No Justice at Guantánamo: The Release of Ahmed Al-Darbi, and Moazzam Begg’s Reflections

27.5.18

Guantanamo prisoner Ahmed al-Darbi, with a photo of his children, in a photo taken at Guantanamo by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

At the start of this month, Donald Trump transferred his first prisoner out of Guantánamo, the Saudi citizen Ahmed al-Darbi, who was repatriated as part of a plea deal arranged in his military commission proceedings in February 2014. However, he did not return home a free man, as, in his homeland, he will serve the remainder of a 13-year sentence agreed in his plea deal.

As I explained in an article at the time, “Under the terms of that plea deal, al-Darbi acknowledged his role in an-Qaeda attack on a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen’s coast in 2002, and was required to testify against other prisoners at Guantánamo as part of their military commission trials, which he did last summer, and was supposed to be released on February 20 this year. However, February 20 came and went, and al-Darbi wasn’t released, a situation that threatened to undermine the credibility of the military commission plea deals.”

Al-Darbi’s transfer saved the only functioning part of the otherwise broken military commission trial system, which is incapable of delivering justice in an actual trial, given that the men in question, although accused of serious crimes, were lavishly subjected to torture over a number of years, and the use of torture, to be blunt, fundamentally undermines any possibility of a fair and just trial.

Looked at another way, al-Darbi’s transfer also highlighted the glaring injustice of Guantánamo, something that has actually been apparent since the dying days of the administration of George W. Bush, when Salim Hamdan, a hapless driver for Osama bin Laden, was freed after the military judge in his military commission trial, recognizing that he had no operational role whatsoever in Al-Qaeda, gave him a short sentence that included time served, and that led to his repatriation in November 2008.

When he was sentenced, I wrote, in an article entitled, Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo, that, “If one of Osama bin Laden’s drivers gets a sentence of seven years and one month in total (five and a half years plus the 19 months of his imprisonment before he was charged) … it is surely now inconceivable that those who planned the whole post-9/11 detention policy can … continue to hold any of the 130 or so prisoners in Guantánamo who have not been cleared [for release], and who are not scheduled to face a trial by Military Commission, beyond the end of the year.” I added, “With this sentence, it appears that the death knell has just been sounded for the whole malign Guantánamo project.”

That was, in hindsight, absurdly optimistic, despite being unerringly logical, because logic has no place at Guantánamo.

What happened instead was that, in fits and starts, and with little evident enthusiasm for tackling decisively the chronic injustice of Guantánamo, despite promising to close it, President Obama undertook two high-level government review processes and released nearly 200 men, leaving 41 men still held under Donald Trump. With al-Darbi’s transfer, that number has dropped to 40, with nine men still involved in the military commission trail system, five approved for release but still held, and 26 others in that limbo of ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial that is so disturbingly emblematic of the US’s post-9/11 flight from the accepted norms of detention and justice.

Reflecting on al-Darbi’s transfer a week after it took place, the British citizen and former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg wrote an insightful column for Middle East Eye that I’m cross-posting below because it captures other aspects of the injustice of Guantánamo and the “war on terror” in general. Begg was imprisoned alongside al-Darbi in Afghanistan, and specifically at Bagram, the former Soviet site that became the US’s main prison, a horrendously brutal environment in which at least ten prisoners were killed.

It was there that Begg met Omar Khadr, the Canadian child prisoner, and Damien Corsetti, the guard whose nickname was “Monster” and the “King of Torture.” Corsetti was, eventually, one of a handful of guards court-martialed for “dereliction of duty, maltreatment, assault and performing an indecent act with another person,” not only at Bagram, but also at Abu Ghraib, and the case against him was based primarily on al-Darbi’s allegations about what Corsetti said and did to him.

