So it’s official, then. Eleven and a half years after the “war on terror” prison opened at Guantánamo, the maximum number of prisoners that the US military intends to prosecute, or has already prosecuted, is 20 — or just 2.5 percent of the 779 men held at the prison since it opened in January 2002.
The news was announced on Monday June 10 by Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo, and it is a humiliating climbdown for the authorities.
When President Obama appointed an inter-agency task force to review the cases of the remaining Guantánamo prisoners, which issued its report in January 2010, the task force recommended that 36 of the remaining prisoners should be tried.
Just five of the 36 have since been to trial — one in the US, and four through plea deals in their military commissions at Guantánamo. Another man — Ali Hamza al-Bahlul — had already been tried and convicted, in the dying days of George W. Bush’s second term, and two others had been sent home after their trials — David Hicks after a plea deal in March 2007, and Salim Hamdan after a trial in July 2008 — making a total of 39 prosecutions, or intended prosecutions, after eleven and a half years of the prison’s existence. That was just 5 percent of the men held throughout Guantánamo’s history, but now that figure, which was, in itself, an extremely poor reflection on the efficacy of the prison and its relationship to any acceptable notions of justice, has been halved.
As Reuters described it, Brig. Gen. Martins explained that the number set by the task force was “ambitious” in light of two rulings last October and in January this year by judges in the court of appeals in Washington D.C.
The first ruling, which I covered in my article, “Conservative Judges Demolish the False Legitimacy of Guantánamo’s Terror Trials,” involved Salim Hamdan, one of several drivers for Osama bin Laden, who took the job because he needed work, and who received a five and a half year sentence for providing material support for terrorism.
As the judges stated, “When Hamdan committed the conduct in question, the international law of war proscribed a variety of war crimes, including forms of terrorism. At that time, however, the international law of war did not proscribe material support for terrorism as a war crime.”
Hamdan’s judge included time served since he was first charged when sentencing him, so he was freed just five months later, but in January this year another ruling by the appeal court further undermined the commissions.
This second ruling involved Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a Yemeni who is still held, and who had made a promotional video for al-Qaeda. As noted above, al-Bahlul received a life sentence in November 2008, after a brief and one-sided trial in which he refused to mount a defense. He was convicted for providing material support for terrorism, conspiracy, and another charge, solicitation, but when the Court of Appeals vacated his conviction, the judges cited a supplemental brief filed by the government, advising the Court that it took the “position that Hamdan requires reversal of Bahlul’s convictions by military commission.”
That second ruling is currently on appeal with the Supreme Court, and while it is uncertain why the government appealed, having previously backed down, the Hamdan decision alone has led to what Reuters described as the “drastic scaling back of the Guantánamo prosecutions” announced by Brig. Gen. Martins.
As Reuters also described it, Brig. Gen. Martins said that the Hamdan ruling “dissuaded prosecutors from pursuing cases against other prisoners they had considered charging with providing material support to al-Qaeda.”
Brig. Gen. Martins also made it clear that the total of 20 men includes the seven men who have been tried or have reached plea deals in their military commissions, and six others facing pre-trial hearings this week and next. It also seems to include Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the only man to be transferred to the US mainland to face a trial, before Congress imposed restrictions preventing it, who was tried and convicted and received a life sentence in January 2011 for his role in the 1998 African Embassy bombings.
However, with the convictions of Salim Hamdan and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul overturned, even that figure of 20 looks optimistic, casting doubts on how secure the plea deals are in the cases of all the other men except Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani (who, just to reiterate, was the only one successfully prosecuted in a federal court) — David Hicks and Ibrahim al-Qosi (both freed), Omar Khadr (repatriated to further imprisonment in Canada), and Noor Uthman Muhammed and Majid Khan, who are both still held.
Furthermore, whilst the six men facing pre-trial hearings are known — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others accused of involvement with the 9/11 attacks, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused of involvement with the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 — it is by no means certain that a case can be made against six others.
One already charged is Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi accused of plotting terrorist attacks, who was seized in Azerbaijan and tortured in CIA “black sites” before being sent to Guantánamo, and another, as Brig. Gen. Martins explained on Monday, is Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, one of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo, in 2007.
