On Monday, the Pentagon announced that two prisoners had been released from Guantánamo. Abd al-Nisr Mohammed Khantumani, a 50-year old Syrian (also known as Abdul Nasir al-Tumani) was given a new home in Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony off the West African coast, while Abdul Aziz Naji, a 35-year old Algerian, was repatriated to Algeria.
I’ll discuss the stories of Abd al-Nisr Mohammed Khantumani and Abdul Aziz Naji in a separate article, but for now the focus must be on the legal maneuvering that led to the repatriation of Abdul Aziz Naji, because, for the first time in Guantánamo’s history, a prisoner has been sent home against his will, even though Doris Tennant, one of his lawyers, told the Washington Post two weeks ago that he was “adamantly opposed to going back.” At the weekend, another of his lawyers, Ellen Lubell, told the Miami Herald that Naji “fears extremists will try to recruit him — associating him with Guantánamo — and will torture or kill him if he resists.” She added, “He has nothing against the Algerian government, but he fears that the government will be unable to protect him from Algerian extremists.” In a press release, the Center for Constitutional Rights explained that Naji “fled various forms of persecution in Algeria many years ago, including having been attacked by an extremist.” CCR also sounded a note of caution about how the Algerian government will receive Naji, stating, “we are deeply concerned that he will disappear into secret detention.”
These are valid concerns, as Algeria has a poor human rights record. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations (PDF, pp. 108-9) regularly express concerns about the use of torture in Algeria, and in its 2009 report on human rights in Algeria, the US State Department noted, “Local human rights lawyers maintained that torture continued to occur in detention facilities, most often against those arrested on ‘security grounds.’”
In contrast, an Obama administration official, speaking anonymously, told the Washington Post two weeks ago, “We take some care in evaluating countries for repatriation. In the case of Algeria, there is an established track record and we have given that a lot of weight. The Algerians have handled this pretty well: You don’t have recidivism and you don’t have torture.” This was a bold statement to make, in light of the allegations made by NGOs and the UN, and concerns about torture or other ill-treatment were not diminished by a response to the news of Naji’s repatriation in Monday’s Washington Post, in which it was noted that “The government said that Algeria has provided diplomatic assurances that Naji would not be mistreated, assurances that administration officials say are credible because 10 other detainees have been returned to Algeria without incident.”
The problems with this statement concern the “diplomatic assurances,” and the claim that 10 men have been repatriated “without incident.” On the “diplomatic assurances,” Human Rights Watch explained in a press release that its own research “has shown that diplomatic assurances provided by receiving countries, which are legally unenforceable, do not provide an effective safeguard against torture and ill-treatment,” and, on the status of the 10 men returned, although there have been no allegations of torture, there has been very little information at all about the conditions in which they have been held, and what has emerged publicly is not reassuring, as it reveals both prolonged pre-trial detention, and calls for punitive sentences from the prosecutors. As I explained in January this year:
[F]rustratingly little is known about the eight Algerians repatriated from Guantánamo between July 2008 and January 2009, although one indication of how the Algerian justice system deals with returned Guantánamo prisoners was provided in November 2009, when the BBC reported that, 15 months after two of these men were repatriated, they had been acquitted after a trial in which the prosecutor had called for prison sentences of 20 years.
Alarmingly, despite Abdul Aziz Naji’s fear of being repatriated — and the fears of five other Algerians, as revealed by the Washington Post two weeks ago — his release was not only supported by the Obama administration, but also by the Supreme Court.
Judge Gladys Kessler takes on the D.C. Circuit Court – and the Supreme Court
The spur for a legal battle that has largely been taking place without the mainstream media paying much attention — and with an alarming reliance on secrecy — was a principled stand taken by Judge Gladys Kessler, of the District Court in Washington D.C., who, single-handedly, has been attempting to uphold the United States’ obligation, under the UN Convention Against Torture, not to “expel, return (‘refouler’) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.
In November, Judge Kessler granted the habeas corpus petition of Farhi Saeed bin Mohammed, a 49-year old Algerian, after concluding that the government’s supposed evidence relied almost entirely on unreliable confessions produced by Binyam Mohamed, a British resident who was subjected to torture in Pakistan, Morocco and at the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Kabul from April 2002 to May 2004.
Six months after Judge Kessler delivered her ruling, with bin Mohammed still not released, his lawyers asked her “to order the government to carry out his release, but to bar his transfer to Algeria, where he fears persecution or even death from either the Algerian government or from armed terrorist groups there,” as SCOTUSblog described it. As a result of two depressing rulings in the Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. Circuit Court (the District Court), judges are not actually able to order the release of prisoners who have won their habeas petitions, and are not even supposed to interfere with the disposition of prisoners, whose fate, according to the Circuit Court, is entirely dependent on the whims of the Executive branch. Judge Kessler, however, was undeterred.
