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Military Commissions and the Case of Bin Laden’s Cook

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On February 10, it was reported that Ibrahim al-Qosi, a 50-year old Sudanese prisoner in Guantánamo who accepted a plea deal in his trial by military commission last July, had the 14-year sentence that was subsequently handed down by a military jury reduced to two years by Retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, the convening authority of the military commissions, who has the final say on whether or not to charge prisoners, and how to deal with sentencing.

As a result, al-Qosi, a peripheral figure in al-Qaeda, who “worked as a cook in a portion of an al-Qaeda compound that housed single men in Kandahar, Afghanistan,” (as the Miami Herald put it), and also allegedly served on occasion as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, should be freed from Guantánamo and returned home in July 2012. As Reuters explained,

Qosi’s lawyers said last year that once he returned to Sudan, he would enter a program run by the Sudanese intelligence service and designed to rehabilitate those with radical views. He would then return to live with his family but would be monitored to ensure he had no contact with radicals.

The United States still claims it has the right to continue holding al-Qosi after his two-year sentence expires, but that kind of injustice would, I hope, be a step too far even for the current administration and Congress, who have abandoned any attempt to close Guantánamo or deal fairly with the men still held, descending into callousness and scaremongering on the part of Congress, and cowardice and capitulation on the part of the administration.

Nevertheless, last Monday, responding to a specific request from the Miami Herald, Army Lt. Col. Tanya Bradsher stated, “Decisions regarding Mr. al-Qosi’s status after he serves his punitive confinement will be made by the detention authorities at that time.” The Herald added that she “called the sentence due to expire July 7, 2012, ‘being punished for past acts,’” explaining that al-Qosi could still be subject to “detention under the law of war” as “a belligerent during an armed conflict.”

This provoked a fierce and entirely justified response from al-Qosi’s military defense attorney, Navy Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, who said, “Indefinitely detaining a 53-year-old man who will have served his sentence and been in custody more than 11 years for being a cook serves neither our national security or foreign policy interests.” Instead, she added, “It bludgeons ‘the interests of justice.’”

However, as the Miami Herald also pointed out, another problem for al-Qosi is that Sudan, his home country, is on the state sponsors of terror list, and “congressional limits on Guantánamo detainee transfers [introduced in a military spending bill before Christmas] forbid the Obama administration from sending even cleared captives to states on the list” — although it should be noted that Congress did not insist on interfering with prisoners cleared for release by U.S. courts.

What no one wants to discuss, of course, is how, logically, a two-year sentence for a man who actually met Osama bin Laden and was demonstrably involved, even in the most minor way, with al-Qaeda, means that the majority of the other men in Guantánamo, who never met bin Laden or worked with al-Qaeda, should also be freed by July 2012.

Logic, however, is in short supply when it comes to discussing Guantánamo in the corridors of power in the United States, where, apparently, justice, fairness, and respect for international law may never again be of concern to U.S. lawmakers or the administration. Increasingly cast adrift from opinions in the rest of the world, America blithely continues to assert that everyone still in Guantánamo can be held indefinitely without charge or trial, with the exception of al-Qosi, and three other men subjected to trials by military commission.

Those already tried are:

Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a Yemeni, and a self-confessed member of al-Qaeda who produced a propaganda video for the organization, and is serving a life sentence after a one-sided trial in October 2008, in which he refused to mount a defense.

Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen, and a former child prisoner who accepted a plea deal last October, and will be repatriated to Canada next October to serve the last seven years of an eight-year sentence in his homeland.

Noor Uthman Muhammed, from Sudan, a trainer at the Khaldan military camp in Afghanistan, who accepted a plea deal on February 15. On February 18, after a brief sentencing phase, in which prosecutors attempted to persuade a military jury to hand down a punitive sentence to Muhammed, he was given a 14-year sentence, reduced to 34 months as part of his plea deal, in which he has apparently agreed to be a witness in the trials of other men still held.

