Archive for January, 2010

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” – Amnesty International screening, London, Tuesday February 16, 2010

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoOn Tuesday February 16, 2010, at 6.30 pm, Amnesty International UK is screening the new Guantánamo documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” at the Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London EC2A 3EA (map and directions here). This is a free event, but those who want to attend need to book online here, on Amnesty’s website.

The screening will be followed by a Q&A session, featuring former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes (profiled in the Guardian on Friday) and Andy Worthington, journalist, co-director of the film (with Polly Nash), and author of The Guantánamo Files. Other guests are tbc. The Q&A will be chaired by Sara MacNeice, Amnesty’s Campaign Manager for Terrorism, Security and Human Rights.

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” tells the story of the prison by focusing in particular on the stories of three men. One is Omar Deghayes, and another is Binyam Mohamed, who was released in February 2009, but the film has a particular relevance right now because the third man, Shaker Aamer, is still held, despite being cleared for release in 2007, and despite the British government asking for him to be returned to the UK in August 2007.

Shaker AamerAs the foremost advocate of the prisoners’ rights in Guantánamo, Shaker’s influence upset the US authorities to such an extent that those pressing for his return fear that the US government wants to return him to Saudi Arabia, the country of his birth, where he will not be at liberty to tell his story, and recent revelations indicate that, despite claims that it has been doing all in its power to secure his release, the British government may also share this view.

Last month, it emerged in a court case in the UK that British agents witnessed his abuse while he was held in US custody in Afghanistan, and just last week, for Harper’s Magazine, law professor Scott Horton reported that he was tortured in Guantánamo on the same night, in June 2006, that three other men appear to have been killed by representatives of an unknown US agency, and that a cover-up then took place, which successfully passed the deaths off as suicides.

Please come along to watch the film, and to discuss what steps we can all take to put pressure on the British government to demand the return of Shaker Aamer to the UK, to be reunited with his British wife, and his four children. To get involved now, please visit this Amnesty International action page, to find details of how you can write to David Miliband and Gordon Brown, asking them to demand Shaker’s return.

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  Shaker Aamer, Binyam Mohamed 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.

Recent feedback

On January 10, 2010, on the eve of a 12-day fast and vigil outside the White House, calling for the closure of Guantánamo, the film was screened in Washington D.C., and the following day Matt Daloisio of Witness Against Torture sent the following email to Omar, Moazzam and myself:

I am part of a community of folks from the US who attempted to visit the Guantánamo prison in December 2005, and ended up fasting for a number of days outside the gates. We went then, and we continue our work now, because we heard the cries for justice from within the prison walls.

As we gathered tonight as a community, we watched “Outside the Law,” and by the end, we all sat silent, many with tears in our eyes and on our faces. I have so much I’d like to say, but for now I wanted to write a quick note to say how grateful we are that you are out, and that you are speaking out with such profound humanity. I am only sorry what we can do is so little, and that so many remain in the prison.

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

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a Spectacle Production (74 minutes, 2009), and copies of the DVD are now available. As featured on Democracy Now!, ABC News and Truthout. See here for videos of the Q&A session (with Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and Polly Nash) that followed the launch of the film in London on October 21, 2009.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

The Guantánamo Files: Andy Worthington’s Boiling Frogs Podcast with Peter B. Collins and Sibel Edmonds

In case you didn’t know, FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds has a new website, Boiling Frogs, described as “the Home of the Irate Minority.” Sibel and I discovered each other’s work some time ago, and when she established Boiling Frogs, we set a date for an interview, to be broadcast around the time that — as we anticipated — Barack Obama would miss his self-imposed deadline for the closure of Guantánamo.

The day after this predicted failure, Sibel has made the interview, helmed by another friend and colleague, Peter B. Collins, available as an hour-long podcast here (and the MP3 is here). Peter B. and I have done many interviews over the last few months, and for Boiling Frogs, we ran through the whole sordid story of the Bush administration’s lawless project, which President Obama is finding so difficult to bring to an end.

Because this interview was pre-recorded a few weeks ago, Peter, Sibel and I had no idea that, in the days before Obama’s failed deadline, Scott Horton would publish an extraordinary story about the supposed suicides at Guantánamo in June 2006, and Obama’s interagency Task Force would choose the day of the deadline to advise the President that 47 of the remaining 196 prisoners should be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

Nevertheless, the interview was an excellent opportunity for Peter, Sibel and I to run through Guantánamo’s history, enabling me to explain how I came to research and write The Guantánamo Files (and why no major media outlet chose to analyze the publicly available documents that were the main basis of my research). At Peter’s request, I also ran through the prison’s legal history, explaining why the Supreme Court made the unprecedented decision to grant habeas corpus rights to prisoners seized during wartime, and also explained how, of the 779 prisoners held, 95 percent had no involvement with terrorism, and that around half of the prisoners were completely innocent men, seized through ineptitude or the lure of bounty payments, and the other half were Taliban foot soldiers, recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before 9/11.

We also spoke about the Bush administration’s potent propaganda regarding Guantánamo, the “tortured narratives” extracted from the prisoners at Guantánamo, which are only finally being exposed in their habeas corpus petitions in the US courts, and the faith that has enabled the majority of the prisoners to survive their horrendous ordeal without, as the Pentagon regularly alleges in unsubstantiated propaganda, taking up arms against their former oppressors on their release.

I also had the opportunity to review the successes and failures of Obama’s first year, with the emphasis on the latter, particularly when it comes to indefinite detention without charge or trial. At Sibel’s request, I also spoke about the role other countries played in the “War on Terror” (whether willingly or under pressure), with a particular focus on the UK, and its own under-reported policy of indefinite detention without charge or trial for terror suspects.

There’s much more in the interview that I haven’t mentioned here, so I hope you have a listen. I look forward to talking to Sibel and Peter B. again, and am delighted that Peter chose to close the show by stating, “you have provided a great service to our nation and the world by bringing light to this very, very dark series of issues.”

Note: On Friday, I also did a six-minute interview with Free Speech Radio News, which is available here. Another FSRN reporter, David Rosenfeld, also interviewed me last week, and part of that interview was included in an article about the Pentagon’s propaganda regarding Gitmo recidivism, which is here. And on Saturday, for any Slovak readers out there, my interview with journalist Tomas Vasilko, in which I attempted to quell any fears the Slovak people might have regarding the three cleared prisoners to be rehoused by the government, was published in the Slovak daily, SME, available online here.

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, updated in January 2010, 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.

Rubbing Salt in Guantánamo’s Wounds: Task Force Announces Indefinite Detention

GuantanamoWith a stunning lack of sensitivity, Barack Obama’s Guantánamo Task Force chose the anniversary of the President’s failed promise to close the prison to announce its conclusions regarding the eventual fate of the 196 prisoners who are still held, stating, with no trace of irony, that “nearly 50” of the men “should be held indefinitely without trial under the laws of war,” as the Washington Post explained.

The administration’s invocation of the laws of war actually refers to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed by Congress in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 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 those who harbored them), as interpreted by the Supreme Court in June 2004, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, in which it was asserted that “Congress has clearly and unmistakably authorized detention” of individuals covered by the AUMF.

This may technically be legal in the United States, but it is at odds with everyone else’s understanding of the laws of war. As every other civilized country understand them, the laws of war involve holding combatants for the duration of hostilities according to the Geneva Conventions, which, under Common Article 3, prohibit the “humiliating and degrading treatment” and coercive interrogations to which the men in Guantánamo were subjected, after President Bush declared in February 2002 that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

Moreover, these men were never screened to ascertain whether they were actually combatants in the first place. Under Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention (relative to the treatment of prisoners of war), if there is any doubt about whether those detained fit the description of Article 4 (broadly speaking, regular armed forces), they should be treated as Article 4 prisoners until their status has been determined by a competent tribunal. Held close to the time and place of capture, these were convened in every US war from Vietnam onwards, and in the first Gulf War, for example, 1,196 tribunals were held, and 886 men were subsequently released.

However, competent tribunals were not held in Afghanistan (and are still not held to this day, under President Obama), and irregular soldiers (such as those fighting for the Taliban, or military forces related to al-Qaeda who were supporting the Taliban) slipped through the cracks of the protections assured to everyone detained in wartime, whether combatant or civilian, and were labeled as “unlawful enemy combatants,” who, according to the Bush administration, could be deprived of all rights.

This was nonsense, as the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed in 1958 in a commentary on the Fourth Convention (relative to the treatment of civilians) that “Every person in enemy hands must have some status under international law: he is either a prisoner of war and, as such, covered by the Third Convention, a civilian covered by the Fourth Convention, or … a member of the medical personnel of the armed forces who is covered by the First Convention.” Moreover, “There is no intermediate status; nobody in enemy hands can be outside the law.”

This interpretation was reinforced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in a judgment in 1998, but in the “War on Terror,” the result of the Bush administration’s cynical maneuvering was Guantánamo, a prison in which men who had never been adequately screened were presumed to be guilty, even though, in most cases, the authorities knew nothing about them. This was largely because 86 percent of them had not been seized “on the battlefield,” as senior officials claimed, but had been sold to the US military by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, at a time when bounty payments, averaging $5,000 a head, were being paid for al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.

As a result, the Obama administration’s justification for holding 50 men indefinitely without charge or trial reinforces the Bush administration’s false claim that there is a category of wartime prisoner who can be held indefinitely (as opposed to being held as a prisoner of war until the end of hostilities). What makes this conclusion even more unnerving is that the justification for holding these men indefinitely is evidence that, by President Obama’s own admission, is “tainted” by the use of torture.

