Ibrahim al-Qosi at a pre-trial Military Commission hearing at Guantanamo, July 15, 2009 (courtroom sketch by Janet Hamlin, courtesy of Janet Hamlin Illustration)
Andy Worthington examines the disturbing secrecy surrounding the recent conviction of Ibrahim al-Qosi at Guantanamo, and the prospects for the repatriation of the three remaining Sudanese prisoners.
On August 11, Ibrahim al-Qosi, a 51-year old former cook and driver for Osama bin Laden, was given a 14-year sentence by a military jury, after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy, and one count of providing material support to terrorism at an earlier hearing on July 7, as I reported here. The sentence was the first under President Obama and only the fourth in the long and troubled history of the Military Commissions at Guantánamo. The trial system was dragged from the history books by Vice President Dick Cheney in November 2001, ruled illegal by the US Supreme Court in June 2006, revived by Congress later that year, suspended by President Obama on his first day in office, and then revived last November, in a move that was widely criticized as part of a hideously compromised three-tier system of justice for the Guantánamo prisoners, involving federal court trials or Military Commissions for 35 prisoners in total, and indefinite detention without charge or trial for 48 others.
As Reuters explained, al-Qosi, who is Sudanese, met Osama bin Laden in Sudan, traveled with him to Afghanistan, and “acknowledged that he knew al-Qaeda was a terrorist group when he ran one of the kitchens in bin Laden's Star of Jihad compound in Afghanistan.” He also “admitted helping the al-Qaeda leader escape US forces in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan,” but added that he “had no involvement in or prior knowledge of terrorist attacks.” Putting these admissions in context, Renee Schomp, a Program Associate for Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program, stated:
[A]l-Qosi pled guilty to living on a compound with supporters of Osama bin Laden in Jalalabad, Afghanistan and acting as a cook. His wife and children were with him until about November 2001. Al-Qosi's guilty plea states that his activities in Afghanistan were the sole means of support for them. Al-Qosi never acted as a bodyguard or security guard for bin Laden, but for 12-18 months he served on defensive lines in a mortar crew -- before the “war on terror” began, and not against US forces.
Crucially, al-Qosi’s sentence was part of a plea bargain whose full details have not yet been made publicly available. According to the Dubai-based al-Arabiya TV network, his sentence was capped at two years, although it is clear from the negotiations during his trial -- in which the prosecution and the defense called for the military jury to deliver a sentence of between 12 and 15 years -- that the jury had not been given any information about the plea deal, and that, essentially, all the details had been worked out behind the scenes to use the jury to deliver a sentence that appeared to validate the system, even though it did no such thing.
What was also apparent during al-Qosi’s sentencing was typical confusion -- of the kind that has undermined the Commissions throughout their troubled history -- regarding practical considerations; in this case, where his sentence will be served.
As Reuters reported, al-Qosi’s sentencing “hit a snag” because of the military’s inability to develop a coherent policy regarding his desire not to be held in solitary confinement. His plea deal “required the convening authority overseeing the trial [Retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, who replaced President Bush’s appointee Susan Crawford in March this year] to recommend that Qosi serve his time in Camp Four, where detainees live communally under fewer restrictions than in the other camps.” However, “military rules forbid housing convicted criminals with other detainees.”
Of the three men previously convicted, only one, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, is still held, and he is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. Asked to explain the circumstances of al-Bahlul’s confinement, Navy Commander Brad Fagan stated, “He is separated from the general population,” but “declined to elaborate” except to say that “he's by himself.”
Al-Qosi’s judge, Air Force Lt. Col. Nancy Paul, was clearly unimpressed by the military’s inability to establish a policy regarding the circumstances in which convicted prisoners are to be held. As Reuters explained, “an assistant defense secretary ordered two years ago that the army and the military's Southern Command, which oversees the Guantánamo base, develop a detailed plan for housing prisoners after their conviction.” As Judge Paul noted, however, “This has not been done.” She added that the absence of an official policy was “especially troubling” because of the possibility of another conviction in the trial of Omar Khadr, the Canadian who was just 15 years old when he was seized in Afghanistan in July 2002.
As a compromise, Judge Paul ruled that al-Qosi's plea agreement “was valid because it called only for a recommendation that he be housed in the communal camp, and did not guarantee he would be.” She ordered him to “remain in Camp Four for 60 days while the military worked out where he would serve the rest of his sentence.”
