Guantanamo: Is Death The Only Way Out?

gitmo shaker finalThe situation at Guantanamo is coming to a head.

Desperate for justice, after over a decade of indefinite detention, at least 100 detainees have gone on a massive hunger strike in protest. According to media reports, 21 of these detainees are being shackled and force-fed through tubes to keep them alive, against their wishes.

Pressure to close the prison is at an all-time high. Responding to the strike, President Obama reiterated his vow to shutter the facility:

“I don’t want these individuals to die… Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. [It] is contrary to who we are… and it needs to stop.” – President Obama, April 30, 2013

The time for promises is over. The time for action is now.

Tell Obama and Congress that you support closing Guantanamo now. 


Obama Embracing Bush Legacy

The Obama administration is reportedly close to finalizing the outlines of a new preventative detention regime likely to be crafted along the lines proposed by Matthew Waxman in a paper released last week by the Brookings Institute.

Waxman’s paper tries to reconcile the supposed need for some form of administrative detention without trial with the Supreme Court’s Boumediene v Bush decision affirming the habeas rights of Guantanamo detainees and he proposes introducing legislation to create a new category of administrative detention subject to periodic judicial review.

An increasingly familiar pattern is once again being repeated. The administration ‘discovers’ that the issues it is facing are tougher than it had anticipated, sees some merit in the approach adopted by the Bush administration, promises to make some minor adjustments to preexisting conditions, and finally undertakes to implement this revised policy with a sensitivity the previous administration lacked.

However, such changes amount to little more than putting lipstick on a pig. Closing Guantanamo was always going to require taking some unpopular and morally courageous decisions but the President who declared in his inaugural address that he rejected the false choice between our safety and our ideals has sadly gone AWOL.

To codify administrative detention would be to perpetuate a system that has to date incarcerated more innocent people than it has men of violence on the basis of half-truths and innuendo.

The ordered release last week of Syrian-born detainee Abd Al Rahim Abdul Rassak al Janko provided further proof of the flimsy grounds on which many of the detainees at Guantanamo have and continue to be held.

Al Janko freely admitted staying for five days at a guest house run by Al Qaeda in 2000 and for a further 18 days at an Al Qaeda-run camp as a refugee making his way towards Europe. However, Al Qaeda militants suspected Al Janko of being a US spy and he was detained for three months and tortured until he admitted to these charges.

Al Janko was then handed over to the Taliban and imprisoned for a further 18 months. Having nowhere else to go, he remained behind in the prison after it was abandoned by the Taliban and was discovered there by US forces when they occupied Kandahar in the fall of 2001.

US soldiers also found a video which showed Al Janko being tortured by members of Al Qaeda. In true Kafkaesque style the video has been used by government lawyers as proof of his association with the group.

The Al Janko case demonstrates that arguments that the Obama administration will do a better job of separating the wheat from the chaff than their predecessors hold little water. In his scathing dismissal of the case, District Court Judge Richard Leon described administration lawyers as “taking a position that defies common sense” and it should be noted that this administration has fought Al Janko’s release tenaciously through the courts despite its manifest flaws.

We should not ignore the fact that it took a real court to make an effective determination about Al Janko’s status, and that this administration flunked that same test. Creating a legal framework for indefinite detention is a profound mistake. Since 1783 there has only been one standard in the United States for incarceration and that is conviction in a court of law.

Twice before in our history this standard has been ignored in times of crisis – during the Civil War and during World War II. The suspension of habeas corpus and the internment of Japanese Americans left a lasting stain on two of America’s most successful presidencies. The detention regime created at Guantanamo by President Bush added a third to a rather less illustrious presidency.

It is not too late to prevent the Obama administration repeating this mistake. Amnesty International USA has launched an online action campaign to petition President Obama to reconsider. We need your help to prompt a change of direction before fear mongering once again overcomes the angels of our better nature. Please visit our site today and add your voice to the thousands already raised in protest.

