Last spring, the remains of 10 missing Afghan villagers were dug up outside a U.S. Special Forces base – was it a war crime or just another episode in a very dirty war?
You who judge me
I hope you burn alive and become dust
I hope you are destroyed and disappear from this universe
Your days and nights filled with sorrow and pain
Tear open my chest and see what is inside
Only then can you understand
Reading Taliban Love Poems in an Afghan Prison
We twisted up into the sky beneath a blur of rotors—mum in the numb motor din. The shadow of our helicopter flit below, yawing in the undulations of the sorrel earth, hurtling peaks, and hurling into dark valleys.
My military escort Lieutenant Cartagena and I took off from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city built 900 years ago in desolation—the site revealed in a prophetic dream. From the scattered earthen villages that passed beneath our craft to the army outpost we sought, every settlement seemed tinged with that same fantastic quality—accidents of life in a dead land.
We reunited with our shadow on the airstrip of a base in Baghlan province that I am not permitted to name. I jumped onto the tarmac, squinting through the heat blast. We had come to witness the successful passage of a NATO prison and military base into Afghan hands.
The American soldiers of Blackfoot Troop bounded out to meet us. They were tall and strong, engendering visions of Thanksgiving dinners in places like Battle Creek, Michigan, and Louisville, Kentucky. There was Lieutenant King, Sergeant Morgan, and their corpsman Specialist Singer. They welcomed us by asking our blood types—something practical and still somehow strangely intimate. They hustled us away, out of sight of the mountains, through the gauntlet of concrete T-walls and gravel-filled HESCO barriers that formed the outpost.
Omar Khadr: War Criminal, Child Soldier… or Neither?
Omar Khadr made his first appearance in a Canadian court on Monday. After an 11-year journey from Afghanistan to Guantánamo Bay to Canada’s Millhaven Institution, the Toronto-born man is now in Edmonton’s federal prison. He was 15 when he was captured and tortured at Bagram. He turned 27 last Thursday.
If you’re not familiar with the case it goes loosely as follows: When the Americans first arrested Omar in Afghanistan, he was accused of throwing a grenade that killed an American solider. For eight years he maintained his innocence, until he signed a plea deal in 2010 that got him out of Guantánamo. Omar was then convicted of five counts of war crimes for his actions, which were not recognized as such anywhere else in the world including Canada.
Omar’s case is complex. While the American solider he is accused of killing certainly died from a grenade, there is no evidence showing that Omar ever threw one. And while Omar confessed to these crimes, it was after eight years of torture—and given his option to either insist upon his innocence and stay in Gitmo or confess to the crimes and see a judge in Canada, the context of his confession was problematic at best.
The Canadian Supreme Court has even ruled that that Omar’s right were violated, but left the remedy up to the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who of course declined to provide any solution.
Harper himself has been making strong statements about the trial in an apparent attempt to influence the court proceedings—he’s said that “It is very important that we continue to vigorously defend against any attempts, in court, to lessen his punishment for these heinous acts.”
Omar’s counsel, Dennis Edney, argued that he should be transferred to a provincial prisonfrom a federal institution due to his age when the alleged crimes took place. In a confusing instance of legal doublespeak, the Crown’s prosecutors are arguing that Omar has not really been sentenced to eight years, but rather to five eight-year sentences served at the same time. Associate Chief Justice J.D. Rook has reserved judgment to a currently undetermined future date.
Heather Marsh, a journalist who has followed Omar’s case closely, was in court on Monday and wrote about it for us.
The media swarming Khadr’s lawyer outside of Monday’s hearing. Photo by the author
The court was filled with what seemed to be Omar’s supporters. Many were wearing orange or orange ribbons and I spoke to several of them. There was a high schooler who said she was done with classes for the day, students from several different universities skipping class even though they had exams next week, and people of all ages and ethnic groups. After the media were moved to the jury box and people were encouraged to squeeze together, 120 people were in the courtroom and a live feed was set up for those who had to watch from the overflow room.