A military jury found him not guilty, and Corsetti was later apologetic about his role in the “war on terror,” but in truth, as Moazzam Begg notes, he “was a low-ranking officer who was part of a far greater machine that didn’t only justify torture — it revelled in it.” Corsetti was a Specialist, serving in the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion under Lt. Carolyn Wood. She introduced the use of torture techniques on the prisoners in a bid to improve intelligence, and on her watch at least two prisoners died, but those ideas did not originate with her, but higher up the chain of command, — with Donald Rumsfeld and Guantánamo commander Geoffrey Miller — and in fact Wood’s work was so well received by her superiors that she and her team were transferred to Abu Ghraib, where they were implicated in the scandal that became public in April 2004. Nevertheless. Wood was awarded two Bronze Stars by the military for the “services” she provided in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Begg didn’t get to meet al-Darbi in Guantánamo, but he makes the valid point that, despite “having undergone 16 years of torture, the time [he] served will not count” against his sentence, as he is not due for release until 2027. He also notes what I mentioned above, and have been mentioning since the sentencing of Salim Hamdan in 2008 — that “those who have not been charged with a crime in over 16 years remain imprisoned indefinitely,” while “those who plead guilty to crimes go home.”

Begg also notes that “his crimes had little, if anything, to do with the US,” which is correct with regards to the attack on a French oil tanker, but it doesn’t absolve him of responsibility of that crime, if he was indeed involved in it. What it does show, however, is how, in the general lawlessness of the “war on terror,” the US had little or no regard for traditional jurisdictions. Al-Darbi, on this basis, should have been prosecuted in France, and in the case of Hambali, a “high-value detainee” allegedly responsible for the bombing of a nightclub in Bali in 2002, in which 202 people died, primarily Australian tourists. Hambali should have ended up either in Australian or Indonesian custody, but instead the US kidnapped him with Thai support in 2003, so that they could torture him in a CIA “black site.” Shamefully, it remains uncertain if Hambali will ever face prosecution.

I hope you have time to read Moazzam Begg’s article, and will share it if you find it useful.

The ludicrous notion of justice in Guantánamo
By Moazzam Begg, Middle East Eye, May 11, 2018

The first prisoner released on Donald Trump’s watch has been repatriated to Saudi Arabia to serve the remainder of his term. The years of torture he endured in Guantánamo will not count towards this sentence.

In February last year, I sat down to have lunch at a Lebanese restaurant in Birmingham with three men. They were lawyers in the US military involved with the Office of Military Commissions’ Guantánamo Bay defence team for Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi national imprisoned in the detention camp since 2002.

The military lawyers had come to discuss their client’s case, and whether anything I knew could help him. The last time I saw Darbi was at the Bagram detention facility in Afghanistan in the summer of 2002, before he was shipped off to Cuba.

The Bagram prison was originally a warehouse built by the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Markings and writings in Russian were still visible around the building. The striking thing about seeing US soldiers everywhere was the realisation that Afghanistan, among the poorest nations on earth, was occupied by the strongest nations on earth. And yet, both were to fail, militarily and morally.

Buried alive in a mass grave

Just before Darbi arrived, I remember meeting an Afghan prisoner called Sharif. Walking, talking or even looking in the “wrong” direction meant being disciplined — which included being hooded and shackled to the top of a door, where we remained suspended for several hours, or even days. Nonetheless, Sharif and I managed to speak, using our newly discovered talent for ventriloquism-like conversations, so that our lips were not seen to move.

Sharif told me how his father had been buried alive in a mass grave by the Soviet army, right here in Bagram. After having encountered American brutality himself, however, he still hadn’t decided who he despised more.

Sharif was released shortly afterwards, but the influx of new prisoners continued on almost a daily basis. One prisoner I couldn’t forget was Darbi.

On the day I first saw him, he was being dragged about by soldiers as they screamed abuse at him and made him pile up crates of water bottles, with his hands and legs shackled. He didn’t react, except to do as he was told. But, no sooner than he’d managed to assemble a stack of crates high enough, the soldiers kicked them down and made him do it again. This went on for hours, until he was exhausted and taken back to his cell for a short rest. Soon enough, they were back again to repeat the process. This was Darbi’s introduction to the US military system. Far more was to follow.

Drained, exhausted and depressed

Darbi and I had initially been in separate cells, but I could usually see what was happening in adjacent cells. Our communal cages were divided by only rolls of razor wire, as armed guards patrolled both in front and behind. Darbi was eventually moved to my cell, which I was sharing at the time with Canadian teen Omar Khadr. Despite suffering horrific gunshot injuries and being a child, Khadr was put through the same procedure as Darbi. Although Khadr’s treatment was shocking and inexcusable, I understood what caused their hatred: He was accused of killing a US soldier.

