The Trial | Prisoner 345 | My Six Years in Guantánamo

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My wife returned: “Either go to sleep or let me sit here with you.”

I gesture for her to sit: “Take the pen and paper, then, and write, Umm Mohammad.”

“I was hoping you’d say that, Abu Mohammad.”

A question the media asked constantly was: Is Guantánamo on American soil, where American laws apply? Or is it Cuban, outside American jurisdiction?

The judgment issued said that it was on American soil, but that its prisoners were not protected by American law.

To deal with criticism, the US set up a kangaroo court to calm public opinion.

It was a military tribunal usually made up of a judge, a public prosecutor, and a military officer representing the prisoner. They were under pressure to explain the hundreds of prisoners in custody without any charges against them that could explain their detention.

The prosecutor would lay out accusations that had no connection to reality, and the judge would inform the prisoner he was not allowed to hear the “secret evidence” against him or the deliberations. The military officer was
there to stand in for the accused.

Over 700 people were tried in this way, to determine if they were “military combatants” or not. We were told that all prisoners in Guantánamo would undergo preliminary classification before being presented to the military tribunal. The classification would determine the threat posed by the prisoner to the security of the US.

Court proceedings began; we were told there would be two military judges from the Department of Defense presiding and that each detainee would be provided with a DoD lawyer. The soldier representing us would be our guardian and the main source of information for the judges.

I stood accused in late 2004, political accusations of which I was completely innocent and despaired of being defended adequately against. Even my lawyer, who was supposed to be my advocate, seemed to be on the prosecution’s side.

That was Guantánamo; we learned to expect that kind of thing.

How can a prisoner of America trust an American military tribunal and the military law it applied? Added to that was the mysterious “secret evidence”.

How could we defend ourselves against secret evidence?

We asked these questions, but nobody could answer because they knew the procedures were contrary to the logic of law and courts, contrary to any logic.

When I received notice of my trial, I asked the military official who served me: “How can I go before a military tribunal as a civilian? You know that I was detained while fulfilling my duties as a journalist. I have no military activity, what gives you the right to send me to a military tribunal?”

Hi curt reply was: “I can’t answer your question. My mission is to hand you these papers and tell you the military tribunals will be within the next few months.”

A few months later, they took me to meet someone in a military uniform. He said: “I’m Clive, I’ll be helping you in the military tribunal. I want to inform you that I cannot hide anything you say to me from the judge. The law states
that I must inform the judge everything that transpires between us.”

I replied: “You introduce yourself saying you’re here to help me, but at the same time destroy your legal qualification. You’re conspiring with the judge against my interests. How are you an advocate? You advocate for the government, not the accused.”

He tried to continue: “I want to tell you that you can summon witnesses to the sessions.”

“Will bringing witnesses from outside Guantánamo be permitted?”

“Yes,” he said, “but there are obstacles. Non-Americans cannot enter the island except with special passes.”

“That means,” I said, “whoever I want to testify won’t be able to attend, and if they can, it would be with great difficulty. What help and witness are you talking about, then?

“Are there any guarantees that the witnesses will be able to go home, or that they won’t find themselves in the cells next to us?”

“I can’t answer that question,” he said. “The US detains everyone they suspect of supporting terrorism or communicating with terrorists. Even your witnesses, if we find any reason to detain them we won’t let them leave Guantánamo.”

I wanted to embarrass this so-called “advocate”: “So you want to make us catch the others.

“I want to get in touch with my family, they can provide papers confirming I’m a journalist working for Al Jazeera. This will help me refute the allegations and accusations against me.”

“Communication isn’t permitted,” he said. “But you can tell me the questions you want to send, and I will try to contact them from my side.”

I considered whether to stop embarrassing him, but decided to continue: “If you get in touch with them, what would you say?”

“I would tell them I’m helping prisoner number 345, and he needs this and that from you.”

“They won’t cooperate with you,” I said, “nor would they trust you. You’re in the American army! If I don’t get in touch with them, they won’t cooperate with you.”

“But we can’t!” he said. “The rules don’t allow you to contact your family.”

“I don’t see any other way,” I said.

“We will have to see about that,” he said, “But I can’t promise anything.”

“Why can’t you help me,” I said, “even though that’s why you came?”