In a major national security speech in May, when he first signaled that he was reviving the Bush administration’s justification for holding men indefinitely without charge or trial, President Obama referred to prisoners who “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.”

To its credit, the administration has belatedly acknowledged that the decision regarding whether or not to hold these men is not the exclusive province of the executive branch. As the Post explained, officials stated that “each detainee has the right to challenge his incarceration in habeas corpus proceedings in federal court.” This is a welcome acknowledgment, as the courts’ role, mandated by an enormously significant Supreme Court ruling in June 2008, has been noticeably sidelined by the administration, even though, in the last 16 months, District Court judges have ruled, in 32 out of 41 cases, that the government’s supposed evidence — largely derived from the prisoners themselves, or from their fellow prisoners — is so “tainted” as to be useless and unbelievable.

Judges have also taken exception to the President’s hidden sub-text — that other compelling evidence has come from the intelligence agencies — noting, on several occasions, that the “mosaics” of intelligence put forward to justify detention may be useful in terms of gathering intelligence, but fail to stand up to scrutiny in a court of law.

Fayiz al-Kandari, photographed at Guantanamo in 2009No indication has yet been provided as to the identities of the 50 men that the Task Force advocates holding indefinitely, but it is a safe bet that one is Fayiz al-Kandari, a Kuwaiti (profiled last October), who has always maintained that he was a humanitarian aid worker, caught up in the post-invasion chaos of Afghanistan. Noticeably, al-Kandari has been persistently uncooperative with the interrogators in Guantánamo, and has refused to implicate himself in any terrorist-related activities.

However, according to the authorities, in a version of reality concocted almost exclusively from multiple levels of hearsay provided by other prisoners, while in Afghanistan, between August and December 2001 he managed not only to visit the al-Farouq training camp (the main training camp for Arabs in the years before 9/11), but also to provide instruction to al-Qaeda members and trainees, to serve as an adviser to Osama bin Laden, and to produce recruitment audio and video tapes which encouraged membership in al-Qaeda and participation in jihad.

Al-Kandari is one of the men whose only hope now is that a District Court judge will see through the authorities’ flimsy case against him, but for those seeking justice for genuine terrorists (or those, at least, against whom something resembling real evidence exists), the news from the Task Force is at least more encouraging. As the Post explained, the Task Force has recommended that “about 35 prisoners should be prosecuted in federal or military courts.”

Without the distraction of the 50 supposedly dangerous men who can be held indefinitely without evidence, this figure rather comprehensively demonstrates the colossal failure rate of the Bush administration’s experiment at Guantánamo: of the 779 men held, just under 5 percent are to face trials. If anything demonstrates that doing away with establishing safeguards in wartime and establishing guilt through arrogant presumption is a disastrous idea, it should be this statistic.

Making up the rest of the 95 percent of Guantánamo’s prisoners who should never have been detained are “at least 110 detainees” who have been cleared for release. As the Post explained, the Task Force “deemed approximately 80 detainees, including about 30 Yemenis, eligible for immediate repatriation or resettlement in a third country. About 30 other Yemenis were placed in a category of their own, with their release contingent upon dramatically stabilized conditions in their home country.”

This is another swipe at the chaos of the Bush administration’s policies, of course, as the figure of 110 can be added to the 44 prisoners already released by Obama, but it is not without its problems. The Post tiptoed around Obama’s cowardly refusal to release any cleared Yemenis for the foreseeable future, in the face of unprincipled attacks from Republicans and member of his own party, who attempted to equate the cleared Yemenis with the failed Christmas Day plane bomber.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had apparently been in contact with an al-Qaeda-inspired group in Yemen that included Saudi ex-prisoners released by George W. Bush, despite warnings from the intelligence services that they were among the handful of dangerous men in Guantánamo, but in the hysteria that recently prevailed, the cleared Yemenis were sacrificed for political gain.

The unadorned figures also fail to reveal that, of the 50 men from other countries, the majority cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will be tortured on their return. On the anniversary of President Obama’s failure to close Guantánamo  — and also of his failure to fully repudiate the Bush administration’s vile policies — the plight of these men should not be overlooked.

Although the Post noted that the administration “anticipates that about 20 detainees can be repatriated by this summer,” and “has received firm commitments from countries willing to settle an additional 25 detainees who have been cleared for release,” experiences this year have indicated that other countries are reluctant to provide new homes for these men when the United States has washed its hands of them.

The blame for refusing to allow any cleared prisoner to settle in the United States, if they cannot be repatriated, lies with the President, with lawmakers, with the Justice Department and judges in the Court of Appeals — as well as numerous media outlets – but its impact not only continues to sour relations with other countries asked to do America’s dirty work; it also threatens to leave innocent men stranded in Guantánamo for an undefined amount of time.

Back in October 2008, when Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled that 17 men from China (the Uighurs), who had won their habeas petitions, had to be rehoused in the United States because they could not be repatriated, and because no other country and been found that would take them, he explained that their continued detention was unconstitutional.

15 months later, Judge Urbina’s words still ring true, as they may on this day next year, when some of these men may still be held in Guantánamo unless America accepts responsibility for its own mistakes.

POSTSCRIPT: In subsequent reports, officials indicated that indefinite detention has been recommended for a total of 47 prisoners, and that the Task Force suggested that they, and those facing trials (82 men in total), should be transferred to a new facility on the US mainland. This was the intention when the plan to buy the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois was first mentioned, and it remains profoundly depressing that the Task Force is content to move the heart of the Bush administration’s lawless experiment at Guantánamo — indefinite detention without charge or trial — to the US mainland.

The Associated Press also had a different take on the 60 or so Yemenis approved for release, noting only that 17 Yemenis “don’t face prosecution but are likely to be held for some time to come, until US counterterrorism officials can find a secure place in their home country or other foreign countries to send them.”

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, updated in January 2010, 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 New Left Project and Uruknet.

The Guardian interviews Omar Deghayes: “The spirit is what makes us who we are”

Omar Deghayes, speaking at the launch of "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo," London, October 21, 2009Omar Deghayes, the former Guantánamo prisoner whose story is at the very heart of the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington), was interviewed for the main feature in the Guardian’s G2 supplement on January 21, 2010 (available online here). I reproduce the interview below to mark the failure of Barack Obama’s promise to close Guantánamo within a year, and because Omar is such an eloquent and persuasive speaker, and his words complement the kind of factual analysis of the significance of this failure that I recently wrote about in an article entitled, “Obama’s Countdown to Failure on Guantánamo.”

As this important deadline slips, with no sign of when, if ever, the prison will now close, I hope as many people as possible will listen to the stories Omar has to tell about the chaos, brutality and ineptitude of Guantánamo and the “War on Terror,” and the suffering of the men still held there.

How I fought to survive Guantánamo
By Patrick Barkham, The Guardian, January 21, 2010

It is not hot stabbing pain that Omar Deghayes remembers from the day a Guantánamo guard blinded him, but the cool sen­sation of fingers being stabbed deep into his eyeballs. He had joined other prisoners in protesting against a new humiliation — inmates ­being forced to take off their trousers and walk round in their pants — and a group of guards had entered his cell to punish him. He was held down and bound with chains.

“I didn’t realize what was going on until the guy had pushed his fingers ­inside my eyes and I could feel the coldness of his fingers. Then I realized he was trying to gouge out my eyes,” Deghayes says. He wanted to scream in agony, but was determined not to give his torturers the satisfaction. Then the officer standing over him instructed the eye-stabber to push harder. “When he pulled his hands out, I remember I couldn’t see anything — I’d lost sight completely in both eyes.” Deghayes was dumped in a cell, fluid streaming from his eyes.

The sight in his left eye returned over the following days, but he is still blind in his right eye. He also has a crooked nose (from being punched by the guards, he says) and a scar across his forefinger (slammed in a prison door), but otherwise this resident of Saltdean, near Brighton, appears ­relatively ­unscarred from the more than five years he spent locked in Guantánamo Bay. Two years after his release, he speaks softly and calmly; he has the unlined skin and thick hair of a man younger than his 40 years; he has just remarried and has, for the first time in his life, a firm feeling that his home is on the clifftops of East Sussex.

Deghayes must, however, live with the darkness of Guantánamo for the rest of his days. There are reminders everywhere, from the beautiful picture of Saltdean that was painted for him while he was incarcerated, to the fact that Guantánamo remains open 12 months after Barack Obama vowed to close it within a year.

There are still around 200 prisoners left in the detention camp, many of whom have been there for eight years. [574 have been freed, and] only one [of the 198 men still there, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul,] has been found guilty of any crime and he was convicted by a dubious military commission, a verdict that is likely to be overturned. Deghayes, too, does not want to forget. He says there is so much still to be ­exposed about the conditions there, and about British ­collusion in the extraordinary rendition and torture of men such as him in the months following the American-led ­invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Omar Deghayes as a child, with his fatherDeghayes, one of five children of a prominent Libyan lawyer, first came to Saltdean from Tripoli aged five, to learn English with his brothers and ­sisters on their summer holidays. He would return and stay with British families every summer. Then, in 1980, his father, an opponent of the increasingly totalitarian Gaddafi, was taken away by the authorities. Three days later, Deghayes’ uncle was told to ­collect his body from the morgue. ­Harassed and increasingly fearful for their safety, Deghayes’ mother sought asylum for her family in Britain. They settled in the place they knew best, Saltdean, in a large white house with fine views over the sea. More than two decades on, the family still lives there.