U.S. Obligation to Freed Gitmo Detainees

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

Four Uighur former Guantanamo inmates are now in Bermuda, other detainees have been released to France, Chad, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Hungary, Italy and Palau appear to have joined the ranks of countries prepared to accept detainees cleared for release. The pace of releases finally seems to be picking up and that is a cause for optimism.

But, while groups like Amnesty are pleased to see these individuals finally released from wrongful detention, we are disturbed that there has been no public announcement that any of these individuals will receive compensation for their ill-treatment or any assistance from the United States in rebuilding their lives or coming to terms with their experiences.

Many of you reading this blog may feel that this is a side issue but it is not. International law requires the U.S. to provide remedy to those who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Consider for a moment what the men recently released have lost. They have lost seven years of their lives. Quite apart from the personal deprivation of liberty that is also seven years of lost earning potential – one fifth of a working life. Their families too have been without their primary breadwinner all this time.

Furthermore, what kind of future do they have to look forward to? They certainly haven’t had the opportunity to learn or develop a trade while in detention, nor are many of them returning to a society they know well. Some may not even speak the local language. However idyllic Bermuda may appear in press photographs, it is a world away from the Central Asian steppe the Uighurs are used to.

Some released inmates may be grappling with medical or mental health problems. Defense attorney, Jeffrey Colman, a thirty-five year veteran of the criminal justice system who has represented four GITMO inmates this week described the facility as:

“Unlike any other institution… there is a level of hopelessness unlike anything I have ever seen.”

We know 5 inmates have committed suicide since the camp opened and in March this year the Department of Defense reported that 34 inmates were on hunger strike. Such figures give some insight into the harrowing nature of the detainees’ experiences – yet no provision has been made to support their rehabilitation.

Closing Guantanamo is not in and of itself enough. We have a moral and legal obligation to aid the reintegration of former inmates back into society. These men have been convicted of no crime. In our system that means they are innocent. No ifs or buts.

Innocent men wrongly held for seven years have a right to compensation. The Obama administration can’t simply shove them out the gates of Camp Delta and forget about them. The United States must take responsibility for rebuilding lives it has ruined.

Obama Must Prosecute Bush-Era Torture Enablers

(Originally posted on the Christian Science Monitor)

With Dick Cheney and the infamous torture memos making headlines, President Obama and our nation face a choice.  Should they prosecute or protect those responsible for the torture of detainees in secret CIA detention centers? If our leaders wish to steer our country back to the right side of the law, they must act immediately and unequivocally to prosecute.

The problem is that leading senators want the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to complete its investigation into the treatment and interrogation of detainees (which could take between four and six months), before any prosecution is launched. Yet such a delay would potentially risk running out the clock on certain types of prosecution.

The federal Anti-Torture Act, for example, is subject to a statute of limitations after only eight years.  For the prosecution of crimes committed in the months leading up to September 2002 – when Bush administration lawyers produced the first of the “torture memos” that purported to make torture legally permissible – that expiration date is spring 2010.

But there is no need to wait that long.  There is already ample evidence that shows the previous administration concocted, approved, and implemented a torture policy.  What’s more, there is no legal imperative holding the Department of Justice or federal prosecutors back from launching a criminal investigation, beginning with the task of identifying who is responsible for the crimes that have already been documented.

Although the Senate Intelligence Committee report may eventually provide some insights, it cannot be a substitute for the criminal investigations required for prosecution. But given the committee’s possible complicity in allowing torture to continue despite multiple Central Intelligence Agency briefings, we should not expect its report to break much new ground.

When Mr. Obama rescinded the torture memos upon taking office, he took an important first step toward repairing the damage wrought by the previous administration on our country’s commitment to human rights and rule of law. But his statement in April to forgo prosecution of those CIA agents who carried out torture is a breach of international law.

Some critics argue that a full investigation might lead the US public to ultimately side with torture and thus prosecution could be politically counterproductive. Others argue that prosecuting hundreds of people would waste resources during a war on terror, and that it should stay focused on going after terrorists.

