Lawyer Laments the Death of Habeas Corpus for the Guantánamo Prisoners

12.12.11

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled, “As Judges Kill Off Habeas Corpus for the Guantánamo Prisoners, Will the Supreme Court Act?” in which I covered the latest grim news from the US courts regarding the Guantánamo prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions (see “Guantánamo Habeas Results: The Definitive List” for more).

As I explained in that article, and in a series of articles over the last year and a half, the promise that habeas corpus held for the prisoners in June 2008, when the Supreme Court granted them constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights, in Boumediene v. Bush, has, since July 2010, been killed off by judges in the D.C. Circuit Court, led by Senior Judge A. Raymond Randolph, a right-wing ideologue notorious for endorsing every piece of legislation relating to the Guantánamo prisoners that, under George W. Bush, was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court.

The case that first shut down habeas corpus was Adahi v. Obama, involving a Yemeni, Mohammed al-Adahi, whose habeas corpus petition was granted in August 2009, on the correct basis that, although al-Adahi had accompanied his sister to Afghanistan for her marriage to a man with purported connections to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, he himself had no connection to either group, and was just a chaperone.

For Judge Randolph, however, ideology is more important than facts, when it comes to the Guantánamo prisoners, and, as a result, he granted the government’s appeal in Adahi, and, essentially, ordered the lower court judges to give more credence to the government’s claims than they had been doing. As a result, every habeas petition since July 2010 has been denied, and other successful petitions have been either reversed like Adahi (three in total) or vacated, and sent back to the lower court to reconsider (two in total).

The latest monstrous ruling delivered by Circuit Court judges (Judge Janice Rogers Brown and Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, who share Judge Randolph’s ideological bent) came in October in the case of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a Yemeni, with undisputed mental health problems, and a viable explanation for being in Afghanistan for medical reasons, who was the last prisoner to have his habeas petition granted before Judge Randolph’s new rules in Adahi took effect.

The ruling in Latif was not made available until last month, and, disturbingly, the judges took their endorsement of the government’s position one step further, declaring that the habeas judges must now regard the government’s own intelligence reports as reliable. This not only appalled the dissenting judge, David Tatel, but also appalled lawyers for the prisoners, who have long been aware of the unreliability of the intelligence reports relating to the prisoners. Anyone doubting this is directed to my ongoing series, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” in which I analyze the chronic and repeated failures of intelligence revealed in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks last April.

In the hope of keeping this story alive, I’m cross-posting below a response to the dreadful ruling in Latif that was written by Sabin Willett, the attorney for Uighur prisoners in Guantánamo, who eloquently explained why Latif is such a disaster for anyone who believes in justice.

Please note that his reference to Kiyemba is a reference to a case involving the Uighurs (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province, who won their habeas petitions in October 2008, but cannot be safely repatriated), and Parhat refers to the first Uighur victory in June 2008. Lawyers (Willett included) fought a long battle to allow these men to be rehoused in the US (as their judge intended) and also to prevent the government from claiming the right to dispose of them as it sees fit (even if the prisoners themselves do not agree), but lost in the Circuit Court, and also in the Supreme Court, where, after Latif, the prisoners’ cases may once more be headed — even though, alarmingly, the court as a whole is now more biased in favor of government overreach than it was under George W. Bush. For Bismullah (the case of an Afghan released in January 2009), see here.

Sabin Willett on Latif

It is not hyperventilation to say, as so many have said, that Latif guts Boumediene, because — trust me — every prisoner has an intelligence report. Now the prisoner hasn’t just lost his judicial remedy to Kiyemba; if those reports control, factfinding is over, too.

But Latif, and before it Adahi, are not just law-of-war cases. They may raise the eyebrow of civil procedure sachems as well.

Because despite the gnashing of teeth over Boumediene’s failure to issue a manual, the Guantanamo habeas cases have mainly been about facts. Wedding guest or soldier? By the time review finally got on its legs in 2008, the President had had years to winnow away the silly and outrageous detentions (and Congress hadn’t yet taken up the blood sport of preventing him from doing so). Logically, we would have expected the government to have good facts in cases that remained, and to win most of them.

Something like that was happening in the district court, but then something else quite illogical began happening. On appeal, the government began to run the table. No habeas win could survive.

The district court was finding facts from old, cold and unreliable records, and so uniform results would have been a little surprising, but still possible, given the trial court’s broad factfinding discretion. You’d expect regular affirmance on appeal of both wins and losses, because in civil practice, the trial court‘s fact-finding is rarely disturbed. So where district court results are non-uniform, it is surprising — one might even say, conditionally improbable — that appellate results should make them so.

What’s going on here? The circuit is making up a new standard of appellate review.

Take Adahi. To a first approximation, Adahi is an “Oh, come on!” case: al-Farouq, bin Laden at Sister’s wedding, shady characters on the bus, the Casio insignia — come on! But Judge Kessler wasn’t asking whether Adahi had thuggy associates. She was after the legally-relevant nut: has the government shown he is an enemy soldier? If General Petraeus attends my sister’s wedding, am I therefore a soldier?  Suppose I go to Quantico and after ten days, they throw me out. Am I a Marine? (In doing this work I met a number of Marines. Each — I am quite sure of this — would declare ten days insufficient to make a Marine of me.)

As a matter of appellate procedure, the problem was this: Adahi testified. Judge Kessler found that testimony credible (leaving Farouq, denying he trained troops there). Adahi’s entire testimony is, “I wasn’t a soldier.” So if we have witness testimony the court deems credible, and it refutes enemy status, how does the circuit flip the judgment on appeal?

