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Still Prosecuting the Little Fish at Gitmo

Sarah Mehta,
Senior Policy Counsel,
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February 19, 2011

At 5 p.m. on Friday, a jury of military officers sentenced Sudanese detainee Noor Uthman Muhammed to 14 years in prison. Shortly afterward, a military judge announced that under Muhammed’s plea bargain agreement, he will serve almost three more years at Guantánamo, on top of his nearly nine years of detention (8 1/2 at Guantánamo). The jury’s 14-year sentence is entirely symbolic, as Muhammed will serve the three-year sentence worked out in his plea deal, just like Gitmo detainees Ibrahim al-Qosi and Omar Khadr, who cut plea deals in July and October. (In al-Qosi’s case, though the jury sentenced him to 14 years, he is serving only two additional years at Gitmo, and though the jury sentenced Khadr to 40 years, he will return to Canada within a year, where he will serve up to seven more years if he’s not paroled earlier.) Under military commission rules, Gitmo detainees cannot get credit for their pretrial detention.

Earlier on Friday, defense lawyer Capt. Christopher Kannady gave his closing argument capping the sentencing hearing. Capt. Kannady emphasized what I certainly felt after Thursday’s proceedings, in which much of the evidence the prosecution presented in support of its case didn’t even mention Muhammed: “The fact of the matter,” he said, “is that very little of this evidence refers to or even mentions Noor.”

Revisiting Muhammed’s history at an Afghan training camp known as Khalden, first set up to fight the Soviets, Capt. Kannady argued that al-Qaeda wasn’t even around or in operation at the time that Muhammed joined the camp. Said Capt. Kannady, “You will never see evidence that Noor was a member of al-Qaeda just as you will never see evidence that Khalden was an al-Qaeda training camp.” According to the defense, the minimally educated Muhammed never had the interest or the ability to become anything more than a low-level functionary. Early into his time at Khalden, said Capt. Kannady, Muhammed asked to be removed from his weapons training responsibilities and instead took on duties such as collecting and delivering food. Muhammed’s travel documents had been taken away, and without skills or resources to move elsewhere, Muhammed remained at the camp until its closure—the undisputed cause of which was that Khalden camp’s leader did not agree with the ideologies of either the Taliban or al-Qaeda.

“The government has had almost a decade to go over all the evidence,” said Capt. Kannady, referring to the over 1,000 pieces of evidence taken from tortured Guantánamo detainee Abu Zubaydah’s safehouse, which tested negative for Muhammed’s fingerprints. “The government needs to box this evidence up and save it for Abu Zubaydah’s trial.” Capt. Kannady cautioned the jury, “You may not sentence [Muhammed] for the offenses of others,” reminding the members that Muhammed is “pleading guilty for supporting the people he supported for many years…[but] he’s not a small piece; he’s a sliver.”

Capt. Kannady also referred to Muhammed’s allegations of abuse while in U.S. custody at the prisons in Bagram, Afghanistan, and at Guantánamo. On Thursday, Muhammed’s unsworn statement was read aloud to the jury. According to his statement, Muhammed was particularly tormented when both Pakistani and American guards told him that he could be handed over to the Egyptians at any time to be tortured “and no one would ever know that I had disappeared. …The fear and uncertainty this caused me were overwhelming.”

In his statement, Muhammed also detailed has abuse at Bagram: being hooded and handcuffed with this hands above his head for 12 hours a day, short shackling in stress positions on his knees, extreme cold and heat, deafening music 24 hours a day, and the humiliation he experienced when female soldiers would touch him or watch him as he was undressed. He spoke about the terror he felt in his two years of solitary confinement at Camp 5 here at Guantánamo and about “a very dark interrogation room…that the detainees called ‘hell.'”

It is distressing that more than eight years after the first detainees were brought to Guantánamo and over a year after President Obama’s missed deadline to close Gitmo, the sentencing of a small fish like Muhammed, who likely gave up on getting a fair trial in the military commissions, is all we have to show for our compromised values. The government should, long ago, have brought anyone against whom it had evidence to support prosecution to our federal courts, where criminals are tried every day, and repatriated and resettled the rest.

(Cross-posted to Daily Kos.)

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