Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Thursday, December 21, 2006

  Detainee # 902: Bisher al-Rawi

Worldwide so many have been kidnapped for no good reason and dragged off to gulags in George Bush's "war on terror" that it's easy, perhaps even reassuring, to forget that each is an individual, each lost his day of freedom in a sudden catastrophe, each was swept up and dumped into an indistinct mass of human misery at the outer edges of civilization. This is the story of one such man, Bisher al-Rawi.

The background and history to his detention at Guantanamo is so complex that it has been daunting even to begin writing about his circumstances. But the essential points are fairly easy to explain.

The U.S. has lodged only vague and absurd accusations against Bisher, based upon exceedingly thin evidence. It strained to portray seemingly innocent statements and acts in a sinister light. It ignored the force of Bisher's counter-arguments. It refused to investigate the exculpatory evidence he presented. And the U.S. has deflected a request from Britain for his return.

The process by which he has been judged an "enemy combatant" is outlandish.

Several weeks ago I posted America's slaves, the first part of a commentary on Bush's network of gulags. Bisher's American lawyer, George Brent Mickum, read the post and contacted me about his client. He forwarded a good many documents, which I've poured over. These include, among other things, official documentation from Guantanamo and copies of Bisher's hand-written notes as he tried to prepare his defense (without meaningful access to legal counsel).

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usIn all this documentation, everything I have seen tends to support and confirm an account of Bisher's life in London, subsequent kidnapping in Gambia, and interrogation and abuse at the hands of Americans, which Brent Mickum published on March 16, 2006 in the Independent. In this post I don't plan to narrate those events, so I won't bother to repeat what Mickum has stated so clearly. There is also a brief, excellent overview of the known facts at Wikipedia. It has links to several documents I will discuss in this and future posts (their authenticity is not in dispute).

The issue of Bisher's detention now has an added urgency because his mental health has begun to deteriorate. From the Financial Times:

A UK resident held at Guantánamo in Cuba may be losing his mind in solitary confinement even as the British government is negotiating his release, according to lawyers and British members of parliament....

One lawyer, Zachary Katznelson, last saw Mr Rawi five weeks ago. He said he was kept in his cell 22 hours a day with lights on continually. "I am gravely concerned about his mental condition," he told the FT.

"In my first visit, Bisher verged on hysteria at times. His laughter was too strong, too loud and long - almost manic. The second visit, Bisher had a very hard time focusing on any one topic. He repeatedly went off on tangents, some relevant, some not."

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The negotiations for his release have been going on for more than half a year, and behind them lies a tangled tale of intrigue. There's no good reason why the delays should continue one day longer, however. For two years pressure has been building in Britain for Bisher's release. It's time to add some pressure in the US.

After many rebuffs and delays, in March 2006 then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw finally agreed to ask the U.S. to release Bisher al-Rawi back to Britain. Bisher's family and lawyers had long urged the British government to intervene because, as he stated at his military tribunal, he had been working undercover for MI5 before his kidnapping in Gambia. Many of the allegations made against Bisher at Guantanamo stemmed from this work in London with MI5, as the British government sought to keep track of a Muslim cleric (Abu Qatada) whom Bisher knew.

In November 2002, a week or two after the British arrested Qatada and took him into permanent custody (without charging him, astonishingly enough), Bisher took a trip to Gambia where he was arrested and handed over to the CIA—with knowledge and presumably the complicity of MI5.

Therefore Bisher's supporters in Britain have argued that MI5 used and discarded him like a pawn, and though he is a long-time resident rather than a citizen of Britain, they maintained that the British government ought to seek his release.

However the British government tried to wash its hands of Bisher al-Rawi, until public pressure became too great to ignore. Part of the pressure, you'll note, arose through a skilful media campaign. There have been a good many newspaper articles about his case.

