Guantánamo and Habeas Corpus: Prisoners Win 3 out of 4 Cases, But Lose 5 out of 6 in Court of Appeals (Part Two)


Last week, in the first part of this two-part series, I began looking at how the Conservative-dominated D.C. Circuit Court has responded to the rulings in the District Court regarding the habeas petitions of the prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, where, to date, 38 out of 53 cases have been won by the prisoners. In my article, I examined the first three appeals considered by the Circuit Court, and noted that, although none were contentious (to the extent that they were appeals against habeas petitions that had been denied), in each case the Circuit Court, while upholding the men’s detention, made a point of trying to expand the government’s powers.

In January this year, the Court attempted (against the government’s wishes) to argue that the international laws of war were irrelevant to the detention of men at Guantánamo and the legislation underpinning it (the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed the week after the 9/11 attacks), and in two cases in June, the Court took exception to the prevailing requirement for detention accepted in the District Court — that the men be part of the “command structure” of al-Qaeda or the Taliban — arguing that merely being “part of” either organization was enough.

As I have maintained for the last year and half, the problems with the AUMF — which the District Court judges are not empowered to discuss, even if they wanted — is that it fails to distinguish between al-Qaeda (a terrorist organization) and the Taliban (the government of Afghanistan at the time of the US-led invasion in October 2001). The result of this confusion is that the majority of the men who have lost their habeas petitions (and whose detention is being robustly upheld by the Circuit Court) were, at best, minor players in a military conflict that had nothing to do with al-Qaeda’s international terrorist operations, and therefore the Circuit Court, with its enthusiasm for endorsing detention, is taking us further away from the kind of discussion we should be having about the purpose of Guantánamo and the ongoing detention of the men held there.

A rare victory: Circuit Court orders lower court to reconsider the case of Belkacem Bensayah, an Algerian kidnapped in Bosnia

Despite the Circuit Court’s prevailing enthusiasm for endorsing ongoing detention, there was a surprise on June 28, when a panel led by Judge Douglas Ginsburg actually ruled in favor of a prisoner, ordering the lower court to reconsider whether Belkacem Bensayah, an Algerian, and one of six men kidnapped in Bosnia-Herzegovina in January 2002 and rendered to Guantánamo, was involved in any way with al-Qaeda.

In November 2008, Judge Richard Leon had granted the habeas petitions of five men seized with Bensayah, but had ruled that the government had provided “credible and reliable evidence,” from a number of sources, “linking Mr. Bensayah to al-Qaeda and, more specifically, to a senior al-Qaeda facilitator,” and had denied his petition.

In dismissing Judge Leon’s conclusion on June 28 (PDF), Judge Ginsburg said “the evidence upon which the district court relied in concluding Bensayah ‘supported’ al-Qaeda is insufficient … to show he was part of that organization.” He added, “The government presented no direct evidence of actual communication between Bensayah and any al-Qaeda member,” and also noted that, after Judge Leon had delivered his ruling, the Obama administration stepped back from a claim that a “senior al-Qaeda operative and facilitator” was a witness against Bensayah.

That man, it is clear from analyses of the case over many years, was Abu Zubaydah, the supposed “high-value detainee,” for whom the CIA’s torture program was initially introduced, and who, it turned out, was not a member of al-Qaeda at all, and had no knowledge of any international terrorist plots, including 9/11. In a case appealed in the Circuit Court the week before Bensayah’s — that of Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian seized with Zubaydah — the judges failed to recognize that the government had backed down from most of its claims about Zubaydah, and, shamefully, relied on long-discredited statements made by Ahmed Ressam, the failed “Millennium Bomber,” who is now serving a 22-year sentence in a US prison, as part of its justification for upholding Barhoumi’s detention.

The collapse of the case against Zubaydah — primarily because torture encourages its victims to make up a pack of lies to get it to stop — has been so significant that allegations made by him or about him have stealthily disappeared from the charge sheets in numerous cases — not only at Guantánamo, but also in other countries. In Bensayah’s case, however, the discussions regarding his significance — or lack of it — have surfaced over the years, and in an article in the New York Times in March this year, Charlie Savage explained how Bensayah’s case had also provided a test for the Obama administration regarding the perceived scope of its detention powers.

The article was fascinating for the revelations that, last spring, career lawyers at the Justice Department resisted narrowing the definition of who could legally be held at Guantánamo, after Judge John D. Bates asked for a current definition, fearing that “rolling back the Bush position might make it harder to win,” but that White House Counsel Greg Craig shepherded President Obama to a position in which “only people who were part of al-Qaeda or its affiliates, or their ‘substantial’ supporters” could be detained — the definition that Judge Bates later refined by proposing that the “key inquiry” for determining whether an individual has become “part of” one or more of these organizations is “whether the individual functions or participates within or under the command structure of the organization — i.e., whether he receives and executes orders or directions.”

