Trial Judge Destroys Guantánamo’s Military Commissions, Rules That “Clean Team” Interrogations Cannot Undo the Effects of Torture

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, photographed before his capture, and his trial judge in the military commissions at Guantánamo, Col. Lanny J. Acosta Jr.

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I wrote the following article 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.

In an extraordinary 50-page ruling in Guantánamo’s military commissions, Col. Lanny J. Acosta Jr., the judge in the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi national of Yemeni descent, who is accused of masterminding the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000, in which 17 US sailors died, has refused to allow prosecutors to use self-incriminating statements that al-Nashiri made to a so-called “clean team” of three agents from the FBI, the NCIS and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations on January 31 and February 1 and 2, 2007, five months after he was brought to Guantánamo, having spent nearly four years in CIA “black sites,” where he was subjected to horrendous torture.

At the heart of Col. Acosta’s measured and devastating opinion is an appalled recognition that the extent of al-Nashiri’s torture, and its location with a system designed to break him and to make him entirely dependent on the whims of his interrogators to prevent further torture, made it impossible for him to have delivered any kind of uncoerced self-incriminating statement to the “clean team” who interviewed him in 2007.

To establish this compelling conclusion, Col. Acosta painstakingly pieces together a narrative of al-Nashiri’s torture that tells this brutal story in more agonizing and forensic detail than any previous account has done, drawing largely on the accounts of al-Nashiri’s torture in the revelatory 500-page unclassified summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report about the CIA torture program — technically, the Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI) program — which was released in December 2014, on the testimony of numerous experts called by the defense team in hearings between July 2022 and June 2023, and on the testimony of James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two staff psychologists from the US Air Force SERE school, who were recruited to direct the torture program on the ground.

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“Forever Prisoner” Muhammad Rahim, the Last Afghan in Guantánamo, Eloquently Pleads For His Release

Muhammad Rahim, photographed at Guantánamo in recent years by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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On August 15, completely unremarked on by the mainstream media, Muhammad Rahim, the last Afghan held at Guantánamo, issued a heartfelt and eloquent plea for a panel of military and intelligence officers to approve his release from the prison, where he has been held for over 15 years without charge or trial.

Rahim, who is 57 years old, and in poor health, made his plea at a Periodic Review Board hearing, a process described by the media, when they can be bothered to pay attention to it, as a type of parole hearing — disregarding the crucial aspect that distinguishes it from parole hearings in the federal prison system, where the men given an opportunity to ask for their freedom have been convicted of a crime in federal court, and have received a prison sentence as a result.

Established under President Obama, the Periodic Review Boards were created to review the cases of men regarded as “too dangerous to release,” but against whom insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial — men accurately described as “forever prisoners.” Since November 2013, 58 men have been approved for release by PRBs, with 20 of those decisions taking place since President Biden took office (although most of those 20 men, shamefully, have not yet been freed).

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Searching for Justice at Guantánamo: The New Arab Podcast About Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri, Featuring One of His Lawyers, Mansoor Adayfi and Me

The image for The New Arab Voice podcast about Guantánamo, released on June 23, 2023.

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Many thanks to Nadine Talaat of The New Arab for interviewing me for a new podcast, “Searching for Justice at Guantánamo: Tainted evidence and the fight for accountability,” which you can listen to here.

The particular focus of the half-hour podcast is Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a “high-value detainee,” who was held and tortured for nearly four years in CIA “black sites,” before ending up at Guantánamo in September 2006, where he has been held ever since.

Charged with terrorism-related offences in 2008, which were subsequently dropped, al-Nashiri was charged again in 2012, and has been caught up in pre-trial hearings ever since.

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UN Condemns Arbitrary Detention of Guantánamo Prisoner and Torture Victim Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri, and Calls for His Release

A composite image of Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri and the CIA “black site”in Poland, where he was held from December 2002 to June 2003, and where some the worst torture to which was subjected took place.

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I wrote the following article 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.

In a truly devastating opinion, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has condemned the government of the United States for the arbitrary detention, over the last 20 and a half years, of Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri, a 58-year old Saudi national who was imprisoned and tortured in CIA “black sites” for nearly four years, and who has been held, since September 2006, in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, where he was brought with 13 other men described as “high-value detainees.” He is one of nine men facing charges in the prison’s largely dysfunctional military commission trial system, but, as the Working Group explained, although “pretrial hearings” in his case “began on 17 January 2012,” they “remain ongoing and no trial date has been set,” and, in a conclusion that must have unsettled the Biden administration, they called for his release.

