By Renee Schomp, Program Associate for Law and Security
When one thinks about the terror suspects at Guantanamo, one imagines hardened criminals who seek to detonate bombs killing hundreds and thousands of innocent people. One doesn’t think of a cook.
But Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, whose sentencing hearing will take place at Gitmo this week, was a cook and driver for Osama bin Laden. His will be the first conviction at Guantanamo under President Obama. The prosecution in his case claims that the conviction is a victory, but it is in a number of ways a testament to the travesty that is Guantanamo.
It has taken the controversial U.S. military commission system eight-plus years to convict this fifty year-old Sudanese man. The military commissions have only convicted three other detainees since September 11th, compared to the over 400 terrorism-related cases that have resulted in convictions in the U.S. federal court system since September 11th.
One of the first detainees brought to Guantanamo in January 2002, al Qosi has been in U.S. custody since his initial capture by Pakistani authorities in December 2001. His defense counsel has stated that after being handed over to U.S. custody by Pakistan, al Qosi was held for several weeks in “horrendous” conditions in Kandahar by the U.S. before being transferred to Guantanamo.
Since then, he’s faced a near decade of interrogations and confinement on an island in the middle of the Caribbean. It took the United States over two years to even charge him under the military commissions, in February 2004. And like many other detainees held at Guantanamo, he has alleged abuse at the hands of interrogators while in custody.
Once he was charged, he faced a comedy of errors in the military commissions. In May 2008, a Human Rights First observer sat in the Gitmo court room watching the military judge discuss with al Qosi and his military defense counsel just how he could exercise his right under the Military Commissions Act to obtain his own civilian attorney.
Al Qosi had been imprisoned without access to the outside world for over six years at that point, and didn’t have access even to a telephone, so finding and contacting an attorney would be a near impossibility. He asked to call his brother in Sudan for assistance, but he was not permitted to do so. The military judge had no rules on point and no precedent upon which to rely. It took an entire day in the court room to discuss al Qosi’s simple request.
Al Qosi’s military defense counsel, Lt. Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, was unable to get him to speak with her about his case. Given the circumstances, it is likely that the military commissions did not inspire much confidence to do so. Lachelier reached out to his family in Sudan, but al Qosi still did not want to talk. After six months, she contacted Abdullahi An-Na’im, a professor at Emory University. An-Na’im received his law degree at the University of Khartoum and left Sudan in 1985 after the government shifted to a fundamentalist regime. Lachelier hoped that An-Na’im might be able to help explain to al Qosi the importance of speaking with his defense counsel and understanding his options under the military commissions system.
An-Na’im met with al Qosi at Guantanamo two years ago, in August 2008, in a small cell—or what he described as a six-foot by three-foot room reminiscent of the containers that are carried on ships, surrounded by barbed wire. The unimposing, middle-aged detainee was shackled to the concrete floor with chains.
Professor Abdullahi An-Na’im didn’t recognize Ibrahim al Qosi’s name when he first spoke with Lachelier. So he was caught off guard when he arrived at Gitmo and the two men realized that they were from the very same hometown in Northeast Sudan, a former railroad hub located near the Nile River called Atbra. But An-Na’im was even more surprised when he realized that he had also known al Qosi’s family, as they were business people who worked in the main market in the town.
An-Na’im’s conversations with al Qosi, which lasted several hours over a couple of days at Guantanamo, revealed a stoic man who he described as “totally out of his depth… The idea that he could be guilty of a crime under the U.S. was totally incomprehensible.”
On July 6th, al Qosi pled guilty to living on a compound with supporters of Osama bin Laden in Jalalabad, Afghanistan and acting as a cook. His wife and children were with him until about November 2001.Al Qosi’s guilty plea states that his activities in Afghanistan were the sole means of support for them. Al Qosi never acted as a bodyguard or security guard for bin Laden, but for 12-18 months he served on defensive lines in a mortar crew—before the “war on terror” began, and not against U.S. forces.
Al Qosi’s support for bin Laden seems relatively clear. But has he faced justice when there are unresolved claims of torture and abuse in his case, when he was denied access to counsel for years, and when the military commissions have been reformulated three times because the rules keep being struck down as unconstitutional? It is just as likely that al Qosi pled guilty so that he could serve his time and hope to get out, rather than let the legal proceedings continue to drag on ad infinitum.
The fact that it took the military commissions just under a decade to convict a fifty year-old man who provided mostly menial labor for bin Laden certainly doesn’t qualify as a victory for the military commissions system. But at least al Qosi’s case is moving toward a conclusion of some kind. Right now, 176 detainees languish at Guantanamo without any sense whatsoever of how much longer they will continue to be held there without a fair trial.