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Gitmo Guilty Plea Is A Sad Day for U.S. Rule of Law

3:02 pm in Uncategorized by daphneeviatarhumanrights1st

This morning I sat in a U.S. military commissions courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and watched the first child soldier charged by a Western nation since World War II plead guilty to crimes he was never even accused of. If the guilty plea of Omar Khadr this morning was a face-saving effort by the U.S. government, it was a sad day for the rule of law in the United States.

Omar Khadr is the 24-year-old Canadian who’s spent a third of his life in U.S. custody without trial after being accused of helping his father’s al Qaeda associates build improvised explosive devices when he was just 15. He was taken to Afghanistan from Canada by his father at the age of nine. The lone survivor of a 2002 U.S. assault on an Afghan compound, Khadr was accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier.

But as he entered his guilty plea this morning — after the government agreed he’d serve just one more year at Guantanamo Bay, and an as-yet-unspecified number of years in Canada — it was clear that prosecutors had taken the opportunity to throw the kitchen-sink-full of charges at him – including far more crimes than he’d even been charged with. Most importantly, Khadr pled guilty to the murder of two Afghan soldiers who accompanied U.S. forces in the 2002 assault on the compound. The government has never presented any evidence whatsoever that Khadr was responsible for that.

That Khadr pled to this and the range of other charges that the government first unveiled today (details will not be available until the military commissions publicly release the stipulation signed by Khadr tomorrow) is hardly surprising. Ever since Judge Patrick Parrish ruled that Khadr’s statements made to interrogators after he was threatened with gang-rape, coerced and possibly tortured were admissible, his defense was sure to be challenging. Although the government did not appear to have any forensic or eyewitness testimony to support its murder charge, government interrogators planned to testify that Khadr had willingly told them that he threw the grenade that killed Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer. Whether he said that because it was true, or because he was a scared and wounded 15-year-old expecting a quick release for telling his interrogators what they wanted to hear, we’ll never know. (Khadr was shot multiple times and severely woundedin the firefight, which left him blind in one eye; he still has shrapnel in the other.)

Khadr’s sentencing hearing begins tomorrow. Although the plea agreement contains a recommended sentence (news reports have said it’s 8 years total) that deal will remain secret until the military commission sworn to act as a jury in this case issues its own sentence based on live testimony. The government will present witnesses to describe the effects of improvised explosive devices, and the testimony of Sergeant Speer’s widow about her loss. Khadr’s lawyers will put forth psychological and psychiatric experts to talk about the impacts of torture on him and likely about the ability of a 15-year-old youth to appreciate the wrongfulness of his acts, particularly when they were directed by the adults around him.

But all of this is hardly a vindication of the U.S. military commission system. After the plea was entered this morning, chief prosecutor Captain John Murphy told reporters that Khadr “stands convicted of being a murderer and also being an Al Qaeda terrorist” based on “his own words.”

To be sure, Judge Parrish took pains today to ask Khadr if he was entering his guilty plea knowingly, and fully understanding the consequences. Khadr nodded and quietly answered “yes.” But in truth, he had little choice. If Khadr had gone to trial, he faced a potential life sentence from a military jury, who would hear how he “confessed” to the crimes in interrogation. He could have faced many more years in prison. What’s more, the U.S. maintains the right to indefinitely detain him even if he was found not guilty. Ironically, all but one of the other four detainees found guilty in military commissions have gone home, while dozens of remaining Guantanamo detainees who have never been charged with a crime continue to languish.

For Khadr, then, today’s guilty plea was probably the right choice. His Canadian lawyers are likely to challenge his sentence as unlawful as soon as he’s transferred to Canada. (The “diplomatic notes” reached between the U.S. and Canadian governments that will likely allow his transfer after a year in U.S. custody are still secret but will be released with the plea agreement after the commission members recommend their sentence.)

For the U.S. government, the guilty plea was a way to save face. After all, the Obama administration knew that it was a political embarrassment for its first military commission trial to be of a child soldier – a contradiction of its obligations under international law to rehabilitate child soldiers rather than punish them. The administration also knew that the charges against Khadr were all legally dubious – invalid under international law and a violation of the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution. Khadr’s guilty plea allows them to rack up another “win” for the military commissions, pushing the total to a whopping five convictions in the last eight years. By contrast, U.S. civilian federal courts have convicted more than 400 terrorists in that same time period. This doesn’t exactly tip the balance.

Still, no matter how you look at it, this plea makes a troubling statement about the United States’ respect for the rule of law. Although as part of his plea agreement Omar Khadr has waived his right to appeal his conviction or to sue the United States for his confinement or treatment, a dark cloud continues to shadow this case. That cloud will continue to conceal the truth about Omar Khadr’s treatment at the hands of his U.S. interrogators; and it will ensure that the validity of his conviction, and the integrity of the military commissions themselves, remain in doubt.

