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The Forgotten Detainees Of 9/11 – OpEd

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It has been almost 19 years since the USA, joined by its western allies (esp. the UK, Canada and Australia), launched the so-called global war on terror (GWOT) invading first Afghanistan, soon after 9/11 for Taliban government’s sheltering of Al-Qa’ida and its leader OBL, and then Iraq (in 2003) under the false pretext of destroying the weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist there. Under an orgy of unfathomed bigotry and heavy bombardment, never to be seen before, both the regimes were toppled and friendly regimes put by the invaders. 

The Afghan invasion was code named by the US as Operation Enduring Freedom (2001–14). The Iraqi invasion was codenamed “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” These were rather odd code names for operations whose goals were nothing more than regime changes and wanton massacre and destruction. The lives of millions of those bombed, murdered, maimed and ruined forever simply did not matter to the neo-crusading warlords – the Bush-Blair cabal.

Every Muslim living in the West became a suspect, by default. Many were lynched. Thousands were put in the prisons and tortured on mere suspicion of being part of a sleeper cell, and many were given long sentences, violating all the well-established principles or notions of justice in this so-called secular world. 

The Guantanamo (Gitmo) camp was established by US President George W. Bush’s administration in 2002. At the time of its establishment in January 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the detention camp was established to detain extraordinarily dangerous people, to interrogate detainees in an optimal setting, and to prosecute detainees for war crimes.

In what can only be described as a show of Pharaohnic despotism and Hamanic arrogance, the Bush Jr. administration asserted that detainees were not entitled to any of the protections of the Geneva Conventions, while also claiming it was treating “all detainees consistently with the principles of the Geneva Convention.” However, the U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 2004 have determined otherwise. In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case, the Supreme Court decided on 29 June 2006 that detainees were entitled to the minimal protections listed under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Following this, on 7 July 2006, the Department of Defense (DoD) issued an internal memo stating that detainees would, in the future, be entitled to protection under Common Article 3.

Since January 2002, 779 men have been brought to Guantanamo camp of which the Afghans were the largest group (29 percent), followed by Saudi Arabians (17 percent), Yemenis (15 percent), Pakistanis (9 percent), and Algerians (3 percent). Overall, 50 nationalities were present at Guantanamo. 

Nearly 200 were released by mid-2004. In July 2005, 242 detainees were moved out of Guantanamo, including 173 who were released without charge. Sixty-nine prisoners were transferred to the custody of governments of other countries. 

Although the Bush Jr. administration said most of the men had been captured fighting in Afghanistan, a 2006 report prepared by the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University Law School reviewed DoD data for the remaining 517 men in 2005 and “established that over 80% of the prisoners were captured not by Americans on the battlefield but by Pakistanis and Afghans, often in exchange for bounty payments.” The U.S. widely distributed leaflets in the region and offered $5,000 per prisoner. One example is Adel Noori, a Uyghur Muslim and dissident who had been sold to the US by Pakistani bounty hunters.

Current and former detainees have reported abuse and torture, which the Bush Jr. administration denied. In a 2005 Amnesty International report, the facility was appropriately called the “Gulag of our times.” In 2006, the United Nations unsuccessfully demanded that Gitmo detention camp be closed. On 13 January 2009, Susan J. Crawford, appointed by Bush Jr. to review DoD practices used at Gitmo and oversee the military trials, became the first government official to concede that torture occurred at Guantanamo Bay on one detainee (Mohammed al-Qahtani), saying “We tortured Qahtani.” 

As we know better, Qahtani was not the only one who was tortured. All the detainees were tortured while the degree of their torture varied. Some were repeatedly waterboarded until they almost collapsed or died from such torture. 

Initially, the Bush Jr. administration tried to hide as much information about the detainees as was possible. Pressed by the international press and human rights groups, in September 2006, President Bush announced that 14 “high-value detainees” were to be transferred to military custody of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp from civilian custody by the CIA. He admitted that these suspects had been held in CIA secret prisons overseas, known as black sites. None of the 14 top figures transferred to Guantánamo from CIA custody had been charged with any war crime. In 2011, human rights groups and journalists found that some of these prisoners had been taken to other locations, including in Europe, and interrogated under torture in the U.S. extraordinary rendition program before arriving at Guantanamo.