After a secular upbringing in ­Saltdean, Deghayes became a practicing Muslim while at university in ­Wolverhampton, where he graduated in law. When he finished studying to become a solicitor, he had a “longing” to return to Libya but couldn’t because of his family name and opposition to Gaddafi, so he left for a round-the-world trip to ­experience Arabic cultures and visit university friends. He enjoyed ­Pakistan’s mixture of west and east, and was then tempted into a trip to Afghanistan: he saw business oppor­tunities and the chance to use his ­languages (Farsi, Arabic and English) and legal training (understanding both western and Sharia law) to help ­import-export companies.

He fell in love with the country and an Afghani woman; they married and had a son. “I liked the country — such beautiful rivers and different terrains. The people were difficult to get to know at first, but if they knew you and liked you, they’d open their hearts and houses to you,” he says. Afghanistan, it seems, triggered many ambitious dreams: he says he helped set up a school in Kabul, assisted NGOs, ­experimented with an agricultural ­social enterprise and exported apples to Peshawar. “I was generating income for myself but I had more ambition than that — to establish myself as a ­lawyer,” he says. “Things were really good. Then this war broke out and ­everything was shattered.”

Fearing for his new family’s safety, he paid people-smugglers to get them all back to Pakistan in early 2002 after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. He hoped his mother would take his wife and child back to England, while he planned to return to Afghanistan and continue his NGO and legal work. “I still thought I had nothing to fear. Even if there was an invasion, there was nothing I had been doing that was illegal.”

They rented a house in Lahore, “far away from the war atmosphere.” But then the Americans began paying large amounts of money to find Arabs who had been in Afghanistan. Suddenly, he was lucrative bounty for the Pakistani authorities. “The atmosphere changed completely. Nice Pakistan turned into a trap,” he says. One day, their house was surrounded by armed police. He was seized, but not taken to a ­normal police station. Instead he was driven, fast and under heavily armed guard, between secure rooms in hotels and villas. A Kafkaesque nightmare had begun.

Deghayes says he was beaten and ­interrogated first by Pakistani officials. He thinks the Americans and the ­Libyans competed to “buy” him from the Pakistanis, and it appears the Americans won: when he was moved from Lahore to Islamabad, a man ­introduced himself as the head of the CIA’s Libyan section. Taken between hotels by armed guards, Deghayes ­believes he saw a man who is now listed as a disappeared prisoner: an Italian Moroccan. “I remember seeing him; he was with me in the same car in Islamabad. He came out crying from the meeting, scared; he was saying, ‘No, don’t do this to me.’”

Deghayes also describes meeting a British interrogator when he met the CIA section head for the second time. “I was facing the British man, who introduced himself as Andrew. He spoke in an obvious British accent.” According to Deghayes, Andrew said he was from the intelligence services and wanted to question him.

“I was really annoyed and said, ‘You shouldn’t do this, you’re helping these people — I’m kidnapped, abducted against my will. Your job is to get me out of here. I’m British and if I go back to England, I will take you to court for what you are doing now.’ Andrew was a little bit scared, but he looked at me and said, ‘What case would you bring against me?’ I had nothing in my mind. He said, ‘Listen, if you answer my questions and co-operate with me, I will do my best. I will get you out of there.’”

Deghayes was shown an ­album of 100 photographs of supposed terrorists. He says he did not recognize anyone. One morning, he was tied, bound and blindfolded and taken to an airport. The “thin black bag” was removed from his head: he was standing in front of a mirror, guarded by two US soldiers. They tied another bag over his head, which “felt worse than the first bag — it suffocated me.” It smelt “like socks or cheese,” he says. “This was an indi­cation of the new regime — there were even harder times coming up.”

Inside the plane, it was mayhem: his feet and hands bound together and covered in bags, Deghayes was bundled on top of others in the hold. “People were crying. People were throwing up. Some people were suffocating, and there was a kick here and a kick there: ‘Get your head down, you bastard!’ Things like that. Then the plane took off and you could smell [the guards] drinking spirits.”

They landed in what he later ­realized was Bagram military air base. Here, Deghayes’ clothes were taken away and he was given two pieces of blue uniform. He was not allowed to speak to fellow inmates, and was bound to barbed wire before, he says, being beaten and made to suffer “all sorts of humiliation.” He spent several months there. “There were no rules in Bagram; people just went in and kicked people if they didn’t like them.”

He says he did not eat for more than 50 days. “I was really sick; I became a skeleton. I couldn’t walk any more. I lost my mind — I was really scared for my mental safety. I tried to eat but I threw up. I started to hear voices in my head because of the hunger. People would say something and I could not understand what they were saying. You hear shouts and you’re speaking to yourself inside your head. I started to become really scared because I thought I was losing my brains and ­going crazy.”

While he was in Bagram, he was again interrogated several times by ­officials he believes were from Britain. “They felt I was lying to them. I said to them I studied in ­Holborn, London. They said, ‘Which train did you take to get there?’ They didn’t believe anything,” he says. “They weren’t free to do what they liked; the Americans were running the show.” When he said he was too sick to speak, they called him “a bandit.”

His British interrogators “came up with lots of ­stupid things” — suggesting the scuba­diving lessons he had taken in the shabby lido in Saltdean, within yards of his family home, were terrorist training. “The Americans took that up in Guantánamo. It was a big headache. They showed me books of military scubadiving and ships and mines and they said, ‘Which ones did you see?’” The British also accused him of teaching people to fight in terrorist training camps in Chechnya, and claimed they had secret video evidence.

Deghayes had never been to ­Chechnya, and thought all these allegations laughable. Only later did he discover through Clive Stafford Smith, director of the human rights charity Reprieve, that his apparent appearance in an ­Islamic terrorist training video in Chechnya was the crucial evidence in a flimsy case against him. The ­authorities refused to give Stafford Smith, who campaigned for Guantánamo detainees, a copy of this videotape, but he eventually obtained one through the BBC.

It was, says the Reprieve director, an ­obvious case of mistaken identity: the person depicted lacked Deghayes’ small childhood scar on his face. ­Stafford Smith was able to show that the videotape was of a completely different ­person, actually a Chechnyan rebel called Abu Walid, who was dead. “This was typical of the whole Guantánamo experience,” says Stafford Smith. “They said they had evidence and they wouldn’t let you see it. Then when you did, it was incorrect.”

After two months in Bagram, Deghayes was flown to Guantánamo in autumn 2002. There, prisoners were treated brutally. According to Deghayes, when guards physically subdued them by tying them down, they would “do actions to pretend as if they are raping you. They put you down on your stomach. It was really horrible, all sexual and psychological stuff.” On other occasions, he says, guards would hold a prisoner’s head and “bang it on the floor.”

Deghayes developed a personal ­policy of resistance. Guards would ­typically arrive at a prisoner’s cell and spray pepper and other chemicals through the “bean-hole,” the hatch in the door. While most prisoners cowered at the back of their cell, Deghayes says he would grab the guards’ hands and attack them. He fought back, as viciously as he could, trying to take the fights with guards out of the privacy of his cell and into the corridors.

“It was chaos; they would fall on top of each other and it was embarrassing [for them]. They were wearing all this heavy stuff [body armor] which didn’t help either,” he says. Some guards ­became afraid of going into his cell. Most, he says, were Puerto Rican and were not driven by the patriotism of the “war on terror.” They did not want to get hurt for their meager wages.

Deghayes did not realize how badly his eye had been beaten until a year ­after the incident, when he looked in a mirror for the first time in four years. He accepts his resistance caused him more physical pain, but believes it ­subsequently helped him. In the camp, he was less fearful.

“I was targeted more, but I was also relaxed compared with others who didn’t do that. It was really scary for [the guards] to come into my cell,” he says. “Being humiliated by getting beaten up is better than giving your own trousers out. If I’d done those things, I would’ve been really bitter now. I’m probably less bitter than ­anyone else because I know I gave them a really hard time.” [Note: Omar did not agree that he had said the last line of this paragraph, as printed in the Guardian, and I have deleted it as a result].

Deghayes says his suffering made his faith stronger; it helped him ­survive. “We knew there’s a Muslim [God] ­behind things, there’s a hereafter, our patience and hardships will be ­rewarded and the pain has to end sometime. Our religion teaches these things — the good always prevails and the bad is only temporary; the patience of Job, the patience of Moses. All these teachings make a difference.” Praying five times a day delivered ­transcendence, removing him from the material world of bodily suffering. “My body and physical being can be chained, can be tarnished, can be beaten, can be raped,” he says now, “but not the spiritual: that is something that nobody can bind down. The spirit is what makes us who we are.”

Omar Deghayes, after his release from GuantanamoAs a campaign to free him gained momentum back in Brighton, Deghayes languished in Guantánamo for nearly six years. He was never charged or convicted of anything, by any authority. “And never been apologized to either,” he adds. Finally, in August 2007, the British government requested the ­release of Deghayes and four other ­detainees who were legal British ­residents. In the month before his ­release in December 2007, he says, he was deliberately fed well so he would not emerge looking gaunt and half-starved. “For one month we were ­fattened up with milk shakes, ­chocolates and really good cakes.”

When he returned to his family in ­Saltdean, he was happy but also dis­orientated. “You know if you are in a forest or walking on the moon, you can’t tell what is what. I was like this when I came out,” Deghayes says. He was stunned by some of the changes in ­Britain. “To my shock, when I came out from prison the whole country had changed — the surveillance, the Islamophobia, the control orders, secret ­evidence, and people being under ­curfews not being able to leave the house.” His neighborhood also ­appeared to have altered: “We never had thugs and mobs in the street ­before, and kids didn’t go binge-drinking or stealing. When I came back, these were some of the changes that I had to adjust to,” he says.

While he is very appreciative of the support he had in Brighton, after he was freed his family was targeted by racist teenagers who bullied his ­nephews and threw stones and bottles at their house for months. This stopped, abruptly, after a community meeting and media coverage led the police, rather belatedly, to install a video camera in the window of their home.

