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One US air force colonel told a British Guantanamo inmate at a secret hearing at the Cuba base: “We are not concerned about international law.”
The extraordinary outburst was made in a tribunal hearing, held behind closed doors, and is recorded in transcripts that the US department of defense (DoD) at the pentagon has been forced to disclose under FOIA by a district judge in New York, Jed Rakoff.
The comment is damaging because it is an official account of what was said by a senior American military figure, although his name has been redacted, rather than simply a claim made by an inmate.
Feroz Ali Abbasi, who was already known to be a former Guantanamo detainee, went before a tribunal to determine his “combat status”, as did many other inmates.
US government lawyers say that inmates class-ified as “enemy combatants” are deprived of protections under the Geneva convention for prisoners of war and can be held indefinitely without charges. Only 10 inmates have been charged with any crime so far.
The detainees were not allowed to see classified evidence against them. The transcripts show that Abbasi repeatedly cited international law and the Geneva convention in arguing that he was unfairly classified as an enemy combatant.
The tribunal president, a US air force colonel tells him: “Geneva conventions do not apply. You have been designated as an enemy combatant.”
In an evidently tetchy exchange, and after Abbasi again refers to international law, the tribunal president says: “Once again, international law does not matter here. Geneva convention does not matter here. What matters here… is your status as enemy combatant… and your actions while you were in Afghanistan.”
Later, Abbasi talks about the “definition of a combatant in international law”.
The tribunal president says: “Mr Abbasi, your conduct is unacceptable and this is your absolute final warning. I don’t care about international law. I don’t want to hear the words ‘international law’ again. We are not concerned about international law.”
The colonel then had Abbasi removed from the tribunal room.
Abbasi is also recorded as complaining that two couples – members of the military police – had sex in front of him. Others tried to feed him “a hot plate of pork”, food that is banned in the islamic faith.
And others, he said, misled him into praying north towards America rather than Mecca, as muslims are supposed to do.
Another known British former Guantanamo inmate, Moazzam Begg, is also named in the documents. He is recorded in the transcripts saying that FBI officers tortured him in Afghanistan and that he had been interrogated hundreds of times.
As we read the transcripts, it is becoming clear that, in most of them, the person speaking is only identified as “detainee”. Names typically appear when tribunal officials or a detainee refers to other inmates.
Most of the inmates were captured during the 2001 US-led war that removed the Taleban from power in Afghanistan. The newly released material details some of the detainees' explanations.
For example, Zahir Shah, an Afghan, is accused of belonging to an islamic militant group and of having a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and other weapons in his house. He admits having rifles, but says that they were for a running feud with a cousin and insists that he did not fight US troops.
“What are we going to do with RPGs?” he asks. “The only thing I did in Afghanistan was farming,” he says, “We grew wheat, corn, vegetables and water-melons.”
In another document, Abdul Hakim Bukhary, of Saudi Arabia, denies being a member of al-Qaeda, but acknowledges that he travelled to Afghanistan to fight US forces. He says that he met Osama bin Laden about 15 years ago while fighting Russian forces in Afghanistan.
The documents give no indication of whether any named inmate remains at Guantanamo.
Amnesty International USA’s senior deputy exec-utive director, Curt Goering, said: “This is extremely important information,” adding, “We've been asking ever since the camp opened for a list of everyone there as one of the most basic first steps for any detaining authority.”
Jamie Fellner, director of the US program for Hum-an Rights Watch, said that the disclosures would “add to our understanding of who is there and what are the reasons that the US alleges they are there for.”
The DoD had refused the release of the names, saying that it would violate the detainees' privacy and could endanger them and their families.
But Associated Press, the international news agency, won a legal challenge to compel the release. The news agency’s assistant general counsel, David Tomlin, said of the detainees: “Many of them are anxious to have the fact of their confinement at Guantanamo known.”
“So we appreciate that the court sought fit to rule that the Government is not a good custodian of the privacy interest of people who don't want secrecy.”
Rakoff ordered the DoD last year to ask all the Guantanamo detainees whether they wanted personal identifying information to be disclosed in response to the FOIA request.
Of 317 detainees who received the questionnaire, 63 said yes, 17 said no, and 237 did not answer. The judge said none of the detainees, not even the 17 who said no, had a reasonable expectation of privacy during the tribunals.
You can see the newly released transcripts them-selves at the DoD website (link below), although they take a long time to download.
A FOIA Centre consultant will appear as a guest on “The Agenda” on the Islam Channel, broadcast live on Monday, March 6, 10:00am to 11:30am (repeated 11:00pm) in Europe (Sky channel 813 in UK) and north Africa, to discuss the documents.