Not Fit for Purpose: The Ongoing Failure of Guantánamo’s Military Commissions

"End Guantanamo commissions: use fair trials" - an Amnesty International supporter outside the White House.

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In the 15 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has systematically undermined many of the key values it claims to uphold as a nation founded on and respecting the rule of law, having embraced torture, indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial, trials of dubious legality and efficacy, and extra-judicial execution.

The Bush administration’s torture program — so devastatingly exposed in the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the program, published in December 2014 — no longer exists, but no one has been held accountable for it. In addition, as the psychologist and journalist Jeffrey Kaye has pointed out, although ostensibly outlawed by President Obama in an executive order issued when he took office, the use of torture is permitted, in particular circumstances, in Appendix M of the Army Field Manual.

When it comes to extrajudicial execution, President Obama has led the way, disposing of perceived threats through drone attacks — and although drones were used by President Bush, it is noticeable that their use has increased enormously under Obama. If the rendition, torture and imprisonment of those seized in the “war on terror” declared after the 9/11 attacks raised difficult ethical, moral and legal questions, killing people in drone attacks — even in countries with which the US is not at war, and even if they are US citizens — apparently does not trouble the conscience of the president, or the US establishment as a whole. Read the rest of this entry »

Former Child Prisoner at Guantánamo, Tortured in Jordan, Is the Last of 64 Men to Face a Periodic Review Board

Yemeni prisoner Hassan bin Attash, in a photo taken at Guantanamo and included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2800 (£2100) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo for the next three months.

On September 8, Guantánamo prisoner Hassan bin Attash, born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents, who appears to have been just 17 years old when he was seized in a house raid in Pakistan and sent to Jordan to be tortured, became the last of 64 prisoners to face a Periodic Review Board. Set up in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners who had not already been approved for release by an earlier review process (2009’s Guantánamo Review Task Force) and were not facing trials (just ten of the 61 men still held), the PRBs have played an important role in reducing the prison’s population in President Obama’s last year in office.

Consisting of 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, the PRBs function like parole boards, assessing prisoners’ contrition, and plans for the future that will mitigate any concerns about them engaging in terrorism or military activity against the US after their release.

To date, 33 men have been approved for release by the PRBs (and 20 of those men have been freed), while 19 others have had their ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial upheld — although all are entitled to further reviews at which they and their attorneys can submit further information in an effort to change the board’s opinion. Purely administrative file reviews take place every six months, and, every three years, prisoners are entitled to full reviews, although in reality those that have taken place — for four men, who all ended up with recommendations for their release — have occurred sooner (between ten months and two years after their initial PRBs). See my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantánamo website for further details. Read the rest of this entry »

15 Years After 9/11, Still Waiting for the Closure of Guantánamo

The US flag at Guantanamo.Exactly 15 years ago, terrorists attacked the United States, killing 2,996 people, in the World Trade Center and on two hijacked aeroplanes, and changing the world forever.

Within a month, the US had invaded Afghanistan, aiming to destroy al-Qaeda and to topple the Taliban regime that had harbored them. That mission was largely accomplished by early 2002, but instead of leaving, the US outstayed its welcome, “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” as Anand Gopal, the journalist and author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, explained to me several years ago.

In addition, of course, the Bush administration — led by a president who knew little about the world, attended by two Republican veterans, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who believed in the president’s right to act as he saw fit in times of emergency, unfettered by any kind of checks and balances (the unitary executive theory) — also set up a secret CIA program of kidnap and torture on a global scale, and prisons in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, in Cuba, where the Geneva Conventions did not apply, and where they tried to pretend that indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial was the new normal, rather than a dangerous aberration. Read the rest of this entry »

No Justice for 14 Tortured “High-Value Detainees” Who Arrived at Guantánamo Ten Years Ago

Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, three of the 14 "high-value detainees" who arrived at Guantanamo from CIA "black sites" ten years ago, on September 6, 2006.I wrote the following article (as “Tortured “High-Value Detainees” Arrived at Guantánamo Exactly Ten Years Ago, But Still There Is No Justice”) 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.

Ten years ago, on September 6, 2006, President Bush announced that secret CIA prisons, whose existence he had always denied, had in fact existed, but had now been closed down, and the prisoners held moved to Guantánamo.

