Archive for November, 2010

Moazzam Begg in The Independent: The UK Government “Would Not Have Paid Up If They Thought They Could Win”

Forgive me, dear readers, for bombarding you with articles about the financial settlement recently reached between the British government, 15 former Guantánamo prisoners and Shaker Aamer, the remaining British resident in Guantánamo, and for repeating, over the last week, since this story first broke, that sustained pressure must be exerted on both the British and American goverments to secure the return of Shaker Aamer to the UK, to be reunited with his family.

I do so because, for those of us who have been studying the story of Guantánamo, of US torture and of British complicity in torture for many years, the financial settlement is a huge story, an admission of guilt on the part of the British government, prompted by judges whose commitment to the truth — and to the necessary revulsion at revelations of torture — has taken precedence over the narrow objections of ministers trying to cover their backs for their involvement in criminal wrongdoing by bleating about the importance of national security.

I also do so because I have been writing about Shaker Aamer for many years, and was recently reminded that the first event that I attended, which sought his release from Guantánamo, was in July 2007, in Balham, to mark his 2000th day in US custody without charge or trial. In April this year, I attended a protest to mark his 3000th day in US custody, and as he approaches the start of his tenth year in US custody it is unforgiveable that he is still held, when neither the American government nor the British government has any credible evidence to continue holding him.

I have also been writing about him with some urgency this past week, because he needs to be here in the UK to take part in a Metropolitan Police investigation into his allegations that British agents were present when he was subjected to torture in US custody in Afghanistan, and to take part in the judicial inquiry, announced by David Cameron in July, that will begin once that investigation is complete.

As my latest contribution, I am cross-posting below an article from the Independent, in which former Guantánamo prisoner (and Cageprisoners director) Moazzam Begg discusses the financial settlement, writes with great insight about the torture, threats and abuse to which he and other prisoners were subjected, and calls once more for Shaker Aamer’s return to the UK.

Moazzam Begg: We settled so we could get our lives back
The Independent, November 21, 2010

Eid ul-Adha is the most important Muslim celebration of the year. It is a time when Muslims commemorate the great test undergone by the prophet Abraham when he was ordered by the Almighty to sacrifice his son. It is a time for joy and for spending quality time with the family. This year, it fell on Tuesday 16 November. It is inconceivable that politicians and journalists would be unaware of the significance of that date — the same day the Government announced that it had reached an out-of-court settlement with 16 Guantánamo detainees, British citizens and residents, who were detained by US forces.

In the morning, my daughter was in tears in front of press photographers. By the evening, Islamophobic blogsites were posting statements such as: “Somebody post any of these innocent victims’ addresses and I will save the British taxpayers millions.”

None of this mattered to the scores of reporters who incessantly called me, and others, from the moment news of the imminent government announcement was “leaked” to ITN News on Monday. Neither did it prevent numerous journalists with their cameras and satellite vans turning up outside my house, desperate for a scoop on where the taxpayers’ money had been spent and to know if our voices — once so outspoken against the abuses we had sustained and which we alleged had happened with the complicity of our government — had now been silenced in return for a grubby pay-off.

Of the 16 men involved in the case against the British secret intelligence services, five were held for two-and-a-half years; five served three years; four others served six years; one served eight, and another, Shaker Aamer, is still in Guantánamo, nine years on. Collectively, we have spent over 66 years imprisoned without charge or trial.

Many of us allege that British intelligence was directly involved before and during our rendition. Others maintain they were tortured and abused in front of MI5 agents. All of us affirm that British agents regularly interrogated us, with full knowledge of the torture and conditions. Nine of the claimants in this case are British citizens; the others have long-term connections to the UK and in some cases had been legally resident here for decades.

All of the men allege that they were forcibly stripped naked, paraded like animals in front of others, regularly beaten, kept for extended periods in isolation and held incommunicado for the duration. This is just a tiny sample of what some of the claimants are alleging. There is much more — so much more that the Government decided to settle with us rather than see its reputation as an upholder of human rights tarnished even more.

I spent three years in Bagram and Guantánamo. I was subjected to the sounds of a screaming woman whom I believed was my wife being tortured. I witnessed the beating to death of two prisoners, and spent two years in solitary confinement, before returning home to meet the three-year-old son I had never seen before.

According to the terms of the settlement, no claimant knows what the other has been offered, and we are certainly not permitted to discuss it. But it would be safe to say none of us got even a fraction of the £6.5m awarded by the Canadian government to Maher Arar, who is the only comparable litigant. Despite the grand claims being made in the press, I’m no millionaire.

We understand the aversion some people have to us receiving anything, but the Government was always going to lose this case. They had to settle, because, as with the two unjust and immoral wars in which untold numbers of innocent people have been killed, wounded and displaced, the Government subjugated itself to the policies of other countries.

Earlier this month, the former US president George W. Bush released his memoir and defended waterboarding. He insisted that waterboarding of suspected terrorists by the CIA saved British lives by preventing terrorist attacks on Heathrow and Canary Wharf. He offered no credible evidence for his claim.

In 2002, the CIA told me about the fate of a man they had interrogated before me, saying that I would meet the same end if I failed to comply. When Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured by the US, he was trumpeted as the most senior al-Qa’ida figure in custody at the time. He was then rendered to Egypt where he was waterboarded and made a confession that was used as a major justification to invade Iraq. Al-Libi told his US interrogators that he was working with Saddam Hussain on obtaining chemical and biological weapons. This information was presented by Colin Powell as “credible evidence” to the UN Security Council in 2003 as a tangible link between al-Qa’ida and the Iraqi regime. It was a fabrication — and, eventually, the UN knew it. There were no WMDs in Iraq and no al-Qa’ida presence there before the invasion.

I told MI5 agents what I had been threatened with. They responded by saying that they could do nothing, and that I should just co-operate with the Americans. What would they have done if I had been waterboarded into giving such a confession? Waterboarding is a crime. The man who ordered this in our times was Britain’s closest ally, even as we were being abused. I have no doubt that he — and his henchmen — ordered that, too. And I have even less doubt that the Government knew exactly what was happening, because British intelligence agents were there at every leg of the journey on the road to Guantánamo.

We started this action not for the money, but to get our lives back, to repay our friends and relatives and to remove the stigma of being “terrorism suspects”. Most of all, we wanted the last remaining British prisoner, Shaker Aamer, reunited with his family. That is why he is one of the claimants in absentia — and why we told the Government that having Shaker back was more important to us than any amount they were offering in settlement. We are pleased to see the Government has now agreed to step up its efforts to bring home the last Briton held at Guantánamo as a priority.

We agreed to settle because we do not want to have to relive this episode indefinitely for years on end. To me, this is at least a partial victory. They would not have paid up if they thought they could win. British complicity in torture goes well beyond the Guantánamo cases. Cageprisoners intends to submit its findings of 29 such cases to the Gibson inquiry.

Note: A longer version of this article appears on the Cageprisoners website.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Send a Letter to Your MP Demanding the Release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer

Since the announcement last week that the British government has reached a financial settlement with 15 former Guantánamo prisoners — and with Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison — it has been blindingly obvious that reaching a settlement with a man who is still imprisoned for no good reason at Guantánamo, as is the case with Shaker Aamer, is both ridiculous and insulting.

Shaker Aamer, a Saudi national who moved to the UK in the mid-1990s, has a British wife and children, and was cleared for release from Guantánamo by a military review board under the Bush administration in 2007. He remains held because of inactivity on the part of the both the British and the American governments, but with the announcement of the settlement, it is imperative that he is returned to the UK as swiftly as possible, for two compelling reasons: firstly, because a Metropolitan Police investigation into his allegations that British agents were present while he was tortured in US custody in Afghanistan cannot conclude without him, and, without a conclusion to this investigation, the judicial inquiry into British complicity in torture abroad, announced in July by Prime Minister David Cameron, cannot begin.

Below is the introduction to a draft letter put together by Amnesty International, and a copy of the letter that readers in the UK can cut and paste and send to their MPs. If you care about the plight of Shaker Aamer, please send a letter, to add to the crescendo of voices asking for Shaker Aamer’s return. There has never been a better time for us to bring his unjust detention to an end.

From Amnesty International UK:

Please take the following action for Shaker Aamer and circulate to others — or, better still, arrange a meeting with your MP and raise the concerns set out in this letter directly with them.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague reportedly raised Shaker’s case with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at a meeting in Washington D.C. on 17 November, which is very welcome news. Please contact your MP and ask them to raise Shaker Aamer’s case with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, urging him to maintain the pressure on the US to release Shaker Aamer. Please use the text below (but feel free to personalise your letter to make a bigger impact and to add your own voice):

A letter to your MP regarding the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer

Dear [fill in name of MP],

I am writing to you about Shaker Aamer, the former British resident who has been detained without trial for nearly nine years in the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. He alleges that he has been tortured.

Shaker Aamer has never been charged or convicted of any criminal offence while in US custody. Despite this, he remains in detention. Shaker’s British wife and children live in London and his youngest child has never met his father.

President Obama has pledged to close Guantánamo Bay and the British government has asked the US for Shaker Aamer’s release — most recently in a November meeting in Washington D.C., according to reports. Despite the seeming willingness of the UK authorities to permit his return to the UK and the absence to date of any charges, Shaker Aamer remains detained without trial at Guantánamo Bay.

But the UK Government must maintain pressure on the US for Shaker Aamer’s release if his case is to be resolved. Please raise Shaker’s case with the Foreign Secretary William Hague and:

– Welcome his statement in Washington that he has called on US Secretary of State Clinton to return Shaker Aamer to the UK and request that he reports back to parliament on these discussions;

– Urge the Foreign Secretary to continue to press the US to quickly agree a timetable for Shaker’s trial or return to the UK.

Jane Ellison MP is the Constituency MP for Shaker Aamer’s wife and children. She will be happy to brief you further on the case.

Yours sincerely,

[add name]

Note: If sending by mail, please include an address if you wish to receive a reply. You can also send this letter by email (see this Amnesty page for details) or find your MP and contact them directly via WriteToThem. You can also send a postcard to Daniel Fried, President Obama’s Special Envoy on Guantánamo, asking for Shaker Aamer’s release (although I would cut the section mentioning that the US government can, if it wishes, “charge him promptly and give him a fair trial”).