Last summer, after Craig had already been sidelined for his fearless approach to dismantling the Bush administration’s policies, the case of Belkacem Bensayah arose as a test for the administration, given that he had been seized “far from the active combat zone” and had, essentially, only been accused of “facilitating the travel of people who wanted to go to Afghanistan to join al-Qaeda.”

Savage reported that Harold Koh, who became the State Department’s senior lawyer in June, “produced a lengthy, secret memo contending that there was no support in the laws of war for the United States’ position in the Bensayah case.” Koh was up against Jeh Johnson at the Pentagon, who also produced a secret memo arguing for “a more flexible interpretation of who could be detained under the laws of war.”

In September, according to Savage, Koh and Johnson debated the issues in a packed room in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (which advices the Executive branch on what is legally permissible), with David Barron, the OLC’s acting head, called upon to “decide who was right.” Instead, however, Barron refused to decide, circulating a memo in which he stated that the OLC “had found no precedents justifying the detention of mere supporters of al-Qaeda who were picked up far from enemy forces” and “was not prepared to state any definite conclusion.”

As Savage explained, the upshot was a mess, a “tactical approach” that involved lawyers trying to avoid the question “as long as possible.” He added, “They changed the subject by instead asking courts to agree that people like Mr. Bensayah, looked at from another angle, had performed functions that made them effectively part of the terrorist organization — and so were clearly detainable.”

In the end, however, the Circuit Court concluded that there was no evidence that Bensayah had “performed” any “functions” for al-Qaeda at all. The key allegation, which apparently involved phone calls that Bensayah had supposedly made to Abu Zubaydah, disappeared like a will o’ the wisp, and perhaps hinged on a solitary document marked, “INFORMATION REPORT, NOT FINALLY EVALUATED INTELLIGENCE.” In its place, as Judge Ginsburg noted, there was little more than a claim that Bensayah had “experience in obtaining and traveling in and out of numerous countries on fraudulent passports,” and, as Bensayah himself admitted, he had “used multiple travel documents, ‘some of which were in an assumed name,’ but [only] in order to avoid being sent back to Algeria, “where he reasonably feared prosecution.” As Judge Ginsburg added:

He presented “unrebutted declarations” that “mere possession and use of false travel documents is neither proof of involvement with terrorism nor evidence of facilitation of travel by others.” We agree.

While Bensayah waits to see if his case will indeed by reconsidered by Judge Leon, or whether, as his Bosnian wife told a Balkan website, he “will be released soon,” he is probably fortunate that, even with no evidence against him, his appeal came up before a panel led by Judge Ginsburg, rather than, for example, Judge A. Raymond Randolph, whose record on Guantánamo is notoriously inflexible, and is discussed below.

Fawzi al-Odah, who attended a training camp for one day, has his appeal denied

Two days after the Bensayah ruling, on June 30, a different Circuit Court panel dismissed the appeal of Fawzi al-Odah, a Kuwaiti who lost his habeas petition last August, when, as I explained at the time:

[T]he government secured another shallow victory when Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly denied the habeas petition of Fawzi al-Odah, a Kuwaiti prisoner, agreeing with the government that it was “more likely than not” that he “became part of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan.” Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling was based on a dubious assemblage of information that relied more on inconsistencies in al-Odah’s account of his activities than it did on anything resembling concrete evidence, as she herself admitted, when she wrote that there were “significant reasons why the Government’s proffered evidence may not be accurate or authentic.”

Al-Odah has always claimed that he took a break from work and traveled to Afghanistan in August 2001 to teach the Koran and provide humanitarian aid (which he had done previously in other countries), and has also admitted that he established contact with the Taliban, as they were the government at the time, and spent one day at a Taliban-controlled training camp. He has also stated that, after the US-led invasion, he was sent by a Taliban representative to a safer location outside Kabul, and, from there, traveled to Jalalabad, where he stayed with another family, who gave him an AK-47 assault rifle to protect himself. He then joined other people crossing the mountains to Pakistan, where he handed himself in to the border guards, and was subsequently handed over — or sold — to US forces.