His imprisonment also caused his marriage to break down. His wife wrote to him in prison but her letters were never delivered; nor were his to her. “It’s cruel, isn’t it? These were just ­normal letters between husband and wife.” Both believed they had abandoned each other, and they divorced. She now lives with her family in Afghanistan. His son, Sulaiman, who is now eight, is staying with Deghayes’ mother in the Emirates. They hope eventually to bring him to Britain and give him a western education.

Two years after he was released, Deghayes remarried in ­December and is now busy buying furniture for a new place in Brighton. “Brighton is such a nice city. You can just walk by the sea, and the fresh air comes across. It ­reminds me of Tripoli. ­Before, I used to long for Tripoli; now, only recently, I have started to prefer Brighton. Maybe when you are younger you want to go back to dreams, and when you get to 40 you start to think, this is nicer, this is really what I like.”

Deghayes now works with ­Reprieve and other survivors of Guantánamo on legal challenges, ­including a civil case being brought against the Home Office with help from Gareth Peirce, the human rights lawyer. Deghayes hopes there will be a public inquiry into Guantánamo to bring those to account who were ­involved in his interrogation. Financial damages are not, he says, his ­motivation. “Even if I get damages, I will give them to ­charity. The court is an opportunity to embarrass and ­expose those who committed these crimes.”

While Reprieve campaigned to get Deghayes released, Stafford Smith ­explains how Deghayes “was a ­tremendously helpful ally in Guantánamo because he was fluent in English and he had a bit of legal training.” Stafford Smith brought him legal textbooks but they were censored as a “threat” to national security, and he says he worried for Deghayes’ safety during his incarceration. “If it had been me, I would have taken the course of quieter resistance. I was always afraid for Omar, that he would get himself beaten up. I was concerned for him ­because he was constantly being beaten up by the guards, but there’s nothing you can do to stop Omar loudly saying what is just and right.”

Stafford Smith believes Deghayes has fared better than many veterans of Guantánamo since his release because he had the support of his family, an education — and because he has taken a very positive approach to his experiences. “He’s not just sat back and taken it; he’s tried to do something positive. Omar works a lot with us to try to help other prisoners who are still in Guantánamo. He’s also always been up for a good argument or a good ­debate.”

Deghayes appears remarkably calm; but his brother, Abubaker, says he has noticed signs of trauma. “His memory is not as good as it was. He forgets to switch off lights. If he opens a window, it stays open. He stays up at night a lot, thinking.” Abubaker is not surprised his brother struggles to sleep. “Imagine the lights are on for six years.” Has Deghayes changed as a person? “A lot of the things Omar had in his character seem to have deepened, like rebellion and resistance and not accepting oppression. I think they became more rooted in him rather than being beaten out of him.”

But isn’t he ever tempted to retreat to a quiet place, start his own business, and renounce the ­hassles of political campaigning? “I don’t want that life,” Deghayes says firmly. “I never ­intended to live like that before imprisonment, and nor do I intend that after imprisonment. I would not be true to ­myself if I did.”

“Life is worth more. It’s good to be a number in society rather than a zero. There are many zeros around but every ­human is ­worthy of being a number, and I hope I will be something of a change for the good, rather than for harm and wars. I hope so. I really hope so.”

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, updated in January 2010, 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.

Andy Worthington Discusses Murders at Guantánamo and Bagram’s “Ghost Prisoners” on Antiwar Radio

Over the last few years, Scott Horton of Antiwar Radio and I have had some hard-hitting interviews, covering many of the most unpalatable aspects of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” and, in the last year, the inadequacy of Barack Obama’s response to this toxic and corrosive legacy.

On Tuesday evening, however, we hit a new pitch of outrage (the show is available here — and here as an MP3), when we discussed two aspects of this legacy that have just surfaced: the revelation, in a compelling article for Harper’s Magazine by Scott Horton (the law professor), that the three men who died at Guantánamo in June 2006 were killed, and that the suicide story was manufactured as a cover-up (which I also wrote about here); and my preliminary analysis of the first ever publicly available list of prisoners held in the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, in which I investigated the stories of the “ghost prisoners” — previously held in a number of secret prisons run by the CIA — who have been held in Bagram for up to six years, and asked what happened to others who are not included in the list.

In our 12th outing, Scott and I began by discussing my article, “Dark Revelations in the Bagram Prisoner List,” based on the list of 645 prisoners made available to the ACLU last Friday (PDF). After explaining how Bagram was the “pre-Guantánamo” and “the heart of the beast” — having held almost all the prisoners who ended up in Guantánamo, as well as the majority of the “high-value detainees” and other “ghost prisoners” — Scott and I discussed the unilateral rewriting of the Geneva Conventions introduced by George W. Bush and clearly maintained by Barack Obama.

We also discussed the whole sordid story of the CIA’s secret prison network, and the part that Bagram played in it, which allowed me to explain how, between 2004 and 2006, many of those held in the secret prisons were either sent to Guantánamo, or repatriated to their home countries (to an uncertain fate — or worse), but that an unspecified number of these men remained in Bagram, four of whom — three foreigners and an Afghan — successfully challenged their indefinite detention without charge or trial in a habeas corpus petition in March last year, in a ruling that has been appealed by the Obama administration.

Scott and I also discussed the Guantánamo prisoners’ successful habeas corpus petitions over the last 16 months (32 victories out of 41 cases), which allowed me to recall the extraordinary rulings in the cases of al-Qaeda torture victim Abdul Rahim al-Ginco and Fouad al-Rabiah, who was tortured until he made false confessions about his activities that were only revealed as a result of an impartial judge being able to review the so-called evidence. I also spoke about how the administration’s interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force has, essentially, been competing with the judges, a development which, however well intentioned, only draws comparisons with the ways in which the Bush administration exercised executive power at the expense of the judiciary.

In the last 15 minutes of the 50-minute show, Scott and I discussed the story of the Guantánamo murders, enabling me to voice my evolving thoughts about this horrendous story. As I explained, it seems to me that, because the three men were demonstrably not terrorists — two had been cleared for release, and it was later revealed that the authorities had accepted that the third man had no connection to any terrorist group — the most plausible explanation for how they all died, in a three-hour session of “enhanced interrogation” conducted by operatives of an as-yet unidentified agency in a secret facility outside Guantánamo’s perimeter fence, is that they were killed — and that their deaths, therefore, reveal, with the grimmest clarity, what happens when the restraints on appropriate behavior are abandoned, and the most sadistic impulses are unleashed.

What adds to this impression is that the men had clearly irritated the authorities to an extraordinary degree. All three were long-term hunger strikers, who, in at least two cases, had been force-fed until their deaths, and were amongst the few remaining prisoners who had not abandoned the hunger strike that convulsed the prison in the summer of 2005, and which was finally broken when the authorities imported a number of restraint chairs and, for the most part, made force-feeding such a vile ordeal that few had the will to continue.

I also spoke about Shaker Aamer, who had also irritated the authorities to an extraordinary degree. A British resident, who is still held, Shaker was the fourth prisoner to be tortured that night, but the only one who managed to escape with his life, and I explained my theory about why he has not been freed, even though he was cleared for release in 2007.

As a uniquely eloquent and charismatic individual, who pushed relentlessly for the prisoners’ rights, Shaker knows more about the workings of Guantánamo than probably any other prisoner, and it seems to me — perhaps now more than ever, with this latest revelation — that he is only held because the US government doesn’t want him to be released to a country where he might be able to speak freely, and, as a result, wants to return him to the country of his birth, Saudi Arabia, and not to the UK — and to his wife and children. The corollary, of course, is that the British government is siding with its allies, despite making noises in public about working overtime to secure his return to the UK.

On the eve of President Obama’s failure to close Guantánamo by his self-imposed one-year deadline, these are grim stories indeed, but the fact that they have surfaced — even though they are not getting the prominence they deserve — will strengthen calls for accountability from those of us who, in defense of the law, the Constitution and basic human decency, are not content to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

Please note that Shaker Aamer’s story features prominently in the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” co-directed by Polly Nash and myself, and available on DVD here.

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, updated in January 2010, 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.

Dark Revelations in the Bagram Prisoner List

A cell in the US prison at Bagram airbase, AfghanistanOn Friday, the ACLU secured a significant victory in its campaign to secure information about the prisoners held in the US prison at Bagram airbase, Afghanistan (known as the Bagram Theater Internment Facility), when the Pentagon released a list of the names of the 645 prisoners who were held on September 22, 2009 (PDF).

Even so, at first glance the document appears to be of little use. Names — spooling out like some randomly generated version of an Afghan census — are all that this heavily redacted list provides. When the FOIA request was first filed in April 2009, the ACLU asked the Obama administration “to make public records pertaining to the number of people currently detained at Bagram, their names, citizenship, place of capture and length of detention, as well as records pertaining to the process afforded those prisoners to challenge their detention and designation as ‘enemy combatants.’” However, as Melissa Goodman, a staff attorney at the ACLU, explained in a statement accompanying the release of the list on Friday:

Releasing the names of those held at Bagram is an important step toward transparency and accountability at the secretive Bagram prison, but it is just a first step … Full transparency and accountability about Bagram requires disclosing how long these people have been imprisoned, where they are from and whether they were captured far from any battlefield or in other countries far from Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, on close inspection, this apparently bland and uninformative list is rather useful. Although no dates or places of capture are provided, the list is clearly chronological, with the prisoners’ numbers (beginning at 1201) following on from the numbers used for the last of the regular prisoners transferred to Guantánamo from Bagram in October 2003 (Mohammed Mussa, prisoner 1165). The first three names, it should be noted, refer to prisoners released from Guantánamo, who were subsequently recaptured, but in at least one of these cases — that of Hafizullah Shabaz Khiel) — there are serious concerns that the US authorities have seized an innocent man for a second time.

