Monday, August 21, 2006

Why are these men stuck at GTMO? "This is a game."

Six Algerian/Bosnian men are languishing at Guantanamo Bay. They've been there since Jan 2002 and yet they are--by all accounts--innocent. The WaPo brings us this incredible story on Monday's front page. I hope you'll check it out:
"At Guantanamo, Caught in a Legal Trap: 6 Algerians Languish Despite Foreign Rulings, Dropped Charges" By Craig Whitlock
In 2004, Bosnian prosecutors and police formally exonerated the six men after a lengthy criminal investigation. Last year, the Bosnian prime minister asked the Bush administration to release them, calling the case a miscarriage of justice.
These men arrived in Bosnia to fight the 92-95 war. They became aid workers after the war ended. All have dual Algerian/Bosnian citizenship and yet the US wants Algeria--a country with an abysmal human rights record--to accept the ment after they're released from GTMO. For reasons that are not spelled out in the article, Algeria has not yet agreed to accep the men. WaPo's Craig Whitlock continues:
The detainees and their lawyers say they are caught in a trap. They contend that the Pentagon knows the men are not guilty but is unwilling to let them go free because that would be an acknowledgment of a grave error.
"The Americans did not want to return me to Bosnia. Why? Because the Americans claimed to have evidence against me. I can't be returned and found innocent," Mustafa Ait Idr, one of the six Algerians, told a military tribunal at Guantanamo in October 2004, according to a transcript of the hearing.
"So now I am sitting here in Cuba and I do not know why. I do not know what is happening outside; I do not know. But what I do know is that this is a game."
Whitlock goes on to explain how the six men came to the attention of US forces (hint: it involves an ambiguous piece of paper with schizophrenic-cum-Qaeda#3 Abu Zubaydah's name on it):
One foreign fighter whom intelligence operatives wanted to find was an Algerian known only by the nickname Abu Maali. A veteran of conflicts in Algeria, Afghanistan and the Balkans, he was thought to be close to al-Qaeda.
On Oct. 8, 2001, Bosnian police detained an Algerian, Belkacem Bensayah, who they believed might be Abu Maali. While searching his home, they found a piece of notepaper that listed, in a handwritten scrawl, what appeared to be a phone number in Pakistan and the name "Abu Zubeida."
The scrap of paper was considered a vital piece of evidence. It seemed to match the name of one of al-Qaeda's top leaders, a Palestinian named Abu Zubaydah, who had fought in the Balkans and was at the time serving alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
Bensayah told police he had never before seen the note, which was found inside a borrowed library book, "The Tragedy of Immorality." Bosnian and U.S. investigators didn't believe him.
Later, U.S. investigators asserted they had phone records indicating Bensayah had called Afghanistan 70 times after Sept. 11 and accused him of being "the top al Qaeda facilitator" in Bosnia, court documents show. The phone records have not been publicly disclosed.
Great. Library books and phone records. Why haven't I heard of the great Bosnian PATRIOT ACT?!
Excuse me. You were saying:
Police turned their attention to an acquaintance of their lead suspect, another Algerian, Saber Lahmar. A worker for a Saudi aid agency in Bosnia, the Saudi High Committee for Relief, Lahmar had another intriguing connection: His father-in-law had recently been hired as a janitor at the U.S. Embassy.
On Oct. 16, U.S. intelligence officers listened in on a wiretap they had placed on Lahmar's phone. According to court records, they heard him speaking "in code" about what they thought was a plan to attack the U.S. and British embassies in Sarajevo.
The next day, U.S. diplomats and officials from the CIA and FBI met with their Bosnian counterparts. The Americans told the Bosnians that they had closed the embassy for security reasons and made clear they wanted more arrests, according to Bosnian officials present at the meeting.
Over the next week, Bosnian police arrested Lahmar and four other Algerians: Ait Idr, Hadj Boudella, Mohamed Nechle and Lahkdar Boumediene. Most of the men have said they were friends who had met through their charity work.
Charity?! We don't understand charity!