While Judge Kollar-Kotelly was undoubtedly justified in finding numerous holes in al-Odah’s account of his activities, including asking why he did not flee Afghanistan before traveling to Jalalabad, and why he allowed himself to travel with other armed men through the Tora Bora mountains, the result of her ruling, as I explained at the time, was that:

[N]early eight years after the 9/11 attacks, the United States is still asserting that it has the right to hold a young man who spent just one day at a training camp, who did not flee Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks (perhaps because he feared reprisals if he was found escaping), who traveled with other men to Kabul, and then to Logar and then to Tora Bora and his eventual capture, with no evidence that he ever used the weapon he was given, and no evidence that his training involved anything more than firing a few rounds from an AK-47 in a practice session.

In al-Odah’s appeal, the Circuit Court panel, led by Chief Judge David B. Sentelle, dismissed challenges regarding the “preponderance of evidence” standard for detention, and the use of hearsay evidence, dismissing the first “under binding precedent in this circuit,” and the second because the Supreme Court in Hamdi [v. Rumsfeld, the 2004 case that approved the detention of prisoners under the AUMF] stated that “[h]earsay … may need to be accepted as the most reliable available evidence from the Government” in the prisoners’ habeas petitions, and because of the precedent established by the Circuit Court in the cases of Adham Ali Awad and Sufyian Barhoumi, discussed in the first part of this article.

When it came to examining the basis of the evidence against al-Odah, the court began by noting that he “has a heavy burden to meet to have this court reverse the district court’s factual findings that are the underpinnings of its determination,” and then, predictably, dismissed all of his challenges, leaving unanswered the question I asked last year — about whether it ought to be justifiable to hold indefinitely a young man who attended a training camp for one day, and does not appear to have ever raised arms against US forces.

The Circuit Court’s disdainful dismissal of Mohammed al-Adahi’s successful habeas petition

A final blow for the prisoners came on July 13, when the Circuit Court, for the first time, reversed a successful habeas petition (PDF). The prisoner in question is Mohammed al-Adahi, a Yemeni who had accompanied his sister to Afghanistan to marry a man who was undoubtedly connected to al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, last August, Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that, despite this, al-Adahi himself had no connection to al-Qaeda, and granted his habeas petition.

There was abundant evidence to suggest that she was correct — primarily that he had never previously left Yemen, where he had a respectable job, that he was obliged to accompany his sister, who was not allowed to travel alone, and that he was kicked out of a training camp during his stay because he broke the rules by smoking — but when the government’s appeal came before a panel including Judge Randolph (notorious for endorsing every piece of Guantánamo-related legislation that was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court), the Court reversed Judge Kessler’s ruling, with Judge Randolph describing it as “manifestly incorrect — indeed startling.”

In what I can only characterize as a vile assault on Judge Kessler’s integrity, Judge Randolph, as explained, wrote that Kessler’s “consideration of each piece of evidence on its own merits, instead of as part of a whole, was a ‘fundamental mistake that infected the court’s entire analysis.’” He then chastised Kessler for having “failed to consider ‘conditional probability analysis’ in weighing the government’s evidence, which he explain[ed] as a theory that the occurrence of one event makes another event either more or less likely.”

Judge Randolph also stated that the District Court “erred in its treatment of the evidence” and “reached [its] conclusion through a series of legal errors,” adding, “When the evidence is properly considered, it becomes clear that Al-Adahi was — at the very least — more likely than not a part of al-Qaeda. And that is all the government had to show in order to satisfy the preponderance standard.”

One of al-Adahi’s lawyers, John A. Chandler, said he was “utterly stunned” by the ruling, telling the New York Times, “Mr. al-Adahi is not and has never been a member of al-Qaeda or a terrorist.” reported that his team would either ask for an en banc rehearing or petition the Supreme Court to hear the case, and stated that Chandler “criticized the appeals court for reassessing the evidence being used to hold al-Adahi instead of assessing the trial court’s ruling for errors of law.” As Chandler explained, “The appellate court pretty clearly wanted to find he was al-Qaeda and substituted their judgment on the facts for the judgment of the trial court, when the trial court is supposed to make decisions of fact.”

However, what was more worrying than Judge Randolph’s dismissal of Judge Kessler’s reasoning was his additional assault on the “preponderance of the evidence” standard established by Senior District Judge Thomas F. Hogan in the Case Management Order governing the habeas petitions in November 2008, which, of course, is already considerably lower than what is required in federal court trials.

