Military Commissions Resume Under Clouds Over Credibility
Human Rights First, at the invitation of the Department of Defense, is an official observer at the military commissions held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Priti Patel – a lawyer at Human Rights First in the U.S. Law and Security Program – is in Cuba to monitor the proceedings and is reporting back on events as they unfold. She is providing updates of what she observes.
June 4, 2007
Back to Guantanamo One Year Later
By Priti Patel
So much has happened since my last trip to Guantanamo Bay over a year ago to monitor the previous incarnation of the military commissions. Last Wednesday night, we heard the sad news that another Guantanamo detainee, Abdul Rahman Maadha al-Amry, apparently committed suicide. Al-Amry was a national of Saudi Arabia. As my colleague Hina Shamsi, who monitored the last military commission proceedings in March, said, “This latest death was a preventable tragedy. The administration has had every indication over more than five years that the prolonged and arbitrary detention of prisoners is a moral, diplomatic, legal and policy failure.”
As I head back to Guantanamo to observe the arraignments of Omar Khadr and Salim Ahmed Hamdan before the newly constructed military commissions, I am struck by the depressing reality that life for the detainees remains unchanged since my previous trip. Detainees (through their lawyers) are still struggling for independent judicial review of the legal and factual basis of their detention. Harsh detention conditions at Guantanamo continue. Most detainees are left with little hope that they will ever be released or charged and prosecuted.
The military has admitted that only a small handful of detainees will be charged in a military commission. For these men, there are concerns whether they will indeed receive fair trials –trials which meet even the most fundamental due process and human rights norms. From the current state of the military commission rules, the prospect of a fair trial is unlikely given that the commissions permit both evidence obtained under coercion and second- or third-hand testimony, and allow the prosecution to withhold from the defendant even evidence tending to show his innocence, if the government decides it is classified.
A little background on what to expect on Monday, June 4: The Defense Department has charged Khadr with murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, spying and providing material support for terrorism; Hamdan is charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. Both Khadr and Hamdan are scheduled to be arraigned on Monday. Late last week, we received word that Khadr had fired his U.S. military and civilian defense counsel. He reportedly only wants to be represented by his Canadian lawyers, who under the current rules can only serve as advisors because they are not Americans. This decision by Khadr is not surprising. As Khadr’s ex-civilian lawyer Muneer Ahmad said: “Frankly, if I were a young Canadian who had been stuck at Guantanamo for nearly five years, I would want to be represented by Canadians as well.” We’ll see how this plays out in the commission room, and the impact, if any, on the proceedings.
As with the previous military commission proceedings, it is not only Khadr and Hamdan who will be on trial this week but also five years of U.S. detention and interrogation policy. Both Khadr and Hamdan have alleged they were tortured and mistreated by U.S. officials while at Guantanamo. According to Hamdan’s lawyers, he was placed in solitary confinement for 10 months and was subjected to beatings by U.S. forces, made to sit motionless for days, dressed inadequately in subfreezing temperatures, and threatened with death and torture. To protest his harsh detention conditions, Hamdan at one point had gone on a hunger strike and lost 50 pounds while in detention.
Khadr was only fifteen years old when he was picked up in Afghanistan. He has spent the last five years of his teenage life in U.S. custody. According to his Canadian lawyers who met with him last week, he is “wasting away in a basement cell, doesn’t see daylight and isn’t allowed to exercise.” Khadr’s treatment during interrogations, alleged in court filings, is particularly devastating in light of his age. Khadr was reportedly held in contorted stress positions and left to urinate and defecate on himself, later, military police allegedly poured pine oil solvent on him and used him a “human mop” to clean the floor. Khadr also claims he was repeatedly threatened with rape and rendition to countries where he would be tortured, including Israel, Egypt, Syrian and Jordan.
President Bush’s own Secretary of Defense Robert Gates supported closing the prison and has informed Congress that “no matter how transparent, no matter how open the trials, if they took place at Guantanamo, in the international community they would lack credibility.” The writing seems to be on the wall for these new military commissions.