Critics of Ghailani Trial Have Little Faith in U.S. Law

10:37 am in Uncategorized by daphneeviatarhumanrights1st

On Wednesday, to the surprise of some spectators in the courtroom, a U.S. federal judge did the right thing: he followed the law.

Judge Lewis Kaplan had a clear choice before him: he could exclude the testimony of a government witness discovered via abusive CIA interrogation of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, or he could allow the government to introduce that testimony, in blatant violation of U.S. law. Ghailani, transferred from Guantanamo Bay to New York last year, is now on trial for allegedly assisting in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.

In a U.S. federal court, testimony derived from a coercive interrogation is not admissible. A similar rule applies in the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. Although judges there have more leeway, most military judges are equally principled and take the ban seriously. Torture-derived evidence is inadmissible for two reasons: to prevent U.S. authorities from engaging in torture, and because such evidence is inherently unreliable. International treaties similarly ban its use.

The government knew, of course, that this would be a problem, and it surely has plenty of other evidence against Ghailani or it wouldn’t have transferred him to civilian court in the first place. After Judge Kaplan’s ruling, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed his continued confidence in the case. Notably, four of his alleged co-conspirators in the bombings were tried and sentenced to life in prison back in 2001 – without the use of this particular government witness. Evidence introduced in that trial pointed to Ghailani as well.

Still, since Wednesday, commentators such as Liz Cheney and Jack Goldsmith have seized on Judge Kaplan’s ruling to lament not the fact that Ghailani was thrown in a CIA black site for two years and likely tortured (the government refuses to address Ghailani’s treatment in this trial but concedes he was "coerced"), but the fact that the judge has excluded the evidence that his interrogators squeezed out of him – or to claim the administration should never have given Ghailani a trial at all.

"If the American people needed any further proof that this Administration’s policy of treating terrorism like a law enforcement matter is irresponsible and reckless, they received it today," announced Cheney after the ruling. Goldsmith, the Harvard Professor and former head of the Office of Legal Counsel Under President Bush, now writing on the new Lawfare blog, wonders "why the government is bothering to try Ghailani." Why not simply imprison him indefinitely?

Coming from Goldsmith, this is particularly disappointing. When he was at OLC, he had the courage to criticize his colleagues John Yoo and Jay Bybee for their twisted legal analysis that allowed them to institutionalize torture as U.S. policy. Now, rather than recalling that error as the source of the problem in Ghailani’s trial today, he’s criticizing the Obama administration for applying the rule of law at all.

Technically, Goldsmith may be right: the administration could just declare Ghailani an al Qaeda member and ongoing threat and hold him in military detention forever. That’s the unfortunate consequence of the "war against al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces," which has no logical end. But as a matter of principle and policy, imprisoning people indefinitely without trial would be a disgrace, along the lines of what Goldsmith’s colleagues at OLC sanctioned.

If there’s anything the United States stands for — or used to stand for — it’s that we don’t throw people in prison without proof they’ve done something wrong.

Principle aside, it’s just bad strategy. As General Petraeus has acknowledged, winning the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban is as much about winning over the local populations where they live as it is about U.S. military prowess. Throwing Muslims in prison for decades without charge or trial is hardly a good strategy. If, as national security experts tell us, al Qaeda’s strategy is to present the U.S. war against terror as a war against Islam, indefinite detention of suspected Islamic insurgents without trial hands al Qaeda its most effective propaganda campaign on a silver platter.

Cheney and Goldsmith may be right that excluding a witness derived by torture will make the government’s case against Ghailani more difficult. But in the end, a fair trial for a suspected terrorist in a respected federal court will do far more to defeat al Qaeda and its associates — and to bolster the image of the United States in the world — than will foregoing justice altogether.

Lindsey Graham’s Backwards Look at Military Commissions

10:07 am in Uncategorized by daphneeviatarhumanrights1st

By Daphne Eviatar, Senior Associate, Law and Security
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

I’ll agree with Sen. Lindsey Graham on one thing: "Americans still wait for justice." That’s the headline of a column he wrote that ran in the SunNews and other South Carolina newspapers on Monday, lamenting that the U.S. government still hasn’t put the plotters of the September 11 terrorist attacks on trial.

But Graham’s explanation for why we haven’t yet seen justice is actually backwards.