On June 3, she issued a temporary order barring bin Mohammed’s transfer to Algeria, and on June 10 mounted a stout defense of his right not to be forcibly repatriated, noting (PDF):
Petitioner has voiced great fear about being transferred to Algeria. He has not lived in Algeria for more than 20 years, and has no ties to that country. Because he has been designated an “enemy combatant,” he greatly fears retribution by the Algerian authorities and that he will be formally charged under the Algerian Penal Code, tortured, convicted, and very possibly executed by the Algerian Government. He has claimed that he will be caught between the Algerian Government, which will brand him as an international terrorist, and armed domestic terrorists, who oppose the existing government, often pressure individuals to join their ranks, and retaliate violently when such individuals refuse. Petitioner has made clear that he would rather suffer continued confinement in Guantánamo Bay than be placed in the control of the Algerian Government.
In response to a brief filed by the government, Judge Kessler complained that two declarations submitted, which purported to guarantee bin Mohammed’s humane treatment if returned to Algeria, “appear to be boilerplate statements which have been filed in a number of the Government’s Oppositions to Motions,” and that a third, written by Daniel Fried, President Obama’s Special Envoy on Guantánamo, “was submitted ex parte so that [bin Mohammed] has not had an opportunity to read it.” After noting that bin Mohammed’s fears “are of great concern,” and that it is “essential” that assurances received from the Algerian government, purporting to guarantee that bin Mohammed will receive “humane treatment,” are “tested,” Judge Kessler ordered Fried to appear in person in her court, explaining, “Given the centrality of those representations and assurances to the future of [bin Mohammed] and possibly to his very life, this Court has an obligation to ensure that there is real substance behind the conclusory phrases contained in Special Envoy Fried’s declarations.”
Fried never turned up, of course, because the Justice Department immediately filed an appeal with the Circuit Court, which then ordered Judge Kessler to “resolve all outstanding motions” in the case with reference to Munaf v. Geren and Kiyemba v. Obama (aka Kiyemba II), the cases that the Circuit Court had drawn on (Munaf) and issued (Kiyemba II) to demonstrate that only the Executive branch was entitled to make decisions about where to send Guantánamo prisoners. As SCOTUSblog noted, “While the order did not say that Kessler could not hold a hearing on Mohammed’s plea not to be sent to Algeria, it specified that the judge was to rule on that issue ‘without requiring testimony from Special Envoy Fried or any other United States government official,’” which, of course, “completely undercut the purpose that Kessler had” for calling the hearing in the first place.
The Circuit Court then issued an amended ruling, instructing Judge Kessler to decide the Mohammed plea “in an order from which a party can take an immediate appeal,” and as SCOTUSblog noted in response to this instruction:
The Circuit Court thus had taken over, in a significant way, the further proceedings in Kessler’s Court, and has sent her the strongest hint that she risked being overturned if she barred his transfer anew. Since it noted the binding nature of the precedents she was to observe, the Circuit Court clearly was signaling that, if it accepted the government’s view that Mohammed’s case was no different, Kessler would be found to be without authority to prevent his transfer to Algeria.
After this, the struggle between Judge Kessler and the Circuit Court was swamped in secrecy. At a hearing convened by Kessler on June 28, all the documentation was sealed, but SCOTUSblog was able to deduce, from a subsequent appeal filed by the government, that she had once more barred bin Mohammed’s transfer to Algeria. On July 8, however, in another secret hearing, the Circuit Court “summarily overturned” Judge Kessler’s ban, prompting SCOTUSblog to note that the court’s order “continues a seldom-interrupted string of rulings by the Circuit Court against detainees challenging their confinement or transfer,” which “contrasts with a majority of rulings by District Court judges upholding detainees’ challenges under federal habeas law.”
The final blow for bin Mohammed — and for those who, like Judge Kessler, had quaintly presumed that the “non-refoulement” requirement of the UN Convention Against Torture might actually mean something to the judiciary and the Executive branch — came last Friday, when, by 5 votes to 3, the Supreme Court sided with the Circuit Court. As SCOTUSblog noted, the ruling was “the first indication that the Supreme Court will not allow federal judges to interfere with government controls on who leaves or stays at Guantánamo Bay.”
Although three of the justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor — dissented, noting that they “would grant the stay to afford the Court time to consider, in the ordinary course, important questions raised in this case and not resolved in Munaf v. Geren,” just a few hours later the Supreme Court unanimously approved the forced repatriation of Abdul Aziz Naji.
This was a bleak day for US justice, not only because it involved the Supreme Court blithely disregarding the UN Convention Against Torture’s “non-refoulement” obligation, joining in an unholy trinity with the D.C. Circuit Court and the Obama administration, but also because it brings to an abrupt, cruel, and — I believe — illegal conclusion a struggle to release prisoners without violating the UN Convention Against Torture, which, for the most part, was actually respected by the Bush administration.
The Bush administration’s record on not returning prisoners to torture
The long history of the authorities grappling with the “non-refoulement” obligation at Guantánamo began with the Uighurs, 22 Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province, who were mostly seized in Pakistan in December 2001 after crossing from Afghanistan, where they had been living in a run-down settlement in the Tora Bora mountains, thwarted in their attempts to travel to Turkey or Europe in search of work, or nursing futile hopes of rising up against their only enemy, the Chinese government.
