More Dark Truths From Guantanamo as Five Innocent Men Are Freed

After eight years imprisonment without charge or trial, five former Guantánamo prisoners are beginning new lives this week – two in Switzerland and three in Georgia. Their stories reveal, yet again, how Republican lawmakers and media pundits in the US, who have, in recent months, renewed their fear-filled attacks on those still held, are guilty of hyperbolic and unprincipled outbursts and, in addition, how these critics’ attacks are damaging to the prospects of cleared men, seized by mistake, finding new homes in countries that, unlike the US, are prepared to offer them a chance to rebuild their shattered lives on a humanitarian basis.

All five men were cleared for release from Guantánamo on two or three separate occasions – through Bush-era military review boards, through the deliberations of an interagency task force established by President Obama and, in some cases, through successfully having their habeas corpus petitions granted by a US court. However, difficulties arose when it came to freeing them because they feared torture or other ill-treatment if returned to their home countries, and the US government (first under George W. Bush and now under Barack Obama) recognized its obligations under international treaties not to repatriate them, but to find other countries prepared to take them instead.

The fact that Georgia – the former Soviet satellite in the Caucasus – is the new home of three of these men and not the US, demonstrates another obstacle to the men’s release. Had President Obama acted decisively last April, two Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, seized by mistake in December 2001) would have been freed in the US and others would undoubtedly have followed. However, when the president bowed to pressure from Republican critics and turned down a plan put forward by White House Counsel Greg Craig and backed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which involved bringing the two men to live in the US, the job of Obama’s Special Envoy Daniel Fried, who was charged with finding new homes for dozens of cleared prisoners from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, was made considerably more difficult.

America’s allies had to overcome their obvious impulse – refusing to help unless the US also acknowledged its own mistakes by giving new homes to cleared prisoners – and it is a tribute to the governments of Switzerland and Georgia that they felt able to place humanitarian concerns above political pragmatism by accepting the men. Switzerland had already accepted an Uzbek ex-prisoner in January this year and Georgia now joins Switzerland in a distinguished club that also includes Albania, Belgium, Bermuda, France and Hungary, Ireland, Palau, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain. These countries have all shown up the US and other European countries, including the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, which have turned their backs on the dozens of cleared prisoners who will languish in Guantánamo until new homes can be found for them.

The Uighur Brothers Released in Switzerland

The two men given new homes in the Swiss canton of Jura are brothers, Arkin Mahmud, 45, and Bahtiyar Mahnut, 34. Two of the 22 Uighurs originally held at Guantánamo (five of whom were released by George W. Bush in Albania in 2006), the men had been living in a small, rundown settlement in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains at the time of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, either because they had been thwarted in their attempts to travel to Turkey or Europe in search of work, or because they nurtured futile hopes of finding some way to rise up against the Chinese government. They were sold to US forces by Pakistani villagers when their temporary home was destroyed in a US bombing raid and they had crossed the border into Pakistan.

The US government understood almost immediately that they had been seized by mistake, but that did not prevent senior officials from allowing Chinese interrogators to visit them at Guantánamo and, it seemed, securing a guarantee in UN negotiations that China would not oppose the invasion of Iraq by designating a Uighur separatist group as a global terrorist organization.

Attempts to conveniently tie the Guantánamo Uighurs to this group came unstuck in June 2008, when a US court derided the government’s supposed evidence as being akin to a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” but it was not until October 2008 that the government finally abandoned all claims that the men were “enemy combatants.” That month, their habeas corpus petition finally reached Judge Ricardo Urbina, in the District Court in Washington, DC, who ordered their release into the United States, pointing out that holding innocent men was unconstitutional.

The Bush administration appealed and the appeal was approved in February 2009 by the notoriously right-wing Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, which ruled (with the blessing, sadly, of President Obama’s Justice Department), that matters of immigration were to be decided by the executive and not the courts, thereby gutting the men’s habeas victory of any practical meaning.

After Craig’s honorable plan to rehouse two of the men in the US was scrapped, Daniel Fried was obliged to undertake numerous missions to persuade other countries to offer them new homes. Fried eventually persuaded Bermuda and the Pacific island of Palau to take ten of the men, but Arkin Mahmud and Bahtiyar Mahnut in particular remained a problem. Palau had refused to offer a new home to Mahmud, who had developed mental health problems in Guantánamo and, in solidarity, his brother, who had been offered a new home, turned down the offer, preferring to stay with his brother in Guantánamo instead.

An appeal to the government by The Washington Post, asking that the men be allowed into the US, was subsequently ignored, but it seemed that Obama was on a collision course with the Supreme Court, which accepted the men’s case last October, until Switzerland obligingly offered the men a new home in January of this year.

As Arkin Mahmud and Bahtiyar Mahnut begin their new lives in Switzerland, five Uighurs remain in Guantánamo, but their fate is unknown. The Supreme Court refused to proceed with their case at the start of this month (although they did vacate the terrible Court of Appeals’ ruling), essentially because the five remaining men had also been offered new homes in Palau, but had turned them down, and it remains to be seen if Palau will renew its offer, if another country will rescue them from their seemingly endless ordeal or if the lower courts will, once more, attempt to order their release into the United States.