14 men in total were transferred to Guantánamo. Three were named by President Bush — Abu Zubaydah, described as “a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden,” and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, allegedly involved in the 9/11 attacks. Biographies of the 14 were made available, and can be found here. They include three other men allegedly involved in the 9/11 attacks — Walid bin Attash, Ammar al-Baluchi (aka Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali) and Mustafa al-Hawsawi — plus Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, allegedly involved in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian allegedly involved in the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Majid Khan, a Pakistani alleged to be an al-Qaeda plotter in the US, the Indonesian Hambali and two Malaysians, Zubair and Lillie, the Libyan Abu Faraj al-Libi, and a Somali, Gouled Hassan Dourad.

After the men’s arrival, they were not heard from until spring 2007, when Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) were held, which were required to make them eligible for military commission trials. As I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files in 2007, KSM and Walid bin Attash confessed to involvement with terrorism, although others were far less willing to make any kind of confession. Ammar al-Baluchi, for example, a nephew of KSM, and another of the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators, denied advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, or of al-Qaeda. Read the rest of this entry »

Torture Victim Abu Zubaydah, Seen For the First Time in 14 Years, Seeks Release from Guantánamo

Abu Zubaydah: illustration by Brigid Barrett from an article in Wired in July 2013. The photo used is from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.On August 23, 2016, the most notorious torture victim in Guantánamo, Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, better known as Abu Zubaydah, became the 61st prisoner to face a Periodic Review Board, and was seen for the first time by anyone outside of the US military and intelligence agencies, apart from representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, his attorneys and translators, since his capture 14 years and five months ago.

For the Guardian, David Smith wrote, “His dark hair was neat, his moustache and beard impeccably trimmed. His shirt was high-collared and spotlessly white. He sat at the head of the table with a calm, composed mien. It was the first time that the world has seen Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Husayn, also known as Abu Zubaydah, since his capture in Pakistan 14 years ago.” He added that, “[a]fter a brief technical hitch, a TV screen showed a room with a plain white wall and black shiny table. Anyone walking in cold might have assumed that Abu Zubaydah, with the appearance of a doctor or lawyer, was chairing the meeting. To his left sat an interpreter, dressed casually in shirtsleeves, and to his right were two personal representatives in military uniform with papers before them. A counsel was unable to attend due to a family medical emergency.”

Smith also noted that he “sat impassive, expressionless and silent throughout, sometimes resting his head on his hand or putting a finger to his mouth or chin, and studying his detainee profile intently as it was read aloud by an unseen woman.” Read the rest of this entry »

“High-Value Detainee” Hambali Seeks Release from Guantánamo Via Periodic Review Board

Guantanamo prisoner Hambali (Riduan Isamuddin), photographed at Guantanamo, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.On August 18, Hambali, a “high-value detainee” held at Guantánamo since September 2006, became the 60th Guantánamo prisoner to face a Periodic Review Board. The PRBs were set up in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners not already approved for release or facing trials, and the last of 64 reviews will be taking place next week. To date, 33 men have been approved for release, while just 19 men have had their ongoing imprisonment upheld. Eleven further decisions have yet to be taken. For further details, see my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantánamo website.

Hambali, an Indonesian born in April 1964, was born Encep Nurjaman, but is also known as Riduan Isamuddin. In the US government’s unclassified summary for his PRB, he was described as “an operational mastermind in the Southeast Asia-based Islamic extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI),” who “served as the main interface between JI and al-Qa’ida from 2000 until his capture in mid-2003.”

Hambali was seized in Bangkok, Thailand in August 2003, with another “high-value detainee,” Mohammed Bashir bin Lap aka Lillie (ISN 10022), whose review took place three weeks ago, in the same week as another of Hambali’s associates, Mohd Farik bin Amin aka Zubair (ISN 10021). Read the rest of this entry »

Guantánamo “High-Value Detainee” Abu Faraj Al-Libi Seeks Release Via Periodic Review Board

Abu Faraj al-Libi, in a photo from Guantanamo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.On August 16, Mustafa Faraj Muhammad Muhammad Mas’ud al-Jadid al-Uzaybi (ISN 10017), a Libyan prisoner in Guantánamo who is better known as Abu Faraj al-Libi, became the 59th prisoner to have his case reviewed by a Periodic Review Board.

The PRBs — which include 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 — were set up in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners who had not already been approved for release or were facing trials as a result of the recommendations made in reviews conducted in 2009 by another high-level government review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force.