It Don’t Gitmo Better than This – Molly Crabapple’s Account of Her Journey to the Dark Heart of Guantanamo Bay
A T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan IT DON’T GITMO BETTER THAN THIS is perhaps the definitive physical manifestation of globalization. Sewn in Honduras and sold by Jamaican contractors on land rented from Cuba, the shirt celebrates an American prison holding Muslims who’ve been declared enemies in the war on terror. It’s a popular item in the Gitmo gift shop (yes, Gitmo has a gift shop), displayed next to the stuffed banana rats and shot glasses engraved with GUANTÁNAMO BAY: DIVE IN.
Built in 1898, the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base looks like a US suburb. There’s a McDonald’s, a Subway, and even a Christmas parade. On Halloween, military members dressed as zombies complete a 5K run. Winners of the Mr. and Ms. Gitmo Figure and Fitness Competition arch their backs on the cover of the Wire,the base’s in-house magazine. The Team Gitmo outdoor movie theater screens all the big blockbusters (when I visited it was World War Z), and in the evenings, visitors can eat jerk chicken next to swaying banyan trees, get drunk at O’Kelly’s (“the only Irish pub on Communist soil”), or sing karaoke.
But since the Joint Task Force (JTF) arrived in 2002, Guantánamo Bay has been home to the world’s most notorious prison.
Gitmo’s prison camps were built, in principle, to hold and interrogate captives outside the reach of US law. Nearly 800 Muslim men have been imprisoned since it opened, and the vast majority of them have never been charged with any crime. Since he was inaugurated in 2008, President Obama has twice promised to close Gitmo, but 166 men still languish in indefinite detention. It is a place where information is contraband, force-feeding is considered humane care, staples are weapons, and the law is rewritten wantonly.
Nabil Hadjarab arrived at Gitmo 11 years ago, in an orange jumpsuit and a diaper, his head covered by a hood, eyes blinded by blackout goggles, mouth gagged, and with headphones blaring white noise into his ears.
A Lawyer Fighting for Guantanamo’s Hunger Strikers
Clive Stafford Smith spent years working as a death-row lawyer in the South before becoming the legal director of the UK branch of Reprieve. Reprieve is a non-profit organization that has long campaigned for the rights of death-row prisoners. Since 2002 Reprieve has helped release prisoners from Guantanamo Bay—a campaign led by Stafford Smith himself.
Not only has Stafford Smith seen first hand the inside of the prison, he’s also maintained relationships with former detainees and built relationships with those currently on hunger strike. The hunger strike in Guantanamo began on February 11, 2013, and it’s gotten to a stage where some prisoners are being force fed, arguably in violation of their human rights.
We discuss Guantanamo and the future of drone warfare—which Reprieve condemns as “the death penalty without trial.”
(Source: Vice Magazine)
Yemen Wants Their Guantanamo Detainees Back
In some regards, the Yemeni government’s recent demand for the repatriation of Yemeni detainees who have been languishing in Guantanamo Bay for nearly a decade seemed to come out of left field, as did the prison hunger strikes that prompted it. President Obama’s 2008-election-campaign promises to close the notorious prison remain unfulfilled. According to recent polls, roughly 70 percent of Americans back the president’s decision to ignore his pledge and keep the prison open; polls taken at the start of his 2012 term put support for Guantanamo’s closure at a tepid 53 percent.
It’s a mistake, however, to say that the detainees have completely disappeared from most Yemenis’ minds. Of the 166 detainees who remain held without charge in Guantanamo Bay, 91 are Yemeni. It’s not quite as popular an issue as the drone strikes, but Yemenis still bring up Guantanamo on a nearly weekly basis. Many see the legal limbo of their fellow countrymen as a kind of tragicomic joke.
Recently in Sanaa, dozens of family members of Guantanamo detainees gathered at the American embassy to protest their internment.
“We demand that the American government release all detainees,” one father said, holding up a poster of his son. “The Yemeni government should do everything in its power to pressure them. Does Obama think that there’s a Yemeni exception when it comes to human rights?”