Here's where it gets particularly strange: Whitlock's reporting indicates that Bosnian officials were threatened by US forces. Hand over the Algerians or we'll withdraw our peacekeeping forces from Bosnia:
Srdjan Dizdarevic, president of the Bosnian chapter of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, said U.S. officials exerted heavy pressure to round up suspects, threatening to withdraw U.S. peacekeeping troops if Bosnian officials didn't act.
"There was not a single piece of credible evidence against the Algerians," Dizdarevic recalled. "The Bosnian authorities couldn't find anything, and the Americans didn't turn over anything to back up their claims. But the threats from the Americans were enormous. There was a hysteria in their behavior."
Vijay Padmanabhan, a lawyer in the State Department's legal office for political and military affairs, confirmed that U.S. officials met with the Bosnians to discuss the embassy closing.
"We didn't threaten or intimidate the Bosnians into arresting these men," he said. "We provided the Bosnian government with intelligence information, and they took what they felt was the appropriate action based on that information." He declined to provide further details.
Naturally, the Bosnian authorities couldn't detain the men any longer. You know, on legal grounds. Ditto from the Bosnian Human Rights authorities. In fact, the latter went so far as to prohibit extradition of the men. People revolted at the news that US peacekeepers would kidnap the 6 men and whisk them off into the night:
As dusk fell, an angry crowd of more than 150 people surrounded the prison in Sarajevo. A Muslim radio station urged listeners to turn out to protect the men. Scuffles broke out with police, who dispersed the crowd.
Shortly before dawn on Jan. 18, the Algerians were officially released from Bosnian custody. But instead of gaining their freedom, they were handed over by Bosnian police to U.S. military personnel.
And so on to GTMO they went. Languishing for over 2 1/2 yrs before even getting a 'hearing.' Most disturbingly, nobody even bothered to mention that the men had been exonerated in Bosnia of all "suspicion of plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo." Cue Kafka...
The basis for the new accusations, some of which were classified, was not disclosed at the hearing. Tribunal members acknowledged they were just as confused as the detainees about the origin of some of the allegations.
"At this point, we don't know why you are being accused of being a member of the Armed Islamic Group," one military officer, whose name was redacted from the tribunal transcript, told Boudella. "Do you have any idea why you are being connected with this group?"
"I don't know," Boudella replied. "I've been here for three years and these accusations were just told to me."
In his defense, Boudella asked if the military tribunal could submit as evidence the Bosnian Supreme Court ruling that ordered his release from the Sarajevo jail, as well as a subsequent Bosnian human rights court decision awarding him $6,000 in damages on grounds that the Bosnian government had illegally deported him to Guantanamo. The documents, he said, would prove his innocence.
U.S. military officers said they had searched for the documents but that they were "unable to be located." At the time, however, the documents were readily available both on the Internet and in U.S. District Court files in Washington, according to the American defense lawyers representing the Algerians.
At the conclusion of the tribunal in October 2004, Boudella -- like the five other Algerians who were in separate hearings that month -- was declared an enemy combatant.
Since then, the military has conducted annual reviews of the six men's status.
Each time, court officers have upheld the original decision.
See? I literally meant "cue Kafka." It was just. that. crazy. And now? The military has finally dropped the accusation regarding the US Embassy in Sarajevo. "No explanation for the change is given."
While we're looking at 'evidence,' it may be useful to look at some of the other factors that incriminated the men:
  1. knowledge of karate; "teaching martial arts to Bosnian orphans"
  2. being "familiar with computers"
  3. serving as a cook in the Algerian army "more than a decade ago" (military service of some kind is mandatory)
  4. wearing a ring "similar to those that identified the Red Rose Group members of Hamas" (it was actually a common anniversary band; "If it is a mark of belonging to Hamas, then 98 percent of the Bosnian Muslims belong to Hamas")
As for the poor dude who was accused of hangin' out with bin Laden and the Taliban in Dec 2001? Turns out he was actually in Bosnian custody at that time. I'm no lawyer, but I figure that's pretty exculpatory evidence right there.

So, you might be wondering...where's the State Dept in all of this? Isn't it bad international mojo to piss off Bosnia? Well, Bosnian PM Terzic wrote a letter to Condi Rice, pleading for the release of the six men.
Rice responded on March 17 that it was not possible to free the six Algerians because "they still possess important intelligence data" and pose a threat to the security of the United States.
Three months later, the State Department offered a somewhat different explanation. In a letter to U.S. Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), Matthew A. Reynolds, acting assistant secretary for legislative affairs, explained that the Algerians could not be released in part because the Bosnian government "has not indicated that it is prepared or willing to accept responsibility for them upon transfer."
But that's patently untrue:
Bosnian officials said they received no such offer. They express frustration over the lack of action. Justice Minister Slobodan Kovac said there would be no legal basis to place the men under arrest or surveillance if they were returned to Bosnia because they have already been exonerated there. "There is no case against them here in Bosnia, no criminal case," he said.

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