In 2010, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a former aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell, stated in an affidavit that top U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, had known that the majority of the detainees initially sent to Guantánamo were innocent, but that the detainees had been kept there for reasons of political expedience. Wilkerson’s statement was submitted in connection with a lawsuit filed in federal district court by former detainee Adel Hassan Hamad against the United States government and several individual officials. This supported numerous claims made by former detainees like Moazzam Begg, a British citizen who had been held for three years in detention camps in Afghanistan and Guantanamo as an enemy combatant, under the claim that he was an al-Qaeda member, who recruited for, and provided money for, al-Qaeda training camps, and himself trained there to fight US or allied troops.

Bush’s successor, President Barack Obama, promised that he would close Gitmo, but met strong bipartisan opposition from the US Congress, which passed laws to prohibit detainees from Guantanamo being imprisoned in the U.S. During Obama’s administration, the number of inmates was reduced from about 245 to 41; most former detainees were freed and transferred to other countries. 

In January 2018, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep the detention camp open indefinitely. He has also considered bringing back waterboarding or “worse”. In May 2018, the first prisoner was transferred during Trump’s term; this reduced the number of inmates to 40. 

James Mitchell, the architect of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) post-9/11 interrogation program, testified in January 22, 2020 at a pretrial hearing at the Gitmo camp in the case against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM), the allegedly confessed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that that the waterboarding technique he employed was so gruesome that people — including CIA officials — cried when they witnessed it. KSM and four other defendants are charged with nearly 3,000 murders. Mitchell and another psychologist, John “Bruce” Jessen, designed, oversaw and frequently participated in what the CIA termed enhanced interrogation techniques. Waterboarding, a simulated drowning, was one of them.

To employ the method, a prisoner would be strapped to a board placed on a modified gurney, tipped so that his head was near the ground. Under President George W. Bush, the Justice Department approved and issued guidelines for how to execute the method. With guards steadying the gurney, Jessen would pour water onto a cloth Mitchell held over the prisoner’s mouth and nose. The water pour could last up to 20 seconds, then be paused, then another 20 seconds, paused, then 40 seconds. The subject feels as though he is drowning. Typically, the subject spasms, expels water and snot, , sometimes vomit, squirms and flops on the gurney as if having a seizure. The practice is nearly universally condemned as torture. 

The first person to be subjected to the method was Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda functionary and the first so-called high-value detainee captured after 9/11. He was waterboarded 83 times over a handful of sessions in August 2002, according to an investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. KSM was waterboarded 183 times. It was the height of crime perpetrated by the self-styled judge, jury and executioner in our time! Simply shocking!

Joseph Margulies, a law professor at Cornell University who once represented Abu Zubaydah, said the brutal methods helped numb America to wrongdoing (Los Angeles Times, January 22, 2020). “James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen conceived, designed and executed the first officially recognized torture program in U.S. history,” Margulies said in an email. “It is one thing that they are utterly unapologetic; that is a commentary on us. A wrong that escapes public condemnation is no wrong at all. Worse, it invites not simply repetition, but expansion. Yesterday, we tortured men in cages because we thought they had done something wrong; today, we torture children at the border knowing they have done no wrong at all.” He added: “Do not be seduced by linguistic light-footedness and ask whether this really is torture. I refuse to play that game. Instead, I encourage people to ask themselves this: Would you recoil in horror if you saw the same things done to a dog? If you saw a dog strapped to a board and nearly drowned, again and again, would it make you cringe and wince? Would you turn away and demand that it stop? If so, then it is torture, and we should call it what it is.”

The Center for Policy and Research’s 2006 report, based on DoD released data, found that most detainees were low-level offenders who were not affiliated with organizations on U.S. terrorist lists. 

Eight men have died in the prison camp; DoD has said that six were suicides. DoD reported three men, two Saudis and a Yemeni, had committed suicide on 10 June 2006. Suicide is haram (forbidden) in Islam. So, the DoD report is suspicious. Even if it is true, it would mean that torture inflicted on them was so inhuman that they felt ending their lives was a better alternative.  Government accounts, including an NCIS report released with redactions in August 2008, have been questioned by the press, the detainees’ families, the Saudi government, former detainees, and human rights groups. The detainees have also went on hunger strike multiple times, complaining about the inhuman condition in the camp.

An estimated 17 to 22 minors under the age of 18 were detained at Guantánamo Bay, which is in violation of international law. 

But who can punish a nuclear brahmin that has the veto power? Will our generation be ever able to bring the white-collar criminals like Bush and Blair to the International Court of Justice for their illegal war and monumental crimes against humanity?