According to the Pentagon’s press release, al-Hadi was “a senior member of al-Qaeda,” who “conspired with and led others in a series of perfidious attacks and related offenses in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2004.” The DoD also explained:
“Perfidy” is an offense triable by military commission in which those who are the targets of attack are killed, injured, or captured after the attackers have “invit[ed] the confidence or belief … that [the attackers] were entitled to … protection under the laws of war.”
Whether “perfidy” survives as a viable charge remains to be seen, although it is likely that it will take many years before any trial begins.
As for the others to be charged, Reuters noted that Brig. Gen. Martins “did not identify the handful of other prisoners he still wanted to charge but said he would concentrate on those linked to the most serious crimes.”
The Hamdan ruling ought to make sure that the various insignificant prisoners charged over the years — including a number of Afghans — are no longer charged, and it ought to increase the pressure on the Obama administration to make sure that these men receive reviews of their cases to explain why they should still be held.
These reviews are also needed for the 46 men who were designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial by President Obama, in an executive order in March 2011, following the recommendations made by his task force, who concluded that they were too dangerous to release, but that the information used to decide this could not be used in a trial. At the time, the President promised periodic reviews of these men’s cases, but those reviews have not yet materialized.
That means, of course, that the supposed evidence is fundamentally untrustworthy, produced through the use of torture or other forms of coercion, or consisting of intelligence reports regarded by the authorities as accurate, even though they may not be reliable at all. As this is a problem that permeates the Guantánamo prisoners’ cases like the poison it is, it is hard to see how Brig. Gen. Martins has located four other men to be tried, but there are 15 “high-value detainees” in Guantánamo, and while six of them are in pre-trial hearings, one has just been charged, one reached a plea deal last year, and one was convicted in New York, that does leave six to choose from.
The question, therefore, might be: whose torture is so severe that no trial is possible under any circumstances? I think that one answer is Abu Zubaydah, the guinea pig for the Bush administration’s entire “high-value detainee program” of “black sites” and torture, who was never part of al-Qaeda, as the Bush administration initially alleged, and whose health is so ruined by his torture that he regularly has seizures.
Then again, the authorities are not renowned for being able to ascertain the significance — or the lack of it — of the prisoners in their custody at Guantánamo, so it may be that even Abu Zubaydah will one day be wheeled out to face the shambolic proceedings that pass for trials at Guantánamo.
In the meantime, though, as 86 cleared prisoners at Guantánamo await release, I think it is important that, of the 80 other men still held, 65 others — the 46 designated for indefinite detention, plus 19 others recommended for trials, but who will not be tried, according to Brig. Gen. Martins — deserve to be told why they too should continue to be held.
Note: This article was written before the release, through FOIA legislation, of the full list of the Guantánamo Review Task Force’s decisions regarding who should be released, who should be held indefinitely, and who should be put forward for trials, in which Abu Zubaydah was indeed one of the 36 prisoners recommended for trials. This list was released on Monday June 17, and I will be covering it imminently.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here – or here for the US).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.
It’s your latenight support message. As you continue with your work, keep in mind your own overall health as well.
Thank you, Tom. I will try to follow your advice. This has been a busy week, as I needed to respond to Obama’s appointment of Cliff Sloan as an envoy for Guantanamo, and also to begin analyzing the fascinating contents of the first public release of the Guantanamo Review Task Force’s decisions, made in its report in January 2010, regarding the disposition of the prisoners – whether to free them, try them or continue holding them. Last night, I cleared the cobwebs by going an a long night-time ride down to the river in Bermondsey via Deptford and New Cross, following it round to Vauxhall and then making my way back home through Brixton and Camberwell.
That’s horrible-all those people who will be there for the rest of their lives when many, maybe most, did nothing at all against the USA.
Yes, I agree, Thomas. It definitely is a horrible situation for the US to be in, and to find itself struggling to get out of for the most unpleasant of reasons – cynical fear-mongering, or uninformed, racist paranoia from Congress and various right-wing pundits, and, from the administration, the slipperiness and moral ambiguity, or even the moral vacuum of political expediency.
[...] Similarly, despair on the part of the majority of the rest of the prisoners, who were recommended for prosecution by the task force, is also understandable because the majority of them have not even been put forward for trials, and it is unlikely that they ever will be, as Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor of the military commissions, conceded in June. [...]
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