If you have any queries about this action, please email Amnesty International.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Moazzam Begg Explains How Ex-Guantánamo Prisoners Offered to Forego Compensation for Return of Shaker Aamer

In the Wandsworth Guardian, tenacious reporter Paul Cahalan has, for many years, covered the story of the former Battersea resident Shaker Aamer, who is still held in Guantánamo, despite being cleared for release by a military review board under the Bush administration in 2007.

As has been revealed in the last few days, Shaker is included in the compensation payments made by the British government to all the British ctizens and residents held in Guantánamo (which, unconvincingly, are described by the government as a financial settlement, even though they constitute a clear admission of guilt), and, in an effort to find out more about the basis of the payments, and about the fate of Shaker Aamer, Cahalan spoke to Moazzam Begg, former Guantánamo prisoner and director of Cageprisoners.

As Cahalan put it — and as I also explained in a recent article — Begg explained to him that the former Guantánamo prisoners “offered to forego any compensation” in return for the release of Shaker Aamer.

“Ken Clarke, [the justice secretary], met with the prisoners and talked to us,” Begg explained. “We told him very, very clearly Shaker was our main concern in all of this above any financial compensation. We were even ready to forego that if that was the choice on offer — Shaker’s freedom or a settlement. But that was not on offer. All of us in the discussions made it very clear we all want Shaker back and that is more important to us than any monetary compensation. That was the view of us unanimously.”

Begg proceeded to explain that, although Shaker Aamer is included in the settlement deal, he believes that he can only accept the deal on his release from Guantánamo.

“The government has shown it wants to settle these cases, but one of the outstanding things is there is no settlement until Shaker has settled,” Begg said. He added, “We have come to agreement” (referring to the 15 released prisoners), but “it is a different matter with Shaker. He is still in Guantánamo. We have to hear what he has to say and then he would be in a position to decide if he wanted to settle himself. No one can do that on his behalf. We maintain he should have returned years ago, the case isn’t settled and cannot be settled until he is returned.”

Begg added, “The government got Binyam Mohamed [another British resident, subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture, with British knowledge] back to the UK [in February 2009], and he was accused of being involved in a dirty bomb [plot]. Shaker has never even been designated for charges. Binyam has no family in the UK, Shaker has a British wife and children.”

Cahalan proceeded to describe how, despite being cleared for release, Shaker Aamer’s ongoing detention has involved both the British and American government blaming each other, as I have also explained previously.

“We have had extensive discussions with the government at which [Shaker’s] family was present and the government told us the ball is in the US court,” Begg explained, adding, “But if the British push hard enough they will get him back, I have no doubt in my mind. Ministers would not give us a timetable for release but they are a new government and should be given the benefit of doubt — but the clock is ticking.”

As Paul Cahalan also explained, Shaker Aamer’s case against the British government is “potentially more damaging than other detainees” because he “alleges MI5 interrogators were present when he was mistreated in Afghanistan.” This allegation is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police, after it was revealed in a court case in the UK last December, and as a result, although the government’s financial settlement has brought to an end a civil claim for damages filed by seven former prisoners, including Moazzam Begg, which had already resulted in the release of damaging revelations about the activities of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and former foreign secretary Jack Straw, the next step envisaged by the government — a carefully controlled judicial inquiry into British complicity in torture abroad — cannot begin until the Metropolitan Police inquiry has concluded, for which Shaker Aamer’s presence is undoubtedly required, as he is the victim of the alleged wrongdoing.

In concluding comments to Paul Cahalan, Moazzam Begg said that he was “relieved” that the government had “finally arrived at a settlement offer,” but added that if ministers wanted to “turn over the page on Guantánamo,” they urgently need to secure Shaker Aamer’s release.

“I’m glad it’s over, it could have dragged on for years on end,” he said, adding, “I probably would have pulled out.” As he also explained, however, “We [the former prisoners] don’t want to talk about the claims and settlements. We are all here and free. We want to talk about the person who is still in prison — Shaker Aamer. We want to make sure that issue is very much kept alive.”

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Morris Davis, Former Guantánamo Chief Prosecutor, Nails Critics of the Federal Court Trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani

On Monday, I’ll be publishing my own detailed response to the outcome in the federal court trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, and the Republican hysteria that has arisen because the jury dismissed 284 charges against him — relating to his alleged participation in the US embassy bombings in Africa in August 1998 — but found him guilty on one charge of conspiracy to destroy US property and buildings.

Ghailani faces 20 years to life as a result of this decision, and critics of the trial, who oppose criminal trials for terrorists on an ideological basis, mistakenly concluding that terrorists are not criminals, but are warriors in the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” are incapable of realizing that they are fortunate that Ghailani could be prosecuted at all, given that he was held in a secret CIA prison for two years and two months following his capture in Pakistan in July 2004, and that, for at least some of that time, was subjected to torture.

These critics railed against Judge Lewis Kaplan’s decision, last month, to exclude the government’s star witness because it appeared that his name had only been revealed by Ghailani while he was being tortured, but even though this did not derail the trial, or prevent Ghailani from being successfully prosecuted, they now complain that the trial was a disaster and that he should have been tried  by Military Commission at Guantánamo.

Below, I cross-post an incisive op-ed published in yesterday’s New York Times by Morris Davis, the director of the Crimes of War Project. Davis is a former Air Force colonel, and was the chief prosecutor for the Military Commissions at Guantánamo from 2005 to 2007, when, crucially, he resigned after he was put in a chain of command under the Pentagon’s Chief Counsel, William J. Haynes II (part of Dick Cheney’s inner circle of advisors on the “War on Terror”) who wanted information derived through torture to be used in the Commissions, in spite of Davis’ implacable opposition to its use.

Davis points out that there is no guarantee that a judge in the Commissions would have decided to overlook the use of torture, given that information derived through the use of torture is prohibited in the Commissions, and the only difference between the Commissions and federal court trials is that judges in the former have some leeway in deciding whether to accept information that may have involved some sort of coercion.

Crucially, his conclusions — and my own — indicate that critics of the verdict in the Ghailani trial want the Commissions to be a punitive fantasy land, as originally envisaged by Dick Cheney when he first resurrected them in November 2001, where the use of torture is acceptable — and may, indeed, be positively encouraged — and where military judges and juries, like automata, endorse without question the case put forward by the prosecution, even though, as Davis points out, the reality of the Commissions is very different, and Ghailani will almost certainly serve longer in prison than four out of the five prisoners prosecuted in the Commissions.

A Terrorist Gets What He Deserves
By Morris Davis, New York Times, November 18, 2010

Critics of President Obama’s decision to prosecute Guantánamo Bay detainees in federal courts have seized on the verdict in the Ahmed Ghailani case as proof that federal trials are a disastrous failure. After the jury on Wednesday found Mr. Ghailani guilty of only one charge in the 1998 African embassy bombings, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, called on the administration to “admit it was wrong and assure us just as confidently that terrorists will be tried from now on in the military commission system.”

The verdict — in which Mr. Ghailani was found guilty of conspiring to blow up United States government buildings and not guilty on 284 other counts — came as a surprise to many, but the outcome does not justify allowing political rhetoric like Senator McConnell’s to trump reality.

True, prosecutors suffered a major setback when Judge Lewis Kaplan of the Federal District Court in Manhattan refused to permit the testimony of the only witness who could connect Mr. Ghailani to the explosives used in the bombings. The judge did so because Mr. Ghailani claimed that he revealed the identity of this witness after being tortured by the CIA. The prosecution did not contest his claim, arguing instead that the identificationof this “giant witness for the government” was only remotely linked to Mr. Ghailani’s interrogation.

Judge Kaplan disagreed, saying that Americans cannot afford to let fear “overcome principles upon which our nation rests.” He said that, given the same circumstances, a military commission judge might have reached the same conclusion and barred the testimony.

Many have scoffed at this claim. Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, insists that Judge Kaplan “doomed” the case. Yet a look at the record shows that Judge Kaplan’s assessment of what a military commission judge might have decided was well founded.

Consider Mohammed Jawad, an Afghan teenager who was charged with attempted murder for throwing a grenade at an American vehicle in Kabul in 2002. In 2008 a military judge, Col. Stephen Henley, suppressed incriminating statements Mr. Jawad had made after he was beaten and his family threatened while he was in Afghan custody. The military commission charges were later dropped and last year the United States sent Mr. Jawad home to Afghanistan.

We don’t know for certain whether a military judge would have reached the same conclusion as Judge Kaplan, but given the Jawad precedent it seems very possible. Those who claim to know that the government would have gotten a more favorable ruling in a military commission are ignoring the record.

In any case, Mr. Ghailani now faces a sentence of 20 years to life. Even if he gets the minimum, his sentence will be greater than those of four of the five detainees so far convicted in military commissions. Only one defendant, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, has been sentenced to life, and this was after he boycotted his tribunal and presented no defense.

Of the four detainees who participated in their military commissions, Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was 15 when arrested, is serving the longest sentence after pleading guilty to murder. Yet he will serve no more than eight years behind bars, less than half of Mr. Ghailani’s minimum incarceration. Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s former driver, was sentenced to five and half years in 2008 but given credit for time served; five months later he was free. There is no reason to assume that a military commission sentence will be more severe than one from a federal court.

In addition, Mr. Ghailani may well serve his sentence at the “supermax” federal prison in Florence, Colo., where others convicted in the embassy bombings are confined. If so, he will spend more time in solitary and enjoy fewer privileges than those under the most restrictive measures at Guantánamo.

President Obama is in a no-win situation when it comes to trying detainees — any forum he chooses will set off critics on one side of the debate or the other. I hope he pauses to reflect on what he said at the National Archives in May 2009: “Some have derided our federal courts as incapable of handling the trials of terrorists. They are wrong. Our courts and our juries, our citizens, are tough enough to convict terrorists.”