Graham insists that the Obama administration must press forward in prosecuting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators in military commissions. But it’s the insistence by Graham and others on using an ill-formed and inexperienced commission system to try suspected terrorists that’s the cause of the long delay. If the United States had just used the federal justice system we have, which has worked well for the past 200 years, the 9-11 perpetrators would have been tried and sentenced long ago. That’s what happened to the plotters of the first attack on the World Trade Center, and to the planners of the US Embassy bombings in East Africa. Instead, the Bush administration decided shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that, not only would it respond militarily against al Qaeda and the Taliban, but that its prosecution of the individual planners of the attacks, all of whom are civilian terrorist thugs, not military leaders of an actual foreign army, must be carried out by the military as well. Never mind that the U.S. military had no experience prosecuting terrorists, while the U.S. federal courts had decades’ worth — plus entire terrorism prosecution units created just for that purpose. And it is that fateful decision by the Bush administration — and the Obama administration’s apparent reluctance to change course now — that has led to the unconscionable delay in bringing these men to justice that Lindsey Graham is now complaining about.

The military commissions that Senator Graham takes such pride in have convicted only four individuals on terrorist-related charges, mostly for such minor crimes as driving or cooking for an al Qaeda operative. The reason they haven’t been more active isn’t due to a lack of political will, but a lack of legal authority. The first military commissions created by the Bush administration were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2006. The next set of commissions approved by Congress continued to raise serious constitutional problems, including the creation of war crimes that never before existed. The result is that any convictions obtained in these tribunals – which were changed again in 2009 — are constitutionally suspect and ripe for reversal on appeal. No wonder prosecutors haven’t been eager to push through their cases.

The cases that have been successfully prosecuted have for the most part won relatively lenient sentences, largely for the same reason. Thus Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, was sentenced to only five months on top of the time he’s already served at Guantanamo Bay. Australian-born terrorist David Hicks was likewise sentenced to only nine months in prison.

By contrast, U.S. federal courts have convicted more than 400 terrorists since September 11, 2001. And with hundreds of years of convictions behind them, the federal courts’ criminal prosecutions are not vulnerable to the same legal and constitutional challenges. Convicted terrorists such as Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, Zacarias Moussaoui, and Richard Reid end up serving long sentences in the United States’ highest security prisons. Notwithstanding Lindsey Graham’s claims about security, no terrorist has ever escaped.

Indeed, Graham’s claims that civilian trials would "create unnecessary legal problems, be incredibly expensive, and put civilian populations at risk" are nonsense. On the other hand, it’s an apt criticism of the military commissions. They’re not only a thorny legal problem, but also a colossal waste of money, costing about $125 million a year in operating expenses alone. As a result, the United States spends more than $650,000 to detain each of the 176,000 war-on-terror detainees at Gitmo. By contrast, it costs less than $6,000 a year to keep a prisoner in federal detention, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Meanwhile, as a broad range of current and retired military leaders have acknowledged, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp has become a global liability; its continued operation harms, rather than helps, national security.

It’s becoming fashionable in some circles these days to argue that we should just leave Guantanamo open — as Harvard professor and former Bush administration lawyer Jack Goldsmith recently wrote in the Washington Post and Brookings Institution scholar Benjamin Wittes wrote on his new lawfare blog, calling the focus on Guantanamo a mere "fetish." But there isn’t a single reasonable justification for maintaining an offshore prison in a country we don’t even talk to. The United States has plenty of ultra-secure prisons that are perfectly capable of confining terrorists in the territorial United States. The Guantanamo prison was created by the Bush administration to evade U.S. law. Although the Supreme Court refused to go along with that plan, the detention center still stands as a symbol of that misguided attempt. And the catalogue of officially-sanctioned abuses that took place there still haunts us. As President Obama noted in his press conference last week, "Al Qaeda operatives still cite Guantanamo as a justification for attacks against the United States." I can’t see any reason why the United States should assist al Qaeda with its propoganda and recruitment.

As a former military lawyer, Lindsey Graham is right to respect the longstanding military justice system. But the military commissions are a different matter. Since their creation eight years ago, they’ve demonstrated repeatedly that they’re not up to the task of providing swift and credible justice — neither for the plotters of the 9/11 attacks, nor for anyone else. It’s time for the administration to admit that they’re not working and to bring our most notorious terrorists to justice — in a successful, experienced and legitimate court of law.

How to Overcome the “Legacy of Torture”

12:01 pm in Uncategorized by daphneeviatarhumanrights1st

The New York Times today highlights a new report released by ProPublica and the National Law Journal concluding that torture and "enhanced interrogation techniques" approved by the Bush Administration and used on suspected terrorists has made it impossible to bring many of those alleged terrorists to justice.

