journalist and author of The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, the first book to tell the story of every prisoner at Guantanamo.
A federal judge has ordered the release of another prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay, thirty-year-old Syrian national Abdul Rahim Abdul Razak al-Janko. In the year 2000, al-Janko was tortured by al-Qaeda, who accused him of being a Western spy, and he was imprisoned by the Taliban for eighteen months. He was then captured by the United States in 2002 and spent the next seven years in Guantanamo. On Monday, District Court Judge Richard Leon rejected the government’s position that al-Janko had once been a part of al-Qaeda, saying it "defies common sense." We speak with British journalist Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: A federal judge has ordered the release of another prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay, thirty-year-old Syrian national Abdul Rahim Abdul Razak al-Janko. In the year 2000, al-Janko was tortured by al-Qaeda, who accused him of being a Western spy, and he was imprisoned by the Taliban for eighteen months. He was then captured by the United States in 2002 and spent the next seven years in Guantanamo.
On Monday, District Court Judge Richard Leon rejected the government’s position that al-Janko had once been a part of al-Qaeda, saying it, quote, “defies common sense.” Al-Janko’s lawyers say it is unlikely he will be sent back to his native Syria, and the judge ordered the Obama administration to find a country that would accept him.
Now the idea that Guantanamo detainees found to be innocent might be resettled here in the United States created a political uproar. The nearly $106 billion war-funding bill that passed in the Senate last week includes a stipulation that prohibits detainees from being released in the United States and allows the transfer of detainees for prosecution only after Congress receives a plan detailing the risks.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, after a hundred countries refused, Bermuda and the Pacific island nation of Palau have both accepted a group of Uyghur prisoners who had been held at Guantanamo for seven years even though US officials admitted they were wrongly detained.
This weekend, while the Bermudan prime minister survived a no-confidence vote over secretly agreeing to accept some of the prisoners, President Obama made light of the situation of the Uyghurs at his speech at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nick at Nite has a new take on an old classic: Leave It to Uyghurs. I thought that was pretty good.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama also joked about the refusal of other countries to resettle prisoners at Guantanamo.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As I have traveled to all these countries, I saw firsthand how much people truly have in common with one another, because no matter where I went there is one thing I heard over and over again from every world leader: “No thanks, but have you considered Palau?”
JUAN GONZALEZ: The Obama administration has said that some of those detainees who are not immediately cleared for release could face trial in the United States. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Attorney General Eric Holder told Republican Senator Lindsey Graham that he expects no more than a quarter of the remaining 229 prisoners would stand trial.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Of the 250 people we have at Guantanamo Bay, what percentage, do you think, at the end of the day will go through a military commission Article III court?
ERIC HOLDER: It’s hard to say at this point. I’m not sure that trends have necessarily developed. We’ve gone through about half of the detainees at this point. I don’t think we’re going to have a very huge number.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Yeah. Would to say less than 25 percent, 25 percent or less?
ERIC HOLDER: That might be about right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The Attorney General was also questioned about the administration’s proposal to indefinitely hold some detainees at Guantanamo without charges — those neither cleared for release nor trial. This is Democratic Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin.
SEN. HERB KOHL: So there are some who might be retained indefinitely without due process?
ERIC HOLDER: No, with due process consistent with the laws of war. The due process that I would focus on would be in the initial determination. Due process would be afforded them with regard to making the decision that they would be placed into that detention mode and then a periodic review that would be done. We would want to work with members of this committee and with Congress to come up with the exact parameters of that due process, but we’d only want to do that in conjunction with Congress and with the assurance that what we’re doing is consistent with our values and with our commitment to due process.
AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest has followed the stories of almost all the nearly 800 prisoners held at Guantanamo. British journalist and historian Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. His writings on Guantanamo have appeared in a number of publications. He maintains a widely read blog at andyworthington.co.uk. He joins us now from London.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
ANDY WORTHINGTON: Hello, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start with the — with President Obama’s joke at the radio-television dinner, talking to journalists, joking about the Uyghurs. Tell us who they are, Andy.
ANDY WORTHINGTON: The Uyghurs are — well, there were twenty-two Chinese men who were picked up in Pakistan in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom. And almost from the beginning, the military knew that they were not connected to terrorism, that they had no involvement with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. And it appears that they were regarded as important because they were able to provide intelligence on what was happening in their part of China, up in the northwest of China.