The Ghailani trial delivered justice. It did so safely and securely, while upholding the values that have defined America. Now Mr. Obama should stand up to the fear-mongers who want to take us back to the wrong side of history.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

The UK Government’s Guantánamo Guilt, and the Urgent Need for Shaker Aamer’s Return

The official announcement on Tuesday in the House of Commons, by Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, that the govermment has reached a financial settlement with a number of former Guantánamo prisoners brings to an end a court case that promised to be long, expensive and full of disturbing revelations about British complicity in torture and abuse.

How the financial settlement arose

Seven former prisoners first sued the British government and the security services last year, seeking damages for their role in unlawful acts and conspiracy, through their involvement in, or their failure to stop, their detention and ill-treatment in US custody (or US supervision in other countries), and, in some cases, their “extraordinary rendition” to secret prisons. These men were Moazzam Begg, Binyam Mohamed, Omar Deghayes, Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil El-Banna, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar.

When the government’s preferred route out of this tricky situation — seeking and securing judicial approval for MI5, MI6 and the police to be able to withhold evidence from defendants and their lawyers on the basis of national security — was overturned by the Court of Appeal in May this year, it was obvious that their only escape route would be to negotiate an out of court settlement with the seven men. In their ruling, the judges in the Court of Appeal — including Lord Neuberger, the Master of ther Rolls — said they were obliged to “take a stand” against secrecy that would undermine the “most fundamental principles of common law,” and Lord Neuberger pointed out that “a litigant’s right to know the case against him and to know the reasons why he has lost or won is fundamental to the notion of a fair trial.”

The government moved swiftly. On July 6, David Cameron announced that there would be a judicial inquiry into British complicity in torture, telling the House of Commons that he had asked Sir Peter Gibson, a former appeal court judge who monitors the activities of the intelligence agencies, to “look at whether Britain was implicated in the improper treatment of detainees held by other countries that may have occurred in the aftermath of 9/11.” Cameron noted that, although there was no evidence that any British officer was “directly engaged in torture,” there were “questions over the degree to which British officers were working with foreign security services who were treating detainees in ways they should not have done.”

Crucially, David Cameron also made it clear that the inquiry could not begin “until civil claims have been resolved through mediation or settled with compensation,” as the Guardian explained, and until Metropolitan Police investigations into the activities of MI5 and MI6 agents concluded. These concern Binyam Mohamed (returned to the UK in February 2009), who was subjected to two years of torture (with British knowledge) in Pakistan, Morocco and Afghanistan, before his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2004, and Shaker Aamer, married with a British wife and four British children, who is still held in Guantánamo, despite being cleared for release in 2007. Originally from Saudi Arabia, Shaker had traveled to Afghanistan in June 2001 with former prisoner Moazzam Begg and their families to establish a girls’ school and some well-digging projects, but was seized by bounty hunters after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and subsequently sold to US forces.

The need for the government to seek an out of court settlement grew even more pressing just a week after the announcement of the inquiry, when ministers were unable to prevent the first release of documents as a result of the ongoing court case. Less than a thousand in number, out of 500,000 documents being reviewed by lawyers and intelligence personnel, these documents neverthless contained startling new discoveries: that foreign secretary Jack Straw had been content for British prisoners to be taken to Guantánamo in January 2002, when the prison opened, and was only concerned that British agents would have time to interrogate them in Afghanistan before the Americans rendered them to its lawless enclave in Cuba; and that Prime Minister Tony Blair had interfered to prevent the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from granting consular access to Martin Mubanga, a British citizen seized in Zambia, who, as a result, was also sent to Guantánamo.

In the wake of this release of documents, the government stepped up its planning for the judicial inquiry, actively engaging in negotiations with former prisoners and their lawyers, which, after four months of detailed discussions, led to the settlements announced on Monday.

Why the financial settlement is an acknowledgment of guilt

However, although the Prime Minister’s spokesman told reporters on Tuesday morning, “We are not admitting culpability,” and proceeded to follow the government line that “We were in a situation where we were facing years of litigation, the cost of which would have been tens of millions of pounds,” and that “We had to draw a line under the past and let [the security services] get on with the job that they have to do,” even a cursory glance at what has taken place over the last four months reveals that Downing Street — and Kenneth Clarke, who repeated the message in the House of Commons — are not being entirely honest.

When the story broke on Monday night, the only ex-prisoners mentioned were the seven men involved in the damages claim, but by Tuesday it was clear that settlements had been made with 16 men in total — all of the British citizens and residents returned between 2004 and 2009, and Shaker Aamer, despite the fact that he is still held in Guantánamo.

If, as the government claims, the aim of the settlements is to bring to an end the court case that was proving so costly and so dangerous to the security services (and former government ministers), then there would be no need to include all these other men, who are not actually engaged in litigation.

Two conclusions can be drawn from this, and neither reflects well on the government. The first is that the settlements are indeed an acknowledgement of guilt, and the second is that the government is trying to make sure that there are no loose ends — or loose cannons — around for when the inquiry begins its work. This suggests that the government is hoping to ensure that the inquiry will be able to guarantee that enough damaging material as possible is safely removed from public scrutiny, so that its real business — going through the motions, leading to the odd slapped wrist — will not be able to be challenged.

Personally, I doubt that such a plan will be successful, as so much information relating to British complicity in torture is already in the public domain, and any attempt at a whitewash will be met with fierce resistance. Moreover, although the ex-prisoners have accepted a settlement to drop their civil claim against the government, they have not, as Kenneth Clarke admitted in Parliament, “withdrawn their allegations,” and it remains possible, therefore, that one day those who facilitated or turned a blind eye to their torture and abuse might still face prosecution.

As it is, all the former prisoners have made it clear in the last few days that they intend to make their allegations, with evidence, directly to Gibson when the inquiry begins, and Moazzam Begg has explained that Cageprisoners will be submitting its findings from its report, “Fabricating Terrorism II,” which highlights the cases of 29 individuals who allege the complicity of MI5 and/or MI6 in their abuse, including one pre-9/11 case directly linked to Moazzam Begg.

Why the government has, to date, failed Shaker Aamer — and how the former prisoners made him central to their concerns

Just as significant as the government’s little-perceived acknowedgment of guilt is the unresolved question of what will happen to Shaker Aamer.

It is extraordinary enough to realize that he is being offered a settlement while he is still held in Guantánamo, but it is even more astonishing that, until the negotiations began, the government was unaware that all the former prisoners would tell ministers that they were unwilling to enter negotiations without confirmation that any deal would also include Shaker’s return to the UK.

The government apparently failed to understand that the bonds between Guantánamo prisoners run particularly deep, after their shared experiences, and that they all have great feelings of responsibility towards those left behind in Guantánamo — and especially towards Shaker, an intelligent, articulate and charismatic man, who, since his capture almost nine years ago, has fought tenaciously for the prisoners’ rights.

Ministers were duly taken aback when, one after another, the former prisoners explained that their intention had never been to seek financial compensation. They were, they said, motivated by a quest for justice, a desire to make sure that nothing that happened to them would be allowed to happen again, and an unassailable conviction that the entire process was useless while Shaker Aamer remained in Guantánamo.

Rather disturbingly, ministers also, apparently, failed to realize how little civil servants had done for the last few years to secure Shaker Aamer’s return from Guantánamo, and in one meeting there was a shocked silence from minsters, lawyers and the former prisoners when they admitted that they had not made a welfare visit to Shaker for five years.

They also, it seems, failed to realize how absurd it was to offer Shaker a settlement while he is still held in Guantánamo, and it also transpired that ministers had not been fully briefed about the fact that no inquiry can possibly proceed without him. This is not only because Shaker is the subject of one of the Metropolitan Police investigations, but also because the reason that investigation arose in the first place is because a court accepted, last December, his allegations that British agents had been present in a cell in the US prison at Kandahar in December 2001 when he was subjected to horrible abuse.

Although the British government, under Gordon Brown, asked for Shaker to be returned to the UK with four other British residents in August 2007, there has been no progress since that time, even though the other four men were safely returned in 2007 and 2009.

What Shaker Aamer knows

When prompted, the US goverment has claimed that it still has “security concerns” about Shaker, although these could obviously be dealt with by the British government if the political will existed to secure his return. Very possibly, this has been an excuse — mutually beneficial to both the US and UK governments — to put off having to deal with both the embarrassment, and with detailed revelations about the treatment of prisoners, which might be more damaging to both governments, when Shaker is eventually released.

The reason for this is that, in his fierce advocacy of rights for the prisoners held in the “War on Terror,” Shaker may know more than any other prisoner about the dark workings of Guantánamo and other prisons in Afghanistan. Soon after his capture he initiated a hunger strike to demand that prisoners be treated humanely, and in Guantánamo he not only supported and advised countless fellow prisoners, and liaised endlessly with the authorities, but also played a pivotal role in briefly bringing to an end a prison-wide hunger strike in the summer of 2005. On that occasion, he and five other influential prisoners were allowed to form a short-lived Prisoners’ Council, in an attempt to persuade the authorities to run the prison according to the Geneva Conventions, but when the authorities suddenly changed their minds and the council was disbanded, Shaker was thrown into solitary confinement, where he stayed for at least two years, on a hunger strike.

Moreover, it was during this period that three prisoners died, on June 9, 2006, and Shaker later told his lawyers that, on that same night, he had been tortured to within an inch of his life. His account added great weight to an article published in January this year, which, drawing on eye-witness accounts by soldiers who were stationed in Guantánamo on that particular night, demolished the authorities’ claim that the three men who died committed suicide, and indicated instead that they had been killed — either deliberately, or as part of a torture session in a secret facility outside Guantánamo that went too far.

Why Shaker Aamer must return to the UK now

According to the Guardian, Shaker “is expected to be allowed to return to the UK soon,” and I can only hope that this is true. As Moazzam Begg explained on Tuesday, “Shaker Aamer must now become a priority for this current government. The compensation paid to the former Guantánamo detainees is a welcome departure from the policies of the previous administration but in order to truly resolve the errors that have been made, Shaker Aamer must be returned back home to his family. We will do everything in our power to help this government achieve their goal of helping his return.”

