How thoughtlessly do the apologists for America’s gulag at Guantanamo defame those who have been seriously tortured!

San Francisco Chronicle/SF Gate columnist Debra Saunders has written a hit piece against activists in Berkeley who are seeking to pass a City Council resolution to resettle cleared Guantanamo detainees within the city limits of this college town for the University of California, the home of the Free Speech Movement, People’s Park, and also known for other antiwar and progressive causes over the years. A vote on the resolution before the Berkeley City Council is scheduled for Tuesday night, February 15.

Last December, the City of Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission passed a recommendation asking the Berkeley City Council to adopt the resolution, officially called “Resolution to Assist in the Safe Resettlement of Cleared Guantanamo Detainees.” A full copy of the resolution is available here. Sponsors include No More Guantanamos; Code Pink Women for Peace, Golden Gate Chapter;  Boalt Alliance to Abolish Torture (UC Law School); Ecumenical Peace Institute; Legislative Committee, Tenants Assn., Strawberry Creek Lodge (senior citizens); and others.

The Water Torture of Djamel Ameziane

It’s no surprise to discover that Saunders’ column was picked up by a number of conservative outlets, especially as it retails the lie that the detainees are dangerous, or likely to “return” to terrorism if released. Besides uncritically accepting Department of Defense figures, she lies about what they actually say, and then tries to impugn the stories of the two Guantanamo detainees mentioned by the Berkeley commission, one of whom, Algerian Berber Djamel Ameziane, has the distinction of being the only Guantanamo prisoner to have suffered a form of waterboarding.

Petitioned by lawyers from Center for Constitutional Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, intervened on Ameziane’s case in 2008 with the U.S. State Department to ask for guarantees of humane treatment for Ameziane.

From the petition before the Inter-American Commission, p. 24 (PDF):

In another violent incident, guards entered his cell and forced him to the floor, kneeing him in the back and ribs and slamming his head against the floor, turning it left and right. The bashing dislocated Mr. Ameziane’s jaw, from which he still suffers. In the same episode, guards sprayed cayenne pepper all over his body and then hosed him down with water to accentuate the effect of the pepper spray and make his skin burn. They then held his head back and placed a water hose between his nose and mouth, running it for several minutes over his face and suffocating him, an operation they repeated several times. Mr. Ameziane writes, “I had the impression that my head was sinking in water. I still have psychological injuries, up to this day. Simply thinking of it gives me the chills.”

Ameziane left discrimination against his Berber ancestry and his Muslim faith, and the chaos of civil war in Algeria in the early 1990s, as a young man in his 20s to work in Vienna, where — yes, Debra Saunders — he was the highest-paid chef  at the well-known Italian restaurant Al Caminetto Trattoria. But Ameziane ultimately lost his work permit, due to anti-immigrant hysteria in Austria, and then went to Canada, where he spent five years waiting upon his claim for political asylum. Only after it was denied did Ameziane leave for Afghanistan in 2000, believing that the only place for him after all might be an Islamic country that ruled with Sharia law. After 9/11 and the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, he was arrested in a mosque and later turned over to the Americans, probably for bounty money.

Saunders quotes Thomas Joscelyn, right-wing columnist and senior fellow for the neo-conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, as writing that Ameziane must have been a jihadist, because he was caught in a lodging supposedly owned by Abu Zubaydah, and that “to ‘gain admittance to a Taliban guesthouse, recruits need a certified Taliban or al Qaeda member to vouch for their commitment’ to jihad.” Except, Zubaydah was never a member of the Taliban or al Qaeda, and the guesthouse was not associated with them either. But what do such little facts matter to these conservative hirelings for the torturers?

In fact, not only were the others captured at this “safe house” later released or cleared by the Americans, but two different Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearings for Ameziane found that “while in Afghanistan, the detainee did not receive any military or terrorist training and did not see any fighting.” Nor was any evidence of any terrorist or military activities ever produced.  ”Has Ameziane been cleared by U.S. authorities? Not that I can find,” writes Saunders. Perhaps she never read the Reuters headline: Obama team clears 75 at Guantanamo for release. Nor is she likely aware that the Anglican Diocese of Montreal has said they would sponsor his settlement in Canada.

Russian Prisoner Already Welcomed by Massachusetts Towns

Saunders also attacks the other Guantanamo detainee mentioned by the Berkeley commission as a possible candidate for resettlement, Ravil Mingazov, a former Russian ballet dancer, who was conscripted into the Russian army and performed for two years in the Army’s ballet troupe. A convert to Islam, he found himself subjected to discrimination in Russia, had his house ransacked by the KGB (according to a report by Andy Worthington), and like Ameziane and many others left for what they thought of as an Islamic refuge in pre-9/11 Afghanistan.