41 of the men judged to be eligible for PRBs were described by the task force as “too dangerous to release,” although the task force conceded that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, meaning that it was not evidence at all, but — and on this the task force was silent — generally untrustworthy information extracted from prisoners subjected to torture or other forms of abuse, or from prisoners bribed with the promise of better living conditions. Read the rest of this entry »

The Last Prisoner to Arrive at Guantánamo, an Afghan Fascinated with US Culture, Asks Review Board to Approve His Release

Afghan prisoner Muhammad Rahim, in a photo taken in Guantanamo by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and made available to his family, who made it publicly available via his lawyers.On August 4, Muhammad Rahim, an Afghan, became the 56th Guantánamo prisoner to face a Periodic Review Board. The PRBs were set up in 2013, and are reviewing the cases of all the prisoners still held who are not facing trials (just ten of the remaining 76 prisoners) or who were not already approved for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009.

33 men have so far been approved for release via the PRBs (and eleven have been released), while 17 have had their ongoing imprisonment held. This is a 67% success rate for the prisoners, and it ought to be embarrassing for the Obama administration, whose task force had concluded that they were “too dangerous to release” or that they should be prosecuted. See my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantánamo website for further information.

Muhammad Rahim, who was born in November or December 1965, was the last prisoner to arrive at Guantánamo, in March 2008, when he was described as “a close associate” of Osama bin Laden. He has been described as a “high-value detainee” — one of only 16 held at the prison — but if this was the case he would surely have been put forward for prosecution, suggesting that, as with so many of the prisoners held at Guantánamo, his significance has been exaggerated. Read the rest of this entry »

Two Yemenis Approved for Release from Guantánamo, as Detention of Two Saudis Upheld, Including Torture Victim Mohammed Al-Qahtani

Yemeni prisoner Musa'ab al-Madhwani, in a photo from Guantanamo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.With just 168 days left for President Obama to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, as he promised when he first took office in January 2009, the reassuring news is that there are now just 76 men held, and 34 of those men have been approved for release. 13 of the 34 were approved for release in Obama’s first year in office, by an inter-agency task force he established to review the cases of all the prisoners held at the start of his presidency, while 21 others have been approved for release since January 2014 by Periodic Review Boards. See my definitive Periodic Review Board list here on the Close Guantánamo website.

The PRBs, another inter-agency process, but this time similar to parole boards, have been reviewing the cases of all the men who are not facing trials and who had not already been approved for release, and, to date, 56 reviews have taken place, with 32 men being approved for release (and eleven of those already freed), and 16 approved for ongoing imprisonment, while eight decisions have yet to be taken. This is a 67% success rate for the prisoners, and ought to be a source of shame for the Obama administration’s task force, which described these men as “too dangerous to release” or recommended them for prosecution back in 2009.

In the cases of those described as “too dangerous to release,” the task force acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, but clearly failed to recognize that their recommendations were based on extreme, and, it turns out, unjustifiable caution. In the cases of those recommended for trials, embarrassingly, the basis for prosecution collapsed in 2012-13 when appeals court judges struck down some of the only convictions secured in the troubled military commission trial system on the basis that the war crimes for which the men had been convicted were not internationally recognized, and had been invented by Congress. Read the rest of this entry »

Ravil Mingazov, the Last Russian in Guantánamo, Is Approved for Release, While Afghan Who Arrived in 2007 Has Ongoing Detention Upheld

Russian prisoner Ravil Mingazov, an ethnic Tatar, photographed before his capture in Pakistan in March 2002 and his transfer to Guantanamo.So after last week’s news that torture victim and best-selling author Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been approved for release from Guantánamo by a Periodic Review Board, there has been more good news this week, as Ravil Mingazov, the last Russian in the prison, has also been approved for release (on July 21), bringing to 30 the number of men approved for release by the PRBs. Just 14 men have had their ongoing imprisonment upheld by the review boards, although one of those decisions also took place last week — for Haroon Gul, known to the US authorities as Haroon al-Afghani, who was one of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo in 2007.

With these 44 results, the success rate for the prisoners is 68%, which is remarkable when you consider that the men in question were all described as “too dangerous to release” or were recommended for prosecution by the last review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, which reviewed all the prisoners’ cases in 2009. With such results, it would be impossible not to conclude that the task force overreacted massively in its recommendations, contained in its final report in January 2010.

With less than six months remaining of the Obama presidency, ten results are still awaited, and ten reviews are still to take place. For further information about the PRBs, see my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantánamo website. 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, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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