In the last two days, the pressure for Shaker’s return has increased markedly. Although the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, said on Wednesday that the Crown Prosecution Service had advised the Metropolitan Police that, in their ongoing investigation into Binyam Mohamed’s case, there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the MI5 officer at the heart of the investgation (known as Witness B), “for any criminal offence arising from the interview of Binyam Mohamed in Pakistan on 17 May 2002,” Starmer added, “We are unable to release further information at this stage because the wider investigation into other potential criminal conduct arising from allegations made by Mr. Mohamed in interviews with the police is still ongoing.” Significantly, Starmer did not mention the ongoing investigation into the conduct of security service officials in Shaker Aamer’s case, but it is apparent that this particular investigation cannot conclude without Shaker Aamer being present to answer questions.

As a result of this investigation, and also, it should be noted, as a direct consequence of the settlement discussions, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, raised the question of Shaker Aamer’s return to the UK with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, on Wednesday, marking the most high-profile mention of Shaker Aamer by a British government official since August 2007, when Gordon Brown asked for the return of the five remaining British residents.

This was a welcome development, and a clear reflection on the successful pressure exerted on the British government by the former prisoners, but Shaker’s return is not yet a done deal, and in the meantime anyone interested in securing Shaker Aamer’s return should besiege all available parties — David Cameron, William Hague, their local MPs and the US goverment — with demands for his return, pointing out that the Metropolitan Police’s investigation cannot conclude without him, and nor, indeed, can the goverment’s judicial inquiry begin.

Note: As part of Amnesty International’s new campaign for Shaker Aamer, readers can send a postcard to Daniel Fried, Obama’s Special Envoy on Guantánamo, who will hopefully receive many thousands of postcards demanding Shaker’s return (although, to be honest, I would cut the recommended text about the possibility of charging him promptly and giving him a fair trial), and can also write to MPs in the UK, who can be contacted easily and directly via the campaign page here. Also see this page for information about future screenings of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” the documentary film, co-directed by Polly Nash and myself, which features the story of Shaker Aamer — on November 22 in Oxford, on December 10 in Roehampton, on December 11 in Battersea, and on December 15 in Sheffield — and if you’re in London, or able to pay a visit, please also note that the screening on Saturday December 11, at the Battersea Arts Centre, is part of an event entitled, “A Day for Shaker Aamer,” organized by the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign in his home borough of Wandsworth. The day begins at 12 noon, with a demonstration at Ponton Road, Nine Elms, London SW8, the site of the new US embassy. At 12.30 those gathered will march to Battersea Arts Centre for a public meeting, beginning at 2 pm, with speakers including Ken Livingstone, Moazzam Begg, Victoria Brittain, Jeremy Corbyn, Lindsey German, Kate Hudson, Gareth Peirce and Yvonne Ridley, and the film will be shown at 4.30 pm, followed by a Q&A with myself and Omar Deghayes.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners. Cross-posted on The Public Record, The World Can’t Wait and Uruknet.

Amnesty Students Say “Bring Shaker Aamer Home from Guantánamo”

On Saturday, I was privileged to be a speaker at the Amnesty International Student Conference 2010, at the Human Rights Action Centre in London, where I spoke about Guantánamo — and, specifically, about the plight of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who is still held, despite being cleared for release in 2007 — as part of a discussion entitled, “Unlawful detention — Guantánamo and beyond.”

Joining me for this 9 am start in Shoreditch (thank you, East London Line, for getting me there in 18 minutes!) was Gareth Peirce, the indefatigable human rights lawyer, who, in a career of immense significance, has fought for justice on behalf of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, many of the Guantánamo prisoners, and numerous “terror suspects” in the UK, who have been — and in many cases continue to be — imprisoned, or held on control orders or deportation bail (which amount to a form of house arrest) on the basis of secret evidence, and without being charged, tried, or, it should be noted, ever questioned by the police or the security services.

Also speaking was Covadonga de la Campa, a campaigner in Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, who spoke about British citizen Ramze Shihab Ahmed, imprisoned in Iraq without charge or trial since December 2009, and who also brought our attention to a new report, “New Order, Same Abuses: Unlawful Detentions and Torture in Iraq.” The moderator of the session was Steve Ballinger,  Security and Human Rights Campaigner for AIUK, but what impressed me the most about the whole session, I have to say, was the enthusiasm of the students. As one campaigner explained to me afterwards, “The student conference is the best day of the year here at Amnesty — they have so much energy and enthusiasm that they really raise the roof.”

At the time, I had no idea that, on Tuesday, the government would announce that it had reached a financial settlement with 15 former Guantánamo prisoners, bringing to an end a civil claim for damages submitted by seven of these men, or, indeed, that a 16th man included in the settlement was Shaker Aamer, even though, of course, he was not able to attend the negotiations, as he is still held in solitary confinement in Guantánamo, a political prisoner of the Obama administration.

Had I known any of this information, it would not have made much difference to my presentation, as the pressing concern remains putting pressure on the British and American governments to secure his return to his wife and family in the UK. After the audience was shown clips of former prisoner Moazzam Begg and attorney Clive Stafford Smith speaking about Shaker — from the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” which I co-directed with Polly Nash — I ran through Shaker’s history, his emergence as a human rights leader in Guantánamo, his neglect by the British government, his deep knowledge of the dark workings of Guantánamo (including the deaths of three prisoners in June 2006), which may be why he is still held, and the need for sustained pressure on both the British and the American governments to secure his immediate return to the UK.

I also contrasted the situation in the UK — where action on Shaker’s behalf can be successful — with that in the US, where President Obama has, both by accident and design, become paralyzed with regard to Guantánamo, and has now almost entirely given up on either trying or releasing any of the 173 other men held with Shaker, despite his promise to close the prison within a year, when he took office in January 2009.

Gareth, who is Shaker’s solicitor, followed up with another powerful call to action, including information that I either didn’t know, or didn’t have time to cover: how, in the negotiations regarding the financial settlements, ministers were unaware of the extent to which the former prisoners would insist that Shaker’s return from Guantánamo was central to any negotiations, and, in addition, how the negotiations also revealed that the previous government had done very little to secure Shaker’s return, despite making occasional noises to the contrary.

Both Gareth and I were delighted to be able to encourage the student representatives in the packed auditorium to get involved in Amnesty’s campaign for Shaker Aamer, which will be launched officially on November 22, and focuses on two particular targets: Daniel Fried, Obama’s Special Envoy on Guantánamo, who will hopefully receive many thousands of postcards demanding Shaker’s return, and MPs in the UK, who can be contacted easily and directly via the campaign page here.

With the news that, on Wednesday, foreign secretary William Hague raised the topic of Shaker Aamer’s return with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton — telling a Georgetown University audience, “I have been discussing that with Secretary Clinton today and reiterated our position that we would like to see this gentleman returned to the United Kingdom and that is under consideration by the United States” — it is obviously of the utmost importance to put as much pressure as possible on the British government right now.

I was also pleased to be able to encourage the students to show “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” in their universities, to explain how former prisoner Omar Deghayes and I had undertaken a major university tour earlier this year, and to suggest that, if they wanted to show the film, I would endeavour to organize another tour, featuring myself and former prisoners. In closing, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind those students who expressed an interest in showing the film — from, if I recall correctly, Bristol, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Leeds, Manchester, Plymouth, Stirling, Swansea, York and the London College of Communication —  that the offer still stands, and that they (and any other groups interested in showing the film) can get in touch with me here.

Note: See this page for information about future screenings of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” — on November 22 in Oxford, on December 10 in Roehampton, on December 11 in Battersea, and on December 15 in Sheffield — and if you’re in London, or able to pay a visit, please also note that the screening on Saturday December 11, at the Battersea Arts Centre, is part of an event entitled, “A Day for Shaker Aamer,” organized by the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign in his home borough of Wandsworth. The day begins at 12 noon, with a demonstration at Ponton Road, Nine Elms, London SW8, the site of the new US embassy. At 12.30 those gathered will march to Battersea Arts Centre for a public meeting, beginning at 2 pm, with speakers including Ken Livingstone, Moazzam Begg, Victoria Brittain, Jeremy Corbyn, Lindsey German, Kate Hudson, Gareth Peirce and Yvonne Ridley, and the film will be shown at 4.30 pm, followed by a Q&A with myself and Omar Deghayes.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Who Are the Remaining Prisoners in Guantánamo? Part Eight: Captured in Afghanistan (2002-07)

Delayed by a month due to other demands (primarily, a visit to the US and the trial by Military Commission of Omar Khadr), this is the eighth part of a nine-part series telling the stories of all the prisoners currently held in Guantánamo (174 at the time of writing). See the introduction here, and Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six and Part Seven.

This eighth part tells the stories of 15 prisoners seized in Afghanistan. Following on from those described in Part Two, the prisoners in this article were seized in 2002 or 2003 (when the last of the regular prisoners were sent to Guantánamo from Afghanistan), with the exception of two men described at the end of the article, who were seized in 2007, and are among the six prisoners who were transferred into Guantánamo between March 2007 and March 2008. All but one — the former child prisoner Omar Khadr — are Afghan, and, including Khadr, five have, at various times, been put forward for a trial by Military Commission. In addition, two of the 15 recently lost their habeas corpus petitions, including one who was previously put forward for a trial by Military Commission.

Quite why most of these men are still held remains a mystery — as does the reason for putting any of them forward for trial — because, with one possible exception, they were, at best, minor players in a conflict in Afghanistan that could only have been skewed into a conflict that was legitimate on one side (the US) but illegal on the other by the Bush admininistration, which turned both criminal activities (terrorism) and war into a nebulous global “War on Terror,” in which America’ s enemies — or perceived enemies — were all declared to be “enemy combatants” without rights. Sadly, however, this point of view has, essentially, been preserved by the Obama administration, as the recent trial of Omar Khadr showed.