A Libyan Refugee Released in Georgia

Announcing the release of the other three men from Guantánamo, the Justice Department refused to reveal their identities, but Candace Gorman, the indefatigable attorney representing Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan, revealed that one of the three is her client, and it appears that the second man is also Libyan, and that the third is from an unidentified country in the Middle East (perhaps Libya, again, or Syria or Tunisia).

The release of Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi brings to an end another of
Guantánamo’s many particularly bleak stories. A refugee from Libya,
al-Ghizzawi had settled in Afghanistan in the 1990s, where he married an Afghan woman and had a child. Together, he and his wife ran a small bakery in Jalalabad, but after the US-led invasion, hearing that Arabs were being targeted, he decided to seek refuge with his in-laws in his wife’s home village. There, however, he was seized by bounty hunters and sold to US forces.

In Guantánamo, al-Ghizzawi suffered horribly. Afflicted with tuberculosis and hepatitis B, he nevertheless received little or no treatment, in common with the majority of those with medical problems, whose treatment was dependent on cooperation with their interrogators. In practical terms, what this meant for innocent men like al-Ghizzawi was that they would not be treated unless they provided false confessions to their interrogators, which could be used to justify their own detention or the detention of others identified in these false confessions.

Al-Ghizzawi’s case is also notorious in terms of the warped review processes masquerading as justice at Guantánamo, as was revealed in 2007 by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who had been involved in compiling the information used as evidence in the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRT) at Guantánamo in 2004-05. In an affidavit filed in a case submitted to the Supreme Court, Lieutenant Colonel Abraham explained how the tribunal system, designed to review the prisoners’ cases to ascertain whether they had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” who could be held indefinitely, was a sham and that the information used consisted of intelligence “of a generalized nature – often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status.”

Lieutenant Colonel Abraham also explained how he had taken part in one of the tribunals and, with his fellow officers, had concluded that the government had failed to establish that the prisoner before them had any connection whatsoever to al-Qaeda or the Taliban for the very reasons described above. That prisoner was Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi and, as Lieutenant Colonel Abraham added, the authorities refused to accept the tribunal’s decision, dismissing all three officers and conducting a second tribunal that reached the conclusion the government wanted; namely, that al-Ghizzawi was an “enemy combatant,” and that he could continue to be held indefinitely. This was not the only “do-over” tribunal, but the fact that it happened at all is a disgrace and the fact that al-Ghizzawi continued to be held for another six years after Lieutenant Colonel Abraham exposed the shortcomings in the government’s so-called evidence is a disturbingly clear example of the complete disregard for any notions of justice or decency in the running of Guantánamo.

It was not until June last year that al-Ghizzawi was finally cleared for release by the interagency task force established by President Obama to review all the Guantánamo cases and, even then, the Justice Department behaved appallingly, neglecting to inform Gorman of the decision and then gagging her when she tried to inform al-Ghizzawi’s family and his wife, who, in despair after years of waiting, had decided to seek a divorce.

Unprincipled Obstacles to the Closure of Guantánamo

I have no idea if the identities of the other two men released in Georgia will be made available, but it is clear that they, too, have been deprived of their freedom for up to eight years not as a result of any coherent policy, but as a direct result of the Bush administration’s arrogance and incompetence in establishing Guantánamo as a prison outside the law, filled largely with men who were seized and sold to US forces by their Afghan and Pakistani allies and who had no connection whatsoever to al-Qaeda, the 9/11 attacks or any other group involved in international terrorism.

With 183 prisoners still at Guantánamo and 101 of these cleared for release by Obama’s task force and, in some cases, by the US courts, the shrill rhetoric of those who still insist that the prison is full of terrorists should have been silenced, but as the cynical fearmongering of recent months has shown all too clearly, when it comes to Guantánamo, Republican lawmakers are more than happy to stir up unsubstantiated hysteria about the prison, playing the fear card as the mid-term elections approach and encouraging Democrats to do the same.

I have my doubts that the other 82 men qualify as terrorists, but presume that the 35 proposed for trials (either in federal courts or in military commissions) will one day have their cases considered by a judge and jury and that the other 47 men, who the task force recommended be held indefinitely without charge or trial, will be able to challenge this deeply distressing advice in a US court before judges reviewing their habeas corpus petitions. As with 34 of the 45 cases so far decided, the judges will, no doubt, conclude that, in many of these cases, the government’s assertions that they are too dangerous to release, despite a lack of usable evidence, will be revealed as distortions based on the kind of false confessions that Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi resisted making in exchange for medical treatment.

For now, however, while readers should bear in mind that only between 5 and 10 percent of the total number of prisoners held at Guantánamo will, in the end, be judged to have had any connection to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, the release of these five prisoners to Switzerland and Georgia continues to demonstrate that innocent men are still held at Guantánamo and that the fearmongering in the US is both unjustifiable and potentially damaging to these men’s prospects of being rehoused elsewhere.

Given these obstacles – and lawmakers’ refusal to accept any cleared prisoners into the US – Fried is to be congratulated for successfully concluding the complex negotiations leading to the release of these men and, sometimes single-handedly, it seems, working toward the closure of Guantánamo, which remains a stain on America’s reputation and a dark symbol of the Bush administration policies that Obama has found himself unwilling or unable to thoroughly repudiate.