The Chaotic History of Guantánamo’s Military Commissions

See the full list here of everyone charged in the military commissions at Guantánamo.

Recently, a friend asked me for information about all the Guantánamo prisoners who have been put forward for military commission trials at Guantánamo, and after undertaking a search online, I realized that I couldn’t find a single place listing all the prisoners who have been charged in the three versions of the commissions that have existed since 2001, or the total number of men charged.

As a result, I decided that it would be useful to do some research and to provide a list of all the men charged — a total of 30, it transpires — as well as providing some updates about the commissions, which I have been covering since 2006, but have not reported on since October. The full list of everyone charged in the military commissions is here, which I’ll be updating on a regular basis, and please read on for a brief history of the commissions and for my analysis of what has taken place in the last few months.

The commissions were dragged out of the history books by Dick Cheney on November 13, 2001, when a Military Order authorizing the creation of the commissions was stealthily issued with almost no oversight, as I explained in an article in June 2007, while the Washington Post was publishing a major series on Cheney by Barton Gellman (the author of Angler, a subsequent book about Cheney) and Jo Becker. Alarmingly, as I explained in that article, the order “stripped foreign terror suspects of access to any courts, authorized their indefinite imprisonment without charge, and also authorized the creation of ‘Military Commissions,’ before which they could be tried using secret evidence,” including evidence derived through the use of torture. 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 »

Poland and Lithuania Haunted by Their Involvement in Hosting CIA Torture Prisons

In the long search for accountability for the torturers of the Bush administration, which has largely been shut down by President Obama, lawyers and human rights activists have either had to try shaming the US through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or have had to focus on other countries, particularly those that hosted secret CIA torture prisons, or had explicit involvement in extraordinary rendition.

Successes have been rare, but hugely important — the conviction of CIA officials and operatives in Italy, for the blatant daylight kidnap of Abu Omar, a cleric, on a street in Milan in February 2003, and the court victory in Macedonia of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen kidnapped in Macedonia, where he had gone on a holiday, and sent to a CIA “black site” in 2003 until the US realized that his was a case of mistaken identity. In the UK, the whiff of complicity in torture at the highest levels of the Blair government led to pay-offs for the British nationals and residents sent to Guantánamo.

Court cases were also launched in Spain, although they were suppressed, in part because of US involvement (under President Obama), and currently there are efforts to hold the US accountable before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for its use of Djibouti in a number of cases involving “extraordinary rendition” and “black sites.” Read the rest of this entry »

Penny Lane: What We Learned This Week About Double Agents at Guantánamo

On Tuesday, out of nowhere, the Associated Press ran a story about a secret prison at Guantánamo that attracted a huge amount of attention from the media around the world — more attention, in fact, than at any time since the prison-wide hunger strike earlier this year, which, surprisingly, managed to retain much of the media’s attention for several months.

That, however, was a current story, whereas the AP’s story dealt with a secret facility that apparently existed between 2003 and 2006, in a now overgrown clearing at the end of a dirt road behind a ridge near the administrative offices of the prison.

There, in eight small cottages, the CIA housed and trained a handful of prisoners they had persuaded to become double agents, according to Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, who spoke to around ten current and former US officials for their story. All spoke anonymously “because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the secret program.”

Goldman and Apuzzo described the program as “a risky gamble,” because although the double agents might locate terrorist leaders for them, they might also turn against their employers. That, of course, is always a problem with double agents, although the AP was correct to note the stench of hypocrisy when it came to recruiting double agents at Guantánamo. “At the same time the government used the threat of terrorism to justify imprisoning people indefinitely,” Goldman and Apuzzo wrote, “it was releasing dangerous people from prison to work for the CIA.” Read the rest of this entry »

Torture: The Elephant in the Room at Guantánamo’s Military Commissions

For seven and a half years now, I have watched as the United States has tried and failed to make its trial system at Guantánamo — the military commissions — function in a way that has any kind of legitimacy.

That, however, is impossible, because the trials involve made-up war crimes, invented by Congress, and, as we see on a regular basis when pre-trial hearings are held in the cases of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, because there is an unresolvable tension at the heart of the most serious trials — those involving the “high-value detainees,” like KSM and his co-defendants, and also Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, another “high-value detainee” charged with involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, all of whom were held — and tortured — in secret “black sites” run by the CIA in countries including Thailand and Poland.

This tension was highlighted in “You Can’t Gag Somebody and Then Want to Kill Them,” an article for the Huffington Post last week by Katherine Hawkins, a researcher and lawyer who recently worked as the Investigator for the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, whose powerful report I discussed here. 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 »

US Military Admits Only 2.5 Percent of All Prisoners Ever Held at Guantánamo Will Be Tried

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. 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 »

Another Torture Victim on Trial at Guantánamo

In the last two weeks, the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay enjoyed a brief resurgence of interest as pre-trial hearings took place in the cases of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of directing and supporting the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and in the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi national accused of masterminding the attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in October 2000, in which 17 US sailors were killed, when suicide bombers blew up a bomb-laden boat beside the warship.

Guantánamo has largely been ignored during the Presidential election campaign, even though 166 men still languish there, and over half of them — 86 men in total — have been cleared for release for at least three years (although in many cases for far longer), and one of these men — Adnan Latif, a Yemeni — died in September, eight years after the authorities first decided that they had no interest in holding him any longer.

The ongoing detention of these men ought to be a major news story, but instead it is generally overlooked, and the media’s attention is largely reserved for pre-trial hearings in the cases of the men mentioned above, even though these hearings are generally inconclusive, and involve prosecutors following the government’s position — which focuses on hiding all mention of torture by US forces — while the prisoners’ defense teams argue that justice cannot be delivered if the torture of these men is not mentioned. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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