Guantánamo's Bleak Farce
After dropping war crimes charges against five prisoners today, the US's use of military commissions is unraveling
While the world remains transfixed by the economy and the US election, today's events at the US government's flagship "war on Terror" prison at Guantánamo indicate that the role of the military commissions - the novel system of terror trials created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks - are unravelling at a furious pace, and that what remains of the government's tattered credibility is collapsing alongside them.
What may be the endgame for the commissions began on September 24, when Lt Col Darrel Vandeveld, a key prosecutor, resigned unexpectedly, citing intractable problems regarding the deliberate suppression of evidence vital to the prisoners' defence.
One of Vandeveld's cases was that of the British resident Binyam Mohamed. Seized in Pakistan in April 2002, Mohamed was held for three months in a Pakistani jail (apparently under the supervision of US forces) and then effectively disappeared off the face of the earth from July 2002 until September 2004, when he arrived at Guantánamo.
The US government has never explained his whereabouts during this period, but his lawyers maintain that he was rendered by the CIA to Morocco, where he was tortured for 18 months, and was then rendered to Afghanistan, where he spent several months in a CIA prison near Kabul. They also insist that the main allegation against him - that he was involved in a plot to detonate a "dirty bomb" in a US city - was extracted through the use of torture.
Mohamed's lawyers also maintain that British agents visited their client while he was imprisoned in Pakistan, and that the British intelligence services provided intelligence reports to their US counterparts after he was rendered from Pakistan. Since May, they have been engaged in a transatlantic struggle to secure potentially exculpatory evidence relating to their client's case.
In August they secured a significant victory when the British High Court ruled that the evidence in the possession of the British government was "not only necessary but essential" for Mohamed's defence, although the ruling was then appealed by the UK government, whose representatives argued that the relationship between the British and American intelligence services was more important than the torture of a British resident.
In the meantime, however, following a momentous ruling by the US supreme court in June, which granted the prisoners constitutional habeas corpus rights. Mohamed's case came before a US district court, where a judge ordered the US authorities to release the information that was being fought over in the UK.
Unwilling to reveal evidence relating to Mohamed's "extraordinary rendition" and torture, the US justice department dropped the "dirty bomb plot" allegation against Mohamed last week, and the US government then followed suit, dropping all the charges in his proposed trial by a military commission "without prejudice". According to Mohamed's lawyers, the defence department dropped the charges because of Vandeveld's pervasive complaints about the military suppressing evidence favourable to the accused.
This should be the end of the story, of course. But in a surreal twist, which reveals how far the entire process is removed from reality, the Pentagon also announced that it intended to re-file charges against Mohamed within 30 days, arguing that intervention by new military prosecutors has resolved the flaws identified by Vandeveld.
Clearly, this is nonsense born out of desperation. The Pentagon is hoping that, by dropping the charges against Mohamed, Vandeveld cannot be called to testify for the defence. But it surely inconceivable that they can shut him up forever.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008