The Enemy Within: How the US Justice Department Has Spent 19 Years Defending Arbitrary Detention at Guantánamo

Campaigners for the closure of Guantánamo outside the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. on January 11, 2015, the 13th anniversary of its opening (Photo: Debra Sweet via Flickr).

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It’s a sign of the chronic failure of the US justice system to deliver anything resembling justice to the men held at Guantánamo Bay that, nearly 20 years after the prison was established to hold them, for the most part, indefinitely without charge or trial — even though they were never adequately screened at the time of their capture — lawyers and judges are still arguing about whether or not those men have any right to see the government’s purported evidence against them.

Specifically, the arguments involve the extent to which — if at all — the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause applies to the men held at Guantánamo, in which the most prominent players resisting its application have been, historically, judges in the appeals court in Washington, D.C. (the D.C. Circuit), and lawyers in the Civil Division of the Justice Department, who, under George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and now under Joe Biden, have strenuously resisted efforts to extend to the Guantánamo prisoners any meaningful right to challenge the basis of their imprisonment.

On a very fundamental level, these arguments shouldn’t even be taking place at all. Way back in the mists of time, in Boumediene v. Bush, in June 2008, when the Supreme Court affirmed the Guantánamo prisoners’ constitutionally guaranteed right to challenge the basis of their detention via a writ of habeas corpus, the Court’s intention was that they would be entitled to a “meaningful review” of the basis of their imprisonment, in which the government would have to present its evidence openly, and have it challenged.

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Who Are the Two “Forever Prisoners” Approved for Release from Guantánamo by Periodic Review Boards?

Guantánamo protests over the years: on the left, Abdulsalam al-Hela’s children call for his release from Guantánamo in Yemen in 2005, and, on the right, Sharqawi al-Hajj’s attorney, Pardiss Kebriaei, calls for his release outside the White House on January 11, 2018.

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In extraordinary news from Guantánamo, two more “forever prisoners” — the Yemeni tribal leader Abdulsalam al-Hela, 53, and Sharqawi al-Hajj, 47, another Yemeni, and a long-term hunger striker — have been approved for release by Periodic Review Boards, the parole-type system established under President Obama, to add to the three approved for release in May.

Eleven of the 40 men still held have now been approved for release — the five under Biden, one under Trump, the only two of the 38 men approved for release by the PRBs under Obama who didn’t manage to escape the prison before he left office, and three other men, still languishing in Guantánamo despite being approved for release by Obama’s first review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, in 2010.

No one who cares about the need for Guantánamo to be closed should be in any doubt about the significance of these decisions.

Both men arrived at Guantánamo from CIA “black sites” in September 2004, and were both regarded as being of significance when the Guantánamo Review Task Force published its report about what President Obama should do with the 240 prisoners he inherited from George W. Bush in January 2010. At that time, as was finally revealed when the Task Force’s “Dispositions” were released in June 2013, Sharqawi al-Hajj was one of 36 men “[r]eferred for prosecution,” while al-Hela was one of 48 others recommended for “[c]ontinued detention pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (2001), as informed by principles of the laws of war, subject to further review by the Principals prior to the detainee’s transfer to a detention facility in the United States.”

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Fighting Guantánamo in the Courts Under President Biden

Three of the Guantánamo prisoners who are currently seeking their release from the prison through the US courts. From L to R: Khalid Qassim and Abdulsalam al-Hela, both Yemenis, and Asadullah Haroon Gul, an Afghan.

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I wrote the following article (as “The Ongoing Legal Struggles to Secure Justice for the Guantánamo Prisoners Under President Biden”) for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the 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.

In the nineteen unforgivably long years since the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay was first established, lawyers have worked tirelessly to challenge and overturn the Bush administration’s outrageous contention that everyone who ended up at Guantánamo was an “enemy combatant” with no rights whatsoever, who could be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

There have been victories along the way, but the sad truth is that Guantánamo’s fundamental lawlessness remains intact to this day. Since 2010, only one prisoner has been freed because of the actions of lawyers and the US courts (a Sudanese man whose mental health issues persuaded the Justice Department, in this one instance only, not to challenge his habeas corpus petition), and, as the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency showed, if the president doesn’t want anyone released from Guantánamo, no legal avenue exists to compel him to do otherwise.

The lawyers’ great legal victories for the Guantánamo prisoners came in the Supreme Court in what now seems to be the distant, long-lost past. In June 2004, in Rasul v. Bush, the Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights; in other words, the right to have the evidence against them objectively assessed by a judge. That ruling allowed lawyers into the prison to begin to represent the men held, breaking the veil of secrecy that had allowed abusive conditions to thrive, but Congress then intervened to block the habeas legislation, and it was not until June 2008 that the Supreme Court, revisiting Guantánamo, ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that Congress had acted unconstitutionally, and affirmed that the prisoners had constitutionally guaranteed habeas rights.

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The New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse on Guantánamo: “Born in Fear and Sustained Through Political Cynicism and Public Indifference”

Guards in a watchtower at Guantánamo Bay.

