Life Sentence for Sulaiman Abu Ghaith Discredits Guantánamo’s Military Commissions

On Tuesday, in a courtroom in New York City, a long-running chapter in the “war on terror” came to an end, when Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, 48, a Kuwaiti-born cleric who appeared in media broadcasts as a spokesman for Al-Qaeda the day after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, received a life sentence based on the three counts for which he was convicted after his trial in March: conspiracy to kill Americans, providing material support to terrorists and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.

The life sentence came as no surprise, as it is permissible for the main conspiracy charge, although Abu Ghaith’s lead defense lawyer, Stanley L. Cohen, had, as the New York Times described it, “sought a sentence of 15 years, saying in a court submission that his client was facing ‘the harshest of penalties for talk — and only talk.'” The Times added that Cohen had likened Abu Ghaith to “an outrageous daytime ‘shock-radio’ host, or a World War II radio propagandist for a losing ideology.”

In court, as the Times also noted, Cohen “emphasized that his client had played no role in specific acts of terrorism,” but the government had argued otherwise, stating in a sentencing memorandum that there was “no fathomable reason to justify a sentence other than life.” Read the rest of this entry »

Calling for the Closure of Guantánamo on the 13th Anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks

I wrote the following article, under the heading, “On the 13th Anniversary of 9/11, It’s Time for Guantánamo to Close,” for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

It’s 13 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but while it remains important to remember all those who died on that dreadful day, it is also important to acknowledge the terrible mistakes made by the Bush administration in response to the attacks.

First came the invasion of Afghanistan, to overthrow the Taliban and defeat Al-Qaeda, in which, as Anand Gopal, the author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, told me, the US vastly overstayed its welcome, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Then there was the illegal invasion of Iraq, and the blowback from that conflict that is evident in the rise of ISIS/ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In addition, the US also embarked, after 9/11, on a program of extraordinary rendition and torture, in defiance of domestic and international laws, as documented in the still-unreleased Senate Intelligence Committee report, and established, at Guantánamo, a prison where those held have been held neither as criminal suspects, nor as prisoners of war protected by the Geneva Conventions, but as “enemy combatants,” indefinitely imprisoned without charge or trial. For the first two and a half years of their imprisonment, they had no rights at all, and even though they eventually secured habeas corpus rights, the legal avenue to their release has been cynically cut off by appeals court judges. Read the rest of this entry »

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith’s Unexpected Testimony in New York Terrorism Trial

On Wednesday, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith (also identified as Sulaiman Abu Ghayth), the Kuwaiti cleric who is on trial in New York accused of terrorism, surprised the court by taking to the witness stand to defend himself.

Abu Ghaith, 48, who was held for over ten years under a form of house arrest in Iran before being freed in Turkey, and, via Jordan, ending up in US custody last year, appeared in broadcasts from Afghanistan immediately after the 9/11 attacks as a spokesman for Al-Qaeda.

He is charged with conspiracy to kill United States nationals, conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists, and providing material support and resources to terrorists — charges that include the claim that he had knowledge of Al-Qaeda’s operations, including plots involving shoe bombs (for which a British man, Richard Reid, was arrested, tried and convicted in 2002). As the New York Times described it, the government “said in court papers that as part of his role in the conspiracy and the support he provided to Al Qaeda, Mr. Abu Ghaith spoke on behalf of the terrorist group, ‘embraced its war against America,’ and sought to recruit others to join in that conspiracy.” Read the rest of this entry »

From Guantánamo, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s Declaration in the New York Trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith

So here’s a fascinating document from the trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith in New York — a 14-page statement by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, written in response to questions Abu Ghaith’s lawyers submitted to him at Guantánamo, where he has been held since September 2006, following three and half years in “black sites” run by the CIA, and where, notoriously, he was subjected on 183 occasions to waterboarding, an ancient torture technique that is a form of controlled drowning. I am posting a transcript of the statement below, as I believe it is significant, and it is, of course, rare to hear directly from any of the “high-value detainees” held at Guantánamo, because every word they speak or write is presumptively classified, and the authorities generally refuse to unclassify a single word.