This correspondence between the prisoners’ numbers reinforces the comparison between the two prisons, but emphasizes the gulf that actually exists between Guantánamo, where the prisoners have had access to attorneys since 2004, and have secured court victories ordering their release in 32 out of 41 habeas corpus petitions in the last 16 months, and Bagram, where no civilian lawyer has set foot, and the reach of the courts has not yet been established, and is fiercely disputed.

In March 2009, after pioneering work by lawyers at the International Justice Network, at the City University of New York, and at Yale Law School, Judge John D. Bates — a George W. Bush appointee — ruled on a habeas corpus petition submitted on behalf of four prisoners held at Bagram for between five and seven years: Redha al-Najar, a Tunisian seized in Karachi, Pakistan, in May 2002, Amin al-Bakri, a Yemeni gemstone dealer seized in Bangkok, Thailand, in December 2002, Fadi al-Maqaleh, a Yemeni seized in 2004, and Haji Wazir, an Afghan businessman seized in the United Arab Emirates in 2002.

In his ruling last March, Judge Bates concluded that the writ of habeas corpus, granted to the prisoners at Guantánamo by the Supreme Court in June 2008 (in Boumediene v. Bush), extended to foreign prisoners seized in other countries and rendered to Bagram, because “the detainees themselves as well as the rationale for detention are essentially the same.”

As I explained at the time, Judge Bates was clearly correct, because “only an administrative accident — or some as yet unknown decision that involved keeping a handful of foreign prisoners in Bagram, instead of sending them all to Guantánamo — prevented them from joining the 779 men in the offshore prison in Cuba.”

Judge Bates’ ruling affected only the foreign prisoners rendered to Bagram. After deferring judgment in the case of Haji Wazir, he ruled in July that Boumediene did not extend to any Afghan in Bagram (even those, like Haji Wazir, who were rendered from other countries). Reprising doubts he had expressed in March, he essentially agreed with the government’s claim that to do so would cause “friction” with the Afghan government, because of ongoing negotiations regarding the transfer of Afghan prisoners to the custody of their own government.

Despite the logic and clarity of Judge Bates’ ruling about the rights of foreign prisoners rendered to Bagram, the government appealed, and two weeks ago the Court of Appeals convened to hear oral arguments for and against the ruling. As the Washington Post described it, the Justice Department argued that Bates’ ruling was “flawed,” because Bagram is in “a highly active war zone,” and “dealing with federal court proceedings would hamper the war effort and complicate diplomatic relations with the Afghan government,” but two of the judges were clearly interested in working out if Judge Bates’ ruling could be applied within narrow parameters. As the Post explained, Judges David S. Tatel and Harry T. Edwards pushed Tina Foster, one of the men’s lawyers, to “craft an argument that would limit the reach of habeas corpus to just her clients at Bagram,” because of their concern that “granting such rights to the Bagram prisoners would extend habeas corpus to military bases across the globe.”

The Court of Appeals’ ruling is not expected for several months, but in the meantime the newly released prisoner list provides the first opportunity to try and work out the identities of the other foreign prisoners — 36 in total, as of March 10, 2009, according to a declaration filed by the government — who have also been held at Bagram for many years. What makes this all the more pressing is the strong suspicion that a number of the foreign prisoners, including the three men mentioned above, were part of the CIA’s “black sites” program, and were held in various secret prisons in Afghanistan — or elsewhere — before their eventual transfer to Bagram.

According to Abu Yahya al-Libi, an al-Qaeda member who escaped from Bagram in July 2005, two of the men were tortured in a number of secret prisons in Afghanistan, run by the CIA, before they were moved to Bagram, and the third was rendered to Iraq. In a report that is no longer available online, but which I discussed in my book The Guantánamo Files, al-Libi wrote that al-Bakri was held in the notorious “Dark Prison” near Kabul, another prison in the Panjshir valley, and another prison identified as ”Rissat,” before being moved to Bagram, that al-Najar was also held in the “Dark Prison,” the Panjshir prison, “Rissat,” and another prison identified as “Rissat 2,” and that al-Maqaleh was sent to Abu Ghraib before Bagram.

Al-Libi identified 12 prisoners in total — all of whom, according to his account, passed through the secret prison network — and although four of these men ended up in Guantánamo, the whereabouts of the other five are unknown, and only two can be tentatively identified from the prisoner list:

Lutfi al-Arabi al-Gharisi may be Abou Hudeifa, a Tunisian identified as a “ghost prisoner” in “Off the Record” (PDF), a report by various human rights groups that was published in June 2007. Al-Libi identified him as Abou Houdayfa, but noted that his real name was Lotfi. Captured in Peshawar, Pakistan, at the end of 2002, he was reportedly held in several CIA prisons in Afghanistan, including the Dark Prison, before being moved to Bagram.

Salah Mohammad Ali may be Salah Din al-Bakistani (the Pakistani), who, according to al-Libi, lived in Doha, Qatar, was captured in Baghdad in 2004, and was held in Abu Ghraib and an unidentified “torture prison” before his transfer to Bagram.

Of the other three men mentioned by al-Libi, two — Issa (a Tunisian) and Abu Naseem (a Libyan) — were also mentioned in “Off the Record,” while the third, Abdelhaq al-Jazairi, an Algerian picked up in Georgia, has not been mentioned outside of The Guantánamo Files. Al-Libi wrote that he feared al-Jazairi had been sent to Algeria — and it may well be that he and dozens of other prisoners held by the CIA, whose current whereabouts are unknown, were sent back to their home countries.

These men were among the 94 prisoners mentioned by Assistant Attorney General Stephen Bradbury in one of the Office of Legal Counsel’s notorious “torture memos,” written in May 2005 and released by the Obama administration last April, and there are suspicions that a number of “ghost prisoners” were sent back to their home countries in 2006. A significant example of this process is Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the CIA’s most notorious “ghost prisoner.” Rendered to Egypt in 2002, al-Libi falsely confessed under torture that there were connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, which were subsequently used to justify the invasion of Iraq. After several further renditions, to “proxy” prisons and others run by the CIA, he was returned to Libya, where he died, allegedly by committing suicide, in May last year.

However, although it is probable that a number of former “ghost prisoners” have been repatriated to face death or further detention, it is not inconceivable that some prisoners were not included in the list because they are being held elsewhere — perhaps in a corner of Bagram to which the list does not extend.

AmanatullahOne indication that this is so is the apparent omission from the list of Amanatullah Ali, a Pakistani who was seized by British forces in Iraq in 2004 and rendered to Bagram. His detention in Bagram has been confirmed through letters to his family, and his story, which was told by David Rose in Britain’s Mail on Sunday on December 9, is significant not only because it sheds light on the British government’s complicity in the Bagram rendition program, but also because it reveals the extent to which depriving the prisoners of the right to challenge the basis of their detention perpetuates the same mistakes that were made at Guantánamo.

A rice merchant who had been on a business trip to Iran, Amanatullah Ali was seized in Baghdad after deciding to visit some holy sites in Iraq. According to the British defense secretary John Hutton, who conceded in February 2009 that Ali and another Pakistani — Salahuddin, who is probably Salah Din, mentioned above — had been transferred to US custody in Bagram, both men were regarded as members of the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT). In Ali’s case, however, this is impossible, because he is a Shia Muslim, and, as his lawyers at Reprieve have explained, LeT is “a Sunni extremist group that views all Shia as heretics, and is currently conducting a violent campaign in Punjab to dispossess Shia Landlord lords such as Mr. Amanatullah.”

This analysis of the prisoner list only begins to scratch the surface of Bagram’s dark secrets, but I hope that it provides a useful starting point for further questions about the whereabouts of the 36 foreign prisoners mentioned in March 2009, and others held in the CIA’s network of secret prisons, and that the case of Amanatullah Ali demonstrates why it is irresponsible to allow the Bush administration’s detention policies to go unchallenged.

In a second article to follow, I’ll look at what the list reveals about how prisoners at Bagram are still not held according to the Geneva Conventions, and what it doesn’t reveal about other prisoners transferred from Bagram to Afghan custody, or to a US-refurbished block in Kabul’s main prison, Pol-i-Charki. I’ll also examine claims that the Obama administration has not fully abandoned the “rendition” program, and may be trying to avoid further litigation by handing Bagram over to the Afghan government.

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, updated in January 2010, 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 Uruknet.

In the Guardian: Compensation for control orders is a distraction from the real issues

For the Guardian’s Comment is free, “Compensation for control orders is a distraction” is an article I wrote examining yesterday’s High Court ruling, in which a judge quashed two control orders — a form of house arrest in operation since March 2005 — and indicated that the men affected, who had been subjected to the orders since 2006, might be able to claim compensation.

In quashing the control orders against AE, an Iraqi imam, and AF, a joint British-Libyan national, Mr. Justice Silber took sides in a behind-the-scenes struggle in which the question of compensation — which has already produced some predictable whingeing — is merely a by-product of a much more important discussion about legality and accountability. At issue is whether the control orders, whose Byzantine rules regarding secret evidence were curtailed by a Law Lords ruling last June, are fundamentally unlawful, or whether, as the government maintains, a perfectly adequate system was derailed on a technicality.

The answer, of course, is the former, and in my article I run through the reasons why, concluding, with the kind of old-fashioned respect for the law that has been sadly lacking for the last eight years — propelled by what Gareth Peirce described to me as “stampede legislation,” conceived and executed in haste and paranoia — that if the government has evidence tying men to any kind of terrorist involvement, then it should put them on trial. It is time for preventive detention on the basis of secret evidence to come to an end.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, 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.