Of the 53 habeas corpus cases brought by Guantanamo detainees and decided by federal court judges, the government has lost 37. Many of those losses were because the only evidence against the detainee was a coerced confession or statements from other prisoners who’d been tortured. Federal court judges have rightly found such statements unreliable and inadmissible. The result is that many of those suspects have won orders of release. (Only three have actually been freed.)

Unfortunately, those orders have led some critics of the administration – including Sen. Lindsey Graham and Brookings Institution commentator Benjamin Wittes – to argue that we need more expansive detention laws so the government doesn’t have to let those suspects go. That’s precisely the wrong response in a society that claims to presume suspects are innocent until actually proven guilty. (The standard in habeas cases is actually much lower than in a criminal case; the government only has to prove that it’s "more likely than not" that the suspect can legally be detained.) Those 37 prisoners won their habeas cases because the government had no reliable evidence that they’d been fighting for al Qaeda or the Taliban. So judges across the political spectrum concluded that the government hadn’t demonstrated that these detainees are detainable under the laws of war.

In a report Human Rights First released with The Constitution Project in June, 16 former federal judges explained that the courts deciding these habeas cases are doing the right thing: they’re weighing the evidence, deciding the facts and applying the law. No new laws are needed. On the contrary, a new detention law designed to help the government win more cases in the absence of reliable evidence would only tarnish the reputation of the U.S. justice system, which in these cases is doing itself proud.

As the Times points out, these court decisions demonstrate a "respect for due process [that] will help repair this country’s battered reputation." The Bush administration’s failure to apply basic, longstanding American justice standards is what landed us in this mess in the first place, requiring that some terror suspects go free. Creating a new legal standard to accommodate those past mistakes would only compound the problem and drive the United States’ reputation further into the ground.

We’re already seeing that happen at the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. Although, as Peter Finn in the Washington Post today points out, many of the military commission cases have stalled, one that has gone forward recently produced a highly questionable ruling that was immediately broadcast around the world.

In the case of a Canadian citizen and alleged child soldier, Omar Khadr, the judge ruled that a threat of gang-rape and murder in prison from his lead interrogator did not taint any of the 15-year-old’s later "confessions" that he threw a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier. Given that there’s no physical evidence that Khadr committed the act, his statements to interrogators at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan and later at Guantanamo Bay are critical to the prosecution.

In a similar case, brought against Mohammed Jawad, also accused of throwing a grenade at U.S. soldiers as a child, the military commission judge in 2008 concluded that early threats by Afghan interrogators tainted all of Jawad’s later statements made to the Americans. His case was ultimately thrown out and he was returned to Afghanistan.

These sorts of conflicting rulings can happen in the military commissions, an ad hoc justice system created in fits and starts over the last eight years with no binding precedent or road-tested rules. It’s one reason why those military commissions lack the legitimacy of civilian federal courts.

Like the court rulings ordering Guantanamo detainees freed, the military commissions, too, are a legacy of torture. They’re an attempt to patch together a quasi-justice system to accommodate, without acknowledging or rectifying, the egregious mistakes of the past.

But neither new detention rules nor military commissions can truly overcome torture’s legacy. That can only be done by admitting what happened, holding perpetrators accountable, and ultimately, prosecuting terror suspects in our time-tested, world-renowned American justice system. And that is rightly something about which this country can be proud.

Latest CIA Interrogation Tapes Don’t Tell the Whole Story

12:57 pm in Uncategorized by daphneeviatarhumanrights1st

Today’s report that the CIA possesses videotapes of interrogations of alleged 9/11 plotter Ramzi Binalshibh in a secret prison in Morocco is renewing attention to the government’s abusive interrogations practiced in secret prisons around the world as part of its "war on terror." But U.S. officials are already saying that the tapes, which have not been publicly released, don’t actually show any abuse.

"The tapes record a guy sitting in a room just answering questions," a U.S. official told the Associated Press, which broke the story.

That may be true. But even if the two videos and one audiotape of Bin al shibh’s interrogation in Morocco show largely benign interrogations, that shouldn’t distract attention from the fact that we know that many of the videotapes that the CIA did successfully destroy in 2005 documented serious abuse. Those destroyed tapes include 92 interrogation videos of two other alleged al Qaeda operatives, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Nashiri, both of whom were subjected by CIA operatives to a form of torture known as waterboarding – a controlled drowning intended as a death threat. Abu Zubaydah, we know from Justice Department memos and the diligent blogger Marcy Wheeler, was waterboarded at least 83 times in August 2002 alone.