“My help is limited to informing you of the accusations against you and letting you know how the tribunal sessions will be conducted.”

“You should admit that you’re just an informant, that you came to tell me your bosses’ requests. And on top of that, you aren’t even pretending to help me.”

“That’s all I have,” he said. “Let me inform you of the accusations.”

The first accusation was that I was detained and stopped by Pakistani authorities when I tried to enter Afghanistan on December 15, 2001, then handed over to the US.

“That’s an accusation?” I asked, laughing. “That’s a description! And it counts for me. I entered Pakistan on a visa. I had a press card. I followed the law, presented my travel documents so I could exit. I didn’t forge documents; I didn’t impersonate anyone. I didn’t go to Afghanistan to fight, buy drugs or do anything illegal. I went there as a journalist. That day, there were over seventy journalists there from media organizations from around the world.

“What else do you have?”

He said: “There’s an accusation that after your entry into Afghanistan you were trying to buy Stinger missiles to ship to Chechnya.”

“How would I buy Stinger missiles for Chechnya after September 11?” I said.

“After September 11, things changed in Afghanistan and around the world.

You know I went as a journalist. I didn’t have the money for missiles, or the time to do what you are claiming. How would I send them to Chechnya? To whom? What was the price? How could I interact with the Afghans without understanding their language, on my first trip to Afghanistan?

I explained to him that the story was likely a distortion of the Stinger argument between the Afghan man and the Pakistani intelligence officer adding: “Whoever put this accusation together twisted the story. I didn’t come to Afghanistan to buy weapons, you can review the records of my interrogations. You’ll see that I told that story in telling what happened to me during my detention by Pakistani intelligence services.”

“Tell this to the judge in your session,” he said.

“Are there any other accusations?” I said.

“That you travelled to hotspots in the Middle East between 1996-2001,” he said, “and to the Balkans and countries in the former Soviet Union. Finally, you reached Afghanistan in 2001.”

“Let’s look at basic facts,” I said, “without these extra spices. My travel in the Middle East: I went to Saudi Arabia for the Umra and Hajj. The trip is real, the embellishments are not. I went to Syria as a tourist; it wasn’t a warzone or training ground. Is tourism an act of terrorism? The same applies to Lebanon, I went as a tourist. The same for Jordan. I visited the Emirates for work. No problems happened during those trips, you can check with those countries if you want.”

The fourth accusation was that I refuted the existence of any connection between my former boss, Abd al-Latif al-Umran and al-Qaeda. So even though I had denied having knowledge or information, I was accused anyway. What
they wanted was that I agree that Mr Abd al-Latif al-Umran had ties to terrorism, that I renounce him to give them proof to accuse him, even if it wasn’t true. I knew that were were no such ties. I believed that then, and I believe it now.

What I know about Mr Abd al-Latif al-Umran is that he is a successful man who dedicated his life to charity, to building mosques and supporting orphans.

He was the ideal Muslim believer. I said: “I won’t implicate him or distance myself from him. I will not condemn his actions, I know him well. I would wish to be in his position, to help those in need. He is a man of good character and behavior.”

The last ridiculous accusation was that I was the Imam for the detainees who were praying and that I had taught some of them how to speak English.

Before I entered the court, I sat with Clive for a bit. I entered the courtroom with my hands and feet restrained, a translator was seated beside me and microphones were set up in front of me.

The committee entered, and I was surprised to see that the prosecution representative on was Clive himself, my military advocate. The advocate for the accused had become the representative of the prosecution!

I refused to rise. When it came time to ask me to swear an oath, I refused at first, saying: “I don’t believe in your court. We Muslims do not lie, whether under oath or not. We don’t need to take an oath to avoid telling lies; they are a great sin.

“I will take the oath, but only so you don’t think I’m avoiding it.”

I swore by Allah that I would tell the truth, then asked to be allowed to explain my case.

They asked me many questions, which I didn’t answer, simply saying: “I’m obliged to follow the guidance of my lawyer.” Discontent showed on the faces of the judge’s assistants who regarded and spoke to me with contempt.

As I had expected, the result was that I was still seen as a threat to the US and that my detention would continue for another year.

About the Author: Sami Alhaj

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