The absurdity of this is all too obvious to anyone who cares to examine it. Unlike Ibrahim al-Qosi, Omar Khadr, and Noor Uthman Muhammed, 89 of the remaining 172 men in Guantánamo have actually been cleared for release for at least a year — and in some cases for nearly two years — after all the cases inherited by the Obama administration were examined by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, consisting of 60 career officials and lawyers in government departments and the intelligence agencies. Some of these men had also been cleared even earlier — in 2006 and 2007, for example — by military review boards under the Bush administration, but had not been freed by the time Bush left office.

Despite this, it’s possible that all of them — or nearly all of them — will still be held when al-Qosi is scheduled for release (and probably when Noor Uthman Muhammed’s date for release comes round in 2014), because 58 are Yemenis, and the release of Yemenis — even those cleared for release by President Obama’s own Task Force — was suspended by the president last January, after a backlash provoked by the discovery that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day plane bomber in 2009, had been recruited in Yemen.

The future is barely less bleak for the 31 other cleared prisoners who are still held because they face the risk of torture if sent back to their home countries (which include China, Libya, and Syria), and are waiting for third countries to offer them new homes instead. Although 15 countries have taken in 36 prisoners in this category (between May 2009 and August 2010), it’s possible that other countries’ well of good will has run dry and that the men will therefore remain at Guantánamo indefinitely, as Congress, lawmakers, and the administration itself have all made sure that no cleared prisoner will ever set foot on the U.S. mainland.

As for the other men still held, the Task Force recommended that 33 should be put on trial. As a result, some may be tried by military commission before 2012 (the option for federal court trials having been cut off by Congress), and may, like al-Qosi, Omar Khadr, and Noor Uthman Muhammed, be offered plea deals. In part this is because the administration is fearful of losing if it proceeds with actual trials, and, in Muhammed’s case, it is because officials were obviously fearful that a trial would expose details of the case of Abu Zubaydah (with whom he was seized in Pakistan in March 2002), allowing room for lawyers to point out that this supposed “high-value detainee” and “al-Qaeda No. 3,” for whom the CIA’s torture program was specifically developed, was no such thing, and was instead a mentally damaged training camp facilitator. A trial in Muhammed’s case might also have allowed exposure for the story of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the emir of the camp, who was flown to Egypt by the CIA, tortured until he confessed to non-existent links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, which were used to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and later returned to Libya, where he died in mysterious circumstances in May 2009.

For 47 others, however, even the option of trial is out of the question, as the Task Force concluded that they were too dangerous to release, but that there was insufficient evidence to put them on trial — in other words, that the supposed evidence is not evidence at all, but unverifiable statements and hearsay, often produced in dubious circumstances.

Even ignoring the valid presumption that some of these 47 men are almost certainly regarded as less significant than al-Qosi (and yet are to be held indefinitely), the mind reels at the revelation that the surest way out of Guantánamo is to be regarded as so significant that you are put forward for a trial by military commission and secure a favorable plea deal.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After all, when Dick Cheney first revived the military commissions in November 2001, they were intended to provide a means to swiftly try and execute alleged terrorists after rigged trials in which evidence derived from torture was admissible. The Supreme Court brought this phase to an end in June 2006, ruling it illegal, but when the commissions were revived by Congress later that year in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, they were still regarded as a poor substitute for federal court trials by legal experts, who were particularly alarmed that they involved prosecutions for war crimes that were invented by Congress. Significantly, the same problems remained when Obama and Congress revived the commissions again in the summer of 2009.

Ironically, it may be this fundamental weakness, as much as the fear of losing trials, that is driving the Obama administration to seek plea deals rather than proceeding with trials, and which, in turn, is providing the majority of those charged with a better chance of leaving Guantánamo than their fellow prisoners.

Another irony is that we have been here before, but under George W. Bush. In August 2008, when Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who had taken a job as part of bin Laden’s car pool, was tried by military commission, a military jury his release, this should have shattered the supposed justification for holding every other prisoner regarded as less significant than him, although this did not happen then, just as it is not happening now, in the case of Ibrahim al-Qosi.

History repeating itself this way should, of course, be a humiliation for the Obama administration, but I suppose that no one in a position of authority really cares that they are presiding over a prison in which Kafka meets Alice in Wonderland, as, crucially, the American people don’t care in sufficient numbers, and all that matters now is sending out the right messages to try and win the 2012 presidential election.

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    Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and serves as policy advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.