And as Wheeler aptly points out today, we don’t know what parts of those interrogations were not videotaped in that Moroccan prison, or elsewhere. (The AP has a helpful timeline of BinalShibh’s custody in various CIA "black sites" here.) The former British captive Binyam Mohamed, Wheeler notes, has claimed that he was brutally tortured for months in that same Moroccan prison around the same time.

The latest set of tapes was accidentally discovered in 2007, tucked under a desk in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, the AP reported today. The U.S. government twice told a federal judge that they did not exist.

Justice Department prosecutor John Durham is already investigating whether destroying the Zubaydah and al-Nashiri tapes was illegal. He’s now also probing why the Binalshibh interrogation tapes were never disclosed. Durham is also tasked with a preliminary investigation into whether CIA interrogators broke the law by torturing, threatening and otherwise abusing terror suspects under their control. He has yet to release any of his findings.

First U.S. Trial of ‘Child Soldier’ in Modern History Starts This Week at Gitmo

12:44 pm in Uncategorized by daphneeviatarhumanrights1st

On Tuesday, the Obama administration is scheduled to begin its first trial of a prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay. Omar Khadr was only 15 when he was captured in a firefight in 2002 with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Now 23, he’ll finally have his day in court. Only instead of an experienced federal court with a long history of trying terror suspects, Khadr will be tried in a military commission, created just last year. In the eight years since President George W. Bush created the first military commissions at Guantanamo, they have convicted only four terrorists – only two in contested trials. Regular federal courts in the United States, by contrast, have convicted more than 400 in the same time period.

Khadr was only nine when his father, an alleged Al Qaeda financier, dragged him from Canada to Afghanistan and put him to work helping his Al Qaeda-connected friends. Khadr has said that he never had a choice. And a Canadian intelligence agency reported, based on interrogations of Khadr in 2003, that Khadr viewed Al Qaeda "through the eyes of a child" who didn’t understand that his father’s activities were linked to terrorism.

What’s more, based on what’s been presented in pretrial hearings so far, there appears to be little or no evidence, other than "confessions" extracted under highly suspicious circumstances, that Khadr actually committed the most serious crime he’s accused of: throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier.

Even if he did, Khadr shouldn’t be tried in a military commission.

Under international law, a child captured in combat is supposed to be treated as a victim rather than a warrior, offered rehabilitation in custody and eventually repatriated home. Khadr, who has relatives in Canada, was offered neither option.

In addition, the crime of murdering a U.S. soldier isn’t actually a war crime. In war, it’s not a crime to target the other side’s soldiers. But because Khadr was a civilian, rather than a member of a regular foreign army, throwing a grenade is a criminal act that could be prosecuted in a regular criminal court. Although the military commission rules characterize his crime as one that falls within the commissions’ jurisdiction, the legal authority of the commission to prosecute conduct that was declared a war crime after the act was committed, or ex-post facto, remains legally questionable.

Khadr’s lawyer has also questioned the legality of the military commissions as a whole, filing an appeal just this week with the Supreme Court arguing that the commissions are unconstitutional because they target only "aliens"–people who are not U.S. citizens. Though the courts have so far punted on this issue, it’s clear that even if Khadr is convicted, he’ll have several strong grounds for appeal.

So why is the government bringing this case in a military commission?

Perhaps the government hopes that Khadr’s statements, which he claims were extracted by various kinds of torture and abuse, will be allowed into court as evidence. Although Khadr’s lawyer hasn’t yet had the opportunity to present all the evidence of his client’s treatment at Bagram and at Guantanamo Bay, what’s come out at pretrial hearings so far is that when Khadr was captured by U.S. soldiers in July 2002, the teenager had been shot twice in the back, blinded in one eye and had a face peppered with shrapnel. Interrogators at the Bagram air base took to calling him "Buckshot Bob." But that didn’t stop them from interrogating him while he was still recovering from life-threatening wounds and strapped to a hospital gurney. Using what the military calls a "fear up" technique, an interrogator testified, Khadr was told a story about another prison just like him who refused to cooperate – and who then was gang-raped and killed in an American prison.

Official documents also reveal that at Guantanamo, Khadr was subjected to the military’s "frequent flyer" program — meaning he was moved every three hours for weeks at a time to keep him from sleeping prior to interrogations.

So just how reliable are the statements he made, either at Bagram or at Guantanamo?

Now, after eight years at Gitmo, Khadr insists he’s not guilty. He has also at times said he’d boycott his own trial because he thinks the whole military commission process is a sham.

It’s easy to understand why. Now 23, Khadr, has been interviewed by dozens of interrogators, each time led to believe that his cooperation would spare him from violence and lead to his release. He told interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear, but that release never happened. If Khadr had been imprisoned in the United States, he would have been tried and either convicted or released long ago. But instead, Khadr has been held without trial on a secluded prison camp in Cuba for nearly a decade with little opportunity to defend himself.