Abu Ghaith (also identified as Sulaiman Abu Ghayth) is charged with conspiracy to kill United States nationals, conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists, and providing material support and resources to terrorists, primarily for his alleged role as a spokesperson for Al-Qaeda immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, he fled to Iran, where he was held under a form of house arrest — and where he met and married one of Osama bin Laden’s daughters, who was also held under house arrest — until January 2013, when he was released to Turkey.

It was at this point that the US authorities became aware of his release from Iranian custody. At the request of the US, he was briefly detained, but soon released because he had not committed any crime on Turkish soil. The Turkish government then apparently decided to deport him to Kuwait, but on a stop-over in Amman, Jordan, he was arrested by Jordanian officials and turned over to US officials, who subsequently extradited him to the United States. Read the rest of this entry »

Read My Latest Article for Al-Jazeera on Guantánamo’s Military Commissions and the Surveillance State

Dear friends and supporters, I hope you have time to read my latest article for Al-Jazeera, entitled, “At Guantánamo, a microcosm of the surveillance state,” in which I look at the latest scandal to derail the military commission trial system at Guantánamo, exposed in a pre-trial hearing in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four the men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks — a computer problem that has led to over half a million confidential defense emails being handed over to the prosecution, and other files disappearing completely.

In light of the revelations of mass surveillance made public by Edward Snowden in June, the problems at Guantánamo can be seen as part of a bigger picture, even though the main tension at Guantánamo concerns torture — the government’s wish to hide its use on the “high-value detainees,” and the defense’s mission to expose it — rather than excessive surveillance as a matter of course.

I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to write for Al-Jazeera about the military commissions, which I’ve been writing about for seven and a half years. I got to briefly run through the history of the commissions in my article, reminding me that, when I first began researching Guantánamo in 2006, for my book The Guantánamo Files, the commissions were already regarded as a disgrace, a torture-laundering farce dragged from the history books by Vice President Dick Cheney, which had struggled to establish any credibility whatsoever. Furthermore, this situation didn’t improve after the Supreme Court found the commissions illegal, in June 2006, and Congress then brought them back to life with a raft of invented war crimes. My first article about the commissions was in June 2007, and the broken system exposed there continues to be broken, and to shame America. Read the rest of this entry »

Eloquent But Unconvincing: President Obama’s Response to the Guantánamo Hunger Strike

On Tuesday, President Obama gave his first detailed response to the prison-wide hunger strike that has been raging at Guantánamo for twelve weeks, responding to a question posed at a news conference by CBS News correspondent Bill Plante, who asked, “As you’re probably aware, there’s a growing hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay among prisoners. Is it any surprise really that they would prefer death rather than have no end in sight to their confinement?”

The question, presumably, was allowed because the President had decided that he could no longer avoid discussing the hunger strike that, at any moment, could result in the death of one of the many men starving themselves to focus the world’s attention on their plight. According to the government, 100 men of the remaining 166 prisoners are on a hunger strike, although the prisoners say the true number is 130.

Precipitated by the deployment of a new and aggressive guard force at Guantánamo, who manhandled the prisoners’ Korans during searches of the men’s cells that were of unusual intensity, the hunger strike began on February 6 and rapidly became a focal point for the prisoners’ despair at having been abandoned by all three branches of the US government, and by the mainstream media.

Although 86 of the remaining prisoners were cleared for release from Guantánamo by an inter-agency task force that President Obama established when he took office in January 2009 (when he promised to close Guantánamo within a year), they are still held because of obstructions raised by the President himself, and by Congress. Read the rest of this entry »

On Terrorism, America Has Lost Its Way

Last week at Guantánamo, a farcical dance played out, as it does every six months or so. Representatives of the US mainstream media — and other reporters from around the world — flew to the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to witness the latest round of the seemingly interminable pre-trial hearings in the cases of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of masterminding, or otherwise facilitating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on New York and Washington D.C.

The farce of the Guantánamo trials is, by now, well established, although last week’s hearings introduced the novelty of a hidden hand, unknown even to the judge, flicking an invisible switch to silence potentially embarrassing testimony, and the proceedings also took place against the backdrop of two courtroom appeals that have dealt savage blows to the claimed legitimacy of the commissions.