Also implicated in his arbitrary detention are seven other countries — Afghanistan, Lithuania, Morocco, Poland, Romania and Thailand, where he was held in CIA “black sites,” and the United Arab Emirates, where he was first seized, without an arrest warrant, in October 2002, and interrogated for a month by Emirati intelligence operatives before being handed over to the CIA. The bulk of the Working Group’s condemnation of Al-Nashiri’s treatment is, however, focused on the US.

In recent months, the UN, which has always condemned the existence of Guantánamo and the human rights violations committed there, as well as in the CIA’s global network of “black sites,” has stepped up its criticism, issuing, via a number of UN experts, a resounding condemnation of life-threatening medical neglect in the case of Abd Al-Hadi Al-Iraqi, another “high-value detainee” (which I discussed here), and, also via the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, an opinion in the case of Abu Zubaydah — the “high-value detainee” for whom the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program was developed, in the mistaken belief that the was a high-ranking member of Al-Qaeda — which was so hard-hitting that I described it as “the single most devastating condemnation by an international body that has ever been issued with regard to the US’s detention policies in the ‘war on terror,’ both in CIA ‘black sites’ and at Guantánamo.”

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Completely Unnoticed, CIA Torture Victim Abu Faraj Al-Libi Has His Ongoing Imprisonment Without Charge or Trial Approved by a Guantánamo Review Board

“High-value detainee” Abu Faraj al-Libi, photographed at Guantánamo in recent years, and in a “wanted” poster prior to his capture in Pakistan in 2005.

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I wrote the following article 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.

On August 23, a Periodic Review Board at Guantánamo (an administrative, parole-type review process established by President Obama, featuring high-level US government officials) approved the ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial of Abu Faraj al-Libi, one of 14 “high-value detainees” who were brought to Guantánamo from CIA “black sites” in September 2006, and the last of the 14 to be captured.

Al-Libi’s hearing took place on June 23, and was the first time he had engaged with the PRB process since it was established in 2013. This ought to be have been newsworthy, but, in fairness, no media outlet could have been expected to know that he would finally deign to appear at the hearing, after refusing to take part in any previous opportunities to engage with the US authorities — or with the wider world.

However, it is a sad sign of the general lack of media interest in the shameful extra-judicial world of Guantánamo, where he has been held for 16 years without charge or trial, that only one media outlet — the New York Times — even bothered to find out what the board decided in his case after this first, momentous personal appearance, with veteran Guantánamo reporter Carol Rosenberg tweeting on August 29, “Just in: The Guantánamo review board has upheld the indefinite detention of the never charged former CIA prisoner called Abu Faraj al-Libi.”

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“The Forever Prisoner”: Alex Gibney’s New Documentary About CIA Torture Victim Abu Zubaydah

The poster for Alex Gibney’s new documentary film, “The Forever Prisoner,” released by HBO on December 6, 2021.

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I wrote the following article 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.

In the long litany of torture and abuse inflicted by the US government on prisoners in the brutal “war on terror” that the Bush administration declared after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, few have suffered as much as Abu Zubaydah (Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn), for whom, mistakenly, the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program was invented.

For as long as I have been studying and writing about Guantánamo, it has been apparent that Abu Zubaydah’s story is one of the darkest in the entire sorry saga of how the US lost its moral compass after 9/11.

Seized in a house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in March 2002, in which he was shot and badly wounded, he was then flown to the CIA’s first post-9/11 torture prison, in Thailand. This was the start four and a half years in CIA “black sites” — including in Poland, in a “black site” in Guantánamo Bay that existed for six months in 2003-04, in Morocco, in Lithuania and in Afghanistan — before his eventual transfer back to Guantánamo, with 13 other “high-value detainees,” in September 2006.

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Never-Ending Injustice: State Secrets and the Torture of Abu Zubaydah

An illustration featuring Abu Zubaydah by Brigid Barrett from an article in Wired in July 2013. The photo used is from the classified military files from Guantánamo that were released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

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I wrote the following article 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.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of the notorious torture victim and Guantánamo prisoner Abu Zubaydah, for whom the US’s post-9/11 torture program was invented. Zubaydah, whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, was held and tortured in CIA “black sites” for four and a half years, after his capture in a house raid in Pakistan in March 2002, until his eventual transfer to Guantánamo with 13 other so-called “high-value detainees” in September 2006, and he has been held there without charge or trial ever since.

Wednesday’s hearing was the result of an appeal by the government against a ground-breaking ruling two years ago, by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in which the judges openly declared that Abu Zubaydah had been tortured. It was, as Abu Zubaydah’s attorney, Cornell University law professor Joseph Margulies, explained, “the first time an appellate court” had “come right out and said that the enhanced interrogation techniques were torture.”