However, the International Convention Against Torture, adopted by the United States in 1994, compels the US to prosecute everyone who is responsible for torture, all the way up the chain of command to top government officials who authorize it. Obama himself said in April that he’s “a strong believer that it’s important to look forward and not backwards, and to remind ourselves that we do have very real security threats out there.” At the same time he also said that “nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen.” The law allows no exceptions.

Congress also has an urgent and important role to play: It must eliminate a loophole written into the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act. That piece of legislation contains provisions that were crafted to provide legal cover to torturers. This includes the defense that those who committed torture believed the acts were legal at the time, since they had been interpreted as such by the White House torture memos (none of which carried the force of law).

Legislators must also attend to the back end of the accountability process by eliminating or extending the statute of limitations beyond 2010, as Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan has proposed.

Efforts to hold torturers and torture enablers accountable have been launched abroad, most notably in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón, a central figure in the prosecution of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, is an example of a quick, effective actor. He recently launched an investigation into the Bush administration last month over the alleged torture of four Spanish nationals at Guantánamo under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction.

He also has ordered an inquiry into whether or not six former Bush administration lawyers created a legal framework to permit torture.

Should the Spanish court ultimately indict anyone pursuant to these claims, it is unclear whether the Obama administration would extradite former US officials. But such a development might, at the very least, prevent those former officials from traveling anywhere in the European Union and further discredit their already tainted legacies.

The Obama administration promised a new era of international cooperation and respect. It now faces the first major test of its rhetoric. If the US fails to prosecute those responsible for torture, we can take our place alongside countries we have long criticized for privileging politics over justice and accountability by letting criminals go free.

Beyond the United States’ global standing, the former administration’s policies also made Americans less safe by providing recruiting tools for terrorists. The Obama administration must show that such abuses won’t stand.

Whatever happened to American leadership?

(c) US DoD

(c) US DoD

Yesterday the Council of the European Union, made up of ministers from all 27 EU countries, agreed to allow former Guantanamo inmates cleared for release to settle in those countries prepared to take them.

The EU ministers made this decision despite the fact that, once inmates are resettled in the EU, they will able to move from country to country relatively freely.

27 European states, all with good reason to be concerned about the terrorist threat posed Al Qaeda, are prepared to take this step to help America out of a jam of entirely its own making.

Yet, not one U.S. State is prepared to do the same. Not one U.S. state has shown the strength of character of tiny Luxemburg, Ireland or Portugal. I wonder if you feel as ashamed of our elected officials as I do.

And what kind of message does this send to Al Qaeda? It tells Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri that Americans are so frightened that they have abandoned the most fundamental principle of American justice: that an individual is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

And we are even more scared of those inmates that might actually have done something. So scared, that we are apparently unwilling even to risk holding Al Qaeda members in our maximum security jails – no strangers, surely, to violent men.

Indeed, we seem to forget that our prisons already hold such Al Qaeda affiliated terrorists as the World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef (who also happens to be Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nephew), the failed millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam and the aspirant 9/11 hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui. All men, we should also note, successfully convicted in the federal courts.

Talk about giving succor to the enemy. This timidity must surely come as a welcome boost to Al Qaeda’s flagging morale and it stands in stark contrast to the courage shown by our men and women in uniform.

The Harvard terrorism expert and former Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann has written that a little terrorism goes a long way. Terror is a psychological weapon that relies on the victim to magnify its power.

Embracing the politics of fear plays into Osama bin Laden’s hands. It spreads a message Al Qaeda wants spread. This message is best countered by demonstrating to Al Qaeda and its supporters that they cannot subvert our values or our way of life.

Right now, we can do that best by finally doing the right thing on Guantanamo and making sure that those inmates cleared of posing any threat are found new homes, either in Europe or on American soil. We cannot expect our allies to take this step alone.