Human Rights First has been observing the military commission hearings since their inception in 2002. Repeatedly, our observers have been astounded by the injustices, inefficiency and wholesale fiasco that many of the inexperienced and legally questionable commissions’ proceedings produce.

That’s partly because the commissions are so new – created by a law passed in 2009. The first military commission system, created by the Bush administration, was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006. As a result, there’s is almost no legal precedent to guide commission judges. The Military Commissions Manual, meanwhile, was only issued in late April – on the eve of Khadr’s first pretrial hearing. The resulting confusion offers yet more opportunity for Khadr and anyone else convicted in a military commission to challenge their convictions on a broad range of legal grounds. Decisions on the prisoners’ fate will be delayed that much longer.

There’s another reason that this whole military commission system leaves me scratching my head: the extravagant expense involved. Keeping the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and military commission system open for fewer than 180 detainees costs taxpayers a lot of money. Construction and renovations to the camp have cost about $500 million so far; operating costs are another $150 million every year. The Washington Post recently estimated the bill, much of which has been paid to KBR and Halliburton, has so far exceeded $2 billion. Just the cost of flying dozens of journalists and observers like myself, plus all the lawyers involved, to and from Guantanamo to attend each of these hearings so the government can claim that they’re "public" is astronomical. Meanwhile, federal courts and secure prisons in the United States are readily available and already paid for. And the government doesn’t have to cover anyone’s costs to get there.

I’m in Guantanamo Bay this week to observe the end of Khadr’s pretrial hearings and the beginning of his trial in a military commission. But I doubt I’ll gain any better understanding of why the Obama administration chose to try him there.

Update: Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, Omar Khadr’s military defense lawyer, just gave a quick news conference in the sweltering airplane hangar here at the Gitmo base. (Only prosecutors are allowed to use the indoor air-conditioned rooms for press conferences.) "This case will echo in the future," Jackson said, noting that it will set a sad precedent for the United States’ right to try a child soldier as a full-fledged war criminal.

It will also create a lasting legacy for the Obama administration."Forever the Obama administration will be remembered as starting the military commissions with a case of a child soldier," Jackson said.

Somehow that doesn’t seem like the sort of legacy Obama had in mind when he vowed to close the Gitmo prison down on his first day in office.

Court Order Highlights U.S. Legal Distortions

10:51 am in Uncategorized by daphneeviatarhumanrights1st

Last week, U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. released a forceful 36-page opinion in the case of a Guantanamo detainee that would ordinarily be shocking. Sadly, such opinions are now so common that, except for one news story and a few particularly alert bloggers, they get barely a mention in the news.

In his opinion, issued in May but publicly released just last Thursday, the Judge found that a young man from Yemen, seized at the age of 17, has been imprisoned in the United States detention center in Cuba for the past eight years without cause. Although five different times since his arrest officials reviewing his case said Odaini should be released, Obama administration lawyers argued against his petition for habeas corpus, insisting that because the Yemeni student had spent one night at the guest house of a fellow student’s family, and because he had a medical visa rather than a student visa (he said his father had gotten him a medical visa because it was cheaper), the U.S. government can lawfully continue to imprison him.

If that sounds bizarre, it’s not, really. Pursuant to the Obama administration’s interpretation of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, it says it has the authority to detain indefinitely anyone, anywhere in the world who it suspects is affiliated with the Taliban, al Qaeda or associated forces. And if its position in the case of Mohamed Hassan Odaini is any guide, then it interprets that right very very broadly.

Odaini is one of many young men seized in the weeks and months after September 11, 2001 during raids on guesthouses in Pakistan. He has consistently claimed that he was a student at Salafia University who was invited for dinner at a fellow student’s home and spent the night there. But that home was also a guest house, and some al Qaeda fighters stayed there. Although none ever named Odaini as being connected to their cause, the United States insisted it can infer based on his overnight stay that Odaini was an al Qaeda fighter.

The other men seized in the raid corroborated Odaini’s story that he was a student with no ties to al Qaeda or terrorism. As Judge Kennedy notes in his opinion, U.S. government interrogators and officials, too, quickly came to believe Odaini’s consistent claim. Indeed, five different times, government interrogators or task forces independently determined that Odaini should be released. Each time, that recommendation was ignored.

Then in January, President Obama suspended the transfer of any detainees to Yemen, Odaini’s home country, after the attempted Christmas day bombing by a Yemeni national. At that point Odaini’s lawyer, who had until then assumed his client would be released, as recommended, resumed his petition for habeas corpus to the federal court.