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the 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.

Two weeks ago, the 18 year-long struggle by lawyers, NGOs and all decent people to bring justice to the men held at Guantánamo reached a new low point in the court of appeals (the D.C. Circuit Court) in Washington, D.C., as I explained at the time in an article entitled, Trump-Appointed Appeals Court Judge Rules That Guantánamo Prisoners Don’t Have Due Process Rights.

The judge in question, Judge Neomi Rao, appointed by Donald Trump last year, is an enthusiastic supporter of the opposition, by various judges in the court, to the landmark Supreme Court case Boumediene v. Bush, decided in June 2008, which granted constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights to the Guantánamo prisoners.

That ruling led to the only time in Guantánamo’s history when the law has successfully applied at the prison. From 2008 until 2010, 38 prisoners had their habeas corpus petitions granted by District Court judges, and the majority of those men were released.

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Trump-Appointed Appeals Court Judge Rules That Guantánamo Prisoners Don’t Have Due Process Rights

Judge Neomi Rao (left), a Donald Trump appointee to the D.C. Circuit Court, who recently wrote a contentious opinion for the court in the case of Yemeni businessman and Guantánamo prisoner Abdulsalam al-Hela (right), ruling that the Guantánamo prisoners do not have due process rights; in other words, that they can neither see nor rebut any evidence held by the government that purportedly justifies their detention.

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. If you can help, please click on the button below to donate via PayPal.




 

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the 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.

In the long and profoundly dispiriting story of the Guantánamo prisoners’ efforts to challenge their imprisonment without charge or trial through legal means, their victories — in Rasul v. Bush in 2004, and Boumediene v. Bush in 2008, when they were granted habeas corpus rights — evaporated through a number of appeals court rulings from 2009 to 2011, which ended up with the prisoners’ habeas rights being gutted of all meaning.

Between 2008 and 2010, 38 prisoners had their habeas corpus petitions approved, meaning that, even though the government had been given a very low evidentiary hurdle, they couldn’t even demonstrate to a range of District Court judges that the men in question were involved, in any meaningful sense at all, with either Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Since 2010, however, not a single prisoner has had his habeas corpus petition granted, and efforts to persuade the Supreme Court to take back control of the prisoners’ fate have also come to nothing.

Finally, however, last June, the prisoners secured a significant victory in the D.C. Circuit Court (the court of appeals in Washington, D.C.), in a case argued by Close Guantánamo’s co-founder Tom Wilner, as I explained in an article entitled, A Rare Court Victory Offers Hope for Guantánamo’s “Forever Prisoners”, when a panel of three judges ruled, in the case of Khalid Qassim, an insignificant prisoner, and yet one who has been held now for over 18 years without charge or trial, that he should be able to see and rebut the evidence purportedly justifying his detention.

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“When Will My Organs Fail? When Will My Heart Stop?”: Guantánamo Hunger Striker Khalid Qassim Fears Death Under Trump’s New Policy

Guantanamo prisoner Khalid Qassim (aka Qasim), in a photo from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.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.





 

It’s eleven days since prisoners at Guantánamo, represented by the human rights organization Reprieve, reminded a forgetful world of the never-ending injustice of the prison. Ahmed Rabbani, a Pakistani prisoner, and Khalid Qassim (aka Qasim), a Yemeni, both long-term hunger strikers, told their lawyers that, since September 20, “a new Senior Medical Officer (SMO) stopped tube-feeding the strikers, and ended the standard practice of closely monitoring their declining health.”

I wrote about the plight of the hunger strikers — and Donald Trump’s disturbing new policy — in an article last Saturday, but at the time the rest of the world’s mainstream media showed no interest in it. It took another four days for the New York Times to report on the story, and even then Charlie Savage accepted assurances from the US authorities that “an 11-year-old military policy permitting the involuntary feeding of hunger-striking detainees remained in effect,” an assertion that I regard as untrustworthy, because the US military has a long track record of being untrustworthy when it comes to telling the truth about Guantánamo.

Last Thursday, Reprieve followed up on its initial reporting by securing an op-ed in Newsweek by Ahmed Rabbani, entitled, “Dear President Trump, Close Guantánamo Bay and Give Us a Fair Trial”, which I reported here, and on Friday the Guardian gave Khalid Qassim the opportunity to comment. His article, “I am in Guantánamo Bay. The US government is starving me to death,” is cross-posted below, and I hope you have time to read it, and will share it if you find it useful. Read the rest of this entry »

New York Times Finally Reports on Trump’s Policy of Letting Guantánamo Hunger Strikers Die; Rest of Mainstream Media Still Silent

An image of Guantanamo by Sami al-Haj, as reproduced by British artist Lewis Peake in 2008, based on a drawing by Sami that the Pentagon censors refused to allow the public to see. The drawing, one of a series of five, was commissioned by Sami's lawyers at the lawyer-led international human rights organization Reprieve.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.





