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Weeks After Prosecutor’s Resignation, US Drops Charges Against 5 Gitmo Prisoners — But Won’t Release Them

StoryOctober 22, 2008
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The US military has dropped all charges against five men held at Guantanamo Bay prison, but has no plans to release them. The news came just weeks after the resignation of Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who was the prosecutor in all five cases. He had accused the military of deliberately withholding evidence that could have helped clear them. We speak to Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The US military announced Tuesday it’s dropped all charges against five men held at Guantanamo, but added it had no plans to release them. The news came just weeks after the resignation of Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Vandeveld. He was the prosecutor in all five cases. He had accused the military of deliberately withholding evidence that could have helped clear them.

One of the five men is the Ethiopian-born Binyam Mohamed. His lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, said, “Far from being a victory for Mr. Mohamed in his long-running struggle for justice, this is more of the same farce that is Guantanamo.” He said the military has already said it plans to file new charges against Mohamed within a month.

Meanwhile, the White House has confirmed reports President Bush has no plans to close the prison at Guantanamo before leaving office. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday it was an issue for the next administration and Congress to take up.

We’re joined now by Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. He has been closely following developments in Guantanamo. He joins me here in the firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

MICHAEL RATNER: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start with these five prisoners, who they are, charges dropped, but they remain in prison.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, they were people tried by the military commissions. And I think people want to be aware, there’s sort of two things going on. There’s the military commissions, and there’s the habeas corpus. Military commissions are what try people; the habeas corpus proceedings are what test the detention, even without trial. And I actually think that while there’s lots going on within the administration, lots of suppression, that what’s going on is they’re trying to put out all of these fires that people have caused them that try and give people rights, both with habeas as well as rights in the courts.

These five, of course, were before a military commission. They were two weeks away from a hearing. Typically of the Bush administration, they go and, right before a hearing, they try and change everything, because they cannot sustain a court hearing in any of their cases, really. And as you’ll see, that’s a pattern they followed. Of course, the fact that one of half a dozen prosecutors resigned in this case, claiming that they weren’t giving all the evidence they should have been to defendants, is obviously very significant here, as well. So, within the military commissions, you have those five.

You also have, of course, the administration now saying with Hamdan, the so-called bin Laden driver, that they are now going to ask for a higher sentence for him than he was given, five years and five months — six months. He’s supposed to be out December 31st. They’re going to ask to keep him in. Underlying that, of course — and I think it’s being destroyed right now — is the administration’s belief that the executive can do whatever he wants in the so-called war on terror, hold people forever and try them in kangaroo courts. So the military commissions system, the kangaroo courts, is really coming apart.

But I should also say, the habeas system is also coming apart, which is to say it — we won, after three Supreme Court victories, finally, the right to go into a court and challenge detentions. And what happened just in the last couple of days was, in the Boumediene case, which is the lead case in the Supreme Court, six people charged with allegedly a conspiracy to bomb an embassy in Sarajevo, the administration is no longer depending on those charges, charges which have been depending for years. And again, that’s right before the hearing of the habeas case in the district court. So you’re seeing, really, the administration policy, I think, coming apart, coming apart in the kangaroo courts, coming apart in trying to hold people.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the resignation of Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Vandeveld?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, you know, this is one of a half a dozen prosecutors. You’re not even talking about just the courts going after this administration, as sort of hard as it has been to get them to move. There’s been five — I think five or six prosecutors who have resigned, because the entire system is one in which the President decides, or the Pentagon, what they like and what they don’t like. I mean, if someone is pushed to do a prosecution or someone is pushed to withhold evidence, military prosecutors who are trained in the law are not going to accept it, and they resign. His resignation was a big one, because he basically said, we are not giving people what we lawyers call exculpatory evidence, evidence that might show their non-guilt.

AMY GOODMAN: What about President Bush, it being reported by the New York Times, saying he privately decided not to close Guantanamo, or Robert Gates saying it’s going to be up to the next administration?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, it’s certainly going to be up to the next administration. That’s a given, you know. But what — President Bush has been saying for a long time that he would close Guantanamo. Both presidential candidates have said they would close Guantanamo. And I remember promises, when I litigated the Haitian cases at Guantanamo, of President Clinton saying he would close Guantanamo. That didn’t happen. And the question in this next administration, will it really happen? Will they really close — will either of the candidates really close Guantanamo?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any indication, for example, that Obama would or that McCain would?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, they’ve said they would close it. And, of course, there was an interesting reaction to the recent Supreme Court decision, the Boumediene decision, which gave habeas rights to people at Guantanamo. And McCain called it one of the worst decisions in American history; Obama celebrated the decision as an important decision. And that’s the same case, that I’ve just described, in which now the administration has withdrawn its charges about Sarajevo. So that’s an indication that at least one candidate may feel more strongly about fundamental constitutional rights than the other. But until they take office and until they act, it’s too difficult to say. I can only say that we’re going to have to keep pushing on all of these issues, no matter who takes office.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the recent referendum that was passed overwhelmingly by members of the American Psychological Association, over the objections of the leadership there, a movement that’s been going on for a while, approving a landmark measure banning members, psychologists, from taking part in interrogations at Guantanamo, and now this historic election for the APA, where the leading dissident psychologist, Steve Reisner, a New York psychoanalyst, is, as we speak, being voted on? The vote is being taken place for the next president of the American Psychological Association. They’re voting by email.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, I give Democracy Now! tremendous credit for this whole change in the American Psychological Association. You went after these people really early and got them into very embarrassing positions about their cooperation in interrogations at Guantanamo and probably in other places around the world. The fact that it took them seven years to get there is pretty outrageous to me. The fact that they have psychologists drawing up interrogation plans for people, finding their weaknesses, finding the ways they exploit people, is a 1984 all the way. And so, it’s about time they pass that resolution. But I just want to credit DN! again for that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Ratner, thank you very much for joining us, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

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