For other articles dealing with Belmarsh, control orders, deportation bail, deportations and extraditions, see Deals with dictators undermined by British request for return of five Guantánamo detainees (August 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: the troubling tale of Tunisian Belmarsh detainee Hedi Boudhiba, extradited, cleared and abandoned in Spain (August 2007), Guantánamo as house arrest: Britain’s law lords capitulate on control orders (November 2007), The Guantánamo Britons and Spain’s dubious extradition request (December 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: control orders renewed, as one suspect is freed (February 2008), Spanish drop “inhuman” extradition request for Guantánamo Britons (March 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), Repatriation as Russian Roulette: Will the Two Algerians Freed from Guantánamo Be Treated Fairly? (July 2008), Abu Qatada: Law Lords and Government Endorse Torture (February 2009), Ex-Guantánamo prisoner refused entry into UK, held in deportation centre (February 2009), Home Secretary ignores Court decision, kidnaps bailed men and imprisons them in Belmarsh (February 2009), Britain’s insane secret terror evidence (March 2009), Torture taints all our lives (published in the Guardian’s Comment is free), Britain’s Guantánamo: Calling For An End To Secret Evidence, Five Stories From Britain’s Guantánamo: (1) Detainee Y, Five Stories From Britain’s Guantánamo: (2) Detainee BB, Five Stories From Britain’s Guantánamo: (3) Detainee U, Five Stories From Britain’s Guantánamo: (4) Hussain Al-Samamara, Five Stories From Britain’s Guantánamo: (5) Detainee Z, Britain’s Guantánamo: Fact or Fiction? and URGENT APPEAL on British terror laws: Get your MP to support Diane Abbott’s Early Day Motion on the use of secret evidence (all April 2009), and Taking liberties with our justice system and Death in Libya, betrayal in the West (both for the Guardian), Law Lords Condemn UK’s Use of Secret Evidence And Control Orders (June 2009), Miliband Shows Leadership, Reveals Nothing About Torture To Parliamentary Committee (June 2009), Britain’s Torture Troubles: What Tony Blair Knew (June 2009), Seven years of madness: the harrowing tale of Mahmoud Abu Rideh and Britain’s anti-terror laws, Would you be able to cope?: Letters by the children of control order detainee Mahmoud Abu Rideh, Control order detainee Mahmoud Abu Rideh to be allowed to leave the UK (all June 2009), Testing control orders and Dismantle the secret state (for the Guardian), UK government issues travel document to control order detainee Mahmoud Abu Rideh after horrific suicide attempt (July 2009), Secret evidence in the case of the North West 10 “terror suspects” (August 2009), Letting go of control orders (for the Guardian, September 2009), Another Blow To Britain’s Crumbling Control Order Regime (September 2009), UK Judge Approves Use of Secret Evidence in Guantánamo Case (November 2009), Calling Time On The Use Of Secret Evidence In The UK (December 2009).

Obama’s Countdown to Failure on Guantánamo

Barack ObamaBarring some frankly unattainable miracle, this will be the week that President Obama’s international credibility, regarding his promises to undo the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” detention policies, takes a nosedive.

The President began well, freezing the much-criticized Military Commissions trial system on his first day in office, and, on his second day, issuing executive orders requiring Guantánamo to be closed within a year, and upholding the absolute ban on torture that had been so cynically manipulated by the Bush administration.

Almost immediately, however, these bold plans hit a brick wall. The interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force, established in the executive orders, and charged with reviewing all the prisoners’ cases to decide who should be charged and who should be released, discovered, as a senior official explained to the Los Angeles Times in February, that the process would “not be simple,” because information on the prisoners was “scattered in multiple locations,” and “there is not, and may never be, a single file for each detainee.”

This should not have been a surprise. In June 2007, Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence, who worked in 2004-05 on the tribunals at Guantánamo — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals — which were responsible for compiling the material that was used to establish that the prisoners were “enemy combatants,” explained, in a submission that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, that some material consisted of intelligence “of a generalized nature — often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status,” and that “what purported to be specific statements of fact lacked even the most fundamental earmarks of objectively credible evidence.”

He added that most of the unclassified evidence consisted of “information obtained during interrogations of other detainees” (and was often produced in circumstances that were not conducive to voluntary confessions), and that the classified evidence, which was particularly relied upon by the government, was no more coherent. In July 2007, he told the New York Times that it “was stripped down, watered down, removed of context, incomplete, and missing essential information.” He also reiterated his complaints about evidence obtained from other prisoners, stating, “Many detainees implicated other detainees, and there was often no way to test whether they had provided false information to win favor with interrogators.”

In addition, as the Task Force convened, attorneys for the prisoners were asked to contribute, and although their submissions were not delivered publicly, it is obvious that they would have pointed out that the majority of the prisoners were seized not by the US military, but by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, at a time when bounty payments for al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects were widespread.

They would also have pointed out that the prisoners were not given Article 5 competent tribunals under the Geneva Conventions, which are convened when those seized are not part of a regular army. Held close to the time and place of capture, and championed by the US military in every war since Vietnam, these allow prisoners whose status is in doubt to call witnesses to verify whether they are combatants or civilians. In the first Gulf War, following 1,196 tribunals, 886 men were subsequently released.

In Afghanistan, however, the military was prevented by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld (on the advice of Vice President Dick Cheney) from holding Article 5 tribunals, with the result that those who ended up in Guantánamo were never adequately screened, a sorry state of affairs that persists to this day in the cases of many, if not most of the 198 prisoners still held.

Confronted with this disarray, the Task Force responded not with robust skepticism of the Bush administration’s claims, but with extreme caution. By September, just 75 prisoners had been cleared for release, even though as many as 36 of these men had previously been cleared for release by Bush-era military review boards, and another 18 had been cleared by the courts, after judges granted their habeas petitions. Moreover, in Obama’s first year in office, just 42 prisoners were released.

The habeas petitions actually represented the best hope for a just outcome at Guantánamo, as the District Court judges, empowered by the Supreme Court to examine the prisoners’ cases, proved adept at perceiving “generalized” and “generic” material masquerading as evidence, and the extent to which “detainees [had] implicated other detainees” (and, it should be noted, themselves), so that, by the end of the year, when the administration announced that 116 prisoners had now been cleared for release by the Task Force, the prisoners had won 32 out of 41 habeas petitions.

Sadly, the judges made their rulings in spite of obstruction from Justice Department lawyers, who behaved as though George W. Bush was still in power, and were severely criticized by a number of the judges. The reasons for this obstruction have never been adequately explained, but it has always seemed to me that senior officials were more interested in their own executive review (involving the Task Force’s slow and careful deliberations) than they were with the District Courts’ objective and authoritative findings.

This was a great shame, of course, because however much senior officials may have intended to clear up the shame of Guantánamo through their own review process, they actually proved overly sensitive to political maneuvering in a manner that did not affect the courts. In April, after bowing to pressure from the White House counsel, Greg Craig (the architect of the executive orders), President Obama accepted a court order to release the notorious memos issued in 2002 and 2005 by lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which purported to redefine torture, but caved in when critics savaged him for doing so.

Rapidly backpedaling, he refused another court order to release photos of the abuse of prisoners in US custody in Afghanistan and Iraq, and followed up by quashing Craig’s plan to rehouse a number of cleared Guantánamo prisoners on the US mainland, who could not be repatriated because of fears that they would be tortured on their return. These men, the Uighurs, were Muslims from Xinjiang province, whose only enemy was the Chinese government, and their release into the US had been ordered by a judge in October 2008, even though the Court of Appeals, supported by both the Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration, had stayed that ruling later in the month and overturned it in February 2009.

By refusing to act on the Uighurs’ behalf, Obama not only allowed opportunistic lawmakers to exploit his weakness (passing a law preventing any cleared prisoner being rehoused in the US), but also made it difficult for America’s allies in Europe to take any of the dozens of cleared men — from Algeria, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, as well as China — when the United States had so blatantly refused to help clear up its own mess.

Spiraling into compromises that betrayed the bold promises with which he had come into office, President Obama followed up by reinstating the Military Commissions (slightly rejigged by Congress), as a second tier of justice to accompany federal court trials for some of the men accused of terrorism, and announcing that he would also hold others indefinitely without charge or trial. This, he said in a major national security speech in May, was because the men in question “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.”

By choosing to accept “tainted” material — in other words, information that was obtained through torture — as a basis for signing up to the very policy of “indefinite detention” that had been established by George W. Bush, and that was forever associated with Guantánamo, Obama conceded the moral high ground that he had promised to regain, and, moreover, demonstrated that his justification for not prosecuting senior Bush administration officials for implementing torture was nothing more than a convenient pose.

Even before he took office, Obama explained, in response to calls to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration’s crimes, that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” By May, therefore, he appeared to overlook the fact that, by seeking to use the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo as a reason to hold them indefinitely, he was resolutely looking back, but was choosing to side with Bush and Cheney rather than remaining dedicated to the thorough repudiation of their policies.

From then, it was all downhill. Having refused to challenge his critics head-on, Obama narrowly avoided a vote by lawmakers in October preventing any prisoner being moved to the US mainland (even those facing trials), and also met resistance when he sought funds to move prisoners to the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois.