ISN 753 Zahir, Abdul (Afghanistan)
Zahir, who was captured in July 2002, was accused of being a translator for al-Qaeda member Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi (ISN 10026, see Part Nine) and a money courier for members of al-Qaeda and Taliban, and of taking part in a grenade attack on a vehicle carrying Toronto Star journalist Kathleen Kenna, her husband Hadi Dadashian, photographer Bernard Weil, and an Afghan driver in Zormat on March 4, 2002. Zahir was put forward for a trial by Military Commission in January 2006, when he stated that he did not take part in the grenade attack, and was the only one of the ten prisoners charged in the first incarnation of the Commissions who was not charged again after the Commissions were ruled illegal by Congress in June 2006, and were revived by Congress later that year. On December 27, 2009, Kenna, who was seriously injured in the attack, wrote an op-ed for the Toronto Star in which she wrote, “For almost eight years, we have all waited for justice. We don’t seek retribution. We’ve made it clear we cannot identify our attackers. We seek real justice, not a contrived justice. My conscience is divided: As a woman committed to social justice in everyday life, I want a public trial at a court where the defendant would enjoy the same rights to which we’re entitled under American and international law. As someone horribly wounded, then disabled, by the explosion, I want as fair a trial as possible at a time of war … We know nothing about Zahir’s arrest, but he was held at Guantánamo without charges for almost four years — far longer than is normally allowed under peacetime law. Unlike those awaiting criminal trials, Zahir was held without access to a lawyer of his choice, without a chance to tell his family his whereabouts. He wasn’t charged with war crimes until Jan. 2006: attacking civilians, aiding the enemy, and conspiracy. I don’t believe in indefinite detention without trial … The Pentagon has assured us, almost annually since his arrest, that this would be the year of Zahir’s trial. My husband and I hoped this meant true justice would be served, and also hoped it brought us all closer to the shutdown of Guantánamo … We’re not lawyers, nor armchair arbiters of how the men of war from Afghanistan should be treated by the United States. After living in a war zone for months in Afghanistan, and closely following the war’s progress since then, we have strong convictions that any prisoner-of-war should be treated with dignity, and afforded all the rights guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions and international human rights laws. It’s what we would demand for any Canadian, American or other citizen — whether combatant or aid worker — captured and held in a country of war. It’s what we want for Zahir and all the Guantánamo detainees.”

ISN 762 Obaidullah (Afghanistan)
In September 2008, Obaidullah (also identified as Obaydullah) was put forward for a trial by Military Commission, even though, as I explained at the time, he was “charged with ‘conspiracy’ and ‘providing material support to terrorism,’ based on the thinnest set of allegations to date: essentially, a single claim that, ‘[o]n or about 22 July 2002,’ he ‘stored and concealed anti-tank mines, other explosive devices, and related equipment’; that he ‘concealed on his person a notebook describing how to wire and detonate explosive devices’; and that he ‘knew or intended’ that his ‘material support and resources were to be used in preparation for and in carrying out a terrorist attack.'” As I also explained, “It doesn’t take much reflection on these charges to realize that it is a depressingly clear example of the US administration’s disturbing, post-9/11 redefinition of ‘war crimes,’ which apparently allows the US authorities to claim that they can equate minor acts of insurgency committed by a citizen of an occupied nation with terrorism.” Although he was charged under the Obama administration, in January 2010, no further developments took place in his case, and it seems that the administration then lost interest, as his habeas corpus petition was allowed to proceed to the US District Court in Washington D.C. Obaidullah’s case is tied in with that of Bostan Karim (ISN 975, see below), who seems to have been the subject of false allegations made by Obaidullah while he was being abused by US soldiers in Khost and Bagram. As he explained in Guantánamo, “The first time when they [US soldiers] captured me and brought me to Khost they put a knife to my throat and said if you don’t tell us the truth and you lie to us we are going to slaughter you … They tied my hands and put a heavy bag of sand on my hands and made me walk all night in the Khost airport … In Bagram they gave me more trouble and would not let me sleep. They were standing me on the wall and my hands were hanging above my head. There were a lot of things they made me say.” Despite this, Karim is still held, and, on October 19 this year, Obaidullah lost his habeas petition, when Judge Richard Leon ruled (PDF) that his account was full of evasions and inconsistencies, and that the government had established, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he had been involved with an insurgent cell — wrongly described, it seems to me, as an “al-Qaeda cell” — planning IED attacks on US forces, and had driven some of his colleagues to a hospital after they had been injured in an accidental explosion. As when he was charged in a Military Commission, however, nothing about this story indicates to me that, as an Afghan fighting an insurgency in his own country, he was any kind of terrorist.

ISN 766 Khadr, Omar (Canada)
The most famous child prisoner in Guantánamo (out of at least 22 juveniles held at the prison throughout its history), Khadr, a Canadian citizen, was seized after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, when he was just 15 years old, and, although severely wounded, was interrogated as soon as he left the hospital at Bagram airbase, and was then threatened with rape and subjected to abuse. He arrived at Guantánamo in October 2002, just after his 16th birthday, where he was also subjected to abuse, through a variety of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” introduced at the time — including prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, and short-shackling for long periods in painful positions, which typically lasted until prisoners were obliged to urinate or defecate on themselves. On one such occasion, he reported that the guards used him as a mop to clean up his own urine. Despite the obligations of both the US and Canadian governments to rehabilitate rather than punish juvenile prisoners, under the terms of the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, the US authorities never treated Khadr with appropriate care, and, in 2006, put him forward for a trial by Military Commission, and the Canadians, ignoring their obligations, sent agents to interrogate him in 2003, and never sought his return to Canada, despite court rulings confirming that his rights had been violated. After the Commissions were ruled illegal by the US Supreme Court in June 2006, and were revived that fall by Congress, Khadr was charged again in 2007, and was charged again in November 2009, after the Obama administration revived the Commissions. In October 2010, he was persuaded to accept a plea deal, giving him an eight-year sentence (one more year in Guantánamo, followed by seven in Canada) in exchange for admitting that he had thrown a grenade on the day of his capture that killed a US soldier (a charge he had previously denied) and also, outrageously, accepting that he was an “alien unprivileged enemy belligerent,” who had no right to be in a combat situation at all. After a week of hearings, a military jury delivered its own verdict, giving him a 40-year sentence. This was irrelevant because of the plea deal, but it helped the Obama administration look tough on terrorism, even though the proceedings were a disgrace, as the US was alone in thinking it appropriate to try a former child prisoner for war crimes which are not recognized by the rest of the world, and which were, instead, dreamt up by Congress in 2006, and maintained under President Obama last year.

ISN 782 Gul, Awal (Afghanistan)
A former mujahideen commander against the Soviet Union, and a former military commander for the Afghan warlord Younis Khalis (who had ties with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda), Gul was at one point suspected of providing assistance to Osama bin Laden during his escape from Tora Bora in December 2001 (after a showdown between al-Qaeda and US forces), although it is not known where this allegation came from, and it was denied by Gul himself. In his tribunal at Guantánamo, he explained that, after the Taliban took over Jalalabad in 1996, he had worked for them, but had tried to resign on several occasions in the years before the US-led invasion, because he was “unhappy” with their policies. After the US-led invasion, he said, he had begun working with the pro-US warlord Hazrat Ali, one of three Afghan commanders who had fought at Tora Bora on the Americans’ behalf. He said that, on Ali’s advice, he handed himself in to Northern Alliance commanders in Kabul in February 2002, in an attempt to quell rumors about his involvement with the Taliban, but was then handed over to the Americans. From this, it is unclear why he is being held, but what was remarkable about his tribunal was that the Tribunal President failed to recognize Mullah Omar’s name. When Gul stated that he had tried to resign from the Taliban, but that this was something that only Mullah Omar could approve, the Tribunal President asked him, “What was his position?” and Gul was obliged to attempt to explain Omar’s role in the Taliban. “He was just like the King of Afghanistan,” he said, “all of the military was under him.”

ISN 832 Omari, Mohammed Nabi (Afghanistan)
At Guantánamo, Omari refuted allegations that he was involved with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (the militia of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an anti-US warlord who, ironically, had received the lion’s share of US funding as a mujahideen leader favored by Pakistani intelligence during the Soviet occupation). According to the US authorities, he was a Taliban official in Kabul (first as the chief of communications, and then as chief of the border department), and was then “identified as an operative and a sub-commander in a group called the Union of Mujahedin,” which was “supported, guided and funded by al-Qaeda,” and involved the discussion of “operations designed to discredit and undermine the Afghan transitional administration.” It was also alleged that, in meetings with HIG officials, Taliban officials and al-Qaeda members, he was involved in planning attacks in the Khost region on US and coalition forces. In response, Omari told a rambling and incoherent story about working in an office for an American called Mark. He admitted that he had worked for the Taliban and had been “in charge of the border,” but insisted that “that was before the Americans came to Afghanistan.” He also indicated that he had only ended up in Guantánamo because someone had told lies about him to US forces, “There are lots of good people and bad people that are in Khost,” he said. “You asked all of the bad people and did not ask any of the good people in Khost about me.”

ISN 899 Khan, Shawali (Afghanistan)
As I explained in a recent profile of Khan, who lost his habeas petition in September, he was seized on November 13, 2002, while riding his motorcycle from his home in Kandahar to the market, by Afghans working for Gul Agha Sherzai, the US-backed governor of Kandahar, who had assisted US forces in seizing Kandahar from the Taliban in November 2001, but had then established a regime that was noted for its corruption. Described by one of his lawyers, Len Goodman, as “a small man with sad eyes … who comes from a small farming village near Kandahar, Afghanistan,” and is now in his mid-40s, Khan had moved with his father and brother to Kandahar City after a drought afflicted their farm in 2000, and had opened a shop selling petrol products. When US forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, he continued to run his oil shop and even worked, for a short time, for the Karzai government as a driver, but after his capture one or more unidentified Afghan informants told US intelligence officials that he was “an active member of a local insurgent group [Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin] that was plotting to bomb Americans in and around the Kandahar region.” Even though his defense team “had nine affidavits from his rural village and from Kandahar where he drove for the Karzai government before he supposedly started an HIG cell in an area hundreds of miles from any HIG cells,” the judge in his case — Judge John D. Bates — preferred to rely on classified documents provided by the Justice Department than on the copious evidence demonstrating his innocence, and Khan must now appeal if he is to have any chance of being released from Guantánamo.