They were eventually cleared for release. The Bush administration actually admitted that they weren’t enemy combatants. And last October, a judge ordered that, because no other country had been found that would take them, because they can’t be returned to China, because it was unconstitutional to hold them at Guantanamo, they must be released into the United States. And the government appealed, and the Bush — and the Obama administration, sorry, has maintained that same position and has backed up the appeals court, which ruled that a court has no right to order anyone from Guantanamo to be released into the United States.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Andy Worthington, why would so many countries around the world refuse to take them?
ANDY WORTHINGTON: Well, most countries around the world don’t want to upset China. There were five Uyghurs who were previously released in 2006, and the only country in the world that was prepared to accept them was Albania. And I think, after that, the Albanians had so much pressure put on them by the Chinese government that it kind of put everybody else off.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to this story breaking today, the federal judge ordering the release of yet another prisoner at Guantanamo, the thirty-year-old Syrian national named Abdul Rahim Abdul Razak al-Janko, tortured by al-Qaeda in 2000, who accused him of being a Western spy, held by the Taliban for a year and a half, then held for years, for what? Seven years at Guantanamo? And the video that’s just been released? Explain this story.
ANDY WORTHINGTON: Well, it is the most extraordinary story, I think, and, you know, I’ve been following extraordinary stories of incompetence and wrongly imprisoned men for over three years now. But he was one of five men who were held in a Taliban jail. There were, I think, at least another three who were seized in — under other circumstances from Taliban jails, and yet were sent to Guantanamo. And all these other men have now gone home.
Now, a British journalist met him when he had been abandoned in this Taliban jail and came across his whole story, about how he had been accused of being a spy, tortured by al-Qaeda. And the extraordinary thing about this video is that initially the administration thought that it showed him being a potential suicide bomber. This is actually the false confession that he made as a result of being tortured by al-Qaeda.
I understand that the Bush administration would pursue this case, because they didn’t really want to admit that they had captured people by mistake, sent them to Guantanamo, when they shouldn’t have been sent there. For the Obama administration to have come in, for the Justice Department to have looked at this case, to have decided that it was worth taking in front of a habeas judge, and arguing that a man who was tortured and imprisoned for eighteen months by the Taliban still had some connection with these people, even though he had only ever been involved with them for about three weeks before they decided he was a spy, it just simply beggars belief, I think.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the federal judge in the case, US District Judge Richard Leon, said, “This is a tragedy...This is a nightmare for an innocent men being accused of all of these things.” He said, “He is a brave person and wants to tell his story. Instead, he gets mistaken for being a terrorist.”
How soon do you think that the Obama administration now will be forced to act on the judge’s order?
ANDY WORTHINGTON: Well, I don’t know, you see? This is part of the problem with what Barack Obama didn’t do when he took office and why I think his joke about the Uyghurs is so offensive. He had a window of opportunity to accept people who had been cleared of all wrongdoing into the United States, you know, following a proud tradition of a nation founded on immigrants, to have done something along those lines, and he didn’t. He allowed room for Dick Cheney to come in with all his scare stories for essentially cowardly or opportunistic politicians to start using Guantanamo as part of their own political maneuvering.
And he’s now kind of stuck, because, really, why should this man not be allowed into the United States if he can’t be returned into Syria? And I think the same should have happened with the Uyghurs. But he’s stuck. So it will be a question of a third country being approached to take him. I believe that he may actually be somebody that the administration has already talked to the German government about. But as you mentioned earlier, there’s a problem with other countries taking prisoners when the United States doesn’t want to do anything. And again, that’s really rather offensive for Obama to be making that kind of joke at the weekend.
AMY GOODMAN: Clearly a problem for the Bermudan prime minister, who made a secret deal with Obama and then almost lost a no-confidence vote of his government for not consulting them.
ANDY WORTHINGTON: Yeah, yeah, well, absolutely, although I’m not entirely convinced that the British government didn’t know something about it and maybe decided to keep quiet, so that they wouldn’t offend China and everything could be blamed on the Bermudans.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I guess you would know, since you’re talking to us from London.
ANDY WORTHINGTON: Possibly.
AMY GOODMAN: Andy Worthington, talk about Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the former CIA ghost prisoner who recently died in a Libyan jail.