The Hits Keep Coming from Obama

(As originally posted on Daily Kos)

And the hits just keep coming. Despite its pledge to reintroduce greater transparency to government the Obama administration reversed itself again this week, announcing that it would now seek to block the release of detainee abuse photographs sought by the ACLU.

Then yesterday the CIA announced, in a fine example of Orwellian double-speak, that it would not release memos cited by former Vice-President Dick Cheney because they are subject to a Freedom of Information Act suit being pursued by Amnesty International USA, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU.

Amnesty does not often find itself on the same side of an argument as the former Vice President but on this occasion we welcome his late conversion to the merits of transparency in government.

And finally, the President confirmed today that his administration will reintroduce Military Commissions to try terrorism cases that cannot be successfully pursued in a federal court. Of course, he put it slightly differently but that is what the decision amounts to. Reverse engineering courts to work around mistakes and abuses that have been committed in the past is not a sound basis for any system of justice.

A comment to a previous posting accused me of being “a one note Johnny” on this subject and I am afraid the charge is quite true. I truly wish it wasn’t. I wish I could report that things were improving on the human rights front and that in confronting terrorism the President was living up to the pledges he had made on the campaign trail.

Instead, sadly political pragmatism seems to be the order of the day. This might be sound political sense but it is not moral leadership. So it is particularly ironic to note today that Lakhdar Boumediene, the Algerian national arrested in Bosnia and falsely accused of plotting to blow up the US Embassy in Sarajevo, is finally today en route to France where he will be resettled.

This innocent man spent eight years detained in Guantanamo. He has been cleared of all charges since November 2008. He is only being released now because France has generously agreed – despite the “freedom fries” and “axis of weasel” jibes – to take him in. One might think a few apologies might be in order. One might also think that Boumediene’s case might give pause for reflection before we head back down the path of backwoods justice once again.

Govt Running Out the Clock on Torture

(As originally posted on Daily Kos)

Let’s be clear, calls to allow the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to conduct its own investigation into the abuses committed in secret CIA detention centers are little more than an attempt to play out the clock by freezing judicial investigations in until the 8 year statute of limitations on Anti-Torture Act crimes starts to render them moot from the spring of 2010 onwards.

The Select Committee has had plenty of time to complete its own investigations. Indeed, senior members of the committee, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were briefed on the adoption of new harsh interrogations as early as September 2002. Unlike their colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee they chose to look the other way. They have missed their chance, and in this arena it’s play or pass.

So where does that leave those who care about accountability? The White House continues to fail to show leadership on this issue. After equivocating all week the President seems to have returned to his earlier line that we need to turn the page on the past.

Even without the President’s leadership, pressure for accountability is growing day by day. The first step is to develop enabling legislation for a genuinely independent inquiry along the lines of the 9-11 Commission. This commission must possess three fundamental qualities: it must be bi-partisan and comprised of eminent Americans of unimpeachable integrity; it must be well funded and well staffed; and it must be possessed of the necessary legal powers to effectively discharge its functions. However, it should not grant immunity from prosecution in return for testimony.

Furthermore, as the majority staff of the House Committee on the Judiciary recommended in January, Congress should consider extending the statute of limitations for offenses under the torture statute and war crimes statute. This would give the Commission the time to complete its work without prejudicing the prosecution of those found responsible for commissioning and perpetrating acts of torture.

What are the other key takeaways from the past week’s revelations? First, the 2002 Bybee memo represents the very best case scenario for the regime of abuse inflicted on detainees in U.S. custody. Amnesty International knows well that abuse escalates in a permissive environment and, within days of the memo’s release, confirmation emerged that waterboarding had been used greatly in excess of even what the DoJ’s Office of Legal Counsel considered permissible limits.

Second, the Bush administration did not seek advice from the best-qualified experts on how to effectively gain intelligence from captured members of Al Qaeda, it chose to get tough rather than smart. To this end, the General Counsel’s Office in the DoD sought advice not from experienced criminal investigators or military intelligence officers but from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), which runs the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program.

