men who had been working for the Karzai government, but had been betrayed by rivals — revealed how little the US authorities were concerned with establishing the truth about their allegations, as it would have been easy to track down witnesses in Afghanistan who could have verified their stories (as reporters for McClatchy Newspapers did in 2008, when they interviewed Ghorzang). Nevertheless, he was, in the end, more fortunate than Sharifullah, whose continued presence in Guantánamo for two years and three months after his release was, frankly, inexplicable. As Ghorzang explained in the following exchange in Sharifullah’s tribunal, when he was called as a witness:

Sharifullah: Do you know that I was involved to work in the new government? Was I honestly working and working for the new government?
Ghorzang: You were working with the new government and he was involved with the Karzai government, in support of the Karzai government.

Mohammed Hashim: the fantasist put forward for a trial by Military Commission

The story of the second man, Mohammed Hashim, remains as bewildering now as it was when he was put forward for a trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo in May 2008, and I wrote an article entitled, “Afghan fantasist to face trial at Guantánamo,” in which I stated that the decision “appear[ed] to plumb new depths of misapplied zeal.” Hashim, who was about 26 years old at the time of his capture, was first seized by Afghan forces after he was found taking measurements near the home of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s reclusive leader, and asking locals about security arrangements. Subsequently released, he was then seized again and handed over (or sold) to US forces.

If there was something about the circumstances of his initial capture that should have set alarm bells ringing, regarding his mental health, these were ignored when the US authorities decided to charge him with “conducting reconnaissance missions against US and coalition forces,” and “participating in a rocket attack venture on at least one occasion against US forces for al-Qaeda,” and ignored the fact that, at his tribunal, his testimony revealed that he was (as I described it) “either one of the most fantastically well-connected terrorists in the very small pool of well-connected terrorists at Guantánamo, or, conversely, that he [was] a deranged fantasist. From the resounding silence that greeted his comments at his tribunal, I can only conclude that the tribunal members, like me, concluded that the latter interpretation was the more probable.”

After explaining that he had spent five years with the Taliban, because he needed the money, Hashim proceeded to claim that:

he knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, because a man that he knew, Mohammad Khan, “used to tell me all these stories and all the details about how they were going to fly airplanes into buildings. He didn’t tell me the details, that it was New York, but he said they had 20 pilots and they were going to orchestrate the act.” What rather detracted from the shock value of this comment was Hashim’s absolutely inexplicable claim that his friend Khan, who had told him about the 9/11 plan, was with the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s opponents, who were also implacably opposed to al-Qaeda.

Hashim also claimed that he and another man had been responsible for facilitating Osama bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan, and that, afterwards, he had worked as a spy, and had heard about how the Syrian government had been sending weapons to Saddam Hussein, which had then been sent to Afghanistan via Iran. As I explained at the time, the cumulative effect of Hashim’s statements was that it was “impossible not to conclude that [his] story was, if not the testimony of a fantasist, then a shrewd attempt to avoid brutal interrogations by providing his interrogators with whatever he thought they wanted to hear.”

A darker truth, of course, may be that his rambling statement actually revealed the themes pursued relentlessly by the interrogators at Guantánamo: not only “what do you know about the 9/11 attacks?” and “when did you last see bin Laden?” but also, at the insistence of Vice President Dick Cheney, “what was the connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein?” As we know from the interrogations of the CIA’s most famous “ghost prisoner” Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who confessed under torture in Egypt that there were connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, which was later used as part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq, securing this sort of information was regarded as critical in the run-up to the invasion, even though the administration claimed that its embrace of torture (or, rather, the euphemistically named “enhanced interrogation techniques”) was designed to prevent further terrorist attacks.

Abdul Hafiz: the wrong man with a satellite phone

The third man, Abdul Hafiz, who was 42 years old when he was seized in 2003 from his village near Kandahar, was accused in his tribunal of working for a Taliban militia group and of being involved in two killings in Kabul. It was also alleged that he was captured with a satellite phone linked to one of the killings, and that he “attempted to call an al-Qaeda member who is linked to the murder of an ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] worker.”

In response, Hafiz, who described himself as “handicapped” and who repeatedly stated that he has problems with his memory, claimed that his name was Abdul Qawi, and that he had been confused with Abdul Hafiz, because Hafiz, for whom he had been working, had given him the phone at a checkpoint. As he stated, “He told me that he did not have any documents to have the phone with him. So he said, ‘You can have my phone because you are handicapped and I don’t think they will search you.’” He added that he did not even know how to use the phone.