Press reports also noted that, at the end of his sentence, al-Qosi will be repatriated to Sudan, where, as the Wall Street Journal explained, the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service stated, in correspondence introduced at al-Qosi’s trial by one of his military defense lawyers, Maj. Todd Pierce, that “it would put Mr. Qosi in mandatory ‘rehabilitation,’ monitor his phone calls and email, and deploy ‘informants’ to ensure he ‘no longer [adheres] to a radical ideology.’”
The Wall Street Journal added that the Sudanese intelligence agency reported that its program, used to deal with nine Sudanese prisoners previously released from Guantánamo (between 2004 and 2008), was “85% effective,” and also suggested that the US government “has been working with the Sudanese government to repatriate detainees from Guantánamo Bay.” These men were not named in the report, but there are only two other Sudanese prisoners in Guantánamo, in addition to Ibrahim al-Qosi.
The other two Sudanese prisoners
The first, Ibrahim Idris, who has sometimes been listed as a Yemeni, is clearly of no great significance. Accused of attending al-Farouq (the training camp associated with Osama bin Laden in the years before the 9/11 attacks), and of fighting with the Taliban for two years, he attended a military review board in December 2007, in which he stated that he had actually been seized in Pakistan, where he had traveled for 40 days to work as a missionary. “No disrespect to the interrogators,” he explained. “I said what I had to say, and they made me say things that weren’t true.” This may or may not be accurate (although it is certainly possible), but no information has emerged in the last eight years to indicate that he was involved in any way with terrorist activities.
The case of the other Sudanese prisoner, Noor Uthman Muhammed, who was involved with the Khaldan training camp as a trainer, and who appears to have run the camp when its leader was away, is clearly more problematical for the government. Muhammed was one of 29 prisoners put forward for a trial by Military Commission under President Bush between 2007 and 2008, and was one of five prisoners whose military trials under President Obama were announced by Attorney General Eric Holder last November. Progress in his case has been slow in the months since, with inconclusive wrangling over his defense team’s request for his evaluation by an independent psychologist, but it would be surprising if the government were to be in any great hurry to proceed with the trial, as his case involves two men whose stories the government would prefer to keep hidden. The first is Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the camp’s leader, and the second is Abu Zubaydah, the camp’s mentally troubled gatekeeper.
Al-Libi, who died in mysterious circumstances in a Libyan jail last May, was the notorious CIA “ghost prisoner” who produced a false confession about links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, while being tortured in Egypt on behalf of the CIA, which was used to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and Abu Zubaydah, as has become increasinglyapparent over the last few years, is the supposed “high-value detainee,” for whom the CIA’s torture program was initially developed, who, in fact, was not part of al-Qaeda and had no knowledge of al-Qaeda’s terrorist plans.
In general, the government has spent the last few years removing all mention of Zubaydah from other prisoners’ cases, and Muhammed’s proposed trial is therefore a potentially disturbing aberration. As McClatchy Newspapers explained in an article on July 1 this year, when Muhammed boycotted a pre-trial hearing, “Declassified documents say Abu Zubaydah has told interrogators that the Khaldan training camp that Noor allegedly ran was a rival to training camps run and sanctioned by bin Laden, wasn't associated with al-Qaeda, that it was first set up by the US-backed resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and was committed to a defensive, not offensive, jihad.”
As McClatchy also noted, but there was “little likelihood” that Muhammed would be tried in the near future, because, in April this year, his judge, Navy Capt. Moira Modzelewski, “said it would take her until January or February to sift through classified evidence the prosecution intends to use against him and that the trial couldn't begin before she'd done that.”
Pre-trial hearings are scheduled to continue next month, but with al-Qosi’s example, it may make more sense for the government to try to work out a plea bargain in Muhammed’s case that would bypass the potential embarrassment of an actual trial.
Whether any of these proposals have anything to do with justice is debatable. As Melina Milazzo, Pennoyer Fellow with Human Rights First’s Law and Security Project, stated after al-Qosi’s sentence was announced, Judge Paul’s decision that “it was in the best interest for both the government and al-Qosi that the details of his plea agreement should continue to be sealed until after his confinement was completed” was “unprecedented in both US federal court as well as US court martial,” adding, “Moreover, shrouding his plea agreement in secrecy does little to provide much needed transparency to a grossly opaque system.”
Noticeably, however, it is pragmatism and diplomacy rather than justice that have largely enabled prisoners to leave Guantánamo, and if President Obama is at all serious about closing the prison, then he should be aware that the Sudanese government has at least provided him with an opportunity to close one more chapter in Guantánamo’s sordid history by facilitating the repatriation of all three of the remaining Sudanese prisoners.