Even the JPRA’s Commander noted, in newly declassified memos published this week by the Senate Armed Services Committee, that his organization was “not in the business of strategic debriefing (interrogation).” Inevitably, it wasn’t long before SERE instructors were warning their superiors: “this is getting out of control.”

Finally, claims that vital intelligence was gained using such techniques have been roundly discredited. Former FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan who led the law enforcement interrogation of Abu Zubayda broke seven years of silence to go on the record in The New York Times to refute the “false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.”

His words were echoed by CIA Director Admiral Dennis Blair who said publicly:

“The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”

A CIA officer who spoke to President Obama’s transition team on intelligence matters also admitted that some foreign intelligence agencies were now refusing to share intelligence about the location of terrorism suspects for concern at being implicated any resulting abuses or other internationally wrongful acts. Surely, the canard that these techniques were a vital tool in our counterterrorism arsenal can now be laid to rest.

It has been a momentous week for human rights campaigners. After long years in the wilderness, there is now a sense that the balance is reasserting itself. Human rights and the rule of law are finally edging back to where they belong – at the very heart of American democracy.

Republicans Protest Too Much

Right-wing Republicans have reportedly been mobilizing to block the appointment of two prominent lawyers to advisory positions in the Obama administration: Indiana University constitutional law Professor Dawn Johnsen and the Dean of the Yale Law School Harold Koh.

Johnsen is the administration’s nominee to head for the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice and Koh is nominated to be the Legal Counsel at the State Department. Both have a strong human rights record, Johnsen was Legal Director of the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League and Koh served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the Clinton administration. Both have distinguished records of government service.

The legal commentator Scott Horton has cited anonymous sources in the GOP and DoJ who claim Senate Republicans are now threatening to filibuster the appointments unless the Obama administration agrees not to release three classified memos authored by one of John Yoo’s successors in the Office of Legal Counsel, Steven Bradbury.

The memos, which have been described by Glenn Greenwald on as the “Rosetta stone” for documenting war crimes committed by the highest-level Bush DoJ officials, have been the subject of a determined legal effort by the ACLU to compel their disclosure. This effort has so far been opposed by the Obama administration despite its avowed commitment to transparency in government.

So, why not strike a deal? Because we still have not got to the bottom of what happened in our name. New information continues to emerge on an almost weekly basis. On Monday we saw the release of more material from the leaked International Committee of the Red Cross report on the treatment of High Value Detainees in CIA custody which revealed in detail for the first time the direct complicity of medical personnel in acts of torture in complete violation of the most basic of medical ethics.

This drip-drip of revelations is harmful in itself, undermining attempts to restore legitimacy to America’s struggle with terrorism. This will only end when there are no more revelations to emerge and that is why a full accounting for the abuses that have occurred since September 11th is so important. As is a renewed commitment to using the criminal justice system to fight terrorism rather than the ‘dark arts’ in which former Vice President Dick Cheney placed so much faith.

Holding ourselves to higher standard makes us smarter and more effective. The simple arithmetic regarding the number of releases without charge from Guantanamo makes it clear that with the ‘gloves off’ US officials were wrong about a detainee’s affiliations far many more times than they were right. We can do better than that.

Another Blow to Illegal Detention

Judge John Bates took a stand for human rights and common sense when he ruled yesterday that foreign prisoners held in the U.S. prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan who had been brought there from outside Afghanistan may challenge their continued detention in the U.S. courts.

The petition before the U.S. District Court had been brought by four inmates at Bagram seeking to extend the Supreme Court’s Boumediene decision, that recognized habeas corpus rights for detainees at Guantanamo, to detention facilities in Afghanistan.

The four inmates include Amin al-Balri, a Yemeni national, who was detained in Thailand; Redha Al-Najar, a Tunisian, who was detained in Pakistan; Fadi al Maqaleh, a Yemeni national, who was detained in an undisclosed location outside Afghan borders; and Haji Wazir, an Afghan national, who was apprehended in Dubai.