After a hearing in February in al-Adahi’s case, Judge Randolph had ordered the government and al-Adahi’s lawyers to file new briefs “suggesting what factual proof — ‘if any’ — the government needed to support continued detention,” as SCOTUSblog explained, and had found that the results “were not exactly illuminating.” Fudging — as was to be expected from the analysis of backroom maneuvering described above — the government defended the “preponderance” standard as “appropriate,” but added that “a different and more deferential standard” might be appropriate in other, unexplained situations.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Judge Randolph stated in the ruling on al-Adahi that “we doubt” that the Constitution “requires the use of the preponderance standard.” He added that the District Court judges “had not said why they were using that approach, but that Judge Hogan had indicated it was based on the Supreme Court’s Boumediene decision” in June 2008, which granted the prisoners habeas rights.

“But,” Judge Randolph wrote, “Boumediene held only that the ‘extent of the showing required of the Government in these cases is a matter to be determined,’” and then proposed that it “should equal the scope of habeas rights as they existed in 1789, when the Constitution was written” (as SCOTUSblog described it), and when, as Randolph obviously delighted in pointing out, there appeared to be “no precedent in which 18th Century English courts adopted a preponderance standard.”

To understand quite how depressing this proposal is, it should be noted that, the last time anyone argued in a court that “some evidence” should be sufficient to justify detentions in wartime — or, to be more accurate, in the “War on Terror” — was during the Bush administration, before the Supreme Court intervened to try to ensure that the men in Guantánamo were held for some reason other than the kind of inadequate evidence that Judge Randolph finds appropriate.

And yet, eight and a half years after Guantánamo opened, Judge Randolph has shifted the clock back to the intolerably poor detention standards of those years, which the District Court has been doing so much to challenge in the two years since Boumediene. The result, as SCOTUSblog explained, is that “even if the Justice Department did not now take the Circuit Court’s hint to propose a ‘some evidence’ standard for use in the remaining Guantánamo cases, the way the panel interpreted the preponderance standard would seem to ease the government’s burden of proof significantly.”

If al-Adahi’s case is anything to go by, that is nothing short of a disaster.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation, as “Guantánamo and Habeas Corpus: Wins and Losses, Part 2.” Cross-posted on The Public Record and Uruknet.

For an overview of all the habeas rulings, including links to all my articles, and to the judges’ unclassified opinions, see: Guantánamo Habeas Results: The Definitive List. For a sequence of articles dealing with the Guantánamo habeas cases, see: Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history and Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: What Happened? (both December 2007), The Supreme Court’s Guantánamo ruling: what does it mean? (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (Uighurs’ first court victory, June 2008), What’s Happening with the Guantánamo cases? (July 2008), Government Says Six Years Is Not Long Enough To Prepare Evidence (September 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), Guilt By Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), After 7 Years, Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo Kidnap Victims (November 2008), Is Robert Gates Guilty of Perjury in Guantánamo Torture Case? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), The Top Ten Judges of 2008 (January 2009), No End in Sight for the “Enemy Combatants” of Guantánamo (January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (January 2009), How Cooking For The Taliban Gets You Life In Guantánamo (January 2009), Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), The Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants (March 2009), Farce at Guantánamo, as cleared prisoner’s habeas petition is denied (April 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Judge Condemns “Mosaic” Of Guantánamo Intelligence, And Unreliable Witnesses (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies (May 2009), Free The Guantánamo Uighurs! (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part One): Exposing The Bush Administration’s Lies (July 2009), Obama’s Failure To Deliver Justice To The Last Tajik In Guantánamo (July 2009), Obama And The Deadline For Closing Guantánamo: It’s Worse Than You Think (July 2009), How Judge Huvelle Humiliated The Government In Guantánamo Case (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), As Judge Orders Release Of Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner, Government Refuses To Concede Defeat (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), Guantánamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave (August 2009), Judge Orders Release From Guantánamo Of Kuwaiti Charity Worker (August 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part Two): Obama’s Shame (August 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part Three): Obama’s Continuing Shame (August 2009), No Escape From Guantánamo: The Latest Habeas Rulings (September 2009), First Guantánamo Prisoner To Lose Habeas Hearing Appeals Ruling (September 2009), A Truly Shocking Guantánamo Story: Judge Confirms That An Innocent Man Was Tortured To Make False Confessions (September 2009), 75 Guantánamo Prisoners Cleared For Release; 31 Could Leave Today (September 2009), Resisting Injustice In Guantánamo: The Story Of Fayiz Al-Kandari (October 2009), Justice Department Pointlessly Gags Guantánamo Lawyer (November 2009), Judge Orders Release Of Algerian From Guantánamo (But He’s Not Going Anywhere) (November 2009), Innocent Guantánamo Torture Victim Fouad al-Rabiah Is Released In Kuwait (December 2009), What Does It Take To Get Out Of Obama’s Guantánamo? (December 2009), “Model Prisoner” at Guantánamo, Tortured in the “Dark Prison,” Loses Habeas Corpus Petition (December 2009), Judge Orders Release From Guantánamo Of Unwilling Yemeni Recruit (December 2009), Serious Problems With Obama’s Plan To Move Guantánamo To Illinois (December 2009), Appeals Court Extends President’s Wartime Powers, Limits Guantánamo Prisoners’ Rights (January 2010), Fear and Paranoia as Guantánamo Marks its Eighth Anniversary (January 2010), Rubbing Salt in Guantánamo’s Wounds: Task Force Announces Indefinite Detention (January 2010), The Black Hole of Guantánamo (March 2010), Guantánamo Uighurs Back in Legal Limbo (March 2010), Guantánamo and Habeas Corpus: The Torture Victim and the Taliban Recruit (April 2010), An Insignificant Yemeni at Guantánamo Loses His Habeas Petition (April 2010), With Regrets, Judge Allows Indefinite Detention at Guantánamo of a Medic (April 2010), Mohamedou Ould Salahi: How a Judge Demolished the US Government’s Al-Qaeda Claims (April 2010), Judge Rules Yemeni’s Detention at Guantánamo Based Solely on Torture (April 2010), Why Judges Can’t Free Torture Victims from Guantánamo (April 2010), How Binyam Mohamed’s Torture Was Revealed in a US Court (May 2010), Guantánamo and Habeas Corpus: Consigning Soldiers to Oblivion (May 2010), Judge Denies Habeas Petition of an Ill and Abused Libyan in Guantánamo (May 2010), Judge Orders Release from Guantánamo of Russian Caught in Abu Zubaydah’s Web (May 2010), No Escape from Guantánamo: Uighurs Lose Again in US Court (June 2010), Does Obama Really Know or Care About Who Is at Guantánamo? (June 2010), Guantánamo and Habeas Corpus: 2 Years, 50 Cases, 36 Victories for the Prisoners (June 2010), Obama Thinks About Releasing Innocent Yemenis from Guantánamo (June 2010), Calling for US Accountability on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (June 2010), Judge Orders Release from Guantánamo of Yemeni Seized in Iran, Held in Secret CIA Prisons (July 2010), Innocent Student Finally Released from Guantánamo (July 2010).

