By Renée Schomp, Law and Security
Cross-posted on the Huffington Post.
It took only two and a half hours here at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on Tuesday for a detainee to enter a guilty plea in a case that has taken six-plus years to litigate under the military commissions system. Fifty year-old Sudanese detainee Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud Al Qosi, charged with providing primarily menial labor as a cook and driver for bin Laden and his supporters, was one of the very first detainees to arrive at Gitmo in January 2002 and has been languishing in detention here for the almost nine years since.
In a press conference after the hearing, the government prosecution in al Qosi’s case touted the plea deal as an indication of the “success” of the military commissions system—which might be considered somewhat of an overstatement given that the plea results in only the fourth conviction (for conspiracy and material support) under the military commissions system at Guantanamo since September 11th.
Yes, the military commissions process has become known for moving at a glacial pace (pre-global warming), and al Qosi’s case is a dismally perfect example of this characteristic inefficiency. The Department of Defense didn’t even file its first set of charges against al Qosi until February 6, 2004—a whole two years after he had first been detained at Guantanamo.
Al Qosi’s case contrasts sharply with the recent guilty plea entered by another former terrorist suspect, this one tried in the U.S. federal civilian court system. Faisal Shahzad, known popularly as the Times Square bomber, was arrested on May 3rd by federal authorities and, by June 21st, he had already pled guilty to ten counts of terrorism.
As the Shahzad case demonstrates, our U.S. civilian federal justice system is significantly more efficient than the military commissions system in trying suspected terrorists. The military commissions system, with Tuesday’s development in the al Qosi case, has, as mentioned previously, convicted only four terrorists since September 11th. In the same timeframe, the U.S. federal courts have convicted over four hundred terrorists.
Al Qosi’s guilty plea to the government’s charges of conspiracy and material support paints an interesting picture. Unlike Shahzad, who actually planned and implemented a plot to blow up a bomb made of fertilizer in the middle of Times Square, al Qosi spent what seems to be the majority of his time doing menial labor on bin Laden compounds from about 1996 until he was captured by Pakistani authorities in December 2001—only three months after September 11th. He also pled guilty to serving on a defensive mortar crew prior to September 11th.
In the six years since al Qosi was charged, the government’s charges against him have been dismissed and re-issued with each of the three iterations of the military commissions. The media and NGO workers here at Guantanamo Tuesday observed the hearing without having even seen the government’s most recent amended charges against al Qosi. This is not an isolated instance–unclassified case documents in military commissions cases are frequently not made available in a timely manner.
In al Qosi’s hearing Tuesday, that meant that everyone reporting on the case had to do so without ever reading the amended charges against the detainee, which were read during the court proceeding—for which a transcript is never provided under the military commissions system. In the U.S. federal court system, a written transcript is made available to the public online, as are all unclassified documents.
On Tuesday, the media missed the first half of al Qosi’s plea hearing because their military escorts got the start time wrong. Even more frustrating, al Qosi’s Sudanese legal advisor, Ahmed Elmufti, was unable to join military and U.S. civilian defense counsel to watch the hearing via closed-circuit feed from the U.S. embassy in Khartoum due to technological difficulties in the Gitmo court room (no, not technological difficulties in Khartoum)! This is in spite of the fact that the renovation of the base here at Guantanamo cost over $500 million dollars—and we spend $150 million a year to operate it.
The success of the justice procedures employed throughout Shahzad’s case, however, is a perfect example of how trying suspected terrorists in U.S. federal courts protects U.S. national security interests. Not only did federal authorities garner valuable intelligence as well as a guilty plea from Shahzad in less than two months, they did so in a humane and just manner. The U.S. justice system is supposed to function this way, for terrorists and for all other criminals. It convicts the guilty, protects the innocent, and collects information that helps federal authorities properly do their job.
Abuses of justice harm our national security by providing fodder for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, which use detention stories like al Qosi’s to recruit still more terrorists to their cause. It is time to end the military commissions, and try terror suspects in federal court.