Judge Bates noted that three of the four petitioners had no connection with Afghanistan prior to their transfer to Bagram. He added that although practical obstacles existed in resolving a detainee’s right to habeas corpus in a war zone, these obstacles were of the U.S. government’s choosing since it had opted to render them to this location:

“It is one thing to detain those captured on the surrounding battlefield at a place like Bagram, which respondents correctly maintain is in a theater of war. It is quite another thing to apprehend people in foreign countries – far from any Afghan battlefield – and then bring them to a theater of war, where the Constitution arguably may not reach.”

Applying the functional, multi-factor, detainee-by-detainee test mandated by the Supreme Court in its Boumediene decision, Judge Bates upheld the habeas rights of all but Haji Wazir. Disappointingly, the judge held that as an Afghan national, even one apprehended outside the country, Wazir could legitimately be held as an enemy combatant.

However, the process used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan for determining whether an individual can be classified as an enemy combatant was also criticized, with Judge Bates labeling it “inadequate” for the task at hand and even less thorough than the discredited Combatant Status Review Tribunals established in Guantanamo.

Although Judge Bates did not seek to expand the scope of his ruling beyond the petition before him, it can nevertheless be seen as a body blow to the global war doctrine previously espoused by the Bush administration.

If the judgment stands, individuals detained outside a military theater – for example, the fictional terrorist financier in the Philippines posited by Senator Lindsay Graham during Solicitor-General Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing – should henceforth be destined for the criminal justice system rather than a prisoner of war camp.

Furthermore, an unsubstantiated accusation will no longer be enough to condemn such a detainee to endless years in limbo. Thursday was not just a good day for the Constitution of the United States, it was a red letter day for the Magna Carta as well!

Guantanamo's Uighurs Coming to the US?

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder gave the first public indication that at least some of the Chinese Uighurs cleared for release from Guantanamo in September 2008, but unable to return home to China for fear of persecution, will be allowed to settle in the United States. His announcement followed the visit of the European Union’s Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove to US.

De Kerchove is believed to have delivered the blunt message to the Obama administration that, unless the US demonstrated its good faith by resettling the Uighurs on American soil, it was highly unlikely that any European country would be prepared to help in the dismantlement of the Guantanamo prison camp by accepting other discharged detainees.

The Uighurs were among 22 Chinese citizens of Uighur descent who were captured near Tora Bora towards the end of 2001. The circumstances of their capture is unclear although former detainee Abu Bakr Qasim has claimed they were handed over to US forces for a $5,000 a head bounty.

The men are alleged to be militant separatists affiliated with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who had received weapons training at a camp in Afghanistan with the apparent objective of fighting against China for Uighur independence.

None took part in hostilities against the United States nor bore any apparent animosity towards the west. Indeed, Abu Bakr Qasim told reporters that he had expected the US to be sympathetic to his people’s cause.

In May 2006 five of the original group were released from Guantanamo and resettled in Albania although one, Adel Abdu Al-Hakim, has subsequently been allowed to relocate to Sweden.

The US government finally conceded in September 2008 that none of the remaining Uighurs in Guantanamo could be categorized as an ‘enemy combatant’ and in October the US District Court ordered the Uighurs released. They have been trapped in limbo ever since with no country prepared to offer them a home for fear of angering China.

The saga of the Uighars has only served to underline the comments made this week by Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a guest post on The Washington Note. Wilkerson lambasted the ‘utter incompetence’ of the battlefield intelligence screening process that saw so many individuals who posed no threat to US interests transferred to Guantanamo and proclaimed to the American public as ‘the worst of the worst’.

In Wilkinson’s words:

Several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released… But to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror.

Hundreds of detainees have been held in Guantanamo for an unconscionable length of time in defiance of international law and notions of due process. Wilkinson estimates that only two dozen or so could actually be considered terrorists. The rest have suffered long enough. The Obama administration must set an example and put right a wrong that has cast a long shadow over America’s global reputation. It can start by offering the Uighurs of Guantanamo a new home on American soil.