Describing Hafiz as someone who supported the new government of Hamid Karzai and was “preaching in the village to bring the peace,” he said, “I was working for him to bring peace … He gave me the telephone in the morning and told me to keep it in my pocket. He told me to work and preach to the people not to fight. That war is not good. This is the reason that I lost my leg. Fighting is not good. War does not have good consequences.”

He also explained, “I was just in my home when they captured me and brought me here. I didn’t do anything,” and expressed frustration at not being able to see classified documents containing evidence against him, saying, “In our culture, if someone is accused of something, they are shown the evidence.” At his review in 2005, he presented the board with letters from his family — all addressed to Abdul Qari, not Abdul Hafiz — including one from his brother, which read, “My respectful brother, you didn’t have any relationship with any political people. We were hoping that you would get released very, very soon. We do not understand why you’re still detained there without a crime.” He was clearly so desperate to be freed from Guantánamo and not to be “amongst these beasts and these people” (as he described his fellow prisoners at one point), that he even offered to present the board with a letter from his wife, even though “It is a big shame in our culture to read my wife’s letter to you, but now I am in a very tough situation.”

Mohamed Rahim: a spectacular case of mistaken identity

If the continued imprisonment of Abdul Hafiz (or Abdul Qari) appeared to be inexplicable, there was, on the surface at least, more of a case against Mohamed Rahim, the fourth prisoner released at the weekend, but this too collapses spectacularly under scrutiny. A resident of a village near Ghazni, Rahim was accused, in his tribunal, of being the chief of logistics for a company providing support directly to the Taliban government, of working for the Taliban Intelligence Office, and of controlling a large weapons cache for the Taliban. In response, he explained that he had been forced to work for the Taliban, and that, because he “was sick” and unable to fight, he was made to work in an administrative post. He denied the allegation that he worked for the Taliban Intelligence Office, calling it an “outrageous” accusation, and also denied controlling a weapons cache. “This doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I was captured in my house. I have no information on these weapons.”

By the time of his next review, in 2005, numerous other allegations had been added, including a claim that he was “identifiable as a former companion of bin Laden during the jihad against the Russians,” and another that he “was among a group protecting bin Laden at his last meeting at Tora Bora.” It was also suggested that he “was entrusted by bin Laden to exfiltrate his guard forces from Afghanistan back to their countries of origin,” and that “bin Laden and his companions spent the night in a house belonging to an Afghan acquaintance of the Detainee.”

There was more in this vein, including a claim that he “attempted to export gems from Afghanistan to Germany in order to raise revenue to finance al-Qaeda,” but what was completely overlooked by his review board — and presumably, by those who were supposed to be capable of analyzing the intelligence relating to the Guantánamo prisoners — is that when he stated, “I am a sick poor farmer with enemies,” he was telling the truth for one particularly glaring reason, which only emerged in passing in his review, when his Designated Military Officer (a soldier assigned to him in place of a lawyer) pointed out that he was Hazara.

One of four main population groups in Afghanistan — the others being Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks — the Hazara, Shia Muslims who are at least partly of Mongol origin, were despised by the Sunni Taliban, who slaughtered them in their thousands. As a result, it is not only appropriate to conclude that the allegations against Rahim were invented by his enemies, but also to conclude that his enemies in Guantánamo came up with the outrageous claims that he was intimately associated with Osama bin Laden.

Release or imprisonment in Afghanistan?

With the exception of Mohamed Jawad, who was released in August after he won his habeas corpus petition, these men are the first Afghans released since January 2009, when Haji Bismullah, who worked for the government of Hamid Karzai as the chief of transportation in a region of Helmand province, was released. Of the 219 Afghans once held at Guantánamo, there are now just 21 remaining in the prison, but it is uncertain whether the four men just released will regain their freedom, or whether, in common with all the Afghan releases since August 2007 (except Jawad, whose case attracted international scrutiny), they will be imprisoned on arrival in Kabul, in a wing of the main prison, Pol-i-Charki, which was refurbished by the US military, and which, although nominally under Afghan control, is reportedly overseen by Americans.

After all this time, and with such scandalous stories of ineptitude on the part of the United States, I would say that the least these men deserve is to be freed outright, and allowed to be reunited with their families.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published on the Huffington Post, CounterPunch, Antiwar.com and ZNet. Cross-posted on The Public Record and uruknet.

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the 30 prisoners released from February to early December 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 to Bermuda, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad), 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni, 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; October 2009 — 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody, December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah).

