As Supreme Court Prepares Guantanamo Ruling, Some Say U.S. Exaggerated Captives’ Importance
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico June 25, 2004 ó One prisoner is accused of training with al-Qaida, two others of being aides and bodyguards to Osama bin Laden. Yet so far, none of the hundreds held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is charged with carrying out a terrorist attack, and criticism of the U.S. detentions is mounting.
The British government has complained that U.S. plans for military tribunals violate international law, and Prime Minister Tony Blair has personally asked President Bush to allow four Britons held at Guantanamo to return home, according to court papers obtained Friday by The Associated Press.
Also Friday, 31 U.N. human rights experts urged the United States and other governments to give the world body access to prisons holding terror suspects including Guantanamo.
Some critics accuse Washington of exaggerating the captives’ importance, as the Supreme Court prepares a ruling expected next week on whether nearly 600 inmates can appeal in civilian courts, as argued by their lawyers.
The Pentagon insists senior al-Qaida operatives are held in Guantanamo alongside rank-and-file fighters from the Afghanistan war.
But Stephen Kenny, a lawyer for Australian prisoner David Hicks, said the fact that only three are charged and with vague counts such as conspiracy to commit war crimes suggests the detainees “are not the terrorists that we were told they are.”
“The people they have there are all very low-level operatives, if they are associated with al-Qaida,” Kenny said. “A large number of them are innocent.”
The British court papers were filed by government lawyers in response to an application by lawyers for Feroz Abbasi and Martin Mubanga, two of the detained Britons.
Lawyers acting for Home Secretary David Blunkett and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, said in the document dated June 17 that “the prime minister has made a direct request to President Bush” for the prisoners’ release.
The High Court has yet to rule in the case.
Many of the suspected Taliban and al-Qaida members held at the base were captured after the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. U.S. authorities claim the detainees have provided valuable intelligence in the battle against terrorism.
Several freed detainees allege they were tortured at Guantanamo, but Washington has denied this.
The U.N. experts seeking access to Guantanamo and other facilities said they want to ensure human rights standards are upheld in the war on terror particularly in light of prison abuse charges out of Iraq.
They plan to ask U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to press Washington and other governments to allow prison visits for four specialists on torture, health, judicial freedom and legality of detention. The experts, who also hope to go to Iraq and Afghanistan, would report to the 53-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission.
So far, the International Committee of the Red Cross is the only independent body given access to U.S. facilities.
When the first 20 prisoners arrived at the naval base in January 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney called them “the worst of a very bad lot.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said they were “among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.”
Defense lawyers say there is little evidence of that.
“The government has engaged in broad, sweeping claims about people without actually applying facts,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, a lawyer for Salim Ahmed Salim Hamdan of Yemen, who has yet to be charged.
Hamdan worked as a driver for bin Laden, but Swift says he never took up arms. For five months Hamdan has been held alone in a windowless cell, Swift said.
“If the Supreme Court does not allow a U.S. court to hear my client’s case, they can hold him in solitary confinement until he pleads guilty,” he said.
President Bush has listed six who could go before tribunals. The first three charged could face life in prison.
Hicks, 28, a convert to Islam, is accused of training at al-Qaida camps and taking up arms against U.S.-led forces.
Charges include war crimes conspiracy, attempted murder and aiding the enemy. The attempted murder charge relates to claims he was an “illegal combatant.”
“The charges are so weak,” his father, Terry Hicks, said in a phone interview from Australia. “It’s absolute rubbish.”
Two other men face similar conspiracy charges.
Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al Bahlul of Yemen is accused of being a bodyguard for bin Laden and making videos glorifying the killing of Americans.
Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi of Sudan is accused of being an al-Qaida accountant, bin Laden bodyguard and weapons smuggler. His lawyer, Air Force Lt. Col. Sharon Shaffer, says he never belonged to al-Qaida nor played any part in aggression against Americans.
The military says all three had key roles in a terrorist group.
If that’s true, some legal experts ask why stronger charges didn’t come first.
“If you’re going to start criminally charging people, you’re going to choose your best card,” said Thomas H. Lee, a Fordham University law professor and former Navy intelligence officer. “You have to think they don’t have anything better.”
The military denies overstating detainees’ importance. It says other suspects include one accused of trying to become the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker, an al-Qaida member who plotted to attack oil tankers and another who designed a shoe bomb for destroying planes.