In the case of the 9/11 trial, a permanent feature is the seemingly insoluble tussle between the prosecution and the defense. On the one hand are the attorneys for the accused, whose job is to try and ensure that their clients do not receive unfair trials. This involves attempting, incessantly, to point out the elephant in the room — the fact that all the men were held for many years in “black sites” run by the CIA, where they were subjected to torture, approved at the highest levels of the government during the Bush administration, even though torture is a crime. On the other hand are the prosecutors, whose job, above all, appears to be to hide all mention of torture. In the middle is the judge — in the case of the “high-value detainees,” Army Col. James L. Pohl, who replaced Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann as the Chief Presiding Officer for the Military Commissions on January 6, 2009. Read the rest of this entry »

The 9/11 Trial: Torturing Justice

The last time the US government wheeled out Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four other men accused of initiating and being involved in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 was in May this year, and, as is usual, the mainstream media turned out in force. That occasion was the formal arraignment of the men, and it was tempestuous, as the defendants largely refused to cooperate. This week, as pre-trial hearings resumed, the mainstream media also returned in force, for proceedings that largely focused on issues of secrecy and transparency.

The rest of the time, sadly, most of the mainstream media doesn’t care much about Guantánamo, even though the prison remains a national disgrace, a place where, beyond the handful of men accused of genuine involvement with terrorism, over half of the remaining 166 prisoners have been cleared for release but are still held, and 46 others are regarded as too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence exists to put them on trial.

In other contexts, this would mean that the so-called evidence is actually hearsay, or innuendo — and in fact even the most cursory investigation by serious reporters would reveal that most of what passes for evidence consists of dubious statements made by the prisoners about themselves and their fellow prisoners as a result of torture, other forms of abuse, and bribery. Read the rest of this entry »

Andy Worthington Discusses Bagram on the BBC World Service, and 9/11 and Guantánamo with Scott Horton

This week the legacy of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” is under the spotlight, as is the response to it of his successor, Barack Obama. Tomorrow is the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that first prompted George W. Bush and his administration to discard all domestic and international laws and treaties regarding the treatment of prisoners, and to hold those seized in its “war on terror” not as prisoners of war, according to the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects, but as “enemy combatants,” who could, the administration contended, be held without them having any rights whatsoever.

Today is also significant for the fallout from the first war on which the Bush administration embarked — the invasion of Afghanistan, which began a month after the 9/11 attacks. As has been extensively reported, this morning US officials handed over formal control of the Parwan Detention Facility, the replacement for the notorious Bagram prison, where several prisoners were killed in the early days of the “war on terror,” to Afghan control.

This morning I was delighted to be asked by the BBC World Service to comment on the Bagram handover on the “Newshour” program with Robin Lustig, which was live at 1 pm, but is repeated regularly, and is available online. Although it was announced that the US had transferred 3,082 prisoners to Afghan control since reaching an agreement in March, I was particularly interested in commenting about those still held by the US, including recently captured prisoners, who will not be handed over until the US has screened them, and, more particularly, the foreign prisoners — thought to number around 50 — who will continue to be held by the US. Read the rest of this entry »

Eleven Years After 9/11, Guantánamo Is A Political Prison

Eleven years since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the majority of the remaining 168 men in Guantánamo are not held because they constitute an active threat to the United States, but because of inertia, political opportunism and an institutional desire to hide evidence of torture by US forces, sanctioned at the highest levels of government. That they are still held, mostly without charge or trial, is a disgrace that continues to eat away at any notion that the US believes in justice.

It seems like an eternity since there was the briefest of hopes that George W. Bush’s “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo would be shut down. That was in January 2009, but although Barack Obama issued an executive order promising to close Guantánamo within a year, he soon reneged on that promise, failing to stand up to Republican critics, who seized on the fear of terrorism to attack him, and failing to stand up to members of his own party, who were also fearful of the power of black propaganda regarding Guantánamo and the alleged but unsubstantiated dangerousness of its inmates.

The President himself also became fearful when, in January 2010, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, which he himself had appointed, and which consisted of career officials and lawyers from government departments and the intelligence agencies, issued its report based on an analysis of the cases of the 240 prisoners inherited from George W. Bush (PDF). The Task Force recommended that, of the 240 men held when he came to power, only 36 could be prosecuted, but 48 others were regarded as being too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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