“Hell on Earth”: Released Somali Speaks about Guantánamo

Mohamed Saleban BareAFP secured an interview on Monday with Mohamed Saleban Bare (known to the Pentagon as Mohammed Sulaymon Barre), the Somali refugee, released from Guantánamo at the weekend with eleven other men (including another Somali, Ismail Mahmoud Muhammad), who ran a money transfer operation for the Somali diaspora in Karachi, Pakistan, until he was seized in a house raid on November 1, 2001. The organization he worked for was, in the eyes of the US authorities, involved with another money transfer company that had ties to the 9/11 hijackers, even though the 9/11 Commission concluded over five years that this was not the case.

Speaking to AFP reporter Mustafa Haji Abdinur in a hotel in Bare’s home town of Hargeisa, the capital of the northern breakaway state of Somaliland, Bare declared, “Guantánamo Bay is like hell on Earth.” He added, “I don’t feel normal yet but I thank Allah for keeping me alive and free from the physical and mental sufferings of some of my friends. Some of my colleagues in the prison lost their sight, some lost their limbs and others ended up mentally disturbed. I’m OK compared to them.”

Bare told Abdinur that he was “in good physical health,” but the reporter explained that the 44-year old “looks dazed, speaks very softly and walks gingerly.”

After explaining that, at the time he was seized, he had been in Pakistan for many years “with several relatives who had fled the violence in Somalia and were hoping to find asylum in a western state,” he stated that he was held in Pakistan for about four months, and then transferred to US custody in Afghanistan.

“At Bagram and Kandahar, the situation was harsh but when we were transferred to Guantánamo the torture tactics changed,” he explained. “They use a kind of psychological torture that kills you mentally.” This, he added, “included depriving prisoners of sleep for at least four nights in a row and feeding them once a day with only a biscuit.” He also explained, “And in the cold they let you sleep without a blanket. Some of the inmates face harsher torture, including with electricity and beating.”

Abdinur noted that Bare was “reluctant to answer questions about his alleged ties with Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya, a Somali Islamist movement which produced many of the current leaders of the Al Qaeda-linked Shebab,” which was, I think, understandable given that he had finally been released after eight years’ detention without charge or trial by the US authorities, who would not have done so had there been any evidence of such an involvement.

In response to the questioning, he stated instead, “Guantánamo is a place of humiliation for Muslims. All the inmates are Muslims but they (Americans) claim the prison is for terrorists. Why don’t they arrest non-Muslims belonging to these so-called terror groups?”

He also stated, “No human rights convention stands in Guantánamo. Interrogators force inmates to confess crimes they didn’t commit by torturing them and sullying their religion. They would throw Korans into the toilet and raise the volume of their music during prayers.”

In conclusion, he explained that the US authorities had “never told him why he was arrested,” stating, “They used to ask many questions, most of them relating to my background like what I was doing in Somalia and about the people I know. It was all about suspicions and not a clear case.”

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Serious Problems With Obama’s Plan To Move Guantánamo To Illinois

The Thomson Correctional Center, IllinoisLast Tuesday, in a letter to Illinois governor Pat Quinn, five senior Obama administration officials — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano — announced that “the President has directed, with our unanimous support, that the Federal Government proceed with the acquisition” of Thomson Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison about 150 miles north-west of Chicago, to house prisoners from Guantánamo.

In off-the-record briefings, officials suggested that between 35 and 90 of the 198 prisoners still held at Guantánamo would be moved to Illinois, and, in a conference call with reporters, to accompany the release of the letter, two government officials explained that “Thomson is not for individuals who will be tried in US criminal courts. It’s for individuals who will be tried in the military commissions.” On Thursday, in a memo from the White House to members of the Illinois congressional delegation, the administration elaborated, explaining, “If Thomson is selected, we do not anticipate that any detainees currently at Guantánamo Bay who are transferred to Thomson would be prosecuted in civilian courts. Instead, detainees who will be prosecuted in Federal court would be transferred directly to the jurisdiction where they would be prosecuted.”

With reference to the Military Commissions, the memo stated, “Although a final decision has not yet been made on where reformed military commissions will take place, one option under consideration is to hold military commissions at the detention facility selected for detention. If Thomson is that facility, it has existing space that could be used to try military commission cases as well as significant administrative space and other amenities that could provide support to military commissions.” The authors added, “Detainees prosecuted in reformed military commissions would be held at the same location where they are being tried. If the Thomson facility is selected for such detainees, they would be held securely before, during, and after trial within the facility.”

In Tuesday’s conference call, the two government officials also explained what would happen to two other categories of prisoner. The first are those who, the government hopes, will be “transferred to our friends or allies overseas” — 103 of the prisoners, at the last count, who have been cleared for release by the government’s inter-agency Task Force. These men, the officials explained, will remain at Guantánamo, until arrangements for their release have been negotiated.