By not believing him, and crediting other evidence. That used to be for the trial court — remember?

My guess is that Judge Randolph saw the appellate review problem, for in addition to his famous innovation, he noted Judge Kessler’s failure to make an express credibility determination. Well, okay. But she did find facts for which the only record evidence was Adahi’s testimony, so she must have found him credible. If we’re not sure about that, why not remand for clarification?

Latif presents none of these distractions. Even the government agrees that the circumstantial evidence is down to one document, on which everything turns.

I tried Parhat. He had an intelligence report too. We picked it apart, as I’m sure Latif’s lawyers must have done with their report, and as Judge Garland did in the classified Parhat opinion. No one could make a straight-faced argument for a presumption after that was done. You have to — I can’t say this any other way, because Parhat’s documents remain classified — but you have to see an “intelligence report” to appreciate just how surreal the proposition is.

The trial lawyer would think this way: if this tissue of hearsay, speculation, and gossip comes in as evidence at all, the trial court must at least be allowed to weigh it. But when the circuit lays the thumb of presumption on the scale, there’s no more judicial review — not even in the court of appeals. “Review” is in the anonymous DoD analyst who wrote the report.

Review was Judge Kennedy’s job, and he did his job. Whether we agree or disagree with his weighing, the scale had always been his before. This idea, I think, lies at the bottom of Judge Tatel’s thoughtful dissent. Can the jailer’s report trump the judicial officer, in civil cases that are supposed to be a check on the jailer itself? There’s not much evidence that anybody up at SCOTUS cares about the GTMO prisoners any more (whose imprisonments now treble WW2 detentions), but there may still be four of them who worry about trial judges.

Latif should worry the Law Faithful, too. If my client were stuck with this presumption, the first thing I’d bawl for is discovery of every scrivener, interpreter, interrogator — every scrap, jot and tittle behind the document. Last time we did that, in Bismullah, CIA averred the republic would be shaken to its knees.

*  *  *

Pause a moment. A man sits in government prison for ten years and counting, on the strength of a secret document created by the jailer, in haste, from hearsay, which didn’t persuade an experienced trial judge. Does that sound like the stuff of regimes we are prone to condemn?

Even Odysseus headed for home after ten years.

The other evening I saw an old friend whose client was, in 2001, an enemy belligerent under any definition. He was released from Guantanamo many years ago. He has a job, a family, a peaceful outlook on life; he’s grown up. Why is he out, and Latif in? Because he hails from the west. After ten years, it’s not about security any more. It’s all about politics: the politics of the 2012 elections, the politics of where you’re from.

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Bennett Hall wrote:

    what ever happened to ‘our Obama’ or was he always just a mirage?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Iffit Qureshi wrote:

    Obama was a pipe dream. The stuff fluffy clouds and pink elephants are made of.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Bennett and Iffit and everyone who has shared this. With habeas the biggest problems are the Justice Department, the Circuit Court and the Supreme Court. I’ve always been appalled that Eric Holder made no attempt to change the way in which lawyers dealt with the habeas petitions, and the Supreme Court’s refusal to deal with Judge Randolph and the other right-wingers in the Circuit Court just shows how the judicial heart of that court has been lost since Justice Stevens retired. It’s bad news all round, with every branch of the government having failed abysmally to deal with the toxic legacy of Guantanamo.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Bennett Hall wrote:

    Justice Breyer remains solid. I scratch my head on Holder re: many aspects of the DOJ actions (eg not charging Citi/Goldman, the light charges on Wachovia’s $450B in drug laundering, the aggressive move on pot in CA and Gibson Guitars, and how the constitution can reconcile ‘cruel and unusual’ with the prison complex) However, as they are a client of mine there is only such I can say, but when I can, I do. So much today make so little sense to me.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Bennett. Interesting round-up of DoJ failures, which just makes me reflect on how politicized so much of what passes for justice is. And as for the Supreme Court, you’re right, of course. There are still good judges there, just not enough of them, at least on “national security” issues.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Bennett Hall wrote:

    I had the opportunity to spend time with him touring a project we did for the local District in SF – he is passionate about justice and the law, and local history which is the work we do with the Courts – smart as they come. Of course they rule on matters and do not create the cases themselves, so if Citi’s CEO is not charged, then the matter will never arrive in the District Court in the first place. 60 minutes recent focus on that was brilliant, the spotlight on the US Attorney re: Citi another – I do understand the system however, and they go through a process of Grand Jury’s that then later lead to the trials and this takes time. Who knows… unlike local courts, once that Jury rules, it would be pretty much curtains for Citi if such an action were taken using that example.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Fascinating. Thanks, Bennett.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Bennett Hall wrote:

    I was given a 411 on how the system works by a top Federal Judge – it was indeed fascinating, and quite different than how local courts typically works – worth studying IMO if you have the time.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    It sounds very interesting, and useful for comprehending how the system works — or doesn’t work.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Bennett Hall wrote:

    for example, I am studying how the local building dept could be compelled through emergency legislation to cite for code violations all the Bank REO’s, fine them at 3x rate if they fail to abate, and as necessary seize the property like they would a drug house after a certain period of time. I often think #occupy is not leveraging the laws on the books presently to affect change – and if ever there was a time to think outside the box, this is it.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s very interesting, Bennett, and I guess #occupy needs people with inside knowledge to point out existing legislative possibilities that may not be obvious to laypeople. Insider dissidents!

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Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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