The Tale of Two Tortured Teenagers (in Bagram and Guantánamo)


On Monday, as Barack Obama prepared for his inauguration, and even though George W. Bush had already made his last speech to the nation, hearings resumed at Guantánamo in the cases of a number of prisoners facing trial by Military Commission, the novel and much-criticized system of trials for terror suspects that was conceived by Vice President Dick Cheney and his close advisers in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

In one of his first acts as President, Barack Obama has requested a 120-day suspension of the Commissions, “in the interests of justice,” but as the week began it was business as usual at Guantánamo. Monday’s cases (which were scheduled to continue throughout the week) involved the last scheduled pre-trial hearing in the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian prisoner who was seized in Afghanistan when he was just 15 years old, and a mental competency hearing in the case of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, one of five prisoners accused of planning or supporting the 9/11 attacks.

As bin al-Shibh’s four alleged co-conspirators, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were also in the courtroom, the world’s media took more of an interest in the trials than usual. They joined a small number of regular reporters, as well as relatives of victims of the attacks, who were flown in by the Pentagon in an effort to shore up the last tattered remnants of the Commissions’ legitimacy.

In truth, however, the game was up before Obama’s inauguration. Last week, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a former prosecutor who resigned in September, after explaining that he changed from being a “true believer to someone who felt truly deceived,” when he discovered that the system was both unwilling and incapable of providing the defense teams with exculpatory evidence, submitted an extraordinary declaration in the habeas corpus review of the Afghan prisoner Mohamed Jawad, which exposed, in excruciating detail, how the Commissions’ prosecution office was “chaotic,” and how only a combination of luck and diligence led to his discovery that Jawad was almost certainly not responsible for the grenade attack on two US soldiers and an Afghan translator, for which he was charged, and was, instead, a dirt-poor refugee who was tricked into joining an insurgent group and was drugged at the time of the attack.

Like Omar Khadr, Jawad was a juvenile when seized, and according to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (on the involvement of children in armed conflict), to which the US has been a signatory since January 23, 2003, both young men should have been cared for through physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration, rather than being put forward as the first juveniles to face war crimes charges in the United States since the Second World War.

Lt. Col. Vandeveld’s declaration was not the only blow to the Commissions last week. In an even more damaging incident, Susan Crawford, the Commissions’ Convening Authority, who is responsible for overseeing the trial system and deciding who is to be charged, admitted that she had refused to proceed with a trial last year in the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi suspected of trying and failing to become one of the 9/11 attackers, because he had been tortured. “We tortured Qahtani,” she told Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture.”

This extraordinary admission — the first by a senior administration official — was so significant that it immediately became apparent that, under the terms of the UN Convention Against Torture, to which the US is also a signatory, President Obama would be obliged to pursue those responsible for war crimes.

Moreover, while it has been apparent since a log of al-Qahtani’s interrogation was released in 2005 (PDF) that his 50-day ordeal in late 2002 and early 2003 was indeed torture, the techniques to which he was subjected did not include waterboarding, an ancient torture technique involving controlled drowning, which was reserved for the supposedly “high-value detainees,” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, but rather a combination of other techniques that were applied to over a hundred other prisoners in Guantánamo.

As a Senate Armed Services Committee report concluded last month (PDF), these techniques, which included “stripping detainees of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures,” were partly derived from techniques used by Chinese Communists in the Korean war to produce false confessions. Taught in US military schools as part of a program known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), which was designed to teach US personnel how to resist interrogation if captured, the techniques were reverse engineered for use in the “War on Terror” with baleful results.

As the Committee explained:

The abuse of detainees in US custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of “a few bad apples” acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.

It remains to be seen how far-reaching the effects of Crawford’s confession will be, as the use of torture has infected every aspect of the detention policies instigated by the Bush administration in the “War on Terror,” but it is already clear that her words should have brought an end to the disgraceful pre-trial hearings that began on Monday.

In her interview, Crawford attempted to explain that she “let the charges go forward” in the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendants “because the FBI satisfied her that they gathered information without using harsh techniques,” using so-called “clean teams” who gained fresh confessions without using torture. This is a ludicrous assertion, of course, as it ought to be apparent that a voluntary confession made by a torture victim may well be tainted by the original effects of the torture.

Moreover, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators are not the only prisoners put forward for trial by Military Commission who have been tortured in US custody. Others include Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, who was charged last July, and another “high-value detainee,” Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who was charged last March, and, as I reported in an article last March (Torture Allegations Dog Guantánamo Trials), Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi seized in Azerbaijan, who has claimed that he was tortured in the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and Ibrahim al-Qosi, an alleged al-Qaeda operative. In December 2005, Lt. Col. Sharon Shaffer, who was assigned to represent al-Qosi during the Commissions’ first incarnation (before the Supreme Court ruled them illegal in June 2006, and they were then revived by Congress), explained that she “characterized his treatment as possibly torture but certainly inhumane treatment; he was held in stress positions for protracted periods, subjected to military dogs and sexually humiliated.”