Those in the second category, who will also be transferred to the prison in Illinois, subject to Congressional approval, are those who, as President Obama described them in a national security speech in May at the National Archives, “cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States.”

Republicans, predictably, sought to capitalize on the fearmongering that has sustained them throughout most of this year, despite the fact that the prison has largely stood empty since its construction in 2001, and that the plan (which also calls for a new influx of federal prisoners to be housed separately from the Guantánamo prisoners) will bring much-needed jobs to the area. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, for example, complained that the administration had “failed to explain how transferring terrorists to Gitmo North will make Americans safer than keeping these terrorists off of our shores in the secure facility in Cuba,” conveniently forgetting to mention that the government does not need to provide an explanation, because, by 307 to 114 votes in the House, and 79 to 19 in the Senate, lawmakers voted in October to allow prisoners to be brought to the mainland to face trials, as part of a $42.8 billion bill for Homeland Security.

If McConnell’s wailing was rather toothless, critics on the left had more to savage in the plans, seizing on the proposals to transfer prisoners “who cannot be prosecuted … but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States” as an example of the Obama administration bringing the worst aspects of Guantánamo to the US mainland. In a statement, Amnesty International explained:

The only thing that President Obama is doing with this announcement is changing the Zip Code of Guantánamo. A fundamental principle of the rule of law is that people cannot be held without charge or trial. The founding fathers knew it, the greatest generation fought for it, candidate Obama campaigned for it and the president needs to remember it.

However, although this criticism is certainly accurate with regard to the government’s intent, it does not address whether the administration will be able to achieve its aim. At present, Congress has only approved the transfer to the US mainland of prisoners facing trials, as the government officials who spoke to reporters on Tuesday acknowledged, when they stated that currently “it would be a violation of the law to transfer prisoners to Thomson for the purpose of anything other than prosecution.” They added that, as a result, the administration acknowledges that it “will need some change of law … Ultimately the facility would allow for the detention of some number of detainees who the President outlined in the Archives speech as not being triable either in federal courts or in military commissions.”

It remains far from clear that lawmakers will approve the “change of law” required by the administration to fulfill its plan, and even if Congressional approval is forthcoming, it is not entirely certain that the government has thought out what its proposal actually means.

Despite being inexplicably proud of its plans to hold some prisoners indefinitely without charge or trial, which has been mentioned with alarming regularity since that speech at the National Archives in May, senior officials have generally been reluctant to acknowledge that the majority of the prisoners that it proposes to transfer to Illinois for the rest of their natural lives — around 55, on the basis of the figures bandied about last week — have habeas corpus petitions pending in US District Courts, and that judges may, if the 78 percent success rate to date is anything to go by, grant the petitions of some of these men and order their release.

In its memo on Thursday, the White House finally acknowledged the role of the courts, but only, it appeared, as a supplement to the administration’s right to detain prisoners indefinitely under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), enacted by Congress in September 2001, which authorized the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.” The memo also pointed out that, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, in June 2004, the Supreme Court had concluded that “Congress has clearly and unmistakably authorized detention” of individuals covered by this legislation.

As a result, the memo stated that the “interagency review panel is in the final stages of determining the number of detainees who will continue to be held, and for whom no prosecution is planned,” under the AUMF, and tagged on, almost as an afterthought, was the following passage: “In addition, the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush [in June 2008] that all detainees currently held at Guantánamo have the right to file petitions for habeas corpus to challenge their detention in federal court. Detainees will continue to have that right when they are transferred to the United States.”

If, as can be expected, some of these men win their habeas corpus petitions, the administration will then be left holding innocent men — or, at least, men whose guilt cannot be established by a court — in a maximum-security prison with no obvious means of release, especially if, as with dozens of the 103 cleared prisoners already at Guantánamo, they cannot be repatriated because they hail from countries with notoriously poor human rights records, where they face the risk of torture.

Admittedly, this is not necessarily any better or worse than remaining in Guantánamo, but it appears to be an outcome that has not been fully thought out by senior officials, including the President, while they have been banging on endlessly about continuing the Bush administration’s disgusting and disgraceful policy of holding men without charge or trial, and I doubt that it will be as easy as it is in Guantánamo to continue to deprive prisoners cleared by the courts of all rights when they are on US territory.

The government should have thought about all of this months ago, of course, but senior officials seem to have regarded the courts with a Bush-like disdain, preferring to conduct their own inter-agency Task Force review of the prisoners’ cases, and doing nothing to prevent Bush-era lawyers in the Justice Department from continuing the same policy of obstruction in the habeas cases that typified the previous administration.