ANDY WORTHINGTON: Well, I spoke to Omar Deghayes, who’s a Libyan British resident who was freed from Guantanamo in December 2007. Al-Libi died in a Libyan jail about six weeks ago. The Libyan government claimed that it was suicide, but the Libyan government has a long history of claiming that political dissidents have committed suicide. So, Omar Deghayes had spoken to somebody in Libya who said that he had met al-Libi in the prison and that al-Libi had told a story about four prisons that he was moved around in in North Africa before being rendered by the CIA back to Afghanistan, where he spent time in three secret prisons there. Now, all of these — most of these places have been mentioned before. But it was a fascinating chronology that was explained.
And what interested me and appalled me the most was that al-Libi had said that in every prison he was taken to, in Morocco, Mauritania, Egypt and Jordan, prisoners had been brought to him for him to identify. Now, and this is all happening under circumstances in which al-Libi was not treated kindly. You know, torture was part of the system throughout. And it was in Egypt that he was tortured and came up with the false allegation about the connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda that was used to justify the war in Iraq. So this was happening everywhere that he was taken. But it seemed to be substantial numbers of people that were being brought before him for him to identify. And, you know, I find that horrific, because torture then, because it breeds false information, then leads to more people being caught up. And, you know, you can see how torture is then applied to them, and the whole thing spirals out of control.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Andy Worthington, what about the three Saudis who were cleared of any terrorism, then repatriated to Saudi Arabia? You have written extensively about one of those, Ahmed Zuhair, and the web of lies that were woven around his alleged participation in terrorist activities.
ANDY WORTHINGTON: Yeah, yeah, sure. Well, there were three Saudis who were released, and in each case the government had not been able to come up with evidence to justify holding them.
Zuhair actually had been a hunger striker for four years, which is pretty horrific to think about, that he was fastened down and force-fed twice a day with a — the thing up his nose and into his stomach.
But there were allegations initially that he had been involved in crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he had worked as a charity worker. These couldn’t be proved. And there were also allegations that he had been involved in militancy acts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but these, again, were based on the testimony of unreliable witnesses in Guantanamo.
And what we’ve seen with every case that has managed to come up before a judge, as with the case of al-Janko, is that there are unreliable witnesses in Guantanamo who are used by — well, by the — previously by the Bush administration, now by the Obama administration, in an attempt to justify holding men, when they have no case apart from this dubious testimony that’s obtained from prisoners either who were tortured, who were coerced in some other manner, perhaps were bribed, offered better conditions. There’s also evidence of witnesses who had severe mental health problems.
The whole case, a couple of months ago, was really demolished by Judge Gladys Kessler, in the case of a Yemeni, who was savage in the way that she dismissed the way the government had attempted to come up with a mosaic of intelligence based on all these different allegations. And she went through them one by one and said, “Well, not a single piece of this mosaic is reliable.” You know, and that’s fundamentally the problem with Guantanamo, is that it is based on an incoherent mosaic of evidence that is untrustworthy, that has primarily been obtained through the dubious interrogations of other prisoners.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, of course, US media repeats the unproven allegations against prisoners around the whole discussion of whether they should be allowed into the United States. But, Andy, I want to end with your assessment of President Obama’s overall approach to Guantanamo and the prisoners there.
ANDY WORTHINGTON: Well, you know, he made a promise, and I think he means to keep that. I think that he has lost a lot of opportunities to act decisively. He has sadly shown himself willing — and I’m not sure why — to maintain the obstruction of the — of providing information to defense counsel in the habeas corpus cases, you know, which has been going on long before he came into power, a long struggle to secure legal rights for the prisoners. And we find now that when the cases go to court, judges are quite capable of seeing through this shallow web of nonsense that was conjured up by the Bush administration.
Now, he’s arranging things with his interdepartmental task force, but this is somehow rather at odds with the legal processes that are already in place.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have thirty seconds.
ANDY WORTHINGTON: And it disturbs me that that’s another example of the executive sidelining the judiciary, which, of course, is what happened throughout the Bush years.
So, you know, I think there’s certainly been some progress, but I worry about how slow the movement has been to actually get prisoners out of there. And I’m also extremely concerned about proposals to introduce a form of preventive detention, because that essentially is what Guantanamo was all about. And the way I understand justice, and I think that most reasonable people do, is that you have a trial, and you’re either guilty or innocent. You can’t have a third category of prisoner, who are held because of what they might have done or because of what they might do in the future.
AMY GOODMAN: Andy Worthington, we’re going to have to leave it there, author of The Guantánamo Files.