When it comes to Mohamed Jawad and Omar Khadr, the two former juveniles facing trials, the situation is no better. Jawad’s judge has already effectively destroyed the case against him by ruling that the only evidence against him — a confession made in Afghan custody after his capture in December 2002 — was the fruit of torture, and that a second confession, made hours later to US forces, was produced under the effects of that torture. In addition, as was made clear in Lt. Col. Vandeveld’s declaration last week, Jawad was also subjected to abuse at Bagram airbase and at Guantánamo, where, over a two-week period in 2004, he was moved from cell to cell 112 times to prevent him from sleeping, under what was euphemistically termed the “frequent flier program,” but which, in the real world, would be known as prolonged sleep deprivation, which is itself a form of torture.

Similar problems afflict the case of Omar Khadr, who was tortured from the moment he was taken into custody at Bagram, despite being severely wounded after the firefight that led to his capture. Amongst other cruelties, Khadr was refused any medication for his wounds, was hung from his wrists for long periods of time, and, as an article in Rolling Stone explained, was “ordered to clean floors on his hands and knees while his wounds were still wet.”

In Guantánamo his torture continued, when he was subjected to the reverse engineered SERE techniques. He told his lawyers that he was “short-shackled by his hands and feet to a bolt in the floor and left for five to six hours,” and that “occasionally a US officer would enter the room to laugh at him.” He also said that he was “kept in extremely cold rooms,” “lifted up by the neck while shackled, and then dropped to the floor,” and “beaten by guards.” In one particularly notorious incident, the guards left him short-shackled until he urinated on himself, and then “poured a pine-scented cleaning fluid over him and used him as a ‘human mop’ to clean up the mess.”

All this abuse took place even though, like Mohamed Jawad, Khadr was almost certainly not responsible for the main crime for which he was charged: killing a US soldier with a hand grenade. In Khadr’s case, it was not until November 2007 that it became apparent that the prosecution had suppressed or even altered evidence that conflicted with the story that the Commissions were trying to sell: that Khadr was not a teenager but a terrorist.

As the ACLU calls on Barack Obama to close Guantánamo, to scrap the Military Commissions, and to call off the proposed trials of two young men who have been brutalized for over six years in US custody when they should have been rehabilitated, I leave the last word to Damien Corsetti, a former US interrogator at Bagram. Accused of abusing Ahmed al-Darbi, Corsetti was cleared of the charges, and has since become a fierce critic of the administration’s “War on Terror” detention policies.

On Monday, as Corsetti arrived at Guantánamo to testify about what happened to Khadr at Bagram, where he was one of the few guards to befriend him, he explained to Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, “I firmly believe it was torture and unfortunately I took part in it … I was a believer at one time, I was. I guess this is just me trying to make it a little bit right. You know? Maybe get some closure to it. We’ll see.”

Andy Worthington is the author of 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.

As written exclusively for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

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), A good week at Guantánamo (chief prosecutor resigns, October 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), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009).

2 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    Why should it require luck and diligence to see that this sort of treatment of fellow human beings is breathtakingly, devastatingly wrong? For me, the cumulative effect of even reading the details of abuse in these posts has become something of a trial. My eyes burn, they sting with tears, they close all by themselves to shut out the horror.

    There are so many ways to hurt people. Really such an easy thing to do. And if they’ve already been flayed, even the suggestion of a menacing touch is almost as if the wound had been inflicted anew.

    It seems we have approached exhausting the catalog and have written the inverse of the Kama Sutra. I ache–bodily, mentally, emotionally, spiritually–for justice, and most importantly, most immediately, for their release. Let my people go.

  2. Hilary Cass says...

    I found this site via another. I am, and have been since its inception, horrified by the total disregard for law, either American or International in setting up the prison camp at Guantanamo. I am a Canadian and am heartily ashamed that despite frequent petitions and calls and protests, the Canadian government, under our current right wing conservative prime minister Stephen Harper (an ardent supporter of George Bush) would make not the slightest effort to have Omar Khadr repatriated to Canada. He is the only western prisoner not to be claimed by the appropriate government. Khadr was born in Canada and is the son of a fund raiser for Ben Laden. His father was killed in a raid on their compound and his family has been very critical of the west. However this boy was 15 years old at the time of his capture – what choice did he have?- There is no credible evidence that he in fact did the crime of which he is accused and even if he did he was a child at the time. The internet is full of hate messages from Canadians referring to him as a maggot and basically requesting that he be shot at dawn. Have they no teenage sons? If Omar were released tomorrow and returned to Canada I would fear for his safety. I cannot imagine what kind of life this young man can make for himself. Without the rule of law there is no civilization. Shame on Canada, shame on America, shame on humanity.

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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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