"Ain't Gonna Study War No More"

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Right-To-Life Party, Christian, Anti-War, Pro-Life, Bible Fundamentalist, Egalitarian, Libertarian Left

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Guantánamo Bay Justice: 3 Hours Behind Closed Doors

Washington - On hardback chairs, their hands shackled and the chains bolted to the floor, the detainees are given this one chance to prove their innocence. Some have already been at the U.S. prison camp in Cuba for nearly three years, and some are visibly fearful in this small room crowded with military authorities. Others are angry and defiant.

Musab Omar Ali Al Mudwani, an alleged Al Qaeda fighter trained in Afghanistan, was almost begging, records show. Please, he told the military officials, "look at the evidence with fairness."

Saeed Ahmed Al-Sarim, captured in the fighting around Tora Bora, asked repeatedly why the military justice system was "closed and silenced." He asked, "Are there going to be lawyers? Are we going to be able to contact our families?" Then he sighed in resignation. "Nothing is going to change," he said.

And Ali Husayn Abdullah Al Tays, who once stayed at an Afghan safe house frequented by Osama bin Laden, lashed out at his captors. "Why are you Americans asking me about this?" he shouted. "Why is it your business? Tell me what business it is of the Americans."

In the last three months military officials at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, home to the prison known as Camp Delta, have been conducting three-hour Combatant Status Review Tribunals. The tribunals began July 30 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that detainees could not be held indefinitely and that they had a right to some form of legal process.

Each prisoner now gets a hearing, one chance to convince the American authorities that they should not remain in custody as enemy combatants - the classification assigned to them when they were originally scooped off the battlefields of Central Asia.

"We think this is a professional process. It's very rigorous. It's fair," said Navy Capt. Beci Brenton, a Pentagon spokeswoman. "We take extra steps to make sure the detainees understand the process, and they are given a good opportunity to speak for themselves."

The Process Debated

Critics are unconvinced. They note that only one of the 104 tribunal verdicts has resulted in a prisoner going home. They also say that the hearings are a mere formality, forced upon the Pentagon, and that they mock the U.S. justice system because detainees are not allowed attorneys and rarely can put on evidence or offer the testimony of witnesses in their defense.

"The process is basically a sham," said Washington lawyer Thomas Wilner, who has been working to free 12 Kuwaiti detainees.

Eugene R. Fidell, president of the Washington-based National Institute of Military Justice, said the tribunals should have been held in Afghanistan and Pakistan when the detainees were first captured, and evidence and witnesses were still fresh.

"These are not a meaningful substitute for the competent tribunals required under the Geneva Conventions," he said.

And Fidell scoffed that all but one verdict has gone against the detainees. "That's a great batting average, isn't it? They're pitching a nearly perfect game."

In recent weeks documents have begun surfacing in U.S. District Court in Washington, and other Pentagon materials have been obtained by The Times, that for the first time show how justice is being meted out in those small hearing rooms in Cuba, where about 550 people are detained.

The Times was able to review the cases of 47 detainees, along with transcripts of the tribunals, written statements from the prisoners and letters of support from family members insisting their loved ones are innocent. Access to the actual hearings was severely limited by the Pentagon; reporters did not have free access to the hearing rooms and could not learn either the name of the detainee or the full charges against him.

As a result, the hearings have received almost no news coverage.

Even critics concede that the tribunals must grapple with a difficult issue: At least some of the Guantánamo detainees are probably innocent, but it also seems likely that some remain potential threats to Americans. Before the tribunals began, some detainees who were released took up arms against U.S. forces again.

What critics charge, however, is that the tribunal system as it is now being implemented does not give detainees adequate resources to defend themselves.

In the hearings, the government almost always presents evidence to suggest the detainees had direct ties to Al Qaeda, that they were trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan and that many were captured during the war to defeat the Taliban waged after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in America.

One man was deemed a close associate of a known suicide bomber. Another was captured with the cellphone number belonging to Abu Zubeida, an Al Qaeda operations chief and top aide to Bin Laden.

