Afghan jail conditions hamper Gitmo prosecutions

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — U.S. military prosecutors allege that Ahmed al-Darbi has met with Osama bin Laden, trained at an al-Qaida terrorist camp, and plotted to blow up a ship in the Strait of Hormuz or off Yemen.

But the government may never be able to bring those allegations to court because of the torture the prisoner says he suffered in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. Darbi says American troops subjected him to beatings, excruciating shackling, painfully loud music, isolation and threats of rape, according to a new affidavit. If Darbi's statements to interrogators were indeed obtained under such circumstances, they will likely be thrown out.

"I was frightened and there were times I wished I would die," the 33-year-old prisoner from Saudi Arabia said in the statement taken in July at Guantanamo, which was provided to the AP by his lawyer. "I felt that anything could happen to me and that everything was out of control."

Darbi's is a test case of sorts for what will happen under the Obama administration to prisoners who allege their testimony was forced out of them under torture. His affidavit illustrates one of the greatest challenges facing President Barack Obama as he tries to determine what to do with the 229 prisoners still left at Guantanamo, the military prison at the U.S. base in Cuba. Obama has vowed to close the prison by early next year.

Under former President George W. Bush, the special war crimes tribunals known as Military Commissions allowed "coerced" statements from defendants at a judge's discretion. But the rules are changing for the 60 or so prisoners whom authorities had planned to prosecute: The Obama administration has prohibited the use of confessions obtained under "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." A Justice Department official has told Congress, which is drafting new rules for Military Commissions, that only "voluntary" statements are likely to withstand future court challenges.

But legal experts believe a number of cases can't be prosecuted because conditions were so harsh in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and secret CIA "black sites" elsewhere. The number of cases involved isn't known publicly since most of the background is still classified.

The affidavit is an unusually detailed first-person account of the harsh conditions at the heart of the issue. Darbi was captured at the airport in Baku, Azerbaijan, in June 2002. Several weeks later, the affidavit says, he was taken blindfolded to the U.S. base in Bagram, Afghanistan.

Darbi was held for eight months at Bagram. For the first two weeks, he was kept in isolation when not being interrogated, according to the affidavit. Later, it says, he went through a litany of harsh tactics, including being kicked and dragged around a room by U.S. troops while music blared in the background. At times, he was forced to kneel with his hands cuffed above his head through the night and repeatedly interrogated, often while hooded. He also describes a process in which he was hooded, shaken violently and subjected to water poured over his head.

"My view is that taken together all this treatment amounts to torture," said his attorney, Ramzi Kassem.

Darbi is charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. He denies the charges, which carry a potential sentence of life in prison.

A military judge is scheduled to hold a hearing in September on a motion to dismiss charges against Darbi, who has been at Guantanamo more than six years.

Afghan jail conditions hamper Gitmo prosecutions 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 11:45pm]

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