At Guantánamo on Tuesday, following hints last week, Noor Uthman Muhammed, a 53-year old Sudanese prisoner, and formerly a trainer at the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, accepted a plea deal in his trial by Military Commission. He is only the sixth prisoner convicted since the Commissions were dragged from the grave by Dick Cheney in November 2001, and the fourth to accept a plea deal. Noticeably, of the three prisoners convicted under President Obama, all have accepted plea deals, demonstrating, I believe, that the administration knows that the system itself is weak.
As legal experts have repeatedly pointed out, the charges in the Military Commissions (since their revival by Congress in 2006, after the US Supreme Court ruled that Cheney’s version was illegal) consist of spurious war crimes specifically invented by Congress (“Murder in Violation of the Law of War,” for example, which, as in the case of Omar Khadr — who was obliged to accept that he was an “alien unprivileged enemy belligerent” in his plea deal last October — attempts, absurdly and shockingly, to claim that any attempt to fight Americans or coalition forces is a war crime) or of crimes traditionally triable in federal court (conspiracy and providing material support to terrorism), which, very probably, would not stand up on appeal, as senior Obama administration officials conceded when reviving the Commissions in 2009.
In Muhammed’s case, an additional complication is that the authorities were trying to convict him for war crimes that took place before the US was at war with al-Qaeda. Last September, Raha Wala, a Georgetown Fellow in Law and Security, who attended the hearing on behalf of Human Rights First, specifically touched on these problems, noting, “Most of the criminal acts Noor allegedly committed took place from the mid-1990’s to 2000, purportedly before the United States was at war with anyone. Yet the military commissions were originally created in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks to try individuals for war crimes, raising questions about whether the military commission even has jurisdiction to hear Noor’s case.”
Another fundamental problem, however, and one which casts a dark shadow over the entire proceedings, concerns Muhammed’s role at the Khaldan training camp, which is central to the allegations against him, and the possibility, or probability that an actual trial — rather than a plea deal followed by a brief sentencing phase — would have focused attention on the stories of two other men involved in Khaldan — Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi — which the authorities would rather not air too publicly, and on the role of Khaldan itself.
Muhammed was seized in a house raid in Faisalabad, on March 28, 2002, which also led to the capture of Abu Zubaydah, who was touted as a significant figure in al-Qaeda, and flown to Thailand, to the first of a series of secret prisons in other countries that were used by the CIA to torture “high-value detainees.” On August 1, 2002, before he was moved to another secret prison in Poland, he became the first “War on Terror” prisoner to be subjected to a specific torture program for “high-value detainees,” when John Yoo, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (which is supposed to provide impartial legal advice to the executive branch) wrote two memos — the “torture memos,” signed by OLC head Jay S. Bybee — in which he cynically attempted to redefine torture, and endorsed an interrogation plan for Abu Zubaydah using torture techniques including waterboarding, a form of controlled drowning.
Despite this, however, the US authorities have been unable to prevent the emergence of damning evidence — not least from FBI interrogators — demonstrating that Zubaydah was actually mentally ill, and was little more than a glorified travel agent for the Khaldan camp. In a court submission in October 2009, the government abandoned its claims that he was a member of al-Qaeda, or had any inside information about the 9/11 attacks or other terrorist attacks, proposing instead that he was the head of a militia that “was ‘part of’ hostile forces and ‘substantially supported’ those forces,” and that he “facilitat[ed] the retreat and escape of enemy forces” after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.
This narrative — and other, uncorrected claims that Abu Zubaydah was a “terrorist leader” and was “the person in charge” of Khaldan — have, distressingly, been accepted by judges in the District Court in Washington D.C., where they have been ruling on Guantánamo prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions, and also in the D.C. Circuit Court, which hears appeals following the District Court ruling, as I explained in my articles, In Abu Zubaydah’s Case, Court Relies on Propaganda and Lies and Algerian in Guantánamo Loses Habeas Petition for Being in a Guest House with Abu Zubaydah. The courts’ inability, or unwillingness to investigate the evidence about Abu Zubaydah has been disastrous for Sufyian Barhoumi and Abdul Razak Ali, who have lost in court, as discussed in the articles above, and can, therefore, continue to be held indefinitely, although it is certain that Noor Uthman Muhammed’s defense team was better briefed, and, had their client’s trial by Military Commission proceeded, might have been able to raise some awkward questions.
Also central to the government’s allegations that Muhammed sometimes served as the deputy emir of Khaldan is the role played by the camp’s emir, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, although al-Libi cannot provide any information himself, as he died in mysterious circumstances in a Libyan prison in May 2009. His death conveniently prevents the US from having to account for what happened to him between December 2001, when he was seized following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and 2006, when he was returned to Libya. This is convenient because, towards the beginning of what appears to have been a horrific tour of secret prisons operated by the CIA or on the CIA’s behalf, lasting several years, al-Libi was sent to Egypt, where, under torture, he falsely confessed that two al-Qaeda agents had been discussing the use of chemical and biological weapons with Saddam Hussein. This confession was used to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, even though al-Libi retracted it before Colin Powell presented it as “evidence” at a crucial UN security council meeting a month before the invasion.
In addition, the role of Khaldan as an “al-Qaeda camp” has also been dispelled over the years, as it has become clear that it was founded during the US-backed mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, that it was only marginally connected to al-Qaeda’s activities, and that, in fact, the Taliban closed it in 2000 after al-Libi refused to allow it to come under the control of Osama bin Laden. This does not necessarily mean that the camp did not play a role in the training of men who later became involved in terrorist activities, despite Abu Zubaydah’s claim that it was “committed to a defensive, not offensive, jihad” (as it appears that the mentally damaged would-be terrorists Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui both trained there, as, reportedly, did three of the 9/11 hijackers), but it certainly adds weight to Muhammed’s explanation, at his tribunal in Guantánamo in 2004, that Khaldan was “a place to get training” that had nothing to do with either al-Qaeda or the Taliban. “People come over to that camp, train for about a month to a month and a half, then they go back to their hometown,” he said, adding that what the people did with the training they received was their own business.
A military jury will shortly begin deliberations about what sentence Muhammed should receive — a largely symbolic gesture, as it will be irrelevant if, as expected, it exceeds the term agreed in the plea deal. This is under seal, but the Miami Herald reported that “Military sources said the deal could send Noor home by January 2015,” and the Associated Press stated, “Arabic broadcaster Al-Arabiya, citing an anonymous source, reported that Noor … will serve no more than three years at Guantánamo and has agreed to testify against other prisoners, including Abu Zubaydah.”
It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will actually press ahead with a trial by Military Commission for Abu Zubaydah, as suggested by Al-Arabiya. It certainly seems unlikely, given his central role in the Bush administration’s torture program, but in the meantime, the jury in Muhammed’s case will probably deliver a punitive symbolic sentence, which will be used by the administration to justify the Commissions, and to show Republicans how tough the government is on “terrorists.”
This will no doubt play well to the many cheerleaders for the Military Commissions in the Republican party — and to those Democrats who, like Obama himself, approved their revival despite never seeming to be entirely convinced — although the truth was pointed out to the Miami Herald by Mary Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University, who “said the strategy of trading short prison sentences for guilty pleas lets the government ‘gloss over fundamental legal issues’ still bedeviling” the Commissions, leaving defense lawyers “to resolve a tension between ‘what’s in the best interest of the client and whether to challenge a system that is fundamentally flawed.’”
As ever, “justice” and “Guantánamo” are not words that fit well together.