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Far less known is the role of US’s neighbor to the north in matters relating to the so-called global war on terror (GWOT). To put it mildly, it was troubling. The day after the 9/11 attacks, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien telephoned United States president George W. Bush to pledge “Canada’s complete support” for the Americans. The exact nature of this commitment became clear in October of 2001: Canada would take part in a US-led multinational campaign to invade Afghanistan, capture members of al-Qa’ida, dismantle their training camps and overthrow the Taliban government. In one such operation, during a firefight with al-Qa’ida members, US troops wounded and captured 15-year-old Omar Khadr, who was born in Canada.

Omar Khadr was the only minor since the Second World War to be convicted of purported war crimes. He was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and Canada for almost 13 years. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Khadr’s detainment violated “the principles of fundamental justice” and “the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of youth suspects.” Despite repeated attempts by the Canadian government to keep him in prison, Khadr was released on bail in May 2015. In July 2017, he received $10.5 million in compensation from the government for Canada’s role in violating his constitutional rights (see Omar Khadr Case). In March 2019, an Alberta judge declared that Khadr had completed his war crimes sentence, making him a free man. (“Canada and the War in Afghanistan” by Stephen Azzi and Richard Foot, The Canadian Encyclopedia, last updated  July 15, 2019)

Maher Arar, a telecommunications engineer with dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship who has resided in Canada since 1987, was detained during a layover at John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York in September 2002 on his way home to Canada from a family vacation in Tunis. He was held without charges in solitary confinement in the United States for nearly two weeks, questioned, and denied meaningful access to a lawyer. The US government suspected him of being a member of Al Qa’ida and deported him, not to Canada, his current home and the passport on which he was travelling, but to Syria. He was detained in Syria for almost a year, during which time he was tortured, according to the findings of a commission of inquiry ordered by the Canadian government, until his release to Canada. The Syrian government later stated that Arar was “completely innocent.” A Canadian commission publicly cleared Arar of any links to terrorism, and the government of Canada later settled out of court with Arar. He received C$10.5 million and Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to Arar for Canada’s role in his “terrible ordeal.” The Canadian intelligence, which was complicit in causing this ordeal, denied all along for years but ultimately admitted during the official inquiry under Justice Dennis O’Connor. 

At home, the Canadian government was equally gung-ho about detaining anyone suspected of ties with or sympathetic to the Taliban or al-Qa’ida. Consider the case of Mohammad Momin Khawaja, a computer software specialist who was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the UK terrorism case. He was acquitted by the Canadian trial judge Rutherford of involvement in “terrorism” in the UK. Subsequently, however, the Government made up five other criminal charges to try Khawaja in a public court of law in Canada. He was accused of sending 859 dollars to Displaced Afghan Women and Children Fund for medicine, foods and clothing; making of a cell phone jammer (device), sending emails to his girlfriend, taking part in a one-day remote camp at Afghan-Pakistan (FATA) tribal area and travelling to London to meet few British youngsters who were later convicted of terrorism. The trial judge sentenced him to 10.5 years, but the Supreme Court of Canada (Court of Appeal) increased the sentence to Life and 24 years (to be served concurrently) with a parole ineligibility at 10 years instead of 5 years. It is also worth noting here that Momin had spent five years in detention prior to the trial but he was not given the credit of the time served, again in violation of the established practices.

One cannot but question the wisdom behind such a harsh sentence to a young man who has not committed any crime against Canada. He was never engaged in any violent activity nor posed any threat against anybody throughout his life. Although death penalty is legally abolished in Canada, how this life sentence is any better? He has already served 16 years in prison without a bail. 

As we have noticed with documented evidences of abuses and tortures in Gitmo, sadly, the Canadian prisons are not safe either. In January 2012, while a prisoner at a high security federal jail in Canada, Momin Khawaja  was attacked by another inmate with boiling water and major parts of his body were burnt. As if such crimes against Muslims detainees are kosher, no official investigation was ever conducted. He was kept in a solitary confinement continuously for three years in violation of international law and even Canadian humanitarian practices. 

When criminals commit crimes they are expected to serve their time behind the bars for crimes that they actually committed. And the sentences ought to be fair and congruent and not lopsided. The notion of innocence until proven guilty has been the bedrock of justice in a civilized society. 

When a non-white criminal is given a life or long sentence for selling a few grams of cocaine while a white-collar Wall Street scion is given a much lighter sentence for misappropriating billions of dollars of lifesavings of people I fail to see justice in such sentencing. Are we not seeing a similar problem with the Canadian judges when they issued life sentence to Momin Khawaja?  