The result is that, of those 55 cases of proposed indefinite detention, only nine — those who have lost their habeas petitions — have any sort of basis in law. Even in these cases, I doubt that the government will be able to maintain forever that it has the right to hold prisoners indefinitely, when their habeas petitions demonstrated only that they had some sort of tangential or minor connection with either al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but the oddest thing about these nine cases is that they do not seem to have been considered by the government at all.

On Tuesday, in their briefing to reporters, one of the two government officials stated, in response to a question regarding “indefinite detention” from Jake Tapper of ABC News, “The last category which the president suggested may — you called ‘indefinite detention,’ and which the president indicated in his speech at the Archives — we may, in fact, have to address. The fact of the matter is, this review is ongoing. There are no specific cases, to date, that meet that standard that the president has signed off on, and so I don’t want to jump to any conclusions on that.”

This suggests that the administration is not prepared to make a decision about these nine men until the inter-agency Task Force completes its review, indicating that senior officials regard the District Court rulings in these men’s habeas corpus petitions as less significant than the administration’s own, unaccountable Executive review of their cases.

This is actually rather disturbing, because for now these nine men are, at least, detained on a legal basis that has involved the US courts, and are not merely subjected to indefinite detention at the whim of the government, based on eight-year-old legislation passed by Congress in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. From my own point of view, I think we actually need to be having a new conversation, to point out that these men should either be prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, or terrorists who should be put forward for trials, rather than remaining, essentially, the unique class of human being known as “enemy combatants” — whatever the Obama administration now chooses to call them (“alien unprivileged enemy belligerents” being the latest twist).

As it stands, however, the omission of these men from the government’s statements in the past few days suggests that senior officials think so highly of the AUMF that they not only believe that it authorizes them to bring prisoners to the US mainland and imprison them indefinitely, but have also fooled themselves into thinking that this will do anything meaningful to remove the taint of Guantánamo.

The reason why it was so important to close Guantánamo in the first place was to bring to an end the ruinous and unjust policy of indefinite detention without charge or trial, and it amazes me that President Obama has, apparently, fooled himself into thinking that a sleight of hand that perpetuates the same policy as that established by George W. Bush will be any more acceptable when he is its architect, or that a change of scenery — from Guantánamo Bay to Thomson, Illinois — can help to accomplish such a brazen betrayal of the fundamental values on which the United States was founded.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation. Cross-posted on The Public Record.

The Stories Of The Two Somalis Freed From Guantánamo

Map of SomalilandCarol Rosenberg at the Miami Herald broke the news on Saturday that 12 prisoners have been released from Guantánamo, bringing the total number of prisoners held to 198. The news followed hints in the Washington Post on Friday that six Yemenis and four Afghans were set to leave, but Rosenberg — and the East African media — reported that the men had already been freed and that two Somalis were also released. I’ll be writing soon about the Afghans and the Yemenis, but for now I’d like to focus on the stories of the two Somalis: Mohammed Sulaymon Barre and Ismail Mahmoud Muhammad (identified as Ismael Arale).

Rosenberg reported that the two men “were processed by the Somaliland government and then released to rejoin their families in Hargeisa,” the capital of “the breakaway region in northern Somalia that has its own autonomous government.” She added, “The United States does not recognize the government in Somaliland and there were no official statements on how Arale and Barre arrived there. A local newspaper, the Somaliland Press, said they arrived aboard a jet provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, suggesting that the United States had released the men to the Red Cross in a third country.”

As President Obama attempts to close Guantánamo, with the administration recently announcing its intention of purchasing a prison in Illinois to hold some of the prisoners, the release of these two men — as with the overwhelming majority of releases from Guantánamo — yet again demonstrates how hysterical and unsubstantiated are Republican claims that Guantánamo is full of hardcore terrorists, as their stories demonstrate:

Seized in Pakistan: Mohammed Sulaymon Barre

Mohammed Sulaymon Barre, who was 37 years old at the time of his capture, was one of the first men to be seized in the “War on Terror.” As I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files, he had been living in Pakistan as a UN-approved refugee since fleeing his homeland during its ruinous civil war in the early 1990s, and was seized at his home in Karachi on November 1, 2001 “by police and intelligence agents who had made two previous visits to check his papers, and who seem, therefore, to have seized him on this third occasion because they were looking for easy targets to hand over to the Americans.”

As I also explained in The Guantánamo Files:

Barre worked from his home as the Karachi agent for the Dahabshiil Company, a Somali organization with branches around the world, which provides essential money transfer operations for the Somali diaspora. According to the Americans, Dahabshiil was “closely related to al-Barakat, a Somali financial company designated as a terrorism finance facilitator,” [which had been added to a US terrorism watch list and had its assets frozen]. Barre said that he knew nothing about this allegation, pointing out that his job only involved making small transactions on behalf of Somalis living in Pakistan.