The final climbdown took place just two weeks ago, when, having finally found the courage to release six cleared Yemenis, Obama faced an onslaught of largely misplaced criticism following claims that Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas plane bomber, had connections with an al-Qaeda-inspired group in Yemen. Ironically, this group apparently contained two Saudi prisoners who had been released from Guantánamo by George W. Bush — against the advice of the intelligence services — but instead of playing on this, Obama caved in again, suspending the release of any more cleared Yemenis for an unspecified amount of time, and casting a dark shadow over the deadline for the closure of Guantánamo this Friday, which will be marked not with international praise, but with fears that this vile blot on America’s reputation will still be open a year from now.

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, updated in January 2010, 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 and Campaign for Liberty.

Murders at Guantánamo: Scott Horton of Harper’s Exposes the Truth about the 2006 “Suicides”

Harper's Magazine, March 2010It’s hard to know where to begin with this profoundly important story by Scott Horton, for next month’s Harper’s Magazine (available on the web here), but let’s try this: The three “suicides” at Guantánamo in June 2006 were not suicides at all. The men in question were killed during interrogations in a secretive block in Guantánamo, conducted by an unknown agency, and the murders were then disguised to look like suicides. Everyone at Guantánamo knew about it. Everyone covered it up. Everyone is still covering it up.

Establishing a case for murder — and the disclosure of a secret prison at Guantánamo

The key to the discovery of the murder of the three men — 37-year old Salah Ahmed al-Salami, a Yemeni, 30-year old Mani Shaman al-Utaybi, a Saudi, and 22-year old Yasser Talal al-Zahrani (photo, below), a Saudi who was just 17 when he was captured — is Army Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, a former Marine who reenlisted in the Army National Guard after the 9/11 attacks, and was deployed to Guantánamo in March 2006, with his friend, Specialist Tony Davila. On arrival, Davila was briefed about the existence of “an unnamed and officially unacknowledged compound,” outside the perimeter fence of the main prison, and explained that one theory about it was that “it was being used by some of the non-uniformed government personnel who frequently showed up in the camps and were widely thought to be CIA agents.”

Yasser Talal al-ZahraniHickman and Davila became fascinated by the compound — known to the soldiers as “Camp No” (as in, “No, it doesn’t exist”) — and Hickman was on duty in a tower on the prison’s perimeter on the night the three men died, when he noticed that “a white van, dubbed the ‘paddy wagon,’ that Navy guards used to transport heavily manacled prisoners, one at a time, into and out of Camp Delta, [which] had no rear windows and contained a dog cage large enough to hold a single prisoner,” had called three times at Camp 1, where the men were held, and had then taken them out to “Camp No.” All three were in “Camp No” by 8 pm.

At 11.30, the van returned, apparently dropping something off at the clinic, and within half an hour the whole prison “lit up.” As Horton explains:

Hickman headed to the clinic, which appeared to be the center of activity, to learn the reason for the commotion. He asked a distraught medical corpsman what had happened. She said three dead prisoners had been delivered to the clinic. Hickman recalled her saying that they had died because they had rags stuffed down their throats, and that one of them was severely bruised. Davila told me he spoke to Navy guards who said the men had died as the result of having rags stuffed down their throats.

As Horton also explains:

The presence of a black site at Guantánamo has long been a subject of speculation among lawyers and human-rights activists, and the experience of Sergeant Hickman and other Guantánamo guards compels us to ask whether the three prisoners who died on June 9 were being interrogated by the CIA, and whether their deaths resulted from the grueling techniques the Justice Department had approved for the agency’s use — or from other tortures lacking that sanction.

Complicating these questions is the fact that Camp No might have been controlled by another authority, the Joint Special Operations Command, which Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had hoped to transform into a Pentagon version of the CIA. Under Rumsfeld’s direction, JSOC began to take on many tasks traditionally handled by the CIA, including the housing and interrogation of prisoners at black sites around the world.

The construction of the “suicide” narrative, and the widespread cover-up

This is disturbing enough, of course, and should lead to robust calls for an independent inquiry, but the problem may be that almost every branch of the government appears to be implicated in the cover-up that followed the deaths.

As Horton describes it, an official “suicide” narrative was soon established, and widely accepted by the media, if not by former prisoners and the dead men’s families. With extraordinary cynicism, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, the commander at Guantánamo, not only declared the deaths “suicides,” but added, “I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” What was not mentioned were the rags stuffed into the prisoners’ mouths, even though this knowledge was widespread throughout the prison. Horton adds that when Col. Mike Bumgarner, the warden at Guantánamo, held a meeting the following morning, “the news had circulated through Camp America that three prisoners had committed suicide by swallowing rags.”

He also states:

According to independent interviews with soldiers who witnessed the speech, Bumgarner told his audience that “you all know” three prisoners in the Alpha Block at Camp 1 committed suicide during the night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death … But then Bumgarner told those assembled that the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells. It was important, he said, that servicemen make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report. He reminded the soldiers and sailors that their phone and email communications were being monitored.

Despite being “on-message,” Bumgarner let slip to two visiting reporters from a US provincial newspaper — the only ones who were not immediately hustled off the base — that each of the men who had died “had a ball of cloth in their mouth either for choking or muffling their voices.” As punishment for straying off the script, Bumgarner was soon suspended, and had his office searched by the FBI.

Just as cynical were the authorities’ attempts to silence the prisoners and their attorneys. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which was assigned to investigate the deaths, confiscated every single piece of paper in the possession of the prisoners, and, a few weeks later, “sought an after-the-fact justification.” As Horton explains:

The Justice Department — bolstered by sworn statements from Admiral Harris and from Carol Kisthardt, the special agent in charge of the NCIS investigation — claimed in court that the seizure was appropriate because there had been a conspiracy among the prisoners to commit suicide. [The] Justice [Department] further claimed that investigators had found suicide notes and argued that the attorney-client materials were being used to pass communications among the prisoners.

It is now apparent that the authorities were desperate to ensure that no word of the events of June 9 was disclosed from prisoners to their attorneys. As David Remes, the attorney for 16 Yemenis, explained, the effect of the seizure “sent an unmistakable message to the prisoners that they could not expect their communications with their lawyers to remain confidential,” but as part of its mission to blame attorneys for the deaths, the authorities went so far as to claim that Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the legal action charity Reprieve, had persuaded another prisoner, the British resident Shaker Aamer, to call for the deaths from his cell. Speaking to the BBC’s Newsnight in October 2006, Zachary Katznelson, an attorney at Reprieve, explained that he was told by one of his clients in Guantánamo in August 2006 that interrogators were trying to blame Stafford Smith, saying that “it was Clive’s idea, Clive’s brainchild, that people had to commit suicide to bring attention to the base and to then force the government to close it.”

As Horton reveals, far from being the mastermind of a triple suicide, Shaker Aamer was himself beaten severely on the night of the deaths. As I have explained in previous articles, Aamer, an eloquent, charismatic man, who stood up relentlessly for the prisoners’ rights, was regarded as a leader within Guantánamo by both the prisoners and the prison authorities. Held in solitary confinement after the suppression of a short-lived Prisoners’ Council, convened in the summer of 2005, for which he was the Secretary, he was, nevertheless beaten severely for two and a half hours on the evening of June 9, around the same time that the three other men were in “Camp No.”

As Horton also notes:

The United Kingdom has pressed aggressively for the return of British subjects and persons of interest. Every individual requested by the British has been turned over, with one exception: Shaker Aamer. In denying this request, US authorities have cited unelaborated “security” concerns. There is no suggestion that the Americans intend to charge him before a military commission, or in a federal criminal court, and, indeed, they have no meaningful evidence linking him to any crime. American authorities may be concerned that Aamer, if released, could provide evidence against them in criminal investigations. This evidence would include what he experienced on June 9, 2006 …

Salah Ahmed al-Salami, one of the three prisoners who died at Guantanamo on June 9, 2006In the years following the deaths in June 2006, every official response has been a whitewash. The NCIS reluctantly produced a report in August 2008, accompanied by a brief and unenlightening statement, which I discussed here, and in December 2009 the Seton Hall Law School produced a devastating analysis of the flawed report, which, as Scott Horton explains, “made clear why the Pentagon had been unwilling to make its conclusions public. The official story of the prisoners’ deaths was full of unacknowledged contradictions, and the centerpiece of the report — a reconstruction of the events — was simply unbelievable.”

As for the accounts of Sgt. Hickman and three other men (including Specialist Davila), Horton explains that they offered their accounts willingly and were not approached to do so. The trigger was Hickman, whose tour of duty ended in March 2007. As Horton describes it, however, “he could not forget what he had seen at Guantánamo. When Barack Obama became president, Hickman decided to act. ‘I thought that with a new administration and new ideas I could actually come forward,’ he said. ‘It was haunting me.’”

The cover-up continues

Hickman approached Mark Denbeaux of Seton Hall, and his son Josh (also a lawyer), and told his story, followed by the other three men. However, although the Denbeauxs approached the Justice Department, and had a meeting in February last year with Rita Glavin, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, John Morton, soon to be an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, and Steven Fagell, counselor to the head of the Criminal Division, little came of it. After hearing the whole sordid story, the officials thanked the Denbeauxs for “not speaking to reporters first and for ‘doing it the right way,’” and, two days later, Mark Denbeaux was called by Teresa McHenry, the head of the Criminal Division’s Domestic Security Section, who told him that she was starting an investigation and wanted to meet directly with Hickman.

Hickman met McHenry, and gave her the names and contact details of corroborating witnesses, but then the trail went cold. In April, “an FBI agent called to say she did not have the list of contacts” and “asked if this document could be provided again,” and soon after, Steven Fagell and two FBI agents interviewed Davila, who had left the Army, and asked him if he would travel to Guantánamo to identify the locations of various sites. “It seemed like they were interested,” Davila told Horton. “Then I never heard from them again.”

