Trial at Guantánamo: What Shall We Do With The Torture Victim?


At Guantánamo on Wednesday, one of the most notorious torture victims of the Bush administration — Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — was arraigned for his trial by Military Commission, charged with masterminding the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, off the coast of Yemen, which killed 17 US sailors and wounded 39 others. Al-Nashiri is also one of three “high-value detainees” who, under the Bush administration, was subjected to waterboarding, an ancient form of torture that involves controlled drowning.

Appearing publicly for the first time in nine years, al-Nashiri, a millionaire and a merchant before his capture, who is now 46 years old, was clean-shaven, and responded politely when asked by the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, whether he understood the proceedings, and whether “he accepted the services of his Pentagon-paid defense team.” As the Miami Herald described it, he replied, “At this moment these lawyers are doing the right job.”

For those who support George W. Bush’s attempts to twist the law out of shape in an attempt to claim that torture was not torture, and then to use it on “high-value detainees” in a series of despicable torture dungeons located in other countries, the trial of al-Nashiri at Guantánamo is something of a triumph, although it is difficult to see how the torture apologists reach this conclusion.

In fact, al-Nashiri’s arraignment, nine years after he was first seized in the United Arab Emirates, is a disgrace. He was held in torture prisons in Thailand and Poland (where prosecutors are investigating his torture claims), and possibly also in Romania, Lithuania and Morocco — and what distinguishes these locations from other prisons is how the Bush administration had to undergo devious, underhand negotiations to site its prisons on foreign soil. This rather tends to prove that torture was still torture, however much John Yoo, a compliant lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, said it wasn’t in a series of notorious memos that will forever be known as the “torture memos,” because if it was legal, then why was all the dirty subterfuge needed?

For the supporters of Guantánamo and torture, the sordid details of his treatment are not generally discussed, perhaps because it might be revealed how he was only held in a prison in Thailand until the Thai government got fed up with harboring American torturers, and was then sent to Poland, where, eventually, the same thing happened. His torture, according to the apologists, was supposed to show robustness and resolve on the part of the Bush administration, and not the fairly desperate maneuverings of abusers who knew that their activities were illegal.

The apologists also shrug off the alarming truth that al-Nashiri was waterboarded, and also shrug off the findings of the CIA Inspector General, who concluded, in a report in 2004, that CIA operatives had gone too far when they threatened him with a gun and a power drill while he was hooded, and also made threats against his family. Another way of expressing this would be to note that the use of the gun and the drill constituted “mock executions.”

To the best of our knowledge, the torture of al-Nashiri yielded no useful intelligence. However, because of the way he was treated, and because of the Bush administration’s foolish insistence that terror suspects were not criminals, but “warriors” in a possibly endless “war on terror,” the federal court trial that should have taken place shortly after his capture in 2002, if there was any evidence that he masterminded the bombing of the USS Cole, never took place.

Nine years on, supporters of military trials for terror suspects may be celebrating because al-Nashiri’s trial by Military Commission is finally going ahead, although, in the meantime, numerous other terror suspects have been successfully prosecuted in federal courts. Supporters of Guantánamo and torture tend to ignore the many successful federal court trials of the last decade, choosing instead to believe that being tortured in secret CIA prisons and then held in Guantánamo somehow makes prisoners like al-Nashiri much more significant than these other terror suspects.

How else do we explain the uproar over the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the only prisoner held in secret CIA torture prisons and then Guantánamo to be transferred to the US mainland to face a federal court trial? Ghailani was transferred in May 2009 (before Congress imposed a ban on the transfer of any more prisoners for trials on the US mainland), and was tried last fall, convicted and given a life sentence in January this year.

Even so, the supporters of the Military Commissions tried to portray his trial as a failure, and continue to rail against federal court trials for terror suspects, even going so far, in passages included in the National Defense Authoization Act, which is currently being examined by Congress, as to demand mandatory military custody for all terror suspects in future, even though that will cripple the ability of law enforcement officials to effectively investigate their crimes, and even though the military has shown no willingness to become a misplaced policeman for deranged ideologues in Congress.

President Obama is also to blame for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri’s presence in a courtroom in Guantánamo, because his administration revived the Commissions in the summer of 2009, deciding that federal court trials were appropriate for some Guantánamo prisoners, and Military Commissions for others. That allowed the opponents of federal court trials to campaign against them, pushing the administration to drop its plans to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks in New York, and obliging senior officials (and specifically Attorney General Eric Holder) to undertake a humiliating climbdown, and to announce that federal court trials were off the agenda, and the Military Commissions were the only game in town.

That led directly to the notion that mandatory military custody for terror suspects is somehow acceptable, when it is clearly not, and left the administration, like an unconvincing puppeteer, holding Military Commission trials at Guantánamo which they have so far failed to endorse confidently, reaching plea deals in all three cases dealt with to date — those of Ibrahim al-Qosi, Noor Uthman Muhammed and Omar Khadr.

As a capital case and one involving such well-publicized torture, al-Nashiri’s case is much more of a test for the Obama administration, which cannot, for once, shirk its responsibilities through a plea deal. There is no way of knowing, as yet, if al-Nashiri will find a way to fundamentally challenge the administration, or if his trial will, in spite of the precedents established throughout the Commissions’ inglorious history, somehow proceed smoothly, but it seems unlikely.

