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'Outrageous': Guantánamo Prisoner Dies After Being Held for Nine Years Without Charge or Trial

by Andy Worthington

The Second World War lasted for six years, and at the end of it prisoners of war were released to resume their lives. At Guantánamo, on the other hand, the prison has just marked the ninth anniversary of its opening, and on Thursday the Pentagon announced that Awal Gul, a 48-year old Afghan prisoner, who had been held for nine years without charge or trial and was scheduled to be held forever, died in a shower after suffering a heart attack. Gul had never been held as a prisoner of war, and despite the US government’s assertions that he could be held forever, no one in a position of authority — neither President Bush nor President Obama — had never adequately demonstrated that he constituted a threat to the United States.

From what is known of Gul’s story, he had run a weapons depot in his home town in eastern Afghanistan, after the end of the Soviet occupation, and had then run it on behalf of the Taliban after their rise to power in 1996. However, in his tribunal at Guantánamo, as I explained in a profile of him two years ago:

Gul said that he had resigned from the Taliban … and, in a volte-face that was typical of Afghan politics, had begun working with the pro-US warlord Hazrat Ali, one of three Afghan commanders who had fought at Tora Bora on the Americans’ behalf [Tora Bora being the site of a showdown, in December 2001, between al-Qaeda and senior Taliban supporters on the one hand, and a proxy Afghan army directed by US Special Forces on the other]. He explained that, on Ali’s advice, he handed himself in to Northern Alliance commanders in Kabul in February 2002, in an attempt to quell rumors about his involvement with the Taliban, but was then handed over to the Americans.

Whether there was any truth to this story had still not been clearly established after nine years, when, as Navy Cmdr. Tamsen Reese, a Guantánamo spokesman, explained, Gul had been working out on Tuesday night in Camp 6, and then “went to go take a shower and apparently collapsed in the shower.” Cmdr. Reese added, “Detainees on the cellblock then assisted him in getting to the guard station,” and from there he was taken to a clinic, and then to the Navy base hospital, which is some distance from the prison blocks, where he died despite “extensive life saving measures.”

Unlike the six other deaths at Guantánamo — the three heavily disputed deaths in June 2006, which appear to have involved a secret torture team operating in a secret facility outside Guantánamo’s main perimeter fence rather than the authorities’ claim that the men committed suicide simultaneously, two other alleged suicides in May 2007 and June 2009, and the death by cancer of an unrecognized hero of the anti-Taliban resistance in December 2007 — the death of Awal Gul at least appears straightforward.

Nevertheless, the US government should be ashamed that it has presided over the death of a man whose claims that he was mistakely detained had never been the subject of a judicial ruling, despite the fact that he, along with all the Guantánamo prisoners, had been granted habeas corpus rights by the US Supreme Court two years and eight months ago.

In Gul’s defense, his lawyer, Matthew Dodge, an Atlanta-based federal public defender, said that documents in the possession of the US government proved that Gul “had quit the Taliban a year before the Sept. 11 terror attacks,” as the Miami Herald explained. Dodge and Gul’s other lawyer, Brian Mendelsohn, also stated, “Mr. Gul was kind, philosophical, devout, and hopeful to the end, in spite of all that our government has put him through … The government charged that he was a prominent member of the Taliban and its military, but we proved that this is false. Indeed, we have documents from Afghanistan, even a letter from Mullah Omar himself on Taliban letterhead, discussing Mr. Gul’s efforts to resign from the Taliban a year or more before 9/11/01. He resigned because he was disgusted by the Taliban’s growing penchant for corruption and abuse. Mr. Gul was never an enemy of the United States in any way.”

The lawyers added, “It is a shame that the government will finally fly him home not in handcuffs and a hood, but in a casket.” FBI reports, included in his habeas petition, not only stated that Gul had 18 children (seven boys and eleven daughters), but also described him as “a former Taliban commander,” and noted that, in June 2008, he told a San Diego-based FBI agent that he was “tired from war and thirsty for peace.”

In contrast, US Southern Command responded to news of Gul’s death by issuing a statement claiming that he was “an admitted Taliban recruiter and commander of a military base in Jalalabad,” who “at one point,” as the Miami Herald put it, “allegedly operated an al-Qaeda guesthouse.” The use of “allegedly” in the second part of that claim rather undermines the credibility of that particular allegation, and as for the first, Gul’s time as a recruiter and commander clearly relates to the period before the disillusionment that he expressed, and that was confirmed by the FBI.

The Southcom statement also claimed that Gul “admitted to meeting with Osama bin Laden and providing him with operational assistance on several occasions,” but Gul himself told his tribunal at Guantánamo in 2004 that, although he had seen bin Laden on three occasions, “the first time in 1990 in a gathering for ‘rich Saudis” who had come to build a hospital and school,” he was “unaware that the al-Qaeda founder was anti-American,” and had not been involved in providing any kind of operational assistance.

Gul’s lawyers called the Southcom statement “outrageous,” and explained:

The government, through this post-death statement, makes claims more outlandish even than the government lawyers in Mr. Gul’s habeas case. We now hear for the very first time in the nearly 10 years since Mr. Gul’s arrest, that (1) he operated a guesthouse for Al-Qaeda members, and (2) that he admitted providing bin Laden operational support on several occasions. Over the course of almost 3 years in court, the government has never provided any evidence at all to support this slander. Neither Mr. Gul not any credible witness has ever said such things.

Other allegations are equally worthless. Responding to an allegation that he had trained on Stinger missiles (portable surface-to-air missiles used to bring down planes and helicopters), Gul stated that he had indeed trained to use them, but had done so in the 1980s, when the US supplied the missiles to Afghan mujahideen resisting the Soviet occupation.

The Miami Herald also revealed that, last March, District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer had heard oral arguments from both sides in Gul’s habeas corpus petition, but for some reason had failed to reach a decision in his case.

The final blow, however, came from Matthew Dodge, who explained that President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, comprising over 60 career officials and lawyers from government departments and the intelligence services, who reviewed all the Guantánamo cases in 2009, had designated Gul as one of 48 prisoners who should continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial, meaning that, even if his habeas petiton had been granted by Judge Collyer, the decision taken by an unaccountable executive Task Force would have led to an appeal, almost certainly consigning him to continued indefinite detention, possibly for the rest of his life.

How this is supposed to constitute anything resembling justice or fairness is beyond me, and I can only conclude that, not only was Awal Gul betrayed by the US authorities, but also that any of the other 47 men designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial (whose identities have not been publicly disclosed, although they are known to their lawyers) must be reflecting today that, a year from now, or five years from now, or ten, 15 or 20 years from now, they too might die of a heart attack in the living grave of Guantánamo, only to have the US government respond by wheeling out whatever untested allegations it has on file that can be brandished to create the illusion that they were beneath contempt.

I never met Awal Gul, of course, and, as I have stated, I have no idea whether or not his story was true, but even the US government never attempted to claim that he was actually involved in any terrorist activities, and I can only state, in closing, that his sad and lonely death, in a place increasingly shorn of all hope, is a depressing indictment of the US government’s ongoing and apparently permanent inability to treat the men at Guantánamo with anything other than heartless disdain.

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