In ruling on that petition, Judge Kennedy said that the evidence presented to the court “overwhelmingly supports Odaini’s contention that he is unlawfully detained.” Reviewing the evidence in painstaking detail, including Odaini’s and other detainees’ statements, plus summaries of interrogation and intelligence reports produced by the government, the judge himself seems shocked that the government would be arguing the lawfulness of Odaini’s detention based on the paucity of proof.

The government repeatedly “distort[s] the evidence,” writes Judge Kennedy, concluding that the only way to believe the government’s position is “if one begins with the view that Odaini is a part of Al Qaeda and searches for a way to believe that allegation regardless of its inconsistency with an objective view of the evidence.”

The judge concludes:

Respondents have kept a young man from Yemen in detention in Cuba from age eighteen to age twenty-six. They have prevented him from seeing his family and denied him the opportunity to complete his studies and embark on a career. The evidence before the Court shows that holding Odaini in custody at such great cost to him has done nothing to make the United States more secure. There is no evidence that Odaini has any connection to al Qaeda. Consequently, his detention is not authorized by the AUMF [Authorization of the Use of Military Force]. The Court therefore emphatically concludes that Odaini’s motion must be granted.

In concluding that Odaini’s detention “has done nothing to make the United States more secure,” Judge Kennedy may as well have been talking not only about this one case, but about the much broader problems caused by the government’s interpretation of the AUMF and international law. After all, indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram, the continued authorization of abusive interrogation techniques under Appendix M of the Army Field Manual, the prosecution of a handful of terror suspects by military commission, and the controversial drone attacks or “targeted killings” outside declared zones of conflict have all served to foment anger at the United States and been used to justify insurgent attacks. Meanwhile, none of those policies have been shown to have made the United States any more secure.

The administration appears not to be learning from past mistakes, however. Just as it refused to concede the case of Mohamed Odaini, it’s insisting that it maintains the authority to continue to detain indefinitely without trial some 48 more Guantanamo detainees who it has said cannot be tried yet are too dangerous too release – based on evidence that it acknowledges would not hold up in court.

Even more troubling is the administration’s continued detention of some 800 prisoners at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, since the courts have ruled that those prisoners are not even entitled to habeas corpus review, as Odaini finally obtained here – eight years after his capture.

Last week, 15 former federal court judges urged Congress not to write a new detention law to authorize indefinite detention of suspected terrorists, because independent federal judges are best equipped to decide who’s detainable under the law.

The case of Mohamed Odaini is yet another reason to listen to them.

Update: I was thrilled to see this editorial in the Washington Post this morning pointing out that Odaini’s case puts the lie to the still widely-held assumption that Guantanamo remains populated with "the worst of the worst" and urging Odaini’s repatriation. Unfortunately, as the Post notes, the Obama administration’s ban on transferring any Gitmo detainees to Yemen means Odaini is likely to stay stuck in prison even longer, despite Judge Kennedy’s scathing criticism and determination that his detention is unlawful.

Court Ruling Highlights Need for Due Process at Bagram

1:37 pm in Uncategorized by daphneeviatarhumanrights1st

The question came up in the case of Maqaleh v. Gates, which involves two Yemenis and a Tunisian, one of whom was arrested in Thailand, and all of whom were flown from outside Afghanistan to Bagram by U.S. authorities and imprisoned there. They’ve been there, without charge or trial, for the past seven years.

The D.C. court relied heavily on the fact that these three men, all suspected of ties to terrorism, are being held in a battlefield prison in a theater of active war. But as American University law professor Steven Vladeck points out, the only reason they were "in theater" is because the U.S. government had decided to move them there. So this case stands for "the proposition that location of capture is less important than location of detention–and that, so long as the latter is in a zone of active combat operations, there will be no habeas."

The case isn’t necessarily over, because the detainees could ask for rehearing or appeal to the Supreme Court. But in the meantime, it highlights the absurdity of the United States’ claim that the entire world is a battleground and suspected terrorists seized anywhere can be held by the U.S. government as enemy belligerents without the opportunity to challenge that in an impartial federal court. Although the laws of war do allow detention of some belligerents captured on a battlefield in an international conflict, there’s nothing in U.S. or international law that authorizes capture of alleged enemies anywhere in the world to be brought to a battlefield where the U.S. is fighting local insurgents, for purposes of their indefinite detention.

The United States continues, however, to detain more than 800 prisoners at Bagram, on very shaky legal ground. To be sure, the U.S. military does eventually offer them some form of a hearing to decide whether they’re actually "belligerents" fighting U.S. forces. But as Human Rights First has pointed out before, the procedures in those hearings — although improved during the Obama administration — still don’t come near providing real due process.

