Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Nine prisoners were released from Guantánamo
Bay this month, bringing the number of remaining prisoners to 155 in total. All
nine men had been cleared for release many years earlier. On 5 December, it was
announced that Djamel Ameziane, who had been on hunger strike and tube-fed
since 2008, and Belkecem BenSayah, had been returned to Algeria. Both men had
strongly opposed being returned to the country, particularly Djamel Ameziane,
who had hoped to seek asylum elsewhere, having fled the country during the
civil war in the 1990s fearing persecution; he had a pending application for
resettlement in Canada. Upon return to the country, both men “disappeared”
until they were released on 16 December.
The return of the two men, particularly of Ameziane to Algeria sparked criticism from various bodies and NGOs, including the UN, as the repatriation was in violation of the principle of non-refoulement, “which prohibits transfers and deportations of individuals to countries where they may run the risk of being tortured.”
Other Algerians released from Guantánamo also would have preferred to stay at the prison facility than be returned to their country, and were also detained and “disappeared” upon release and continue to face persecution.
On 16 December, two Saudi prisoners, Said Muhammad Husyan Qahtani, and Hamoud Abdullah Hamoud were released; both men were cleared for release in 2009.
Their release was followed by the release two days later of two Sudanese prisoners to their home country: Noor Uthman Mohammed, who had completed his sentence following conviction before a military commission in 2011, having pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in a plea bargain to avoid a life sentence, and Ibrahim Othman Ibrahim Idris, whose released was ordered by a judge in October, and not opposed by the US government, on the grounds of severe mental health – shortly after arrival at Guantánamo, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic – and physical health problems. Upon return to Sudan, both men claimed they had been tortured at Guantánamo on a regular basis and Sudanese civil society organisations have demanded an apology from the US for its treatment of Sudanese nationals, dismissing Mohammed’s conviction as having been obtained through an unfair plea bargain.
On 30 December, the three remaining ethnic Uighur Chinese prisoners, whose release had been ordered in 2008, but who remained at Guantánamo for fear of persecution by the Chinese authorities, were sent to Slovakia, who accepted three other prisoners in 2009 who were in need of a safe third state to turn to.
There was further good news regarding the release of cleared prisoners on 26 December when President Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2014 which included provisions to make it easier to transfer, and thus release, prisoners, although prisoners are still not allowed to be transferred to the US itself. The provisions mean that over half of the prisoners, who have been cleared for release and never charged or tried, could soon be freed. Human rights NGOs have called on the government to act quickly on this new opportunity to release many more prisoners. In passing the law, Obama took the opportunity to criticise Congress for hindering his ability to do more to close Guantánamo.
Former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Khadr’s lawyers returned to court in Canada on 18 December in a $20 million lawsuit originally brought against the Canadian government when Khadr was still held at Guantánamo for its collusion in his torture and abuse by the US military at Bagram in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay. The lawsuit, originally brought in 2004, concerns abuses of Khadr’s rights by his government, and his lawyers claim there is new evidence to show that the Canadian government denied him his constitutional rights while colluding with the US. The lawsuit claims that the Canadian “governments [at the time of his detention] were not passive bystanders in Khadr’s incarceration, but willingly co-operated with the U.S. in violation of Canadian and international laws,” as well as failed to recognise him as a child soldier.
In new documents filed as part of the case, Omar Khadr has publicly stated for the first time that he only pleaded guilty because he was in a “hopeless situation”, and a guilty plea would be his most likely way out of Guantánamo Bay. He also states that the agreement in the plea bargain, and the facts as laid out in the case, were put together entirely by the US government. He also stated that “he has never believed Jews or Americans should be killed or deserve to die, and says he never willingly joined an al-Qaida terrorist cell.” He also said that “he has no memories of that battle or of the grenade that killed Sgt. Christopher Speer”.
When the case came to hearing, the judge rejected the Canadian government’s claim to have the case dismissed but asked his lawyers to rewrite the claim into a broader submission to include the new issues, which will be presented to him in mid-January.
Days before this court hearing, Omar Khadr was reclassified as a medium-security risk prisoner, instead of maximum risk, and is likely to be transferred to the Bowden Correctional Institution north of Calgary early next year. This followed a decision in August to reclassify his status. At Guantánamo Bay, he had been assessed as minimum risk. Medium-risk status will give him access to education and rehabilitation programmes that will make easier for him to be given parole.
New (redacted) documents that have come to light through a freedom of information (FOI) request show that the Australian government of John Howard made false statements and knew that the US would use evidence obtained through the use of torture in the military commission of former prisoner David Hicks, and subsequently that he was tortured in US custody, following his capture in Afghanistan in 2001. The documents include e-mails and cables between Australian and US officials. Like Omar Khadr, Hicks is in the process of appealing his conviction before a military commission, which was also effectively his only way out of Guantánamo. He was released in 2007 and had to serve the rest of his sentence in Australia.