While this was significant, it wasn’t the main topic of the case, which involved the state secrets privilege, whereby government officials can argue that sensitive information whose disclosure, they claim, might endanger national security, must not be disclosed in a court. Abu Zubaydah’s lawyers were — and still are — seeking permission for the architects of the torture program, the contractors James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, to be questioned about the details of his torture while he was held in a “black site” in Poland, in 2002-03, after his initial torture in a “black site” in Thailand in 2002, for use in the Polish government’s ongoing investigation.

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Abu Zubaydah Files Complaint About Torture and Ongoing Imprisonment at Guantánamo with UN Arbitrary Detention Experts

Abu Zubaydah: illustration by Brigid Barrett from an article in Wired in July 2013. The photo used is from the classified military files from Guantánamo that were released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

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On Friday, Abu Zubaydah (Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn), a notorious victim of torture in the CIA’s “black site” program, who has been held without charge or trial at Guantánamo since September 2006, submitted a complaint to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, regarding the lawless nature of his imprisonment and treatment since he was first seized in a house raid in Pakistan in March 2002.

The case has been submitted by Helen Duffy, Abu Zubaydah’s international legal representative since 2010, who represented him in his successful cases before the European Court of Human Rights regarding his “black site” detention in Poland and Lithuania, and the complaint accuses seven countries of having responsibility for his long imprisonment and mistreatment — not only (and primarily) the US, but also Thailand, Poland, Morocco, Lithuania and Afghanistan, the five countries in which he was held in “black sites” over a period of four and a half years, and the UK, which is accused of having “participated in other ways in the ‘global spider’s web’ of complicity in rendition,” primarily via “estimates that UK personnel were involved in approximately 2,000-3,000 interviews of CIA detainees in the aftermath of 9/11”, as indicated by the findings of the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in 2019.

In a press release, Duffy explains that this is “the first international case brought by Zubaydah against the United States,” and is also “the first time that international legal action is taken against the UK, Afghanistan, Morocco and Thailand for their complicity in the US rendition and secret detention program.” In addition it is “the first time that a case has been brought against all states participating in an individual’s rendition and torture and ongoing unlawful detention at Guantánamo.”

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Joe Biden’s Guantánamo: New York Times Highlights Decaying Prison Cells and Broken Judicial System; Observer Notes Return of Hope

A composite image of President-elect Joe Biden and the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

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I wrote the following article 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.

In the guessing game that is the incoming Biden administration’s policy regarding the moral stain on the US that is the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, which will mark the 19th anniversary of its opening just two weeks’ time, three New York Times reporters — Carol Rosenberg, Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt — recently highlighted some of the issues that Joe Biden will have to address when he take office, in an article entitled, “‘In Bad Shape and Getting Worse,’ Guantánamo Poses Headaches for Biden.”

The Times largely sidestepped the glaring injustice of the entire facility — where 40 men are still held, for the most part, in open-ended indefinite detention without charge or trial, in defiance of domestic and international norms regarding imprisonment — focusing instead on the prison’s “decaying infrastructure” and its broken judicial system, the military commissions.

On the bigger picture, the reporters noted only that Biden “has yet to lay out plans for Guantánamo,” but that, “according to people familiar with transition deliberations,” his administration “is not expected to repeat President Barack Obama’s splashy but ultimately unmet promise in 2009 to close the prison within a year.”

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Torture Victims Lead Call for Torture Apologists Avril Haines and Mike Morell Not to be Confirmed as Director of National Intelligence and CIA Director

Avril Haines and Mike Morell, who both have a troubling history as torture apologists. In an open letter, opponents of torture, myself included, urge President-elect Biden not to nominate Mike Morell as CIA Director, and urge the Senate not to confirm Biden’s appointment of Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence.

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I’m delighted to be a signatory to an open letter, initiated by Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK and Marcy Winograd of Progressive Democrats of America and CODEPINKCONGRESS, urging President-elect Joe Biden not to nominate Mike Morell as CIA Director, and asking the Senate not to approve Biden’s nominee Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence (the head of the 16 branches of the US Intelligence Community) — and I’m particularly gratified that I was able to reach out to a number of former Guantánamo prisoners to encourage them to sign the letter.

Both Morell and Haynes have a troubling history of defending torture. Morell, who was a CIA analyst under George W. Bush, and Deputy and Acting CIA Director under Barack Obama, defended the use of torture when speaking to VICE in 2015. “I don’t like calling it torture for one simple reason: to call it torture says my guys were torturers,” he said, adding, “I’m gonna defend my guys till my last breath.” As Medea Benjamin and Marcy Winograd explained in an article for Common Dreams yesterday, Morell “put his CIA buddies above truth, the law and basic decency.”

Hopefully, as they also noted, “Morell’s traction may be on the wane with the Biden administration … after progressives launched a campaign against [him], and Senator Ron Wyden — a powerful Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee — called him a ‘torture apologist’ and said his appointment to head the CIA was a ‘non starter.’”

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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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