With the Uighurs, the Bush administration recognized its “non-refoulement” obligation, refusing to return them to China, and finding new homes for five of the men in Albania in 2006. When the Obama administration inherited the problem of the remaining 17 men, who had, in the meantime, won their habeas corpus petitions, it found new homes for 12 of them in Bermuda, Palau and Switzerland, although five still remain at Guantánamo, and, last spring, the administration turned down a plan by White House Counsel Greg Craig to bring some of the men to live in the US, which would have done more in the long run to defuse scaremongering about Guantánamo than any other gesture.
Despite the Bush administration locating some principles when it came to the Uighurs, in other cases prisoners had to fight in the courts to prevent their forcible repatriation to countries where they faced the risk of torture. In 2007, a Libyan, Abdul Rauf al-Qassim, sought the intervention of the courts to prevent his return to Libya, and after two Tunisians were repatriated in June 2007 — and were subsequently mistreated and given jail sentences (of three and seven years) after show trials — a judge intervened to prevent the repatriation of a third, Mohammed Abdul Rahman (also known as Lotfi bin Ali), and, by extension, other Tunisians in Guantánamo.
In other cases, like that of Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who had lived in the UK, lawyers successfully sought injunctions preventing their return, and by the time Obama came to power, it was generally understood that prisoners were not be involuntarily returned to China, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia or Uzbekistan. As a result, in the last year, the Obama administration has resettled prisoners from Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan in Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Georgia, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia and Switzerland. Algeria was more problematical, as was demonstrated by the cases of the men who had returned voluntarily, even though there was, to be honest, no guarantee that they would be treated humanely, and my constant analogy was that return to Algeria was like Russian Roulette.
How the Circuit Court defended expansive executive power
However, all this came to an end with the Circuit Court’s intervention in the Uighurs’ case — firstly, in February 2009 (in Kiyemba v. Obama, aka Kiyemba I), when a panel of judges ruled that the courts could not order the resettlement in the US of prisoners who had won their habeas petitions but could not be repatriated, because only the Executive branch could decide matters relating to immigration. As I explained in a review of the ruling:
The judges were seemingly unmoved that this would leave the Uighurs (and, very possibly, others in Guantánamo) with no means of leaving the prison, and that it stripped the Supreme Court’s ruling in June 2008, granting the prisoners habeas corpus rights, of all practical meaning, if it was not possible for judges to order their release. In the judges’ words, however, “the political branches have the exclusive power … to decide which aliens may, and which aliens may not, enter the United States, and on what terms.”
The second blow came last September (in another Kiyemba v. Obama case, identified as Kiyemba II), after the Uighurs’ lawyers asked the Court of Appeals to reconsider its opinion en banc (in other words, with all the judges ruling, instead of just a panel of three), and also sought assurances that the courts would be able to act if the government proposed sending their clients to countries where they faced the risk of torture. However, as I explained at the time:
[N]ot only did the court refuse to reconsider its ruling, but the judges also refused the Uighurs’ request for the court’s assistance “to prevent their transfer to a country where they are likely to be subjected to further detention or to torture,”, drawing on Munaf v. Geren, a case from 2008 in which “two American citizens held in the custody of the United States military in Iraq petitioned for writs of habeas corpus, seeking to enjoin the Government from transferring them to Iraqi custody for criminal prosecution in the Iraqi courts.” In Munaf, although “The Court held the district court had jurisdiction over the petitions,” it also ruled that “it could not enjoin the Government from transferring the petitioners to Iraqi custody,” because “that concern is to be addressed by the political branches, not the judiciary.”
It is this narrow reading of Munaf that has particularly enraged those opposed to the Circuit Court’s resolute endorsement of executive power — and which at least caused some consternation last Friday to Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor. Essentially, though, the Circuit Court’s ruling in Kiyemba II dictates what happens to prisoners like Abdul Aziz Naji — and, presumably, Farhi Saeed bin Mohammed — when the administration tires of trying to find new homes for them, and decides to subject them involuntarily to the Russian Roulette repatriation package that Abdul Aziz Naji received this week.
Although government officials told the Washington Post on Monday that they “will nonetheless continue to examine each case individually before any repatriation,” noting that some officials “have expressed some concern about returning one of the Algerians [Ahmed Belbacha] who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in absentia” last year, for what his lawyers think was the crime of speaking out about his fears of repatriation, there now appears to be no obstacle to prevent the Obama administration from sending the other four Algerians home whenever it feels like it.
To discover that such shameless disregard for the UN Convention Against Torture has come not only from the Supreme Court, but also from the man who promised to close Guantánamo (but then failed to do so), and who also promised to uphold the absolute ban on torture (while refusing to prosecute anyone who authorized its use in the previous eight years), is depressing news indeed.
Note: With these releases, 178 prisoners remain at Guantánamo. One of these men, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement, after a one-sided trial by Military Commission in October 2008, in which he refused to mount a defense. Another prisoner, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, is in prison in New York, awaiting a federal court trial that was recently approved. 594 prisoners have been released (or, in some cases, transferred to the custody of their home governments, or of other governments), and six men died, five in mysterious circumstances.
Originally published on Cageprisoners.
Andy Worthington, a regular contributor to The Public Record, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and the definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. He maintains a blog at andyworthington.co.uk.