In fact, as was noted in a report in 2004 [for a UN conference on Trade and Development], the enforced US-led closure of money transfer operations with suspected links to terrorism was “disastrous for Somalia, a country with no recognized government and without a functioning state apparatus. After the international community largely washed its hands of the country following the disastrous peacekeeping foray in 1994, remittances became the inhabitants’ lifeline. With no recognized private banking system, the remittance trade was dominated by a single firm (al-Barakat).” Crucially, the report added that, although the US authorities closed down al-Barakat in 2001, labeling it “the quartermasters of terror,” only four criminal prosecutions had been filed by 2003, “and none involved charges of aiding terrorists.”

Nevertheless, the authorities at Guantánamo — operating in a bubble of terror-related allegations that largely bore no relation to the realities of the outside world — had no time for Barre’s protestations of innocence. “I am convinced that your branch of the Dahabshiil company was used to transfer money for terrorism,” the presiding officer of his tribunal at Guantánamo told Barre in 2005. “What I am trying to find out is if you think maybe there were some people that were using your company and using your branch to transfer money, or whether you were just totally not paying attention.”

A year later, as the BBC reported in August 2006, al-Barakat had been removed from the US watchlist of terrorist organizations. The report explained that al-Barakat had been included on the watchlist because US intelligence analysts thought it had been used to finance the 9/11 hijackers, but the 9/11 Commission had investigated the claim and had found it baseless. In February 2009, in a report for the Washington Post, Peter Finn noted that, in the allegations against Barre at Guantánamo, Dahabshiil’s alleged ties to al-Barakat had been dropped by 2006, although even then the taint of the allegation was not entirely removed.

In a letter to the Post, an attorney for Dahabshiil was obliged to point out that the firm has “never been the subject of any investigation in relation to alleged terrorist funding” and that it “has no involvement whatsoever with money laundering or the funding or of terrorist organizations and … places the highest importance on money laundering compliance.” As the Post noted ruefully, “Dahabshiil should have been given an opportunity to comment for the article.”

Shorn of this central allegation, it is no wonder that, as Barre’s lawyers explained in a court filing in connection with his habeas corpus petition, the allegations against him have “varied dramatically.” In 2006, for example, presumably through a false allegation coerced from some other prisoner, the authorities claimed that he was not in Pakistan in 1994 and 1995 — despite the existence of UN papers documenting his meetings in Pakistan in those years — but was actually working in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Khartoum, Sudan, an allegation so worthless that his lawyers described it as “implausible and unsubstantiated.”

According to Emi MacLean of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents Barre, most of his problems at Guantánamo stemmed from his opposition to the regime at prison, and his involvement in several hunger strikes. “If you were detained for seven years without charge and any fair process, you might be engaged in activities that would be considered disciplinary violations that are really protests for your detention,” she said.

The truth, as Barre himself noted at his tribunal in 2005, was that “A lot of interrogators said to me that … a lot of mistakes were made and they must be corrected. They told me many times that I am here by mistake.” Sadly, this was not enough to prevent him from suffering in Guantánamo, and also in US custody in Bagram before his transfer to Guantánamo in 2002, when, as he explained in his tribunal:

They interrogated me and one of the interrogators told me I was from al-Wafa [a Saudi charity that was also regarded with suspicion by the US authorities] and I needed to confess to that. You have no choice. I told them it wasn’t true. They pressured me. They whispered something then spoke to the guard. The guard came in, grabbed me by my neck and threw me. He took me in a bad way to isolation. All my blankets, except one, were taken from me. It was freezing cold. They didn’t feed me lunch and sometimes they didn’t feed me twice. At night it is very cold and if you don’t eat dinner it gets colder. This torture lasted fifteen to twenty days. My feet and hands were swollen. I wasn’t able to stand because I was in so much pain. I asked for treatment and an interrogator brought a nurse and asked if I wanted treatment. They told me they could cut my legs to stop the pain. They did this so I would confess to the accusations that I didn’t do. Nothing happened. After the torture ended, I met another interrogator who told me injustice was done to me and I didn’t have anything to do with this. He said he would do a report so I could go home. He told me I would be released. Suddenly, I was taken back to Kandahar and then to Cuba.