6 Responses

  1. Tweets that mention Guantánamo and Habeas Corpus: Prisoners Win 3 out of 4 Cases, But Lose 5 out of 6 in Court of Appeals (Part Two) | Andy Worthington -- says...

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dominique Rodier and Andy Worthington, Susan Hall. Susan Hall said: Guantánamo and Habeas Corpus: Prisoners Win 3 out of 4 Cases, But Lose 5 out of 6 in Court of Appe.. […]

  2. Christmas At Guantánamo « Eurasia Review says...

    […] four other Yemenis who won their habeas petitions: Mohammed al-Adahi, whose successful petition was reversed by the D.C. Circuit Court in July, Saeed Hatim, who won his petition last December, Uthman Mohammed Uthman, who won his […]

  3. Judges Rule Evidence Not Necessary To Hold Guantánamo Prisoners For Rest Of Their Lives – OpEd « Eurasia Review says...

    […] Habeas Corpus: Prisoners Win 3 out of 4 Cases, But Lose 5 out of 6 in Court of Appeals (Part One), Guantánamo and Habeas Corpus: Prisoners Win 3 out of 4 Cases, But Lose 5 out of 6 in Court of Appea… and Habeas Hell: How the Great Writ Was Gutted at […]

  4. Can Kuwait Break The Guantánamo Deadlock? - OpEd says...

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  5. Who Are Remaining Prisoners In Guantánamo? Part Three: Captured Crossing From Afghanistan Into Pakistan » World Uyghur Congress says...

    […] evidence may not be accurate or authentic.’” Al-Odah appealed the ruling, but his appeal was denied by the D.C. Circuit Court in June this year. The result, as I also explained, is that, nine years after the 9/11 attacks, […]

  6. American Gulag: Evidence Is Not Necessary to Hold Guantánamo Prisoners for the Rest of Their Lives (Andy Worthington) says...

    […] Corpus: Prisoners Win 3 out of 4 Cases, But Lose 5 out of 6 in Court of Appeals (Part One), Guantánamo and Habeas Corpus: Prisoners Win 3 out of 4 Cases, But Lose 5 out of 6 in Court of Appea… and Habeas Hell: How the Great Writ Was Gutted at […]

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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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