2-10-2011By C. Dixon Osburn
Director, Law and Security
There were three little noticed stories last week about US counter terrorism policy that raise grave questions about Guantanamo and bringing terror suspects to justice.
The first story was that detainees at Guantanamo were protesting their incarceration through a peaceful sit-in in the recreation yard, holding signs asking, “Where Are Our Courts?”
The second story was that of Awal Gul, one of the 48 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay designated for indefinite detention who died of an apparent heart attack on February 1.
The third story was that of Colleen LaRose, also known as Jihad Jane, who pled guilty in federal district court last week for her part in a murder plot against a Swedish artist who had offended the Prophet Muhammad.
Why should these stories give us pause?
Those protesting their lack of due process have a point. The reality of Guantanamo, which always seems to be lost in the debate, is that the majority of men held there by the United States were innocent, according to Secretary Powell’s Chief of Staff. Most of the 779 prisoners originally detained there have been released because there was no or insufficient evidence to charge them with any crime.
The fact that the prison population has been reduced to 172 should not lead us to believe that these remaining men are the “worst of the worst,” as the government alleges. It should make us all the more skeptical.
Of 172 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo, the government has designated only 36 for trial. The government has said they will neither try nor release another 47. The others are all slated for release.
Awal Gul was one of the men the United States had said was too dangerous to release, but refused to give him his day in court. According to Gul’s attorney, the Department of Defense accused Gul for the first time of operating an Al Qaeda guest house and providing operational support to Osama bin Laden in its press release announcing Gul’s death. The government had had nine years to represent evidence against Gul. His lawyer says the allegations against him were nonsense. The reason we have a justice system is to sort out the truth. Now, we will never know.
Shaker Aamer is another detainee who has been held in the Guantanamo prison, often in isolation, for eight years without charge. Aamer is a British resident whose wife and four children live in London. The United Kingdom has asked for his return. The Bush Administration even cleared him for release. Aamer’s lawyers say that he was in Afghanistan doing charity work, building girls schools, before the war after 9/11 erupted. The United States refuses to say why he remains detained.
Obstruction and obfuscation in justice should give us pause. It is understandable why the prisoners are protesting their continued incarceration, demanding to be heard. It is heart-breaking that the American media turned a deaf ear to their lament.
Why have they not been tried? Some in Congress have insisted that those detained at Guantanamo must be tried in new, untested military commissions, not federal courts, even though commissions have convicted only five detainees since 9/11 compared to more than 400 convicted on terrorism-related charges in our federal courts.
Colleen LaRose is just the latest example of our federal courts handling terrorism cases efficiently and professionally. LaRose’s guilty plea follows a guilty plea the government also secured in the case of the Times Square bomber. In January, a federal court in Manhattan convicted Ahmed Ghailani, the only Guantanamo prisoner to be tried in federal court, to life in prison for his role in the bombings of the embassies in East Africa.
In December, though, Congress legislated new restrictions preventing the use of defense funds to transfer any Guantanamo prisoner to the United States for trial, despite the clear track record of those courts in contrast to commissions. Those restrictions end in September, but some in Congress will most likely seek their extension.
Congress also legislated new restrictions on the transfer of those cleared for release back home, unless there is a court order. Innocent men, who have been held in isolation, torn from their families for up to ten years, must still wait to go free because of Congress’ obstruction.
According to Gul’s lawyer, Gul often quoted to him an Afghan proverb: “You cannot wash blood with blood.” America must end the Guantanamo boondoggle. That means bringing to justice now those charged with crimes, sending home or resettling those who have been cleared of wrongdoing, and ensuring that there is no one held without charge or transfer. Continuing the status quo is washing blood with blood.