Seized in Djibouti: Ismail Mahmoud Muhammad

Ismail Mahmoud MuhammadUnlike Mohammed Sulaymon Barre, Ismail Mahmoud Muhammad was one of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo, one of just six men flown to the prison after the arrival of 14 “high-value detainees” in September 2006. Identified by the Pentagon as Abdullahi Sudi Arale, he arrived with little fanfare in June 2007, and, as I explained in an article in September 2007:

Possibly … his arrival was little trumpeted because it involved the deliberately under-reported “War on al-Qaeda” in the Horn of Africa, and because the administration had very little information to offer about him. In almost questioning terms, Arale was described as a “suspected” member of “the al-Qaeda terrorist network in East Africa,” who served as “a courier between East Africa al-Qaeda (EAAQ) and al-Qaeda in Pakistan.”

In a press release, the DoD added that, after returning to Somalia from Pakistan in September 2006, he “held a leadership role in the EAAQ-affiliated Somali Council of Islamic Courts (CIC),” and noted, with distressing vagueness, that there was “significant information available” to indicate that Arale had been “assisting various EAAQ-affiliated extremists in acquiring weapons and explosives,” that he had “facilitated terrorist travel by providing false documents for AQ and EAAQ-affiliates and foreign fighters traveling into Somalia,” and that he had “played a significant role in the re-emergence of the CIC in Mogadishu.” Unmentioned, of course, was the subtext of the situation in Somalia: the role of the CIC in returning some semblance of order to one of the world’s least-governed countries, and the US government’s use of Ethiopia as a proxy army in yet another secret, dirty war.

It took some time for the truth about the Pentagon’s “distressing vagueness” to be explained, in part because the US authorities released no further information about him, and, in two and a half years, do not appear to have conducted a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, to ascertain whether he was correctly designated as an “enemy combatant.” However, when Reprieve, the legal action charity whose lawyers represent dozens of Guantánamo prisoners, became involved, another narrative emerged, in which Muhammad not only had no connection to al-Qaeda, but was, in fact, “an English teacher and centrist political activist.”

Born in Mogadishu in 1970, Muhammad had remained in the capital throughout the civil war of the 1990s until the security situation deteriorated to such an extent that he moved north to Somaliland, establishing the first English school in the new country, and working as a journalist. In 1998, he traveled to Pakistan, where he studied English Literature at the International Islamic University, and became, as Reprieve described it, “a respected leader of the Somali community in the country.”

When his father died, he moved back to Mogadishu, “where the rule of the Union of Islamic Courts had brought relative stability to the war-torn capital,” but at the end of 2006, when, backed by the US, the Ethiopian Army invaded, he moved north one more. Opposed to the Ethiopian invasion, he was asked, “as a respected member of the community … to attend a conference in Eritrea aimed at organizing a political campaign” to ensure that the Ethiopians left.

It was while he was on his way to this conference that he was seized by local police in Djibouti, “apparently at the behest of the Americans.” Handed over to the US military, he was taken to Camp Lemonier, the US military base that played a key role in American interference in the Horn of Africa, where other prisoners have been held, possibly including an unknown number of “ghost prisoners.” There, as Reprieve explained, “he was held in a shipping container and interrogated by Americans.”

Compared to Mohammed Sulaymon Barre, Ismael Mahmoud Muhammad was fortunate that his wrongful imprisonment lasted for only two and a half years, but as the eighth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo approaches, the release of these two men — neither of whom was cleared until the Obama administration’s inter-agency Task Force began its deliberations this year — demonstrates, yet again, that, when it comes to undoing the shameful legacy of Guantánamo, much work still remains to be done.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published on the Huffington Post. Cross-posted on The Public Record, Common Dreams and Axis of Logic.

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the 30 prisoners released from February to early December 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 to Bermuda, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad), 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni, 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; October 2009 — 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody, December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah).

Shaker Aamer: UK Government Drops Opposition To Release Of Torture Evidence

Shaker AamerLast week, as I explained in a recent article, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who was seized in Afghanistan in 2001 after traveling to Afghanistan with his friend Moazzam Begg (and their families) to establish a girls’ school in Kabul, won a significant victory in the British High Court. Lord Justice Jeremy Sullivan ruled that evidence in the possession of the British government, regarding his torture in US custody in Kandahar, Afghanistan, before his transfer to Guantánamo, must be made available to lawyers working on his behalf in the United States, so that they can make representations to the Obama administration’s interagency Task Force, which is currently reviewing the cases of the remaining prisoners in Guantánamo, and is expected to reach a decision sometime next month.

The documents include claims that British agents were, on occasion, present during brutal interrogations that punctuated a regime in which Aamer was “subjected to weeks of torture including sleep deprivation over nine days, cold water torture which led to frostbite, ‘hog tying’ and regular beatings along with threats that he would be sent to be tortured in Egypt, Jordan, or Israel.” As a result of this treatment, Aamer has claimed that he made false confessions, which are being used against him, even though a military review board under the Bush administration cleared him for release from Guantánamo in 2007.