In late October, as Mark Denbeaux was preparing to unveil the Seton Hall report, there was brief communication with McHenry again, but on November 2, she called to say that the investigation was being closed:

“It was a strange conversation,” Denbeaux recalled. McHenry explained that “the gist of Sergeant Hickman’s information could not be confirmed.” But when Denbeaux asked what that “gist” actually was, McHenry declined to say. She just reiterated that Hickman’s conclusions “appeared” to be unsupported. Denbeaux asked what conclusions exactly were unsupported. McHenry refused to say.

Horton notes correctly that “the Justice Department has plenty of its own secrets to protect,” because it “would seem to have been involved in the cover-up from the first days, when FBI agents stormed Colonel Bumgarner’s quarters,” which was “unusual.” He also explains that, when the Justice Department sought court approval for the NCIS seizure of all the prisoners’ letters:

US District Court Judge James Robertson gave the Justice Department a sympathetic hearing, and he ruled in its favor, but he also noted a curious aspect of the government’s presentation: its “citations supporting the fact of the suicides” were all drawn from media accounts. Why had the Justice Department lawyers who argued the case gone to such lengths to avoid making any statement under oath about the suicides? Did they do so in order to deceive the court? If so, they could face disciplinary proceedings or disbarment.

In addition, Horton notes the role played by lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, who, of course, “had been deeply involved in the process of approving and setting the conditions for the use of torture techniques, issuing a long series of memoranda [widely known as the ‘torture memos’] that CIA agents and others could use to defend themselves against any subsequent criminal prosecution.” Pointing a finger at Teresa McHenry, he explains that, “As a former war-crimes prosecutor, McHenry knows full well that government officials who attempt to cover up crimes perpetrated against prisoners in wartime face prosecution under the doctrine of command responsibility,” and quotes Rear Admiral John Hutson, the former judge advocate general of the Navy, who told him:

Filing false reports and making false statements is bad enough, but if a homicide occurs and officials up the chain of command attempt to cover it up, they face serious criminal liability. They may even be viewed as accessories after the fact in the original crime.

In conclusion, Horton suggests that everyone charged with accounting for what happened on June 9, 2006 — the prison command, the civilian and military investigative agencies, the Justice Department, and Attorney General Eric Holder — “face a choice between the rule of law and the expedience of political silence,” and, to date, have chosen the latter.

Muhammad Salih, photographed after his deathIn passing, he mentions that the death of another prisoner in June last year — a 31-year old Yemeni named Muhammad Salih — also raises disturbing questions (as was reported by former prisoner Binyam Mohamed in an op-ed for the Miami Herald), and to this he could have added that the death of another Saudi, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, on May 30, 2007, also remains suspicious.

I urge you to read the whole report, as this précis has been little more than a way for me to try and grasp the main points presented in the article, which contains much more detailed and disturbing information, including shocking information about the autopsy (and information about the torture to which the men were clearly subjected), a touching meeting with Yasser al-Zahrani’s father, General Talal al-Zahrani, and a detailed reiteration of some other important facts — that none of the three men killed in June 2006 had any connection to terrorism, and that two had been cleared for release, but had not been told.

Despite studying Guantánamo on a full-time basis for nearly four years, this is one of the most chilling accounts of the prison that I have ever read, and one which should not only lead to an independent inquiry, but also to calls to press ahead with the closure of Guantánamo — and the repatriation of as many prisoners as possible — without further delay.

Scott Horton doesn’t ask another pertinent question — whether it is feasible that the three men died as a result of “enhanced interrogations” that went too far, or whether they were deliberately murdered. The panic that greeted the arrival of the corpses at the clinic on that dreadful day suggests the former, but on reflection it seems unlikely that three accidental deaths could occur in such a short space of time. As Guantánamo takes on a new name — the Death Camp — these doubts need to be addressed one way or another. Neither murder nor manslaughter is acceptable, of course, but neither is it acceptable for this disgraceful cover-up to continue.

As Yasser al-Zahrani’s father explained to Horton:

The truth is what matters. They practiced every form of torture on my son and on many others as well. What was the result? What facts did they find? They found nothing. They learned nothing. They accomplished nothing.

Please note that Shaker Aamer’s story features prominently in the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” co-directed by Polly Nash and myself, and available on DVD here.

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, updated in January 2010, 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.

Cross-posted on Truthout, AlterNet, Common Dreams, The Public Record, The World Can’t Wait, Uruknet and the New Left Project. Also cross-posted as a “Must Read” on Michael Moore.

BBC Interviews Matthew G. Olsen, the Head of Obama’s Guantánamo Task Force

Matthew J. OlsenOn a car journey to one of the “secure locations” where a Review Panel meets on a weekly basis to examine recommendations made by the Guantánamo Review Task Force — charged with deciding what to do with the remaining prisoners at Guantánamo — the BBC’s Jon Manel spoke to Matthew G. Olsen, the Task Force’s Executive Director. An inter-departmental entity, the Task Force consists of around 60 lawyers, analysts and agents, and includes representatives from the intelligence agencies.

Olsen, who works in the Attorney General’s office, has been a lawyer with the Department of Justice for 12 years. He was made the Executive Director of the Guantánamo Review Task Force on February 20, 2009, a month after President Obama announced the creation of the Task Force in one of the executive orders that also promised the closure of Guantánamo on January 22, 2010 — a promise that is, of course, about to be broken.

Manel began by asking, “So at this meeting this afternoon, you’ll actually decide the fate of one or more of the Guantánamo detainees, will you?”

“That’s correct,” Olsen replied. “We have a meeting every Wednesday. We review the cases of the detainees at Guantánamo and try to reach decisions about the appropriate disposition of each detainee. We look at everything that we’re able to obtain that is in the government’s possession. And I should say that one of our initial challenges was collecting all that information.”

That information was, as I explained in an article last February, scattered throughout various departments and agencies, although Olsen neglected to tell Manel that often there was very little information at all, and that much of it had been extracted under dubious circumstances from either the prisoners themselves or from their fellow inmates.

Olsen continued: “We actually established a secure network, a database status only accessible to our task force out at our government building. We look at the questions of transfer and we look at the questions involving the possible prosecution of detainees.”

After Manel asked if it was “a case of determining their guilt or innocence,” Olsen replied, “It is more nuanced than that. What we are looking at is, ‘Can this person be safely transferred out of the United States?’ [and] ‘Can they be transferred to a country that will be able to implement adequate mitigation measures to address any threat the detainee may pose?’ It’s a judgment on risk. And then with respect to prosecution, there’s the judgment on ‘Is there sufficient admissible evidence to pursue a prosecution?’”

As Manel explained, the Review Panel, which is made up of senior officials from several US government departments, “has to make unanimous decisions,” and if the panel fails to come to a conclusion, cases are considered at “cabinet level.”

At this point in the conversation, as Olsen’s car neared the venue for the meeting, Manel had to leave, as arranged beforehand. “It’s classified,” Olsen explained. “The meeting itself is a government deliberation.”

The next day, the two men met up again, and Olsen told Manel, “We met for over three hours. We were able to resolve a significant number of cases.” Manel asked if these cases were “resolved for trial or release,” and Olsen replied, “We had a mix of cases yesterday — that’s about as much as I can say. In some instances we weren’t able to resolve [the cases]. We talk about a case but we identify an issue or a question that we want to go find out the answer to. And then we just postpone those cases for a week.”

As Manel described it, “Some of the most difficult dilemmas have been about whether to return Guantánamo prisoners to Yemen,” because of the security situation, and the hysteria that greeted the news that two Saudi prisoners, released by the Bush administration, had assumed key positions in an al-Qaeda-inspired group in Yemen.

The weekend before Christmas — “following months of deliberations,” as Manel described it — six men were sent back to Yemen from Guantánamo, but just days later, the revelation that Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the failed Nigerian plane bomber, had reportedly trained in Yemen, derailed plans to repatriate any more Yemenis, as the Obama administration capitulated to criticism.

Olsen told Manel, “The situation with Yemen has been a situation that we’ve been aware of and had access to intelligence information from the outset of our process.” When asked if sending prisoners back was “a mistake,” he replied, “I’m not going to say whether it was a mistake or not … I think that we are making the best possible judgments we can make based on a great deal of information. There’s no precedent for what we’ve done in terms of collecting this information in one place. It didn’t exist in one place before we started this process.”

He added, “No decision about any of these detainees is without some risk. We need to be clear about the fact that we’re making predicted judgments at some level about whether somebody is going to pose a risk to us in the future if they are released. But I do think that what we are doing is bringing to bear the right people and the right approach to make those decisions in the best possible way.”

In December, the Task Force had approved the transfer of 116 prisoners. 42 men were released in Obama’s first year, although some were cleared by the courts, after judges granted their habeas corpus petitions — a process that neither Manel nor Olsen touched upon, even though it is more transparent than the Task Force’s deliberations, has the backing of the Supreme Court, and has, to date, led to 32 out of 41 victories for the prisoners, on the basis that the evidence required to prove that they were connected to al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban was either unreliable or non-existent. Manel also noted that “Around 40 are on a list to be tried, either in federal courts or revamped military commissions.”

Even though President Obama’s deadline for the closure of Guantánamo is about to be missed, Olsen insisted that imposing the deadline had been “vital,” telling Manel, “Having that one year deadline was absolutely critical for us. We needed to have a deadline because we are making difficult decisions that I think would be very hard to make in the absence of a date.”

Jon Manel’s interview was featured in “Closing Guantánamo,” which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on January 12. The show is repeated on January 17 at 1700 GMT, and can also be heard via the BBC iPlayer or by downloading the podcast.

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, updated in January 2010, 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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