ISN 928 Gul, Khi Ali (Afghanistan)
At Guantánamo, as I explained in The Guantánamo Files, Khi Ali Gul, who was captured in Khost and accused of taking part in a bomb plot and being part of a Taliban assassination team, said that he fought with US forces in Tora Bora, and described one occasion when “the Americans were sleeping and we were guarding them.” He added, “If I were their enemy, I would have killed them all.” He was captured at a checkpoint, where, he said, “there were some people that I had a dispute with,” and he added that they “told the American soldiers a lie,” and he was then arrested.

ISN 934 Ghani, Abdul (Afghanistan)
Ghani was the 23rd prisoner put forward for a trial by Military Commission (after the Commissions were revived by Congress in the fall of 2006), and was charged on July 28, 2008 with conspiracy, providing material support for terrorism, and attempted murder in violation of the rules of war. It was alleged that he had “fired rockets at US forces and bases,” had transported and helped plant “land mines and other explosive devices on more than one occasion for use against US and coalition forces,” had “participated in an attack on Afghan soldiers with small arms fire, in which one Afghan soldier was wounded,” and had “accepted monetary payments, including payment from al-Qaeda and others known and unknown, to commit attacks on US forces and bases.” As I explained after he was charged, “Apart from the inclusion of the magic words ‘al-Qaeda,’ there was nothing in Abdul Ghani’s charge sheet to indicate that he should find himself in the same trial system as those accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, the African embassy bombings of 1998 or the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, or even, in fact, that he should have been sent to Guantánamo at all. Perhaps, if his case goes to trial, more will be revealed about this alleged al-Qaeda connection (which Ghani denied in his tribunal at Guantánamo), but in the meantime he joins an ever-growing list of, at best, minor Afghan insurgents … who would never, at any other time in American history, have found themselves on trial as terrorists, having already endured four to five years of almost total isolation in an experimental prison half a world away from home.” In December 2008, the charges against him were dropped, and he has not been charged again under President Obama.

ISN 975 Karim, Bostan (Afghanistan)
Karim’s story is intimately tied to that of Obaidullah (see above). A preacher and a shopkeeper, he was seized on a bus that traveled regularly between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was reportedly “apprehended because he matched the description of an al-Qaeda bomb cell leader and had a [satellite] phone.” In a demonstration of the thinness of so many of the allegations that make up the “evidence” in Guantánamo, it was also alleged that he was “possibly identified as an al-Qaeda associate, planning landmine attacks in Khost,” and was “possibly identified as a person likely to have communicated with Arab al-Qaeda members operating in Peshawar, Afghanistan [sic], and working directly for Arab al-Qaeda in the Khost province.” However, Karim maintained that the allegations had been made by Obaidullah, who tried to clear his name, explaining in Guantánamo that, although he was a partner in Karim’s shop, and had fallen out with him in a dispute over money, he only made false allegations against him because of the abuse to which he was subjected by US soldiers in Khost and Bagram.

ISN 1008 Sohail, Mohammed Mustafa (Afghanistan)
21 years old at the time of his capture, Sohail was working as a translator and a clerk for DynCorp, an American private contractor in Kabul, and accused Gul Chaman (who was also held at Guantánamo, but was released in December 2007) of stealing a computer from the Americans. Sohail himself was accused of handing information from the computer, regarding Hamid Karzai’s Security Detail, to a member of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, but he denied the allegations, and, in Guantánamo, he explained that he accused Chaman and made up false confessions after being interrogated for 68 hours in Kabul, when an interrogator “tortured and threatened me with a gun to my mouth, to try to make me say something.”

ISN 1045 Kamin, Mohammed (Afghanistan)
Kamin is one of 30 prisoners originally put forward for trials by Military Commission under President Bush, even though, like the other Afghans charged, the decision was almost incomprehensible. As I explained after his arraignment in May 2008, he was “accused of ‘providing material support for terrorism,’ specifically by receiving training at ‘an al-Qaeda training camp,’ conducting surveillance on US and coalition military bases and activities, planting two mines under a bridge, and launching missiles at the city of Khost while it was occupied by US and coalition forces. He was not charged with harming, let alone killing US forces, and were it not for his supposed al-Qaeda connection — he apparently stated in interrogation that he was ‘recruited by an al-Qaeda cell leader’ — it would, I think, be impossible to make the case that he was involved in ‘terrorism’ at all.” At his arraignment, after he refused to leave his cell and was dragged to the courtroom by guards, he refused to be represented by a US military lawyer, called the charges against him “a lie and a forgery,” and added that he had no connection with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and that he “did not recognize the court’s legitimacy and would not attend future hearings.” In a brief statement, he said, “My judge is the god that has created the sky and the land. He will be my lawyer and represent me. I wait for his decision. That’s enough.” On October 23, 2008, as I explained in a follow-up article, a pre-trial hearing took place, although Kamin was not present. Judy Rabinovitz of the ACLU noted, “The officer who had been responsible for bringing him to court said that when she went to Kamin’s cell to notify him of the hearing, he ripped up the notice, began kicking and hitting the cell door and stated that he was innocent and it was President Bush who should be on trial.” She added that a prosecution motion “to compel Kamin’s presence by ‘forcibly extracting’ him from his cell was denied after defense lawyers objected on the grounds that it would put Kamin and others at risk,” although it was clear that the motion was denied in particular because the judge did not want a repeat of May’s proceedings. In December 2009, the Commissions’ Convening Authority, Susan Crawford, dismissed the charges against Kamin “without prejudice,” meaning that they could be filed again, although, to date, the Obama administration has not done so.

ISN 1103 Zahir, Mohommod (Afghanistan)
Zahir, who was 48 years old at the time of his capture in July 2003, and said that he was sold for just $100, stated in Guantánamo that he taught maths and languages at a secular school in Ghazni set up by the Karzai government, but received threatening night letters from Taliban sympathizers, who arranged for his arrest by telling lies to the US forces. In contrast, however, the US authorities decided that it was significant that he had been employed by the Taliban in the Secret Information Office in Ghazni, and claimed that he “possessed information associated with weapons caches, arms dealings and Taliban personalities.”

ISN 1119 Hamidullah, Haji (Afghanistan)
The son of a Mullah and someone who evidently had some kind of political influence, Hamidullah was accused of having ties to Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, but he explained that he had only been a member of the group 15 years before, during the Russian occupation. He added that, when the Taliban came to power, he cut all ties to the group, but was then imprisoned by the Taliban, for at least a year and a half, until he escaped and went to Pakistan, where he stayed until the US-led invasion. “I was happy to go home when I learned the US was there,” he said. Although he was also accused of controlling a cache of weapons and of leading “a group of 30 men who conspired to attack coalition forces in the vicinity of Kabul,” it appeared that he had been seized by US forces because he had agitated for the return of former King Zahir Shah (who was living in exile in Italy) and had run up against an opponent in the Northern Alliance (the head of the Secret Police in Kabul), who arranged for his capture by Americans. As he explained in his review, “Be careful with Afghani people and their personal disputes. We badly need you, and want you in Afghanistan until we stand on our own feet.” Or, as he also explained, when discussing why he ignored the advice of a friend who warned him to stay away from Kabul because his personal enemy had arranged for him to be taken to Guantánamo, “I heard that American laws and courts want evidence, and follow someone a long time before they arrest them; they will not just arrest people on the street. If I knew what I know now, I would’ve run again from Kabul or Afghanistan to somewhere else. The majority of Afghanistan is happy you are there. It’s OK, and I’m smart enough to understand, but be careful of doing wrong things and not considering evidence seriously, because people will get upset with you and not support you.”

ISN 3148 Al Afghani, Haroon (Afghanistan)
(Note: His ISN number is from Bagram, but he was not given a new number in Guantánamo).
Al-Afghani is one of five prisoners who arrived in Guantánamo between March 2007 and March 2008, none of whom were subjected to a Combatant Status Review Tribunal to ascertain whether they were correctly designated as “enemy combatants.” As a result, little is known of al-Afghani beyond the statements made by the Pentagon on his arrival at Guantánamo in June 2007, when he was described as a “dangerous terror suspect,” who was “known to be associated with high-level militants in Afghanistan,” and had apparently “admitted to serving as a courier for al-Qaeda Senior Leadership (AQSL).” The Pentagon also reported that there was “significant information available” that he was a senior commander of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and claimed that he “commanded multiple HIG terrorist cells that conducted improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in Nangarhar Province” (centered on Jalalabad) and was ”assessed to have had regular contact with senior AQ [al-Qaeda] and HIG leadership.”

ISN 10028 Inayatullah (Afghanistan)
Also described as “a dangerous terror suspect,” Inayatullah arrived at Guantánamo in September 2007. Captured, according to the Pentagon, “as a result of ongoing DoD operations in the struggle against violent extremists in Afghanistan,” it was claimed that he had “admitted that he was the al-Qaeda Emir of Zahedan, Iran, and planned and directed al-Qaeda terrorist operations,” and that he “collaborated with numerous al-Qaeda senior leaders, to include Abu Ubaydah al-Masri and Azzam, executing their instructions and personally supporting global terrorist efforts.” (Al-Masri and Azzam were not identified by the Pentagon but the former is apparently an Egyptian-born al-Qaeda commander in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, and the latter is probably the American Adam Gadahn, known as Azzam the American, who produced al-Qaeda propaganda with Ayman al-Zawahiri). In further unwieldy prose, the Pentagon noted, “Inayatullah attests to facilitating the movement of foreign fighters, significantly contributing to trans-national terrorism across multiple borders,” claiming that he “met with local operatives, developed travel routes and coordinated documentation, accommodation and vehicles for smuggling unlawful combatants throughout countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq.” In October 2010, Cageprisoners explained that Inayatullah’s full name is Inayatullah Nassim, that he is married with six children, and that before his capture he ran a telephone shop in Zahedan. Cageprisoners also reported that he was concerned about the whereabouts of his brother Hidayatullah, who was apparently seized in Quetta, Pakistan some years ago, and transferred to Bagram.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners. Cross-posted on Uruknet.