Some are listed as Bin Laden bodyguards. One reportedly was with the Al Qaeda leader shortly before he disappeared into the caves of Tora Bora.

Another, Mamdouh Ibrahim Ahmed Habib, allegedly told U.S. interrogators that he helped train "several of the 11 September 2001 hijackers in martial arts and had planned to hijack a plane" himself.

Despite the gravity of such charges, there is a sense in the documents that the prisoners have few resources for attempting to disprove them.

For one thing, detainees are permitted to request testimony from witnesses that might help them, but the documents show such requests often are turned down as "irrelevant." Also, evidence that might exonerate detainees, such as hospital records and visa and passport materials, often cannot be found by U.S. authorities or are ruled inadmissible.

Redouane Khalid, for example, is a French citizen captured after he allegedly spent summer 2001 in a safe house in a neighborhood of Kabul, Afghanistan, known as "Taliban- and Al Qaeda-occupied territory."

Of five witnesses that Khalid wanted to call, only one was deemed "available." The remaining four were fellow prisoners who earlier had been returned to France.

Khalid next asked that his passport, visa and a return airline ticket from Afghanistan to London he carried at the time of his capture be presented in his defense - presumably to bolster a contention that he had not planned to stay in Afghanistan and fight. Tribunal authorities, however, simply noted that "a search was conducted for these items on Guantánamo Bay but they could not be located."

The files also contain letters from family members attesting that their loved ones are not terrorists and pleading for their release. But there is no indication the messages were taken seriously by the tribunals, each composed of three military officers.

The family of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a Yemeni picked up in Pakistan, said he was injured in a 1994 accident that left him with a fractured skull, the loss of one eye and no hearing in one ear. They said they had received maybe a dozen short letters from him since his capture, and that in one he described Guantánamo as "my island of hell."

The brother of Al-Sarim, who now is resigned to the prospect that "nothing is going to change" for him in prison, wrote that the detainee's 4-year-old daughter "waits everyday by the door" for him to come home.

Claims of Abuse

The panels also seem to give little or no credence to complaints from detainees that they have been tortured by U.S. intelligence forces and prison guards.

Yasin Qasem Muhammad Ismail, a Yemeni who reportedly was by Bin Laden's side when the terrorism chief eluded capture, said that "whenever we spoke to the interrogators we were punished."

He added, "We were hit and tortured. Not only did I get hit and punched, they broke my nose. The Americans did this to me. When I arrived in Cuba I got hit in the place where we eat. I got hit on the shoulder and it was very painful. It was dislocated or something. They threatened to break it monthly even when I got to Cuba. They told me I would be here for a long time."

But Ismail knew the panel did not believe him. "This tribunal is not a legal proceeding," he said to them. "It is a military proceeding. It doesn't matter what I say. It's military, and there are no judges."

Al-Sarim was frightened that he might be placed in a special cellblock where he'd be hurt.

"My emotional state right now - I'm nervous," he told the panel. "Being in prison, you can't say everything you want to say.... And I'm telling you, I'm talking to you right now and I'm scared that you might take me to Romeo Block or any of the other blocks you take people to."

A tribunal member interjected, "That is not our purpose here. Our purpose here is to get to the truth."

Al-Sarim told him, "That is the truth."

But the military did give great weight to worries that many prisoners are still threats to the United States and its allies.

Salman Yahya Hassan Mohammed Rabeil was captured with other squad members from the Al Farouq terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. Documents show that in interrogations by U.S. intelligence officers, he "advised" them he still meant to hurt America.

Yet in his statement to the tribunal, Rabeil denied it. "This is absolutely false. It is outrageous. I never said such a thing as I would harm or threaten the United States," he said.

Like most of the rest, he was labeled an enemy combatant and returned to his cell.

The sole detainee who was released won his freedom in September, documents show. He had participated in a jihad in Afghanistan and had undergone paramilitary training there. While returning to Pakistan he was captured by Northern Alliance forces "after fleeing from helicopter gunfire."