The pre-trial hearing resumed on 9 December in the case of 5 prisoners alleged to have been involved in the 11 September 2001 attacks, with a closed hearing on the first day. In the next two days of the hearing, the proceedings were interrupted several times by one of the defendants, Ramzi Bin Al-Shibh, who was removed from the courtroom. Evidence obtained through torture was one of the issues dealt with during the hearing, which has now been halted until Al-Shibh is subject to a mental health assessment to see if he is fit to stand trial. While the trial is set to resume in January or February, further proceedings will be suspended pending the examination, which may last up to one year.
In the meantime, the trial judge has ordered the US government to preserve whatever is left of the CIA Bush-era secret torture prisons, or “black sites”, around the world, which could provide evidence once the actual trial starts, at the earliest, in 2015.
Abd Al-Nashiri, a Saudi citizen facing a separate military commission, and potentially the death penalty, for his alleged involvement in 2000 in the bombing of the USS Cole warship in the Gulf of Aden lost a case to have the military commission deemed to lack jurisdiction to hear the case as the attack took place prior to any declared hostilities between the US and Yemen and was thus a peacetime attack. While he did not contest the label of “enemy combatant” in the case, he sought to have the case heard by a civil district court but the court held that in this case a military court had jurisdiction.
On 2-3 December, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg heard a case against Poland brought by two prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Abd Al Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah, both currently facing trial before military commissions, for the country’s role in their torture and rendition before they were taken to Guantánamo Bay. The case was brought following the Polish government’s failure to investigate and hold responsible officials to account. The Polish government failed in a bid to have the hearing held in secret but the first day was held in closed session, whereas the second day was public. A judgment is expected in early January.
Abu Anas Al-Libi, who was kidnapped and rendered to the US by the US military from the streets of Tripoli, Libya, in October 2013, had a pre-trial hearing where charges were laid against him for alleged involvement in the bombing of US Embassies in East Africa in 1998, along with two other men, Adel Abdel Bary and Khalid Al Fawzi, who lost their lengthy extradition battle to the US from the UK in October 2012. A trial date for the three men has been set for November 2014. During the time that he “disappeared” off the streets of Tripoli and was later claimed to be held and interrogated on board the USS San Antonio, it is unknown whether he was abused and possibly tortured. Questions remain over the legality of this operation; he was transferred to the US mainland due to concerns about his health.
On 19 December, the government published a report into the findings of the Detainee Inquiry http://www.detaineeinquiry.org.uk/2013/12/statement-by-the-inquiry-december-2013/ led by retired judge, Sir Peter Gibson. The report, of the partial findings of the inquiry which collapsed in early 2012 due to the weight of criminal investigations against the government for its involvement in torture and rendition abroad, looked at the documents provided to it, but did not hold any interviews with victims or their representatives, as it was boycotted by them early on, and does not offer any fact-finding or conclusions. The government originally received the report in mid-2012 but did not publish it until now. The report was redacted prior to publication. The government then announced that, contrary to its initial promises, the parliamentary intelligence and security committee (ISC) would take over the inquiry; the ISC lacks independence and transparency and its members are nominated by the prime minister.
On 20 December, a High Court judge dismissed a case brought against MI6 and former foreign secretary Jack Straw by Libyan rendition victim Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, as it would harm UK-US relations and British interests, as British and American intelligence officers were involved. The judge did, however, state that the claim that he was unlawfully abducted was “well-founded”. Mr Belhaj’s lawyers plan to appeal the ruling.
Five non-Afghan prisoners held at Bagram prison for over a decade following their rendition there lost an appeal to have the right to file habeas corpus petitions to know the reasons for their detention, as has been granted to Guantánamo prisoners. The appeal judges upheld a previous ruling made in 2012 that the US does not have jurisdiction over Bagram to allow the prisoners to enjoy such rights as it does over Guantánamo http://www.lawfareblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Maqaleh-et-al-Opinion-12-24-2013.pdf Effectively, prisoners held at Bagram are held in worse conditions and have fewer rights than prisoners at Guantánamo. Following the handover of Bagram to the Afghan authorities in 2012, whereby the US only retains control over around 50 foreign prisoners that it considers high value, many of the Afghan prisoners have been released. One of the appellants, Hamidullah, who was detained as a minor and has never been tried or charged, was released to Pakistan along with five other Pakistani prisoners. However, on their return to their own country, they have been imprisoned by the authorities there and there have been some claims of rough treatment. They now face trial in Pakistan with a hearing scheduled for late January.
There is no monthly “Shut Down Guantánamo!” in January. Instead, please join us on Saturday 11 January at 2-4pm outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square for a demonstration to mark 12 years of Guantánamo Bay. Details here: http://londonguantanamocampaign.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/london-marks-12-years-of-guantanamo-bay.html and https://www.facebook.com/events/246710665485484/