For one thing, the 800 + detainees at Bagram have no right to a lawyer. Although they are assigned a "personal representative" by the military to represent them, there are only about eight such representatives available to represent more than 800 prisoners, and none of them are lawyers. Meanwhile, their own ability to collect evidence and call witnesses is limited to whatever is deemed "reasonably available" by the military. On top of that, much of the evidence used to justify detaining the suspects has been classified; the suspects themselves never actually get to see it. So how can they defend themselves, or even inform their "personal representative" of the relevant facts, if they don’t know what evidence is being used against them, or the credibility of whoever provided it?

In Boumediene v. Bush, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that similar proceedings provided at Guantanamo Bay were wholly inadequate, and that prisoners there have a right to challenge their detention in federal court. Although the D.C. Circuit Court decision on Friday acknowledged this, it ultimately decided the case based on other considerations, such as the practical difficulty of providing habeas corpus rights to hundreds of detainees held in Afghanistan.

Setting aside the broader issue of who’s a belligerent and who gets to decide, Friday’s decision underscores the importance of the Obama administration providing a meaningful way for Bagram detainees to challenge their detention.

Improving those procedures isn’t only a matter of the United States meeting its obligations under international law. It also has very practical implications.

The U.S. military has said repeatedly that its strategy in Afghanistan depends on winning the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people. Only by providing legitimate public proceedings that afford detainees a meaningful ability to challenge their detention can the United States ever hope to win that critical battle.

This post has been updated.

Terrorist Prosecutions By the Numbers

11:53 am in Uncategorized by daphneeviatarhumanrights1st

Last night on her MSNBC show, Rachel Maddow did a terrific segment about how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is now providing valuable information to the FBI, despite receiving those dreaded Miranda warnings that ‘tough-on-terror’ critics are complaining about. In the segment, Maddow cited the Justice Department saying that more than 300 terrorists were convicted in the civilian U.S. court system by the Bush administration.

As many people know, Human Rights First published a thorough and widely-cited report in 2008 on those successful terrorist convictions. Yet our updated report, issued last year, cited only 195 terrorists convicted. So what accounts for the different numbers?

In fact, both are true – as is an NYU Center on Law and Security report that recently found that more than 500 suspected terrorists have been convicted in the civilian justice system since September 11, 2001. It all just depends on what you’re counting.

Human Rights First took the most conservative approach. Relying on two respected former federal prosecutors in New York with experience trying terrorism cases, we wanted to see how many cases the courts have handled specifically related to radical self-described Islamic or "Jihadist" terrorism, such as al Qaeda, since that’s where the public debate has focused. So the former prosecutors – James Benjamin, now a partner at the highly-respected law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and the other, Richard Zabel, now head of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York – analyzed just that.

But there are other violent terrorist groups out there, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC) and the Tamil Tigers. Prosecutions of their leaders and supporters raise similar concerns about the need to obtain important intelligence information and to protect classified evidence and the identity of certain witnesses. According to a Justice Department spokesman, the Department’s statement that more than 300 terrorists were convicted in U.S. courts during the Bush administration therefore includes those prosecutions, since they also represent the Justice Department’s experience and expertise in handling these complex and sensitive cases.

The NYU numbers, meanwhile, are even broader. In its recently-released report, the Center for Law and Security looked at all cases since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that the Justice Department initially described as terrorist-related. Many of those suspects were not charged under terrorism-related statutes, however, but charged with fraud or immigration violations instead. That was part of an initial post-9/11 strategy to get potential terrorists off the streets before they could attack, even if the government did not have sufficient evidence of terrorist connections to secure a conviction. Increasingly, the government has moved away from that strategy and charged suspected terrorists with terrorism-related crimes.

So the numbers just depend on what you’re counting. But the main point – regardless of how many hundreds of convictions we’re talking about – is that the Department of Justice has proven itself time and again to be well-equipped to interrogate terrorist suspects, investigate terrorism plots and prosecute complex terrorism cases. Military commissions, by contrast, have not: they’ve only convicted three terrorists so far, two of whom have already been released from prison.

The recent hysteria about how we shouldn’t be giving constitutional rights to non-U.S. citizens is a red herring. (It’s also worth noting, as Glenn Greenwald explained in an excellent post on Salon on Monday, that the Constitution requires according foreigners detained in the U.S. Constitutional rights – as the Supreme Court ruled as far back as 1886 and recently reaffirmed in its decision in Boumedienne v. Bush.)

Not only does the U.S. Constitution confer those rights, but based on the experience of our own time-tested federal justice system, sound national security policy demands it.