But what was his name, and why was he alone judged not to be an enemy combatant after all? The Pentagon would not say.

Richard A. Serrano
The Los Angeles Times

Buttiglione to Lead Christian Network

Rocco Buttiglione, the European commissioner-designate rejected by Brussels because of his Roman Catholic views on abortion and homosexuality, plans to form a religious lobby group to "battle for the freedom of Christians" in Europe.

Mr. Buttiglione bowed to pressure a week ago and withdrew from the commission team proposed by the incoming president, Jose Barroso, after vehement opposition from Left-wing members of the European Parliament.

Scandalised by the hostility shown by MEPs towards his religious views, the Italian minister for Europe now hopes to create a Christian network to exert pressure on "totalitarian" institutions such as the Strasbourg-based body.

In Rome last week, Mr. Buttiglione said: "There are a lot of people, including politicians, who have been ringing me not only from inside Italy, but also from Spain, Britain, and Germany."

He added that he had been inundated by thousands of letters and e-mails from well-wishers, and had received support from Italy's Jewish and Muslim communities.

"They are asking me not to let the matter drop," he said, "but to get something going through political and cultural initiatives. There are some positive elements to come out of this affair."

MEPs argued that Mr. Buttiglione's personal opposition to abortion and homosexual relationships made him unfit to serve as the European Union's justice, freedom and security commissioner.

Senior aides to the Italian minister said the new Christian network would not take the form of a political party, but be a kind of "movement or association" committed to a greater role for Christian principles in public life.

They added that the political professor, who will remain in the Italian government, was inspired by the role of Christian voters in America last week.

One close adviser said: "Mr. Buttiglione is thinking of a novel idea: a kind of resurgent Christian political movement in Europe. The success of President George W Bush in mobilising the Christian vote in America last week is a sign of what can be done."

In a reference to the American election, Mr. Buttiglione wrote in the conservative Italian newspaper, Il Foglio: "In Europe our intellectuals were always convinced that modernity brings with itself the extinction of religious faith. Now America, the most advanced country in the world, shows us that religion may be and indeed is a fundamental element of a free society and modern economy."

Yesterday, Mr. Buttiglione began a series of public speaking engagements before a packed house at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan. During a talk, entitled "The trial of the Catholic Witch. Why we cannot say we are Christians", he said: "They want a Catholic witch to burn. Well, here I am. What happened in the European Parliament is extremely serious. What they did was to say to someone that since you adhere to your religious faith, you're not suitable to be a European commissioner."

On Friday, in a widely publicized interview with the European press, Mr. Buttiglione said: "What I am thinking of is a group to battle for the freedom of Christians, which is the freedom of everyone. A group to fight against the kind of creeping totalitarianism which has emerged recently regarding my personal situation."

He also condemned the European Parliament's vendetta against him, arguing that MEPs had been partly motivated by hostility towards the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Last year, Mr. Berlusconi famously compared Martin Schulz, the German head of Socialist MEPs, to a Nazi concentration camp commandant, prompting widespread outrage. Mr. Berlusconi has put forward the foreign minister, Franco Frattini, as an alternative candidate for the commission.

"Hostility to the Italian government had something to do with it," said Mr. Buttiglione, "And that is dangerous. The EU has an internal balance in which parliament has to respect the member states.

"This is a violation of the rights of different states. I stood aside, to avoid further damage in the end. There are two aspects to my case. Does a committed Catholic have a right to be commissioner? Secondly, should the European Parliament have the right to veto the choice of European commissioners by national governments?"

The European Commission, he added, needed people "who have different views over various political questions to work together. That is upheld by the constitution. I was made the object of an attack which distorted the truth of the situation".

A professor of political science in Rome, and a friend of the Pope, Mr. Buttiglione is even turning to the works of the French Catholic philosopher Rene Girard to understand the past few turbulent weeks.

According to Girard, he said: "There is an irresistible urge in human communities from time to time to purge themselves by choosing an innocent victim from among their ranks, on whom to blame all of their own faults and vileness."

Bruce Johnston
The Sunday Telegraph U.K.