On Guantánamo, Obama Hits Rock Bottom

On national security issues, there are now two Americas. In the first, which existed from January to May 2009, the rule of law flickered briefly back to life after eight years of the Bush administration.

In this first America, President Obama swept into office issuing executive orders promising to close Guantánamo and to uphold the absolute ban on torture, and also suspended the much-criticized system of trials by Military Commission used by the Bush administration to secure just three contentious convictions in seven years.

In addition, in April 2009 he complied with a court order to release four “torture memos” issued in 2002 and 2005 by lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which purported to redefine torture so that it could be used by the CIA (in 2002), or broadly upheld that decision (in 2005). As well as confirming the role of the courts in upholding the law, these documents contained important information for those hoping to hold senior Bush administration officials and lawyers accountable for their actions in the “War on Terror.”

The final flourish of this period was the decision to move a Guantánamo prisoner to New York to face a federal court trial, which took place in May 2009. Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian seized in Pakistan in July 2004, was held in secret CIA custody for over two years, until he was moved to Guantánamo in September 2006, with 13 other men regarded as “high-value detainees.”

Ghailani’s transfer to face justice in New York for his involvement with the 1998 African embassy bombings was important not only because it confirmed that Guantánamo prisoners could be tried in federal court, rather than by Military Commission, but also because it established a connection with the way in which justice had been pursued before the 9/11 attacks. Ghailani had been indicted for his part in the African embassy bombings in 1998, and three of his alleged co-conspirators had been successfully tried and convicted in federal court in May 2001, prior to receiving life sentences in October 2001.

Unfortunately, in the second America, which emerged on the same day as Ghailani’s transfer, the rule of law has, for the most part, given way to political expediency and the blatant obstruction of justice, which have served only to reinforce the hideous novelties introduced by the Bush administration in its “War on Terror,” and to prevent any attempt to secure accountability for those responsible for the administration’s crimes.

This second America began with a major speech on national security in which the gains made by moving Ghailani to New York were offset by a decision to revive the Military Commissions, and also to hold some prisoners in Guantánamo indefinitely without charge or trial, shattering the notion, prevalent until that date, that prisoners would either be released or charged in federal court.

This announcement came just five days after Obama changed his mind about complying with another court order — this one involving the release of photos showing the abuse of prisoners in US custody in Afghanistan and Iraq — and although this decision was, perhaps, justified on the basis that it would inflame anti-American sentiment in both countries, it was later revealed that, around the same time, the President had also capitulated to far less justifiable criticism of a plan hatched by Greg Craig, the White House Counsel.

Craig, who had also been the driving force behind the President’s executive orders when he took office, had been close to resettling two Uighur prisoners at Guantánamo on the US mainland, in order to break a deadlock involving cleared Guantánamo prisoners who could not be repatriated because they faced the risk of torture, and also to send out a clear message to America’s allies that, in closing Guantánamo, the administration was prepared to acknowledge its own mistakes, and was hoping that other countries would therefore help out by taking other cleared prisoners who could not return home.

The Uighurs are Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province, and the 17 men in Guantánamo at that time were clearly innocent men, who had won their habeas corpus petition in a US court in October 2008, after the Bush administration gave up all pretence that they were “enemy combatants.” However, although Greg Craig had secured support for his plan from Hillary Clinton and defense secretary Robert Gates, Obama quashed it when Republicans got wind of it, leaving the Uighurs scrabbling around for a new home, and making the job of finding new homes for other cleared prisoners more difficult, especially as Republicans — and members of Obama’s own party — followed up on this successful attempt to intimidate the President by passing a law preventing him from bringing any cleared prisoner to the US mainland.

Since then, capitulation to pressure has been the name of the game. Last November, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the “high-value detainee” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four other HVDs accused of involvement with the 9/11 attacks, would, like Ghailani, face a federal court trial in New York. However, when a Republican-led backlash started, Obama caved in once more, refusing to press the advantage gained by having already moved Ghailani to New York, and freezing into inaction, taking the decision away from Holder about where and how the men would be tried, but refusing to make any decision at all.  Part of the problem was that, on the same day that Holder announced the 9/11 trial, he also announced that five prisoners would face trials by Military Commission, leaving an option open for critics of federal court trials that should have been slammed firmly shut.

By January this year, the hysteria about the proposed 9/11 trial was at its height, and Obama’s inability to fight back meant that, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, was seized after failing to blow up a plane on Christmas Day, and was discovered to have been recruited in Yemen, the President caved in again. This time around, his critics’ demands were that no Yemenis should be released from Guantánamo. Even though 59 Yemenis had been approved for transfer to Yemen by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, consisting of 60 career officials and lawyers and established by the President to review the cases of all the Guantánamo prisoners, he announced a moratorium on the release of any Yemenis, which is still in place today and shows no sign of coming to an end.

In addition, Obama has done all in his power to ensure that nothing like the release of the “torture memos” in April 2009 will ever happen again. Early this year, he allowed a Justice Department “fixer,” David Margolis, to override the damning conclusion of a four-year internal investigation into the authors of the 2002 memos — John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee — in which Margolis downgraded the report’s conclusion that both men were deliberately guilty of “professional misconduct” with a mild rebuke for having apparently only exercised “poor judgment.”

In the courts, too, Obama has erected a seemingly impenetrable wall to accountability, invoking the little-known “state secrets” doctrine to block any attempt to have Bush-era crimes discussed in court, as, for example, in the case of five men subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture, who tried to sue Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a Boeing subsidiary responsible for acting as the CIA’s torture travel agent, and expanding this abuse of “state secrets” to defend two shocking innovations of his own: a massive increase in drone killings in Pakistan, and a decision to endorse the assassination of US citizens anywhere in the world, even though both projects appear to be illegal, and have attracted severe international criticism.

In this second America, the loss of the House of Representatives to the Republicans in the mid-term elections appears to have led only to the final confirmation that, on Guantánamo and national security issues, Obama is content to do nothing for the rest of his term in office.

This is in spite of significant developments in the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, which has been taking place in a federal court New York for the last month. Ghailani’s trial has demonstrated that the traditional manner of trying terrorist suspects is fully functional — and can operate adequately even with the exclusion of evidence obtained through torture — and a decision is expected from the jury this week.

If the trial leads to a conviction, the result should allow the administration to sweep aside all criticism and proceed with the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four alleged co-conspirators, but as the Washington Post reported on Saturday, Obama administration officials have explained that the five men “will probably remain in military detention without trial for the foreseeable future.” As the Post explained:

The administration has concluded that it cannot put Mohammed on trial in federal court because of the opposition of lawmakers in Congress and in New York. There is also little internal support for resurrecting a military prosecution at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The latter option would alienate liberal supporters.

This may change, of course, as President Obama has not made an official announcement, but it seems unlikely, as everything else at Guantánamo has ground to a halt. Faced with ferocious opposition to any plans that made it through his wall of compromise and cowardice, Obama has demonstrated that he is content to continue holding the remaining 174 prisoners at Guantánamo on the basis of the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed by Congress the week after the 9/11 attacks, even though the AUMF perpetuates the false notion that the Guantánamo prisoners are neither prisoners of war, nor criminal suspects, but are still that third category of prisoner invented by the Bush administration: “enemy combatants,” or, as they now are, “alien unprivileged enemy belligerents,” who occupy a unique, and uniquely disturbing position, which, for the majority of the men, is still akin to a legal black hole, despite the fact that they were granted habeas corpus rights by the Supreme Court in June 2008.

Consider the facts: On the trial front, even though the Task Force recommended that 34 of the remaining prisoners should face trials, the administration is currently proceeding with the trial of just one man, Noor Uthman Muhammed, in the Military Commissions (following the scandalous betrayal of justice last month in the case of the former child prisoner Omar Khadr), and in federal court, the officials who spoke to the Washington Post suggested that even a successful outcome in Ghailani’s trial would lead to nothing more than possibly a single “clean case against an unknown.”

As for the rest of the prisoners, there are 48 whom the Task Force recommended should continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial, and 58 Yemenis who are going nowhere. Excluding Omar Khadr, Ibrahim al-Qosi and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, the three remaining men convicted in trials by Military Commission, this leaves just 33 prisoners “approved for transfer,” who, if new homes can be found, might be the only prisoners to be released from Guantánamo in the next two years, confirming the extent to which the closure of the prison has become irrelevant to President Obama and the Democrats in general.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, 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, Op-Ed News, PulseUruknet and James Landrith.

As the UK Government Announces Compensation for Ex-Guantánamo Prisoners, Is the Return of Shaker Aamer Part of the Deal?

Today, the British government will announce that it will pay millions of pounds in compensation to a number of former Guantánamo prisoners, including Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Binyam Mohamed, Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil El-Banna, Richard Belmar and Martin Mubanga, who, since last year, have been involved in a civil claim for damages against the intelligence agencies and goverment ministers in the high court, claiming that they were complicit in their unlawful detention, and in some cases, their “extraordinary rendition,” and in the torture and abuse they received while in custody.

The amounts to be paid will not be disclosed, but it has already been suggested that one payout will be more than a million pounds — related, no doubt, to the most horrific of all the cases: that of Binyam Mohamed, seized in Pakistan in April 2002, who was subjected to torture for two years in Pakistan, in Morocco and in the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Kabul. In February this year, the Court of Appeal ordered the government to release documents — whose disclosure had been resisted for 18 months by foreign secretary David Miliband — demonstrating that British agents knew that their US counterparts were subjecting Mohamed to torture in Pakistan,  and, with the Metropolitan Police also investigating MI5’s role in Mohamed’s torture, and the existence of other information that has never been disclosed in court, it is understandable, frankly, that the government would seek to prevent any more dangerous disclosures in Mohamed’s case.