 

So today, five days after the lawyer-led human rights organization Reprieve issued a press release, about how two of their clients had told them that, since September 20, prisoners on a long-term hunger strike were no longer being force-fed, and four days after I reported it (exclusively, as it turned out), the New York Times emerged as the first — and so far only — mainstream media outlet to cover the story, although even so its headline was easy to ignore: “Military Is Waiting Longer Before Force-Feeding Hunger Strikers, Detainees Say.”

As Charlie Savage described it, military officials at Guantánamo “recently hardened their approach to hunger-striking prisoners,” according to accounts given by prisoners to their lawyers, “and are allowing protesters to physically deteriorate beyond a point that previously prompted medical intervention to force-feed them.”

“For years,” Savage continued, “the military has forcibly fed chronic protesters when their weight dropped too much. Detainees who refuse to drink a nutritional supplement have been strapped into a restraint chair and had the supplement poured through their noses and into their stomachs via nasogastric tubes.” Read the rest of this entry »

Yemeni Tribal Chief, Businessman, Intelligence Officer and Torture Victim Seeks Release from Guantánamo Via Periodic Review Board

Yemeni prisoner Abd al-Salam al-Hela, in a photo from Guantanamo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.Last week, a 48-year old Yemeni citizen held at Guantánamo, Abd al-Salam al-Hela (aka Abd al-Salam al-Hilah or Abdul al-Salam al-Hilal), became the 37th prisoner to have his case considered by a Periodic Review Board. This high-level, US review process, which involves representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began in November 2013.

In the two and half years since, the PRBs have been reviewing the cases of two groups of men: 41 men originally described by a previous review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force (which President Obama set up when he first took office in 2009), as “too dangerous to release,” and 23 others initially put forward for trials until the basis for prosecutions largely collapsed, in 2012 and 2013, after appeals court judges ruled that the war crimes being prosecuted had been invented by Congress.

For the 41 men described as “too dangerous to release,” the task force also acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, which set alarm bells ringing for anyone paying close attention, because, if insufficient evidence exists to put someone on trial, then it is not evidence at all. At Guantánamo — and elsewhere in the “war on terror” — the reasons for this emerged under minimal scrutiny from anyone paying attention. Instead of being evidence, information was extracted from prisoners through the use of torture or other forms of abuse, or through being bribed with the promise of better living conditions, which, as a result, is demonstrably unreliable. Read the rest of this entry »

Indefinitely Detained Guantánamo Prisoner Asks Review Board to Recommend His Release

Two days ago, I published an article looking at the outcome of the first Periodic Review Board held at Guantánamo — a much delayed review process for ascertaining whether 71 of the remaining 155 prisoners should continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial. This process was supposed to begin three years ago, after President Obama issued an executive order authorizing the ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial of 48 prisoners, based on the recommendations, delivered in January 2010, of his inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, but the first PRB didn’t take place until November 2013.

As I explained in my article, the board members recommended that the prisoner whose case was reviewed — Mahmoud al-Mujahid, a Yemeni — should be released, which is good news, as al-Mujahid was wrongly regarded as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, based on the unreliable testimony of a fellow prisoner. However, it means nothing unless he is released, as, with an irony that is evidently being strenuously ignored by the Obama administration, the review board’s decision to recommend him for release means only that he joins a list of 55 other Yemeni prisoners who were cleared for release by Obama’s task force four years ago, but are still held because of fears of political instability in Yemen.

As I also mentioned in that article, the second PRB, for another Yemeni, Abd al-Malik Wahab al-Rahabi, took place yesterday, January 28, and, unlike the first PRB, from which the media and observers were excluded, limited transparency was provided by the Pentagon, which made available a facility in Arlington, Virginia, where a very small section of the review board could be seen and heard, although not the testimony of al-Rahabi himself, nor anything regarded as classified by the military. Read the rest of this entry »

Video: Al-Jazeera’s Powerful and Important Documentary, “Life After Guantánamo”

After seven and a half years of researching and writing about the prisoners held in the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, it’s always refreshing to hear from former prisoners — and, in many cases, to see their faces and hear their voices for the very first time.

The highlights of “Life After Guantánamo,” Al-Jazeera America’s newly released documentary about Guantánamo (available below, via YouTube) are interviews with two released Yemeni prisoners, Mohammed Hassan Odaini (freed in July 2010), and Farouq Ali Ahmed (freed in December 2009). I told the story of Ahmed, the victim of two notoriously false allegations made by other prisoners, in an article following his release, and I told the story of Odaini, an innocent student seized in a house raid in Pakistan in March 2002, in a series of articles between May 2010, when he had his habeas corpus petition granted, and his release 48 days later (see here, here and here).

At the time, it was clear to me that both men were palpably innocent, and seeing and hearing them now only confirms it. Both are charming and articulate, working, married, and expecting their first children, and, importantly, neither man even remotely fulfils American fears that released Yemenis will “return to the battlefield.” Read the rest of this entry »

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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