Darbi, on the other hand, was captured in Azerbaijan after being accused of involvement in the bombing of a French-owned, Malaysian-registered oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, in which one crew member was killed. The dead man wasn’t an American.

Mistreatment of prisoners was usually justified based on a concoction of half-truths and exaggerations. Soldiers told me that Darbi was a Saudi special forces operative who’d gone rogue and joined al-Qaeda.

When I first arrived at Bagram, prisoners were not permitted any movement. We literally had to sit or lie on the floor all day. After some discussions, I managed to convince the guards to allow us 30 minutes of daily exercise. Watching Darbi during exercise time, I remember forming a rather low opinion of Saudi special forces — until he told me the rumours were untrue. He’d served in the Saudi National Guard for a short term and left.

Darbi was often taken for interrogation and would return, like most of us, drained, exhausted and depressed. He told me that one of the interrogators had removed his own trousers and threatened to rape him.

‘King of torture’

When able, I would strike up conversation with soldiers, mainly to try and engage and educate them, so that they could see our humanity. One of these soldiers was an interrogator who, I later learned, was an Italian-American nicknamed “Monster” and “king of torture”. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the interrogator Darbi was talking about.

The sounds of screaming — both prisoners and interrogators — would often reverberate around the prison, but I’d never assumed that this thoughtful, easygoing soldier was one of them. Damien Corsetti would pass my cell and speak to me about history, politics, religion and beyond. He even gave me a book I still have, Joseph Heller’s classic antiwar novel, Catch 22. He was quite cordial with me, but he wasn’t involved in my interrogations.

Years later, Corsetti was brought up on charges of dereliction of duty, maltreatment, assault and performing an indecent act with another person in Bagram and Abu Ghraib, Iraq, where he was redeployed.

Shortly after my release from Guantánamo, I was approached by Corsetti’s lawyers, asking if I’d be a character witness for him. I wrote about this strange request in the New York Times. Corsetti was eventually found not guilty and later joined the Iraq Veterans Against the War. His testimony is featured alongside my own in the Oscar-winning documentary ‘Taxi to the Dark Side.’

In truth, Corsetti was a low-ranking officer who was part of a far greater machine that didn’t only justify torture — it revelled in it.

Plea bargaining

As for Darbi, I never saw him again after Bagram, but I remained in contact with his family and lawyers after I was released. In 2012, under the farcical Guantánamo military commissions process, Darbi was charged with involvement in the oil tanker attack and, in 2014, as part of a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty. His deal included giving witness testimony against some of the remaining 40 Guantánamo prisoners.

In return, Darbi was given a 13-year sentence — but despite having undergone 16 years of torture, the time he’s served will not count. Instead, he has to serve the remainder of his sentence in a prison in Saudi Arabia, where he was finally repatriated last week. He’s due for release in 2027.

I don’t know what became of the evidence I gave to the lawyers about the abuse he endured, but Darbi’s case exposes the ludicrous notion of justice that operates in Guantánamo.

Firstly, his crimes had little, if anything, to do with the US. Secondly, those who have not been charged with a crime in over 16 years remain imprisoned indefinitely; those who plead guilty to crimes go home. This has been the case with the majority of those who pled guilty.