The announcement of the payments will no doubt cause a tsunami of outrage from the right-wing press, who will not be placated by the government’s argument that the continuation of the court case already initiated by these men, which has involved the government hiring at least 80 lawyers to examine half a million documents, would cost many times this amount (possibly as much as 50 million pounds). These critics will also, presumably, not even be swayed by the government’s national securtity argument: that. as the Guardian explained, “it is in the national interest that the cases are not brought to court so as to protect the security services methods from scrutiny.”

It is certainly true that even the limited disclosure of documents in summer, as a result of the court case, was troubling for the establishment. There was, for example, an FCO document from January 10, 2002, the day before Guantánamo opened, entitled, “Afghanistan UK Detainees,” which described the government’s “preferred options” in dealing with British prisoners. “Transfer of United Kingdom nationals held to a United States base in Guantánamo is the best way to meet our counter-terrorism objectives, to ensure they are securely held,” the document explained, adding that the “only alternative” was to either hold these men in British custody in Afghanistan, or to return them to the UK.

However, the most shocking revelations in the documents had more to do with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had personally intervened to prevent Martin Mubanga, a British citizen seized in Zambia, from having consular access, and foreign secretary Jack Straw, who, in mid-January 2002, sent a telegram to several British diplomatic missions around the world in which he “signaled his agreement” with the Guantánamo policy, “but made clear that he did not wish to see the British nationals moved from Afghanistan before they could be interrogated.” In the telegram, he wrote:

A specialist team is currently in Afghanistan seeking to interview any detainees with a UK connection to obtain information on their terrorist activities and connections. We therefore hope that all those detainees they wish to interview will remain in Afghanistan and will not be among the first groups to be transferred to Guantánamo. A week’s delay should suffice. UK nationals should be transferred as soon as possible thereafter.

Nevertheless, the fear that the security services’ activities would be opened up to unparalleled scrutiny — when added to the fear of futher disclosures about government ministers and civil servants — ought to silence the critics, as these revelations are not merely embarrassing, but also suggest involvement with war crimes, for which those found to be complicit could face prosecution. For those wishing to avoid such an outcome, the most sensible approach is the one favoured by David Cameron — proceeding with the judicial inquiry into British complicity in the torture of prisoners abroad, which he announced in July, and whose intention, clearly, is to slap a few wrists, hide any damning evidence, and declare that a line can now be drawn under the whole affair.

As I know many of the released prisoners, and have witnessed the pain — and sometimes the horrors — that still haunt them, and that may never leave them, I cannot argue with their right to be compensated, having never received a penny either from the US government or from the British government, despite the involvement of both countries in their detention without charge or trial, their rendition, and their torture and abuse.

However, what particularly concerns me, in the run-up to the government’s official announcement, is what has been decided about Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who was being ignored until some of the former prisoners — or perhaps all of them — suggested that they were not prepared to enter negotiations until his return from Guantánamo was guaranteed.

Although he was was cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2007, Shaker, who has a British wife and four British children, is still held, with both the British and the American governments blaming the other for his continued detention. The Americans claim to have “security issues,” which, if grounded in any reality at all (and this is itself doubtful), could easily be addressed by the British government, and the Americans occasionally point out, off the record, that the British could have him back easily if they were prepared to make enough of a fuss.

The shameful abandonment of Shaker Aamer is presumably because, as an intelligent, articulate and charismatic man who has been the foremost advocate of the rights of the prisoners in Guantánamo, he knows more than is comfortable about the dark workings of the prison (including the deaths of three prisoners in June 2006). However, holding onto Shaker has never been more than unjustly delaying the inevitable, and, in addition, his claims that he was abused in US custody in Afghanistan while British agents were present (which was the subject of a UK court case last year, leading to the launch of an investigation by the Metropolitan Police) means that it is unthinkable that any kind of inquiry can take place without him.

Most of all, however, the former prisoners look out for one another, and are bonded by their experience in a way that no one who has not been in Guantánamo can quite understand. Everyone who leaves the prison tells those left behind that he will do what he can for them, and while the fate of most of the remaining 174 prisoners is outside anyone’s control — even President Obama’s, either for sinister reasons, or because his critics, and supporters of Guantánamo in the US, are disturbingly infuential — the fate of Shaker Aamer is not, and I hope that today’s announcement will swiftly be followed by the arrival of a plane from Guantánamo bringing Shaker Aamer home.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Cross-posted on Common Dreams and The Public Record.

On Housing Benefit Cuts, British Public Reveals Shocking Lack of Empathy and Compassion

Such is the hostility in this country towards the poor and the unemployed — a sure sign of the distressing decline of empathy and compassion in the last 30 years — that a poll conducted by Channel 4 News this week found that 58 percent of people thought that the govermment’s proposed welfare cuts should have been more severe, or were “about right,” and 66 percent of people answered yes to the question, “Should there be a maximum limit of £400 a week on the amount of housing benefit that people can claim, even if this means people are forced to move house?”

In the last few months, as the coalition government and a disgracefully compliant mainstream media has stoked the scapegoating of the unemployed as a replacement for the “waves of immigrants” targetted by my mean-minded fellow citizens under the Labour government, the narrative that has emerged has persistently painted the unemployed as workshy scroungers, ignoring the complexity of the issues involved, and also, in particular, avoiding the uncomfortable truth that, as I keep explaining, according to the government’s own figures, there are currently 2.45 million unemployed people, and just 459,000 available jobs.

On housing benefit, the antipathy towards the unemployed has been stoked by misleading stories focusing on a handful of extreme examples of people living in luxury homes, which has been interpreted as an open invitation for journalists, newsreaders and citizens alike to openly complain, in envious terms, about how unfair it is that unemployed people are living in houses that they could not afford to live in, and to follow this up by endorsing the plans for their forcible removal, so that they can feel better about not losing out somehow.

Behind these manipulative headlines, the truth about the government’s assault on housing benefit is that — for a net result that will either not save money or, more probably, will cost £120 million extra a year — they are happy to preside over what London’s Mayor Boris Johnson correctly identified as “Kosovo-style social cleansing,” with that cap on housing benefit mentioned in the Channel 4 poll — at £400 a week — almost certainly meaning that, throughout London, for example, thousands of households in wealthy boroughs will be unable to pay their rent, and will be obliged to move to poorer boroughs, which are already struggling to cope with providing for their existing poor as the government’s swingeing cuts to council budgets also take root.

While I understand that rents of over £400 a week are expensive, what is almost entirely ignored in all the assaults on those living in these properties is that they do not pocket the money themselves, and the blame for such exorbitant rents is for a variety of the following reasons: either because their landlords are greedy, unscrupulous people who are milking the public chest as much as possible; or because of the knock-on effect of an overvalued property market (Labour’s greatest gift of greed and divisiveness to the British people); or because of the scandalous under-investment in social housing since Margaret Thatcher starting selling off council houses and prohibited councils from using any of the proceeds to build new homes (a policy that, in case anyone has forgotten, was maintained by the Labour government).

George Osborne’s answer to the problem of the shortage of social housing has, of course, been typically unpleasant. Instead of accepting that the government might think about a massive social housing programme, he has scaled back investment in new affordable homes by 30 percent, and has decided to fund new social housing by raising the rents for new social housing tenants to 80 percent of existing market rents — an unprecedented assault on affordable housing to which he added another horrible innovation: ending secure tenancies for all council house tenants.

In light of all this, it seems particularly cruel and counter-productive to force as many as 134,000 households to move to poorer areas (according to research conducted for Shelter), or, as councils in Londons have warned, 82,000 households, or 200,000 people in London alone, where, as well as putting a burden on those councils and their already strained services, they will probably find that they have relocated to ghettoes of worklessness.

In addition, of course, the plans will also lead to a greater incidence of homelessness, as other families and individuals — perhaps those who are not workshy, but have other problems that require support (mental health problems, or physical disabilities, for example) — are tipped out onto the street, obliging councils to deal with an increase in homelessness, and to spend even more money rehousing them elsewhere — in seaside towns that have been a dumping ground for the unemployed for many years, or perhaps even from the south to the north of England, where, again, the opportunities for work are minimal to non-existent.

As well as all this, another contributory factor to homelessness will almost certainly be the government’s decision to cut benefit claimants’ housing benefit by 10 percent if they are unemployed for a year. Given the unemployment and job figures cited above, and the government’s avowed intention to add another 1.3 million to the ranks of the unemployed, this is another witlessly cruel plan, as those unable to draw on savings will also end up on the streets, where they too will join the queue of unemployed people being forced onto a coach and relocated to Hastings or Hartlepool.

A final unpleasant change is an amendment to the existing “single room rate,” which currently applies to the under-25s, providing them with housing benefit only if they live in shared housing. The government has now raised the age to 35, which prompted Jim Jepps of Liberal Conspiracy to state, “So if you’re currently working for the public sector and living in a small flat a redundancy notice will mean you’re out on the street as well as out of work.”

In contrast to all this misery, the government has the nerve to claim that private rents will drop when the cap is introduced, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that private landlords have ever done so willingly, or are likely to do so now.

All of this adds up to a horrendously ill-conceived policy, which, sadly, has already overcome a hurdle erected in the House of Commons by Labour MP Douglas Alexander, who proposed a motion stating that, “whilst housing benefit is in need of reform, the Government’s proposals will mean significant losses for hundreds of thousands of working families and pensioners and risk spending an additional £120 million on the cost of providing temporary accommodation.”

Alexander’s  motion, which was defeated along party lines this week, with the Liberal Democrats voting en masse with their Tory colleagues to reject it, also called on the government “to bring forward revised proposals for the reform of housing benefit which do not penalise those who have been unable to secure employment within 12 months, and which ensure that any proposals are implemented on a revised timetable which allows councils, tenants and landlords to adjust, allows the impact on rents to be observed and understood, and avoids additional spending on temporary accommodation.”

Too little, too late may well be the verdict on that Labour challenge, which was defeated by 61 votes, but it leaves me wondering who can challenge these dreadful policies, in an attempt to ensure that hundreds of thousands of people do not suffer unnecessary hardship before — some years from now, perhaps — there is either an awakening of compassion or, more bleakly, a point is reached where the coalition government can brag that it has succeeded in its malignant attempt to remove the safety net that a caring society provides for the poor and the vulnerable.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, 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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