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Innocence Ignored at Guantanamo
Published on Thursday, February 23, 2006 by the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
Innocence Ignored at Guantanamo
by Richard Ackland
 

Donald Rumsfeld said "they're terrorists, trainers, bombmakers, recruiters, financiers, [Osama's] bodyguards, and would-be suicide bombers". The Bush Administration calls them the "worst of the worst". The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Myers, said they were so vicious that if given the chance they would gnaw through the hydraulic lines of the aircraft flying them to Cuba. The Australian Government, apparently, agrees with these sober assessments.

The references are to US prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. There are more than 400 of them and only 10 have been formally charged with crimes. Many of the remainder have no idea what they are supposed to have done.

Amnesty International said that Guantanamo was the "gulag of our times", the Red Cross said the operations there were "tantamount to torture", and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights last week concluded that it was such a shocking place that "the US Government should close the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities without further delay".

Two fascinating studies into the Guantanamo detainees have emerged this month in the US. Far from being the worst of the worst, it seems that most of these people should not be there at all.

Corine Hegland, in the National Journal, examined the court documents of 132 prisoners who have filed habeas corpus petitions in the courts. Also, she has gone through the transcripts of the hearings of 314 prisoners whose "enemy combatant" status was reviewed by military bodies called combat status review tribunals.

Professor Mark Denbeaux, at the Seton Hall University Law School in New Jersey, led a team of his students who investigated the US Government's documentation against all Guantanamo detainees, including its submissions to the tribunals. From both these exhaustive reviews there comes the question: apart from a small handful of hard cases, what does the US think it is achieving by continuing to hold most of these prisoners?

Hegland found that a majority of the detainees were not Afghans but were captured in Pakistan. Seventy-five per cent of those who have brought habeas petitions are not accused of conducting hostilities against the US. The information points to the fact that about 80 per cent of the detainees were never members of al-Qaeda and many were not Taliban foot soldiers. They were caught in a dragnet searching for Arabs in Pakistan after September 11, 2001. Some had loose associations with the Taliban or al-Qaeda.

Many were simply in the region at the wrong time. Much of the evidence against them is flimsy, having been gathered second-, third- or fourth-hand. Often it is based on admissions of other detainees. Hegland cites examples.

One prisoner at Guantanamo made accusations against more than 60 fellow inmates, more than 10 per cent of the prisoner population. A US military officer, designated as a personal representative for the purpose of the tribunals' hearings but not a lawyer, investigated the accusations and found that none of the accused had been in Afghanistan at the time they were said by this man to have been in a training camp. It didn't matter, because the tribunals still went ahead and declared many of them "enemy combatants".

Here's an example of loose association: a Saudi held in Guantanamo was classified as an enemy combatant because he spent a couple of weeks at a Taliban bean farm. However, he says he was imprisoned on the farm because the Taliban thought he was a Saudi spy.

Others, at least 10, are held because when they were rounded up they were wearing Casio watches and the US Defence Department says these watches are similar to a model with a circuit board used by al-Qaeda for making bombs. This model is sold in shops around the world.

These are not isolated instances, but similar circumstances are repeated in the files. Many of those handed over to the Americans came from bounty hunters in Pakistan and Afghanistan paid by the US to round up Arabs.

The Denbeaux study is even more exacting. Essentially it found that 55 per cent of the detainees were not accused of committing any hostile act against the US and only 8 per cent were characterised as al-Qaeda fighters.

Numerous people are detained because they have "affiliations" with groups not on the Department of Homeland Security's watchlist.

Eighty-six per cent of the prisoners were not captured by the US, but turned over by either Pakistan or the Northern Alliance, often for money or as reprisals for all sorts of hatreds and feuds.

When Michael Scheuer, a CIA man who headed the agency's Osama bin Laden unit until 1999, was told that the largest group in Guantanamo came from custody in Pakistan, he said: "We absolutely got the wrong people."

The US keeps these people locked up, mostly without charge, because it dare not release those it has so embittered. If they were not dangerous before, they are now. They also have to stay there for the political needs of the coalition of the willing. Guantanamo is held out as showing the world that the "worst of the worst" are behind bars and to that extent, we can sleep a little tighter at night. And many believe it.

Copyright © 2006. The Sydney Morning Herald

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