MI5 wanted to avoid any comment whatever on a connection to Bisher. When he appeared before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Gitmo in 2004, Bisher gave lengthy testimony about his work for MI5 and he asked the Tribunal to call the MI5 agents he worked with in order that they could testify to these facts. Although these same agents had actually shown up in Gitmo to interrogate him, the Tribunal refused to require their testimony and claimed it could not possibly identify them. The head of the Tribunal did request comment from MI5, but the agency refused to confirm or deny the facts that Bisher had testified to, and would not comment on any connection it had to him. That is a measure of how embarrassing his kidnapping and detention has become.

The Blair government likewise did not much like being put on the spot, even though Attorney General Goldsmith has called for the closure of Gitmo and declared the military tribunals to be unacceptable. For the case of Bisher al-Rawi exposed the complicity of Tony Blair in feeding people into George Bush's spiderweb. Here is an excellent report from the WaPo in April:

The British Foreign Office released a statement last week denying complicity by the British government: "The United Kingdom did not request the detention of the claimants in the Gambia and did not play any role in their transfer to Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay."

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said she could not answer questions because of a pending lawsuit seeking to force the British government to intercede on the men's behalf. On March 22, the government said it would ask for Rawi's release; its previous position was that it could not intercede for a non-British citizen.

The case has caused a political uproar in Britain. Critics say the documents show the British government has helped place people in Guantanamo, despite its claims that the prison is strictly a U.S. operation.

A parliamentary committee is investigating. "The key issue that certainly concerns me is whether our government, the British government, was involved in something that I would consider to be unlawful," said Andrew Tyrie, the committee chairman. "I don't want to live in a country that could be complicit in such abuses."

When Jack Straw finally gave into pressure, therefore, it was only very grudgingly. The British Treasury Solicitors' letter to Bisher's British lawyer confirming the decision to ask for his release, dated March 22, 2006, is awash in evasion. It states that Bisher's claims about working for MI5 are "inaccurate in very many respects" (unspecified), but never the less the government would ask the U.S. for his release for other reasons (unspecified) "on the basis of shared UK/US counter-terrorism objectives"—even though, it points out, the government is not legally obliged to ask for his release.

However, the Foreign Secretary has investigated these matters and has concluded that there is a basis on which it would be possible to approach the US Government on Mr Al Rawi's behalf with some reasonable prospect of success, and without causing significant counterproductive effects....

[These matters] would offer a reasonable prospect in Mr Al Rawi's case of affording grounds which might be acceptable to the US authorities to encourage them to allow his release.

The almost total lack of empathy in this letter is stunning, as of course is its cynicism. The attempt to distance the government from any connection to Bisher al-Rawi is crude and unconvincing, by my reading of the document (it does not appear to be available on line). The tone of the letter reveals a lot about the attitude of the British government regarding its responsibilities to Bisher al-Rawi. "Indifference" is the term I'm searching for, I think.

In April, Straw submitted a formal request to the US for Bisher's return, as the Guardian reported.

The letter from Mr Straw represents a major U-turn for the British government, which had refused to help Mr Rawi, an Iraqi citizen who has been resident in the UK for 17 years.

Mr Rawi took the British government to court last month, claiming he had been helping MI5 to keep track of Abu Qatada, who western intelligence agencies claim provides spiritual support to al-Qaida. Government officials did not deny that Mr Straw's change of heart was to do with Mr Rawi's links with MI5. It is also alleged that British security services passed false information to the US which led to the arrest of Mr Rawi and other men he was travelling with when they arrived in Gambia in 2002....

Mr Rawi's lawyer in the US, Brent Mickum, said: "I see this as a positive development. I'm only left to ask the question what took so long. Did they need the judicial challenge to do the right thing?"

However the U.S. made a counter-offer to the British request for reasons that are far from clear. The administration certainly does not care to admit that any of these men have been held for years with little cause. The return of residents to Britain is a particularly touchy subject for the Bush administration because they would be in contact immediately with journalists who are both willing and able to expose to public scrutiny the conditions the detainees had to endure at Guantanamo.

The US has offered to return nine British residents being detained at Guantanamo Bay, provided they are kept under 24-hour surveillance if set free in the UK, it was reported today.

