US military authorities said on July 3 that president George W. Bush has selected six of the estimated 680 Muslim detainees illegally held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base for trial by military tribunal and possible execution. A statement issued by the Pentagon said: “The president determined that there is reason to believe that each of these enemy combatants was a member of Al-Qaeda or was otherwise involved in terrorism directed against the United States.”
The announcement is the latest stage of what has become a bloody, dirty war against anti-Western Muslim dissidents everywhere. The characterisation of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay as “enemy combatants” has no basis in either international or US law, and has been coined specifically to deny them the rights normally granted to prisoners of war. The US also denies them rights under civil law, saying that Guantanamo Bay is a military zone that falls outside the jurisdiction of any national government. The result is that the detainees, some of whom are juveniles, are held in deliberately humiliating conditions without being charged or having any access to lawyers or family.
Yet these are not the most unfortunate of the US’s victims. Despite the appalling conditions in which they are held, and the uncertainty they face, the world is at least aware of their existence, and their treatment is subject to some degree of monitoring by international agencies. The situation is even worse for the unknown numbers of Muslims being held, also without any legal status or rights, in US-administered “holding” or “interrogation” camps in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, or by brutal regimes acting under the US’s instructions.
US authorities last month confirmed that an Afghan detainee had died at a US “holding facility” near Asadabad, but refused to release information about his identity or about his arrest and death. Last year two prisoners being held at Bagram air base outside Kabul were confirmed to have died of “blunt force trauma” during interrogation. US authorities have also admitted handing prisoners over to other governments for interrogation in ways which they themselves claim to be above.
Although the US authorities have refused to identify the six men selected for trial, it has emerged that they include two British citizens, Feroz Abbasi (23) and Moazzem Begg (35), and an Australian, David Hicks. Begg is a charity worker who ran a school for underprivileged children in Kabul before the US invasion of Afghanistan. He was kidnapped from his home in Pakistan early last year, was then illegally transferred to Bagram Airbase, held there for a year, and then shipped to Guantanamo. The fact that he should be selected for trial, presumably because he is regarded as among the most senior or dangerous of the prisoners, seems to indicate the sort of people whom the US is holding as ‘terrorists’.
Human-rights organizations, civil-liberties groups and legal defence associations have denounced the military tribunals as fundamentally unfair. Human Rights Watch has said: “if the proposed commissions try terrorist suspects under existing military orders and instructions, the trials will undermine the basic rights of defendants to a fair trial; yield verdicts é possibly including death sentences é of questionable legitimacy; and deliver a message worldwide that the fight against terrorism need not respect the rule of law.”
The entire structure of the tribunal is concentrated within the military chain of command, with officers under military discipline serving not only as judge, jury and executioner, but defence counsel as well. Although the detainees placed on trial will theoretically be entitled to request a civilian lawyer, conditions have been imposed which make this effectivley impossible. Only US attorneys cleared by the government for access to secret information, and vetted by the military for “relevant misconduct”, will be permitted. The prisoners will be expected to pay for their own lawyers, who will effectively become detainees themselves at Guantanamo for the duration of any trial.
Under the rules of evidence, defence lawyers will be limited to developing legal arguments in the Guantanamo detention camp. They are denied the right to conduct interviews or procure any evidence aimed at proving the defendants’ innocence. The government also reserves the right to deny defence attorneys any evidence it pleases on grounds of national security. Attorney-client privilege is abrogated, with all conversations between defendants and lawyers being recorded. Yet the military prosecutors will be entitled to introduce evidence that would not be admissible in a civilian court, including confessions extracted by torture, hearsay evidence, phoned-in testimony, and testimony from anonymous witnesses. Moreover, defence attorneys are subjected to a gag rule that will effectively limit public information on the trials to hand-outs from the Pentagon.
Reports in the British press suggest that the British detainees have been advised to plead guilty and accept 20-year prison sentences in order to avoid certain conviction and probable death sentences. The US appears to be creating the military tribunals as a means of holding detainees indefinitely, not as a means of justice.
Reports also suggest that the US authorities are counting on conditions in Camp Delta, the main prison at Guantanamo Bay, to persuade detainees to plead guilty in the hope of alleviating the conditions in which they are held. They are presently subjected to permanent solitary confinement in 6-feet-by-8 cages, with one 15-minute exercise period in a larger cage and one 15-minute shower a week. However, US authorities have confirmed that they are building a permanent prison at Guantanamo Bay for convicted prisoners, which will house both those sentenced to long prison terms and execution facilities for those sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, the number of prisoners at Camp Delta is still growing, as US authorities seize Muslims virtually wherever and however they like. There were major Muslim protests in Malawi last month, after the government breached a High Court order preventing the deportation of five Muslim detainees, and handed them over to US authorities. The five suspects had been arrested at the behest of the CIA, but the Malawi High Court ordered that they should not be handed over. They are now presumed to be at Guantanamo Bay.
Details also emerged recently of two London-based businessmen being held in Camp Delta after being arrested in Gambia in November last year, and then transferred first to the Bagram airbase, and then to Guantanamo Bay. Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna were initially arrested in Britain, but then released and allowed to travel, presumably so that they could be re-arrested beyond the protection of the British courts, which have repeatedly refused to approve extraditions requested by the US on the grounds of insufficient evidence. The British government has refused to make any representations on their behalf, even though both are long-term UK residents. Al-Rawi, an Iraqi, has lived in exile in London for nineteen years, and members of his family are British nationals. Britain’s official line is that only the Iraqi government can act on his behalf; Iraq, however, is under effective US rule, so no support can be expected from there.
Prisoners are also expected to be sent to Guantanamo Bay from Iraq, where the US has set up interrogation camps similar to those operating at the Bagram airbase and elsewhere in Afghanistan. These also operate beyond international law, and Amnesty International reported on June 30 that “the conditions of detention Iraqis are held under at the Camp Cropper Center at Baghdad International Airport é now a US base é and at Abu Ghraib Prison may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, banned by international law.”
The US treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan includes numerous policies which are in clear breach of international law, including the UN anti-torture convention. Policies it admits to using for interrogation include sleep-deprivation, extended shackling, selective withholding of medical treatment, blindfolding, hooding, and forcing prisoners to stand in painful positions for hours. The fact that prisoners die of “blunt force trauma” suggests that even worse forms of torture are also used.
The US claims to be the global protector of freedom, democracy and the rule of law; the reality is clearly very different. Little wonder, then, that Muslims and other peoples all over the world regard US hegemony as an evil that they must fight for the sake of peace, justice and humanity.