Mingazov has already been sponsored for settlement in resolutions similar to that up for vote in Berkeley, specifically in the Massachusetts towns of Amherst and Leverett. The Guantanamo prisoner, the last Russian to be held in the U.S. torture prison in Cuba, was granted his habeas corpus petition last Spring. In his opinion (PDF), Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. noted that the only real “evidence” supplied by the government was Minagzov’s stay overnight at Issa House, owned by Abu Zubaydah. But the government could not prove that the house was associated with al Qaeda, Kennedy wrote. Nor could the government prove for the purposes of even a habeas hearing that Mingazov had ever been at a training or terrorist camp, or involved with the Taliban or al Qeada. He was a classic case of the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Court simply will not conclude that a one-night stay at Abu Zubaydah’s house, where Mingazov was unable to communicate with most if not all other occupants, from which he was sent away shortly after his arrival, and which goes in no way to show that Mingazov was part of Al Qaeda’s command structure, meets the standard for lawful detention.

Mingazov was tortured under U.S. confinement at Bagram, where he “‘endured harsh conditions and suffered physical … abuse,’ in particular being “severely beaten, slammed into the ground, hung by [his] arms for extended periods of time, and deprived of food and sleep.’” But, according to Saunders, Mingazov has not been “cleared” for release, despite Judge Kennedy’s decision.

It is eerie how much both of these cases rely on supposed links to “high-value” prisoner Abu Zubaydah, who the Bush Administration pushed early on as an al Qaeda mastermind, author of the “Manchester” resistance manual, leader of his own terrorist forces, etc., and who was famously tortured in CIA prisons, waterboarded an admitted 83 times. These claims about Zubaydah’s significance, which were quietly dropped in recent years, have been revived in recent months in some court rulings and even in the Center for Public Integrity’s Pearl Project report (see pg. 54).

Statistics and Damned Lies

Perhaps the most egregious lie Saunders spreads was born from the fertile minds of the right, spinning the 2010 “Summary of the Reengagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” put out by the Director of National Intelligence last year. Saunders says the report confirms that “the Director of National Intelligence reported in December that 25 percent of released Gitmo detainees have been confirmed or suspected of engaging in terrorism.” Actually, the report says that “the Intelligence Community assesses that 81 (13.5 percent) are confirmed and 69 (11.5 percent) are suspected of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities after transfer.”

Saunders leaves out the part about “insurgent activities,” because to the right-wing, anyone who would oppose with arms the United States, even if the U.S. invaded their country, must be a terrorist. In this, they are assisted by the current administration, who continues to view the “war on terror” with the same point of view of their Bush/Cheney predecessors.

Not only does Saunders not mention that the confirmed number of even this dubious figure is actually 13 or 14 percent, but she hides the fact that the “suspected” figure is questionable itself, as it relies on “[p]lausible but unverified or single-source reporting” (emphasis added). In a press release following the Pentagon’s latest release on “recidivism” figures for former Guantanamo detainees, Center for Constitutional Rights commented, the government “persists in using the language of ‘re-engagement’ to describe individuals, despite the fact that the majority of them should never have been detained in the first place and were known early on by the government to be innocent. It is not possible to return to the battlefield if you were never there in the first place.” Furthermore, “the latest report only summarizes its figures without actually naming any alleged recidivists or including any information that would enable meaningful scrutiny.”

Saunders also quotes Joscelyn as saying that the prisoners who have received transfers or releases from Guantanamo are hardly cleared of terrorist stigma. “They didn’t find any innocent goat herders,” Joscelyn said. But this totally contradicts statements by former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, who wrote in a guest post at The Washington Note in March 2009 about “the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the U.S. operations there.” Wilkerson said that “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.” The reason they didn’t, Wilkerson concluded, was because they feared looking bad, and endangering the “war on terror” campaign.

Saunders concludes her article, with the strange assertion that “in a new act of fiction, Berzerkeley plays make-believe by pretending that two Gitmo detainees should be dating your cousin.” While presumably a response to a quote by Berkeley Peace and Justice commissioner Rita Maran earlier in the article, the use of this turn of phrase, so similar to historically racist forms of expression, to the effect that one would not want one of your relatives to date one of those people (Irish, Italians, Jews, Blacks, Mexicans, etc.), is not coincidental. The fear-mongering against the Guantanamo detainees has always carried a racist edge to it.

The resolution up before the Berkeley City Council to advocate resettlement of two cleared Guantanamo prisoners is agenda item 18 on the Council’s agenda Tuesday night. The resolution also asks Congress to reverse its position and agree to the release of cleared detainees into the United States. It also predicates any resettlement in Berkeley upon a rescission of the Congressional ban on domestic detainee resettlement.

Update, 2/16/11: According to news accounts, the Berkeley City Council rejected the resolution to resettle detainees from Guantanamo. There were four votes “for,” one “against,” and four abstentions. The resolution needed five votes to pass. Unfortunately, the fate of this resolution speaks volumes about the political situation in the United States today.