Strange Things Are Afoot at Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s Trial
If the trial had happened in federal court in New York City, like the Obama administration originally wanted, it’s unlikely that the surreal shenanigans of justice that went down this week at the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s pre-trial hearings in Guantanamo Bay would have gone so unnoticed. After all, it’s the trial of the century, except it’s being held in a secretive offshore facility and administered with rules of evidence and procedure that are still being figured out.
To refresh your memory, KSM is the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and a host of other Qaeda initiatives. He was captured by CIA and Pakistani intelligence forces in 2002 and was shuttled between CIA black sites until he took up permanent residence at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba in 2006.
It’s there that a military commission, a kind of ad hoc court-martial-like trial, is being held for KSM and four of his top-level al Qaeda associates. These proceedings are the War on Terror’s first forays into“bringing these terrorists to justice,” as President Bush said in a speech to a joint session of Congress in the weeks after the attacks in 2001.
But things got weird on Monday, during a pre-trial hearing. Some of the evidence that will be used against the five defendants in the case was either obtained through enhanced interrogation techniques or is classified information that cannot be released to the public. So the courtroom at Gitmo, which was specially built for these proceedings, is equipped with a “censorship button” that an assigned security officer of the court presses at the behest of the judge, Army Colonel and retired judge James Pohl, when classified information is brought before the court. After that button is pressed, the audio of the proceedings cuts out, and a red light illuminates on the judge’s bench, letting members of the media, who are already listening in on a 40-second delay, and trial counsel know that this information is being blocked.
On Monday, it became entirely unclear who is in charge of pressing that button and by extension, who or what entity is really running this trial or monitoring the proceedings externally. According to unofficial court transcripts obtained through the Office of Military Commission’s website, the censorship button was pressed during an exchange between the judge and defense counsel.
After the red light went off, Judgle Pohl said, “Trial counsel, note for the record that the 40-second delay was initiated, not by me. I’m curious as to why.” He continued, “If some external body is turning the commission off under their own view what ought to be… then we are going to have a little meeting.”
BROKEN HEARTS, LOST MINDS, AND MISSING LIMBS - IN AFGHANISTAN, THE FRONTLINE IS EVERYWHERE
Above: Amputees take a break from exercise at the International Committee of the Red Cross Orthopedic Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 2012.
We stand by the bed of Mohamad Doad in the paraplegic ward of Kabul’s International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Orthopedic Center.
Aziz Ahmad, my Afghan colleague, translates Mohamad’s grievances.
“He says he hates American soldiers,” Aziz tells me.
“Why does he hate the US?” I ask. “He’s a policeman. The US trained him to fight the Taliban.”
“He says he saw three families killed by coalition forces. If he gets better, he says he will kill American forces himself.”
“But he’s willing to speak with me?”
“So he can remember your face, he says, and kill you when he is well.”
Eleven-year-old Mariam, who lost a leg after stepping on a landmine, rests after physical therapy.
Mohamad, who is 23 but looks no older than 14, was shot by the Taliban last spring. Across the hall is an examination and exercise room where recent amputees learn to operate their new prosthetic limbs. Most of these patients have lost a hand or leg to land mines or rocket-propelled grenades—some of them as long ago as the 1979 Russian invasion, others in the more recent fighting between American troops and the Taliban.
I wedge my pen between the pages of my notepad and consider Mohamad. I am an American reporter. Aziz and I have worked together in Afghanistan since 2004. On this trip, I am reporting on the consequences of more than 30 years of war by spending time with a handful of its victims.
I arrived in early July and stayed through August. I had hoped to come earlier, but Aziz warned me in an email that, at the time, I would not be safe. In January, just six months before my arrival, a video surfaced showing US Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. A month later, US troops burned dozens of copies of the Koran, sparking days of deadly riots across the country and attacks on American forces. Then, in March, a US soldier was charged with shooting to death 16 civilians after entering their homes in Kandahar province. US officials apologized for the incident, but their remorse failed to quell protests and attacks that killed at least 30 people, including six US soldiers. And in the weeks before I arrived, the Pentagon reported increasing numbers of American-trained Afghan police recruits turning their guns on US soldiers.
“This is not a good time for you to visit,” Aziz had said when he picked me up at Kabul International Airport. “Everyone is very angry with America.”