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The Ultimate Injustice at Guantánamo: The Death of Adnan Latif

Zachary Katznelson,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU National Security Project
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September 12, 2012

On Saturday, Guantánamo prisoner Adnan Latif was found unresponsive in his cell in Guantánamo’s Camp 5, the disciplinary wing of the camp, and pronounced dead. His identity was revealed only yesterday. Mr. Latif’s case, in life and now in death, represents the repercussions of our government’s failed Guantánamo policy and demonstrates the responsibility each branch has played in that failure.

Mr. Latif was seized by Pakistani authorities near the Afghan border in late 2001, handed over to the U.S. Government, then transferred to Guantánamo in January 2002. He maintained his innocence of any affiliation with terrorism, explaining that he had traveled to the region in August 2001 to receive medical treatment from a charity for a head injury he received in a car accident – treatment he was unable to afford at home. The U.S. government claimed Mr. Latif had been recruited in Yemen to attend a training camp in Afghanistan.

After reviewing his case, the Department of Defense in 2004 recommended that Mr. Latif be returned to his native Yemen. For reasons unknown, he remained incarcerated. Again, in 2007, the Defense Department determined Mr. Latif should be transferred from Guantánamo “subject to the process for making appropriate diplomatic arrangements for his departure.” But he remained incarcerated. In 2009, President Obama’s Guantánamo Bay Task Force, comprised of U.S. intelligence, law enforcement and military agencies, unanimously approved Mr. Latif once more for transfer. Then came the Christmas Day 2009 bombing attempt, apparently orchestrated by a group based in Yemen, and President Obama ordered a moratorium on transfers there. Mr. Latif remained incarcerated. Congress subsequently imposed such onerous conditions on transfers from Guantánamo to any country that moratorium or not, Mr. Latif had little chance to be set free – absent a court order. And so, years after the government first told Mr. Latif he could go home, he remained incarcerated.

Then in 2010, after an exhaustive review of all of the government’s evidence against Mr. Latif, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Kennedy ordered his release, finding the government had not shown Mr. Latif was part of Al Qaeda or an associated force. The ruling gave force to the Supreme Court’s historic 2008 decision that Guantánamo prisoners had the right to challenge their imprisonment in federal court, and the courts would subject the government’s case for detention to meaningful review.

Judge Kennedy found that the Obama administration’s case for Mr. Latif’s continued incarceration turned on one raw hearsay intelligence report, unvetted by expert government analysts. Not a single eyewitness placed Mr. Latif at any training camp, guesthouse or battlefield in Afghanistan. Mr. Latif’s lawyers demonstrated that the intelligence report was riddled with errors and inconsistencies. But President Obama’s Justice Department chose to appeal Judge Kennedy’s decision. In a profoundly flawed ruling, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, holding that the government’s single raw intelligence report should be presumed correct, despite its myriad flaws. Two judges of a three-judge panel overturned long-standing judicial principles and substituted their own judgment for the trial court’s seasoned view of the evidence. In the words of the dissenting justice: “Not content with moving the goal posts, the court calls the game in the government’s favor.”

This past June, the Supreme Court refused to hear Mr. Latif’s appeal of the D.C. Circuit’s decision. Without comment, Supreme Court turned its back on Mr. Latif and others like him, letting stand the appellate court’s now overly deferential standard for courts to test the government’s evidence.

During his time in Guantánamo, Mr. Latif repeatedly went on hunger strike to peacefully protest his brutal treatment and imprisonment without charge or trial. When the mental pain became too much, his lawyers said, he tried to take his own life, more than once slitting his wrists, other times eating shards of metal and glass.

Each time Mr. Latif was cleared to go home by the executive branch – and a single time by a court – a military officer would have come to his cell to tell him he was leaving Guantánamo. Imagine hearing that repeated possibility of freedom, only for hopes to be dashed every single time. Now Adnan Latif is dead.

Dozens of other men still in Guantánamo have received similar repeated news, only to find it changed nothing in their daily lives and they remained in prison. How many of those other men who have never even been charged with a crime will our government allow to languish until death?

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