On Wednesday, the legal action charity Reprieve, which represents Aamer in the US, announced that, at a hearing on Thursday, the British security services would argue that they are not required to release the information to Aamer “because he has not been formally charged with a crime.” This prompted Reprieve’s director, Clive Stafford Smith, to exclaim, “Essentially, MI5 are saying they would owe Shaker this evidence if the Americans would bother to charge him.  But because Shaker will have no charge and no trial, they say he has no right to any evidence at all and must continue to face indefinite detention with no end in sight. What kind of down-the-rabbit-hole argument is this?”

In the end, however, despite flagging up this argument, and claiming that they would apply for a “Public Interest Immunity” certificate to resist the disclosure of the material on national security grounds, government lawyers capitulated at the last minute. As the proceedings got underway on Thursday, Lord Justice Sullivan and Mr. Justice Lloyd Jones announced that “overnight,” as Paul Cahalan explained for the Wandsworth Guardian, the government “had agreed Mr. Aamer’s US lawyers — with the relevant security clearance — could have access to the files.”

As Paul Cahalan described it, Aamer’s barrister, Richard Hermer QC, “welcomed the development but told the court the U-turn showed the Government had not ‘done all it could’” to secure his client’s release, as had previously been claimed. “The assertion that they had done everything they possibly could is incorrect,” he said, adding, as Clive Stafford Smith explained last week, with reference to the fact that the documents had been provided to the US government, but not to Aamer’s lawyers, “By sending documents with an express proviso they were not shown to the claimant does not match their claim.”

Lord Justice Sullivan adjourned the case until January to give the Task Force time to hand over material to Aamer’s lawyers, explaining that “the case would be made redundant if the material was handed over,” and adding, pointedly, “It would seem to us that dealing with the matter in this way might concentrate the minds of those involved with both governments … it seems this is in the best interests of all parties.”

As I mentioned in my recent article, I hope that this attempt by Lord Justice Sullivan to “concentrate the minds of those involved with both governments” will lead to Shaker Aamer’s prompt release, as he has suffered for too long in US custody, not because of what he is alleged to have done — involving a selection of spurious allegations of involvement with al-Qaeda which appear to have been derived from his false confessions under torture, and possibly through false allegations made by other prisoners under unknown circumstances — but because he has been an eloquent and outspoken opponent of the manner in which the prisoners have been abused and deprived of their rights.

Speaking after the ruling, Clive Stafford Smith described it as “a step forward,” but, as Paul Cahalan put it, was “wary of the concession being used as a delaying tactic — as the US would now have a short time to agree to releasing the documents.” As Stafford Smith explained, with reference to the case of Binyam Mohamed, the British resident released in February, whose story also involves the complicity of the British intelligence services, in an even more harrowing example of the use of torture in the “War on Terror”:

To date, everything has been a delaying tactic. One might well ask why anyone would think it appropriate to cover up evidence of torture under any circumstances. I’m not sanguine about this. The question is how we can make them do it. Last time, with Binyam Mohamed, they reached a deal with the US and the US prosecutors still gave us only seven of the 42 agreed documents, and it took another round of litigation in the UK to force the issue.

Both Stafford Smith and Gareth Peirce, Shaker Aamer’s solicitor in the UK, expressed concerns that the US could transfer their client back to his native country, Saudi Arabia, where, as Paul Cahalan explained, “pressure groups like Amnesty International have concerns about human right abuses,” and where, as I explained last week, both the British and American governments would also be secure that he would not be able to speak out freely about his deep knowledge of abuse at Guantánamo. As Gareth Peirce stated after the hearing, “We know they have already tried to make him board a plane to Saudi Arabia once and this could happen again.”

She also said that the case was important in forcing the Government to make public information relating to the activities of the security services. “What we are saying is that the UK has been complicit in appalling crimes, abuses and tortures,” she explained, adding, “There’s a fight to the death in the courts to keep this secrecy.”

As the case of Binyam Mohamed shows (which I reported most recently here), this “fight to the death” has now been ongoing for 14 months, although the judges show no indication of backing down. In Shaker Aamer’s case too, the message from the courts seems to be that questions of national security have nothing to do with topics involving the alleged wrongdoing of the British intelligence services, and that uncovering the truth is extremely important in the interests of justice, whether it leads to embarrassment on the part of the government or to something far darker: proof of complicity in the war crimes initiated, in the name of fighting terrorism, by the government of George W. Bush.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

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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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