It seems, despite Dick Cheney’s assertion that all that are left in Guantánamo are the “worst of the worst,” there was at least one completely innocent guy detained there until three days ago as an “enemy combatant.” Haji Bismullah was so innocent, in fact, that that he actually fought against the Taliban and was a member of the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. Thanks to George Bush’s suspension of habeas corpus, Haji Bismullah has spent the last six years locked up in that wretched concentration camp anyway.
A military panel, not a habeas proceeding, cleared Bismullah of his status as an “enemy combatant” last week, and over the weekend he was flown back to Afghanistan.
I’m sure he’s not bitter. It was an honest mistake, right? They all look alike under those turbans.
Between January 2002 and May 2006, 759 individuals classified as “enemy combatants” were treated to an all-expense-paid vacation to balmy Cuba, courtesy of the U.S. Government.
The Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants has now done two annual reviews. It took several years to get the Administrative Review Board in place. When the Combatant Status Review Tribunals geared up July 30, 2004, nearly every detainee was designated a “keeper.” In less than six months, 558 detainees had had their cases heard before the tribunal. Assuming a five-day, forty-hour work week for the 25 weeks between Friday, July 30, 2004, and Thursday, January 20, 2005 (and assuming that no holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s were observed and work just continued), that’s less than two hours per case.
Two hours is plenty of time to review whether someone needs to be held as an enemy combatant when the detainee is not permitted to know the evidence against him, or to have the help of a legal professional, or otherwise to defend himself.
As one Washington Times commentator put it, “Detentions of alleged enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) and extraordinary renditions smack more of Franz Kafka’s The Trial than of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.” I would expect that the men imprisoned there without any recourse and without notice of what they did wrong might feel a surreal quality to their experience. Haji Bismullah is not the only one.
Only thirty-eight men were freed by that first round of reviews by the Office of Administrative Review, and 520 continued to be held as “enemy combatants.” It’s no surprise to me that these 520 men continued to be held at Guantánamo when one considers that they were not permitted access to all of the allegations that initially gave rise to their status as enemy combatants, and that they were not given the benefit of legal representation. What’s equally bad, though, is that only 37 of those first 558 tribunals were attended by the media.
The media weren’t turned away from any of the reviews, insisted a spokesman for the Office of Administrative Review. All the media had to do if they wanted to attend a review hearing was 1) be on the island the day the review happened and 2) ask to go. Of course, the Office of Administrative review didn’t tell anyone in advance when the hearings were. Dumb luck seems to be the device by which those 37 hearings were attended. Even when the transcripts of the hearings are released, the names are redacted from them – the public has no way of knowing who the detainees were or who any of the other players are in the decision to hold or release them.
In 2005, there were 463 recommendations that resulted in 14 releases, 119 transfers of prisoners to other facilities. The Administrative Review Board decided to continue to detain 330 of the prisoners remaining in Guantánamo. In 2006, two prisoners were released, 55 became eligible for transfer, and 273 continued to be detained at Guantánamo.
Since a Supreme Court decision in June 2008 gave detainees the right to have their detentions reviewed by federal judges in habeas cases, the government has won only three of them. Three! Not surprisingly, Bush’s Department of Justice has appealed some of the rulings it lost.
As The Decider and his waterboarding cronies prepared leave Washington, they speeded up the release of many men held at Guantánamo over the last seven years.
Nearly ten percent of the “worst of the worst” have been released in the last three months. One of them, a poor kid from Chad, who spent the first two thirds of his life in Saudi Arabia with his parents, was accused of being a member of an Al-Qaeda cell in London when he was 11. He was sent to Guantánamo when he was 14, where he stayed until last week. He says that he was tortured during his imprisonment there.
If young Muhammad Hamid Al Qarani was not an enemy of the United States before his capture and designation as an enemy combatant, you can bet he’s one now, having grown up subject to the loving nurture of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. He spent nearly one third of his life being held indefinitely there. Do you think that might give a kid some issues?
In September, the Department of Defense admitted that a dozen teenagers had been held at Guantánamo over the last six years, four of whom were still there. Five of these kids were released, but one commited suicide. If my own child were held in a foreign prison, not even as a Prisoner of War but under a nebulous designation that prevents any treaties from applying to him, I would be advocating strongly for the war crimes of the country holding him to be punished – and punished severely.
There’s still another problem, though. About 50 of the detainees who have been cleared for release have no place to go. Either their homelands won’t accept them or they don’t have a homeland. Some who fall under the latter status are Palestinian. Yemen won’t accept its natives back. And even as the numbers in Gitmo dwindle, there are still thousands of detainees held in military prisons in other countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, and the joint US/UK base on the Indian Ocean atoll of Diego Garcia.
President Barack Obama has said consistently over the last two years that he intends to close the Guantánamo Bay as a detention center. Last week it was reported that he might issue the executive order closing the prison camp as soon as today, although other reports are that closing the prison might not be accomplished even within the first 100 days that he is in office.
I hope he does more than just close the prison camp. I hope he repatriates each and every person held there. If they are terrorists, their own countries can deal with them. The United States government has refused to do anything but warehouse them.
Rulings of Improper Detentions as the Bush Era Closes (NY Times, January 19, 2009)
Obama Vows to Close Guantanamo (Al Jazeera English, November 18, 2008)
Obama Closing Guantanamo: Preparing Order in First Week (The Huffington Post, January 12, 2009)
24 Gitmo Prisoners Ruled Wrongfully Held in Last three Months (The Washington Independent, January 19, 2009)
Obama: Guantanamo Center Might Not Close Within First 100 Days (Baltimore Sun, January 20, 2009)
Annual Administrative Review Boards for Enemy Combatants Held at Guantanamo Attributable to Senior Defense Officials (DoD, March 6, 2007)
List of Individuals Detained by the Department of Defense at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba from January 2002 through May 15, 2006 (DoD, May 15, 2006)
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