When Justice Louis LeBel of the Supreme Court of Canada (June 12, 2012, Appeal Hearing Judges) asked the Prosecution: “Why should Mohammad Momin Khawaja be sentenced to a Life and 24 years when he was not charged with the crime nor he committed it?”  – the prosecution asserted that “terrorism” was an international problem and they wanted to send a message to other offenders. 

Is that how the Canadian government wants to send ‘messages’ to would-be offenders? What type of justice is that? Are we living in the 19th century or the 21st century? And how could Canada claim to be a civilized nation with such an outlandish verdict that is reminiscent of the kangaroo courts in Sisi’s Egypt? Simply shocking!

I had the opportunity of studying in Canada before moving to the USA for my doctoral studies. I always entertained a very favorable opinion about what was once Pierre Trudeau’s Canada. I am shocked to learn about the ordeal of Momin Khawaja in Canada. 

It is important that the Canadian Government and higher judges rethink and commit to redressing their lopsided decision. Life is precious and no one should be held hostage to a skewed decision that takes people’s confidence away in the judicial system. It is incumbent upon the Canadian Prime Minister to ensure that human rights are protected  and equal justice is accorded to all by appropriate action and that Momin Khawaja should be at the priority list to be set free from what seems to be travesty of legal justice that disgraces Canada in the eyes of many. I earnestly hope the Justin Trudeau and his government will have the moral fortitude and decency to let Khawaja go free.

I truly see a miscarriage of justice with Momin Khawaja’s life imprisonment, which needs to be rescinded letting him go free. The civilized world knows too well that injustice is wrong anytime and anywhere; injustice cannot be promoted to ‘send messages’ for future ‘offenders’. 

President George W. Bush wanted to ‘send a message’ to the ‘offenders’ in Afghanistan and Iraq for bringing in 9/11 to the USA. His response was an asymmetric one that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims that once lived on the other side of the globe who did not know for what crime they were targeted for extermination. Bush Jr. is a mass murderer. As the history of the last two decades has repeatedly shown, he was grossly wrong; he did not make our world safer. His actions self-radicalized many Muslim youths and made our world messier and unsafe. 

The USA and its western allies won the battles of Kabul and Baghdad displacing their former leaders. But they didn’t win the war. The USA is still tied up with its soldiers in what has become America’s longest war. It’s even negotiating with the Taliban – the very group that it fought against and displaced in 2001. I doubt Bush and Cheney ever imagined that such would be the case when they launched their illegal and asymmetric war as a pretext to righting the wrong. 

Thousands of soldiers from the US and her allies have died in wars that could surely have been avoided if wisdom and not vengeance had guided the warmongers.  Tens of thousands of soldiers have suffered injuries. A sizable fraction (approx. 20%) of  the deployed combat and support forces is diagnosed with PTSD for years after they returned home. Psychologists point out that many of those combatants had either been directly involved with or had witnessed acts of war crimes, resulting in such mental illness or disorder. Hundreds of service members had taken their own lives. 

In Canada, public support for the Afghan war was high in the early years of the conflict, but began to wane in the fall of 2006, as Canadian casualties mounted in Kandahar (see Public Opinion).

Canada’s engagement in the post-9/11  GWOT began under the Liberal governments of prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, was supported and extended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper after his Conservatives took power in 2006. Although many Liberals in Parliament had supported the extension in May, by the end of 2006, the three main opposition parties — the Liberals, the Bloc Québecois and New Democrats — were all calling for Canada to end its combat mission in Afghanistan but continue with humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

Canada’s role was complicated in 2007 by a political scandal surrounding the treatment of Taliban prisoners captured by Canadians and handed over to Afghan security forces, who tortured the detainees. Under international law, Canada was responsible for the torture of prisoners captured by its soldiers. The detainee scandal dominated political debate in Canada for several months in 2007 — and resurfaced in 2009, threatening to topple Harper’s minority government — until Canada established a program for the monitoring of Taliban detainees in Afghan prisons.

The Afghan war alone took the lives of 158 Canadian soldiers and wounded more than 1,800 others. Seven Canadian civilians were also killed — a diplomat, four aid workers, a government contractor and a journalist.

The GWOT was wrong and should be a sufficient deterrent for all the future Bush and Blairs of our world. Still, however, there are many empire-dreamers and -aspirants who would refuse to learn those costly lessons of history. 