At the arraignment, Richard Kammen, one of al-Nashiri’s defense attorneys, made it clear that questions about his client’s treatment would form part of the defense’s case. “Is torture a mitigating factor?” he asked Col. Pohl, to which the judge replied that the question would be appropriate when — if — al-Nashiri came to be sentenced. As the Miami Herald also explained, “Kammen also asked Pohl if he would fulfill his obligation under international treaty to report to ‘outside authorities’ evidence that Nashiri’s ‘torture’ was arranged by high public officials, doctors, psychiatrists and lawyers,” to which the judge replied, “I will comply with the law.”

That sounds promising, but as the media focus drifts away from Guantánamo once more with the realization that al-Nashiri’s trial will not begin for at least a year, it is also worth recalling that, fundamentally, this is not the right venue for the trial of anyone accused of terrorism, or, indeed, of war crimes that are not real, and were only invented by Congress in 2006 and revived, fundamentally unaltered, in 2009.

Instead, the courtroom at Guantánamo, where the world is supposed to see justice being delivered, is composed in equal parts of an ideological fixation, on the part of Republicans, and an unconvincing capitulation, on the part of the administration, and these are not the correct ingredients for a fair trial, especially as the Obama administration has refused to confirm that, should al-Nashiri somehow not be convicted, there is no guarantee that he will be released, which, of course, makes a mockery of the entire process.

Note: The courtroom sketch above is by Janet Hamlin, and is courtesy of Janet Hamlin Illustration.

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Jo Ann Ryan wrote:

    this should not happen :(:(:(:(:(

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jo Ann. l know, it’s a depressing situation to be in nine years after his capture, and with such a dreadful legacy of torture. I didn’t mention in the article how he’s being tried for war crimes from a time when the US wasn’t at war with al-Qaeda, which is obviously something of a problem, but above all I do think that it’s inappropriate for him to be tried in a Military Commission at Guantanamo, and that he should have been tried in a federal court on the US mainland. And, of course, as I mentioned, that should have taken place soon after his capture, without any of the torture, extraordinary rendition and secret prisons. That’s what particularly should have been learned, but it’s not what Republican lawmakers think, as they push for the mandatory military custody of “terror suspects,” and, in turn, Obama must bear the blame for not holding torturers to account, and not scrapping federal court trials for good.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Louise Gordon wrote:


  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Louise. Good to hear from you.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Rene Aalbers wrote:

    if the US wishes to end terrorism, this is certainly counter-productive !!!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Rene. That’s certainly difficult to argue with!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Malcolm Bush wrote:

    A secret trial will only leave unanswered questions, such trials have in the past been used to achieve not guilty verdicts; this makes things even more questionable. A trial should be focused on deciding if the defendant is guilty or not, considering all that is relevant; not to show that there is no evidence against the authorities.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Chris Dorsey wrote:

    Thanks Andy sharing.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Digging and sharing, Andy.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Malcolm, Chris and George — and everyone who has shared this to date. It’s much appreciated. And I agree, Malcolm, that, as you put it, trials should be about fairness, and “not to show that there is no evidence against the authorities.”

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Ahmad Belal wrote:

    Shared ….. Andy I have still doubts regarding such trials. I believe its a good effort but we have witnessed the case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui . So how can some one trust their Justice system?

    We need another effort for the reformation of their trial system. I think they should be trialed in their home country or somewhere else but not in USA.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Ahmad. Yes, I agree with your doubts, of course. Federal courts have problems, largely because of the “material support” provisions and excessive sentencing, but they are at least legitimate, and can be reformed, whereas the Military Commissions have been a broken system from the beginning, and keep feeding the dangerous notion, first advanced under the Bush administration, that terrorists acts are not crimes, but acts of war, when that’s simply not true.

  13. Gordon Gallacher says...

    Andy, I know this is not the point of your excellent article, but it’s interesting to note the difference in the treatment of the man being charged with attacking (or plotting against) the USS Cole, and the even more deadly attack on the USS Liberty in 1967, in which more than 30 US personnel lost their lives. No moves were ever made against those perpetrators; indeed the US made signifcant efforts to block investigation of the matter. Of course, the latter attack was carried out by the Israelis.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Gordon. That’s very interesting. I had heard mention of the USS Liberty over the years, but had never found the time to follow up.
    Here’s Wikipedia:
    And here’s a key quote: The attack remains “the only maritime incident in U.S. history where U.S. military forces were killed that was never investigated by the United States Congress.”

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Re-posted, tweeted, thanks again, Andy.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Willy, Good to hear from you.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    For the Spanish version of the campaigning organizatipn, The World Can’t Wait, this has just been translated into Spanish:

    Here’s the opening paragraphs:

    El miércoles en Guantánamo, una de las víctimas más conocidas de la tortura de la administración de Bush — Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — fue citado para su juicio por la comisión militar, acusado de ser el cerebro del bombardeo al USS Cole el año 2000, cerca de las costas de Yemen, donde murieron 17 marinos estadounidenses y otros 9 quedaron heridos.

    Al-Nashiri es también uno de los tres “detenidos más valiosos” que, bajo la administración de Bush, fue sometido a submarino, una antigua forma de tortura que implica el ahogamiento simulado.

  18. Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri: The Torture Victim the US Is Desperate to Gag | Andy Worthington « says...

    […] denying reality when it comes to the “war on terror,” and so two weeks ago, eight months after he was arraigned, and three months after his last pre-trial hearing, al-Nashiri’s case once more came up before […]

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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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