As Darbi said in a statement to his lawyer: “No one should remain at Guantánamo without a trial. There is no justice in that.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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 six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, a cross-post, with my own commentary, of an article reflecting on the case of Ahmed al-Darbi by former Guantanamo prisoner Moazzam Begg. Al-Darbi was repatriated from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia earlier this month to serve the remainder of a 13-year sentence that was the result of a plea deal he agreed to in his military commission trial proceedings in 2014, but as Begg points out, his sentence didn’t take into account the 16 years he had already served in US custody, and it also highlighted, absurdly, how “those who have not been charged with a crime in over 16 years remain imprisoned indefinitely; those who plead guilty to crimes go home.” This is an injustice I have been pointing out since Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, was freed nearly ten years ago, and yet Guantanamo remains open with 40 men held, only nine of whom are facing, or have faced any charges.
    I was particularly interested in Moazzam’s reflections about his time in Bagram, where he met al-Darbi, and I was reminded of how, in general, we have forgotten how brutal conditions were at Bagram, and how those who, with the approval of senior Bush administration officials, specifically introduced torture techniques, some of which ended up killing prisoners, were rewarded by being sent to Abu Ghraib to inflict more of the torture that eventually surfaced in the scandalous photos leaked in April 2004 that shocked the world. And yet the head of that team of soldiers working in military intelligence, Lt. Carolyn Wood, was awarded two Bronze Stars by the military for the “services” she provided in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    What is it with the corporate world, that those who we have to deal with (i.e. on Facebook) relentlessly fiddle with their product, without ever telling us what they’re doing, and often making life extraordinarily difficult, for no good reason? Months ago, it became apparent to me that the way Facebook had changed its algorithms meant that, basically, no one was seeing what I was posting anymore, so I started tagging around 80-90 people I knew were regular followers of my work. That’s been working fine, but tonight the limit has suddenly been reduced, without explanation, to only 20 permissible tags, so I had to find a way round it, which I found I can do by posting the article, and then clicking on a “tag friends” option to add more than 20 tags, but only by having to scroll down and select whoever I want to tag out of my nearly 5,000 friends. So posting is now even more time consuming!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    They have their “reasons” or they wouldn’t do it.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Often they want to make us pay them, Tashi, but other times they’re just rearranging the furniture – but without telling us what they’re doing. Their attitude to us is contemptuous. In any other line of work, they’d be reviled.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Thank you, Andy, as always for keeping us informed and for sharing your amazing work. Days, months and years go by and I’m losing the hope that Guantanamo will close.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your relentless support, Natalia. Today I’m reeling a little from having reflected on Bagram, because of Moazzam’s reminiscences, and being shocked to realise how collectively we’ve forgotten that the military intelligence battalion that initiated a particularly brutal regime at Bagram that led to the deaths of Dilawar and others were rewarded by being sent to Abu Ghraib, where they played a key role in that torture scandal. What a disgrace that the US has become the United States of Amnesia.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Susie Sullivan wrote:

    Dear Andy thank you for all the time you give to help others, you are a star
    Susie and Bernie

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Susie and Bernie, for your kind and supportive words!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    Ahmed Al-Darbi must file an appeal, cancel all transactions with the investigation. Thanks for the link, Andy.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    I think, Aleksey, that the Guantanamo plea deals specifically involve a commitment of the part of those agreeing to them that they won’t make any attempt to appeal against them, which is rather convenient for the US government, isn’t it?

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Tristen Schmidt wrote:

    Thank you for your tireless commitment to justice for scapegoats

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Tristen. Thanks for your support!

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Jeffrey Kaye wrote:

    Andy, so much is forgotten! That you notice and care and try to rectify that is important and very much appreciated!

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jeff. And your efforts, of course, are also massively appreciated from the dwindling pool of us who care: https://www.amazon.com/Cover-up-Guantanamo-Investigation-Suicides-Mohammed-ebook/dp/B01LWTOWRI

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    Andy, the confession of guilt obtained under torture is legally null and void.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Unless the law itself has been rewritten, Aleksey. Effectively, that’s what the US has done since 9/11, as there’s no way anyone can make the US enforce laws it chooses to ignore.

  17. Anna says...

    Yes, the law was rewritten and A.D. 2018, Bloody Gina Haspel used those rewritten laws to justify her torture involvement.
    And it was swallowed by the vast majority of the badly informed and even less interested senators ‘interrogating’ her.
    The umptiest chapter in this ongoing disgrace.

    Moazzam’s article brings home one more time, how ‘released’ prisoners never really become free as such memories will forever haunt them.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna. Good to hear from you. I hope there’s more dirt about Gina Haspel that can be dug up to discredit her confirmation. Lawmakers, as usual, were useless (Congress being “only slightly more popular than gonorrhoea,” as Col. Morris Davis is wont to say), but it remains glaringly obvious to anyone actually paying attention that it was completely unacceptable to confirm someone as CIA director who was acknowledged as having been involved in torture, with no further detailed explanation of, for example, what she was doing between the end of 2002, when she ran the “black site” in Thailand, and 2005, when she was so deeply involved in the destruction of videotapes. Where was she for those three years? What was she doing?

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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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