Al-Qa’ida has been decimated; with millions of natives dead and displaced America’s war in Iraq is over and the one in Afghanistan – America’s longest war – soon will be, too, or that is what is hoped by the Trump administration. But with so many of the tortured and abused detainees, the scandal of Gitmo endures to shame all Americans! And so is the case with the Canadians with their government’s reprehensible acts and its asymmetric verdict against the detainees like Momin Khawaja.

For too long we have forgotten the detainees in Gitmo and the special prison cells inside Canada even though it is a human rights disgrace that is unique in recent American and Canadian history. It is high time that those detention centers be shut down to tarnish our collective guilt and silence for failing to stop the torture of the innocent. Those wrongfully detained under the pretext of GWOT there have suffered enough and should be set free. Our conscience demands it. And it is the right thing to do. By releasing detainees like Momin Khawaja Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be standing on the right side of history. The sooner the better!

In a globally connected world that we live in today, information flies fast and can neither be hidden under the rug nor censored fully, and surely any case of colossal injustice cannot be an exception to that norm. 

As scholars would tell us if the USA was not complicit in its monumental crimes against the Muslim world, esp. in Palestine, the tragedy of 9/11 may not have happened. If there was no Gitmo and no Abu Ghraib-type crimes, there probably won’t be the emergence today of the ISIS and other self-radicalized nihilists and ‘terrorists’. Their despicable crimes are born of the very injustice that they see around them. What comes around, goes around; it’s a vicious cycle!

We ought to know that the flame of fire cannot be arrested by throwing charcoal or gasoline into it. Otherwise, as Malcom X had said, there would be cases of ‘chickens coming home to roost’. History has proven him right time and again.

A society that is born and built on injustice, let alone promotes it, cannot expect itself to be living in peace, at least in the long run! It may be instructive to remember that what we see unraveling on an almost daily basis with the recent rallies denouncing racial injustice (and even calls for police defunding) and toppling of the statues of the past war-lords and racists (from Christopher Columbus to Robert Lee to Winston Churchill) in major cities on both sides of the Atlantic (with troubling colonial past) – is neither supreme irony nor poetic justice: It is the nature of karma reaching its natural conclusion. 

The life of those wrongfully detained and incarcerated matter! Justice demands that they be freed now. They have served more than their share of the time. Let compassion and not vengeance guide government actions.

Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Dr. Habib Siddiqui has a long history as a peaceful activist in an effort towards improving human rights and creating a just and equitable world. He has written extensively in the arena of humanity, global politics, social conscience and human rights since 1980, many of which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and the Internet. He has tirelessly championed the cause of the disadvantaged, the poor and the forgotten here in Americas and abroad. Commenting on his articles, others have said, "His meticulously researched essays and articles combined with real human dimensions on the plight of the displaced peoples of Rohingya in Myanmar, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo and Palestine, and American Muslims in the post-9/11 era have made him a singular important intellectual offering a sane voice with counterpoints to the shrill threats of the oppressors and the powerful. He offers a fresh and insightful perspective on a whole generation of a misunderstood and displaced people with little or no voice of their own." He has authored 11 books, five of which are now available through Amazon.com. His latest book - Devotional Stories is published by A.S. Noordeen, Malaysia.

2 thoughts on “The Forgotten Detainees Of 9/11 – OpEd

  • Avatar
    July 28, 2020 at 2:56 am
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    Excellent and couregeous write up. Salute to the author

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  • Avatar
    July 29, 2020 at 8:40 pm
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    In post 9/1, Most European and North American (USA-Canada) intelligence networks hired academics to propagate the phenomenon of political terrorism exclusively in relation to Muslims and Arabian people. In USA and Canada and Britain young Muslim were targeted and arrested on fake accusations of “terrorism” and shipped to Guantanmo Bay prison. Truly, most or some were sold by warlords in Afghanistan and Pakistan and other locations to the US. Canad is no exception to have followed the order of President George W. Bush. To target Muslims and Arabs or arrest them was unjust and politically motivated. The war on terrorism was a bogus war as clarified by a British Minister – member of the Tony Blair cabinet. It is horrible to read the story of Engineer Maher Arar and Momin Khawaja – Canadian victims of the bogus war. It should be the responsibility of the Canadian leaders to take corrective actions and restore trust in legal justice and honesty of the judges who are mostly appointed by politicians to serve their interest. The author has done diligent work to speak out the truth often forbidden by the news media and intelligent agencies.

    Reply

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