A good week at Guantánamo: judge reinstates habeas cases, and the Military Commissions’ chief prosecutor resigns


As regular readers will appreciate, the twists and turns of the Guantánamo story are so unpredictable that a bad week, when, for instance, detainees’ habeas petitions are thrown out of court and the government’s reviled military trials lumber back to life, can be unexpectedly reversed when a judge changes his mind and a government prosecutor opts for early retirement.

As this, of course, is exactly what happened over the last few days. On Friday, District Judge Ricardo Urbina, who, just two weeks ago, dismissed 16 lawsuits, challenging the indefinite imprisonment of at least 40 detainees in Guantánamo, overturned his previous ruling after an appeal from lawyers representing the detainees. As Jurist reported, Urbina’s initial dismissal of the habeas challenges –- pending Supreme Court hearings, probably in December, relating to two high-profile cases, Al-Odah v. United States and Boumediene v. Bush –- had “rendered invalid protocols governing lawyers’ access to detainees and had prompted Department of Justice officials to bar further access until the lawyers agreed to new restrictions allegedly required by security concerns.”

Two weeks ago, as I reported here, it looked as if this meant that lawyers for the detainees would be preventing from having access to their clients until they had jumped through a new series of humiliating hoops –- and that, in the meantime, the administration might take advantage of the hiatus to stealthily return cleared Libyan detainee Abdul Rauf al-Qassim to the country of his birth, where he faces the risk of torture. But no! Completely changing his mind, Urbina not only reinstated the detainees’ habeas petitions, but also indicated that one of his reasons for doing so was his “concern” about the “maneuvering” of the Department of Justice.

In the same article in which I bemoaned Urbina’s initial ruling, I was also crestfallen at the news that the administration’s Stalinesque show trials –- the Military Commissions –- had been revived after suffering what appeared to be a mortal blow just four months ago. Given the go-ahead to stutter back to malignant life by a hastily convened appeals court, it seemed plausible that new trials would take place in the imminent future, and I was preparing, rhetorically, to man the barricades erected by the government-appointed military defense lawyers, currently led, in terms of public pronouncements, by Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, who has persistently argued that the Commissions are rigged, ridiculous, unjust, farcical, a sham, and a lawless process.

Almost as soon as the Commissions were revived, however, the Wall Street Journal (as I described here) reported on a grave spat between Col. Morris Davis, the Commissions’ chief prosecutor, and his superior officer, Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the legal adviser to retired judge Susan Crawford, the “convening authority” overseeing the trials, in which Davis, angry at what he perceived as unwarranted interference from Hartmann, threatened to resign, and, along the way, revealed deep divisions within the administration over how to run its kangaroo courts.

Col. Morris Davis
Col. Morris Davis in happier days.

Clearly not reassured by the response to his outburst, Davis followed up on his threat and handed in his resignation last week, leaving a rudderless Commission process drifting aimlessly until a new chief prosecutor can be found. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman immediately declared, “I don’t anticipate that this will affect in any way the preparation of cases to go before the Military Commissions,” but others are less sure.

Always ready with a damning response, Bill Kuebler told Newsweek, “This is what happens when you try to start a justice system from scratch,” and Wells Dixon, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, underscored Kuebler’s concerns, telling the New York Times, “This is further evidence that the military commission process is completely unraveling,” and adding that this was “endemic to any system that is made up as you go along.” Nor, as Newsweek concluded, will it necessarily be easy to find a replacement for Davis. “Already, two chief prosecutors have come and gone since 2004,” the magazine reported. “As job listings go, this one will have ‘avoid’ stamped all over it.”

It may all have turned again by next week, but for now I’m reassured that something’s going right.

For more on the legal challenges to Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the stumbling progress of the Military Commissions: The reviled Military Commissions collapse (June 2007), A bad week at Guantánamo (Commissions revived, September 2007), The curse of the Military Commissions strikes the prosecutors (September 2007), The story of Mohamed Jawad (October 2007), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), African embassy bombing suspect charged (March 2008), The US military’s shameless propaganda over 9/11 trials (April 2008), Betrayals, backsliding and boycotts (May 2008), Fact Sheet: The 16 prisoners charged (May 2008), Four more charged, including Binyam Mohamed (June 2008), Afghan fantasist to face trial (June 2008), 9/11 trial defendants cry torture (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (five trials dropped, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), An empty trial at Guantánamo (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, October 2008), Life sentence for al-Qaeda propagandist fails to justify Guantánamo trials (al-Bahlul, November 2008), Guilt by Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials at Guantánamo (December 2008), Is the 9/11 trial confession an al-Qaeda coup? (December 2008), The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns Chaotic Trials (Lt. Col. Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Torture taints the case of Mohamed Jawad (January 2009), Bush Era Ends with Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009).

And for a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Obama’s Confusion Over Guantánamo Terror Trials (June 2009).

4 Responses

  1. Betrayals, Backsliding and Boycotts: The Continuing Collapse of Guantánamo’s Military Commissions | freedetainees.org says...

    […] accolade was reserved for Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor for the Commissions, who resigned noisily last October, citing political interference in the process. Once the Commissions’ […]

  2. » Gitmo Charges: Why Now? And What About the Torture? - by Andy Worthington To Be or Not to Be: Is not a question, it is the ultimate temptation (Ahmad Shamlou, Iranian Poet) says...

    […] was undermined last fall by Col. Morris Davis, the commissions’ former chief prosecutor, who resigned his post and then complained that the entire system was compromised by political interference. […]

  3. Andy Worthington: Guantanamo trials: another insignificant Afghan charged | Cross Party Lines says...

    […] since last fall, by Col. Morris Davis, the Commissions’ former chief prosecutor. Col. Davis resigned after complaining that the process had been politicized, and that his superiors not only endorsed […]

  4. Military Commissions Revived: Don’t Do It, Mr. President! « freedetainees.org says...

    […] September 2007), The curse of the Military Commissions strikes the prosecutors (September 2007), A good week at Guantánamo (chief prosecutor resigns, October 2007), The story of Mohamed Jawad (October 2007), The story of […]

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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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