The offer was made in June this year during secret talks in Washington, but was refused by the Government on the grounds that as the men were foreign nationals, they have no legal right to return.

Although the men are accused of terrorist involvement, British officials say that there is not enough evidence to justify the level of surveillance demanded by the US and that the strict conditions stipulated are unworkable and unnecessary, according to documents obtained by The Guardian.

"They do not pose a sufficient threat," the head of counter-terrorism at the Home Office is quoted as saying by the newspaper.

As the Guardian stated:

The possible security arrangements appear to have caused months of wrangling, but senior UK sources have told the Guardian the government is interested in accepting only one man - Bisher al-Rawi - who is now known to have helped MI5 keep watch on Abu Qatada, the London-based Muslim cleric and al-Qaida suspect who was subsequently arrested.

At least nine former British residents have been detained without trial at Guantánamo for more than four years after being taken prisoner in the so-called war on terror. Their lawyers say some have suffered appalling mistreatment.

With the US government anxious to scale down and eventually close its prison at the Cuban base, however, the US state department is putting pressure on the British government to allow some to return. Foreign Office officials have denied that any talks have taken place....

As well as arguing that none of the former residents has a legal right to return to the UK, British officials are concerned that human rights legislation would forbid the deportation of any who are permitted to return. However, the supreme court ruling means that it may be impossible for the US to return them to the countries of their birth if there is a risk of them facing persecution. "The result is that the arguments are going around and around like a washing machine cycle," said one official familiar with the talks.

I won't pretend to understand the politics being played by the UK or US governments. Here is the Financial Times again:

Mr Mickum said US authorities had placed a "tonne of conditions on his release" that the UK could not accept. But he also accused the British government of not doing enough to secure his release following a commitment it made last March to do so.

What is clear about these negotiations is in any case more fundamental: Both countries are continuing to treat this man as a pawn in their game-of-terror, rather than a human being with human rights.

To give but one example, which I think speaks volumes about the crass manipulation of Mr. al-Rawi. I have a U.S. document from Gitmo, dated August 22, 2006. It is the summary of evidence for a pending administrative review board in Bisher al-Rawi's case, and my copy has his scribbled notes in the margin. It lists several categories of reasons why Bisher should be kept in detention: (a) commitment [to the cause of al Qaida]; (b) connections/associations; and (c) other relevant data.

Under (c), there is this remarkable statement.

"The detainee considered Saddam Hussein an enemy of the Iraqi people. The detainee also considered all enemies of Iraq as his enemies too. The detainee said that, theoretically, the United States would fall into the latter category."

Bisher's scribbled comment asks, reasonably:

"What does Saddam got to do with me and Gitmo. The statement is true, but what relevance does it have here except causing me problems in the outside world. This is part of a conversation in Gambia before the invasion of Iraq, and I was making a clear statement that I was an Iraqi and not ashamed of it."

Here we have one example, of many I could point to, where interrogators clearly are twisting every statement of personal opinion, every admission of a point of view (which Bisher seems to be very free and candid with, in my judgment), into some kind of basis for suspicion. I'm sure that the irony is not lost on you, the reader, that in this case it is Bisher's condemnation of the tyrant Saddam Hussein, George Bush's bete noir, which is being used as a weapon against him.

The simple truth seems to be that Bisher al-Rawi was a pawn when MI5 was using him in London, and to this day he remains a pawn on the international stage.

It's past time that should stop. I believe it's time for the US government to hear that its own citizens are fed up with detainees being mistreated. There's no excuse to pretend that it is not our concern that our own government treats detainees as something less than human. We should not leave it entirely up the detainees' lawyers to make the public case for treating them Bisher's lawyer, George Mickum, has done rather eloquently:

In these cases, it is necessary to grow calluses on one's heart to prevent bleeding to death. The legal expertise of lawyers like me is probably less important than the willingness to trumpet wrongdoing in the hope of finding a receptive ear.

That's what I'm doing.

Crossposted at Unbossed


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