More setbacks for Guantánamo show trials

On October 21, the Pentagon announced that it was dropping war crimes charges against five prisoners at its Guantánamo Bay prison camp. The announcement came in the wake of the resignation of the Pentagon's lead prosecutor in the case, Army Lt. Col. Darrel J. Vandeveld, in protest against the military's withholding of evidence from the defendants' attorneys that might have exonerated them. The Vandeveld resignation is at least the fourth by a military prosecutor in opposition to the blatantly anti-democratic Guantánamo kangaroo courts.

The five prisoners against whom charges have been dropped are Binyam Mohamed of Ethiopia, Noor Uthman Muhammed of Sudan, Sufyiam Barhoumi of Algeria, and Ghassan Abdullah al Sharbi and Jabran Said Bin al Qahtani, both of Saudi Arabia. 

However, in the Kafkaesque world of the US military, even though charges against the men have been dropped, they will not be released from prison. According to the lead Army prosecutor at Guantánamo, Col. Lawrence Morris, the charges were dropped so that evidence could be "more thoroughly analyzed." "Rather than refine the current charges," he said, "it was more efficient and more just to have them dismissed and charge them anew."

Temporarily dropping the charges also averts self-imposed Pentagon deadlines mandating that the men must be brought to trial by a certain point. "The way to stop the clock and get a new clock is to dismiss the charges and start again," Air Force Col. Morris Davis, who also quit the prosecution in protest against the trials, told the Associated Press.

Defense lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, the attorney to Binyam Mohamed, said that the dropping of charges meant little. "Far from being a victory for Mr. Mohamed in his long-running struggle for justice, this is more of the same farce that is Guantánamo," Stafford Smith said.

The Pentagon accuses Binyam Mohamed of plotting with José Padilla to set off a radioactive "dirty" bomb. Even though charges related to the sensational "dirty bomb" were ultimately dropped against Padilla, he was sentenced to 17 years in prison for "supporting terrorism." Stafford Smith has obtained evidence through British and US courts that Mohamed was tortured into falsely admitting to the "dirty bomb" allegations.

Mohamed was 23 years old when he was abducted from Karachi, Pakistan in 2002. Prior to landing at Guantánamo, he was a victim of "extraordinary rendition." Mohamed was ferried between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Morocco, where police tortured him by using a scalpel to cut his penis and chest. It is possible that CIA officials observed these torture sessions. He was taken to Guantánamo in September of 2004, where he says he has been "routinely humiliated" ever since.

Lt. Col. Vandeveld's September resignation was a blow to the Pentagon. Vandeveld, whose job it was to prosecute the captives, went from being what he described as a "true believer to someone who felt truly deceived" by the  Guantánamo trials. Vandeveld revealed that defense attorneys were denied access to "exculpatory evidence"—evidence that tends to prove their clients' innocence.  He also said that Guantánamo inmates are denied "basic due process."

Military officials have responded to Vandeveld by denying his accusations and by claiming that he was disgruntled. They have issued a gag order restricting him from communicating further with the press while he remains on active duty in the military.

However, defense attorneys at Guantánamo may attempt to call Vandeveld as a witness. In a fair court system, his revelations, based on first-hand knowledge of the use of secret evidence and torture, would lead to the tossing out of the charges against the accused.

In another recent development, in early October a district court judge ruled that 17 Chinese Muslim Uighurs, who have been held captive at Guantánamo since 2001, must be released. The judge ruled that the government had demonstrated no evidence that the men were a security risk, and further that the Constitution prohibits indefinite detention without cause. The Bush administration was awarded an emergency stay against the order by the US Court of Appeals, and the Uighurs remain imprisoned at Guantánamo.  

To date, just one of the Pentagon's bogus "war crimes" trials has reached the verdict stage, that of the Yemeni captive Salim Hamdan, who had been a chauffeur for Osama bin Laden. This was the handpicked trial that the Bush administration hoped would set the stage for a parade of rapid convictions. But Hamdan's August trial resulted in another humiliation for the Bush administration, as a carefully vetted military jury turned around a light sentence that would have resulted in only five more months of imprisonment. However, the Bush administration has indicated that Hamdan will not be released in spite of its own show trial's verdict.

The war crimes trials are the first the US has carried out since the end of WWII and the Nuremburg trials of Nazi leaders. So far, sixteen out of an estimated 255 remaining captives face trials at which secret evidence and evidence extracted through torture are allowed.  

The Pentagon began interning at Guantánamo captives seized in Afghanistan in October 2001, shortly after the US invasion. Since then at least 775 prisoners have been housed there under conditions of extreme isolation, torture, sleep deprivation, and psychological, sexual, and religious abuse and humiliation. There have been numerous hunger strikes and hundreds of suicide attempts among the inmates. 

The US government has long maintained that the prisoners—referred to in Orwellian jargon as "detainees" and "enemy combatants"—have no legal standing either under the international laws of war or domestic US laws.

The US government insists that the prisoners are "terrorists" and that information about their case cannot be brought before conventional courts due to security risks. Very few, if any, of the Guantánamo captives are guilty of anything that could be defined as "terrorism" and charges against them would be discredited if the evidence, including false confessions extracted through torture, had public airing. In most cases, their only "crime" was to have been found by the US military in Afghanistan at the time of its invasion.