Justice Department Pointlessly Gags Guantánamo Lawyer by Andy Worthington

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by Andy Worthington
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
22 November 2009

One of the saddest stories in Guantánamo is that of Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan married to an Afghan woman and with a newly-born baby daughter, who was running a small bakery in Jalalabad, Afghanistan at the time of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. Fearing that he would be seized in the widespread anti-Arab sentiment that followed the collapse of the Taliban, he traveled with his family to the house of his wife’s parents, but instead of finding safety he was seized by bounty hunters and sold to US forces.

Al-Ghizzawi is clearly an innocent man. Back in 2004, when the Bush administration convened military review boards — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals — to review the prisoners’ cases, his panel of three military officers concluded that there was insufficient evidence to declare him an “enemy combatant,” and that he should therefore be released.

We know this because one of the members of this particular tribunal, Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who also compiled the information used in the tribunals, and who memorably declared in 2007 that they were severely flawed, relying on intelligence “of a generalized nature — often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status,” wrote about serving on al-Ghizzawi’s tribunal, explaining:

On one occasion, I was assigned to a CSRT panel with two other officers, an Air Force Colonel and an Air Force Major, the latter understood by me to be a judge advocate. We reviewed the evidence presented to us regarding the recommended status of [Mr. al-Ghizzawi]. All of us found the information presented to lack substance.

He added:

On the basis of the paucity and weakness of the information provided both during and after the CSRT hearing, we determined that there was no factual basis for concluding that the individual should be classified as an enemy combatant.

Lt. Col. Abraham also explained — as was backed up in October 2007 by a second whistleblower, an Army Major who had taken part in 49 tribunals — that unfavorable decisions were overruled by those in charge, who then convened a second tribunal to produce the desired result, and added that this is what had happened in the case of Mr. al-Ghizzawi. Lt. Col. Abraham and his fellow tribunal members were prohibited from taking part in any more tribunals, and a second, secret tribunal was held in Washington D.C., at which it was duly decided that Mr. al-Ghizzawi was an “enemy combatant” after all.

In the five years since this shocking demonstration of rigged justice, Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi has languished in Guantánamo, plagued with health problems, including, at one point, an apparently mistaken belief that he had been infected with AIDS, while his attorney, H. Candace Gorman, has waged a relentless campaign to try to secure justice for him, which she has chronicled on her website, The Guantánamo Blog, as well as for the Huffington Post and In These Times.

Last Tuesday, November 17, Candace finally had some good news about her client that she could announce to the world: he had finally been cleared for release, and she was at liberty to tell us, five months after first hearing about it, which she did in a blog post entitled, “The Muzzle Is Off.” This is reproduced below, as, for insane reasons described afterwards, the Justice Department has just ordered her to remove it from her blog (she has done so, but a cached copy is retained by Google here — the ironic italics in reference to the justice department are Candace’s):

The Muzzle Is Off
By Candace Gorman

In June of this year I received a call from a foreign reporter who asked if I could give her a profile of my client Al-Ghizzawi as he was on a list of men whom the US was looking for a new home and her country was considering accepting him. This was the first I had learned that Al-Ghizzawi had been “cleared” by the Obama review team for release. I gave her information about my client and for all I know a story was published about the plight of Al-Ghizzawi at Guantánamo, his status as “cleared” and why he needed a country in Europe to take him.

A few days later an attorney from the justice department called to tell me that Al-Ghizzawi was cleared for release and we laughed about the fact that I already knew the information. However the laughing stopped when the attorney told me that the justice department had designated the information as “protected” and I could not tell anyone except my client and those people who had signed on to the protective order (a court document that outlines the procedures for the Guantánamo cases) about his status as “cleared for release.” I told the attorney that he could not declare something “protected” that was already in the public domain. To make a long story short we were not in agreement and the attorney filed an emergency motion with the judge to muzzle me. Despite the fact that the information was in the public domain I was muzzled by the good judge who apparently doesn’t believe that the Constitution applies to me. I couldn’t even tell Mr. Al-Ghizzawi’s brother what I thought was good news (I didn’t know then that this was just another stall tactic by the justice department).

Not only was I muzzled but Mr. Al-Ghizzawi’s case was put on hold. The habeas hearing that we had been fighting to obtain literally for years was stayed by the judge despite the fact that the US Supreme Court held in June of 2008 that the men were entitled to swift hearings … So much for the Supreme Court! The president asked the judges to stop the hearings for those men who were “cleared” for release and the judges have fallen into lockstep, shamefully abandoning their duties as judges.

A few months later when I visited Al-Ghizzawi (at the end of August) he had just received word from his wife that she could no longer wait for his release and she asked him if she would sign papers for a divorce. Bad news is an everyday occurrence for Al-Ghizzawi and he was holding up well despite this latest blow.

When I returned from the base I asked the justice department to allow me to contact Al-Ghizzawi’s wife and tell her that he had been cleared for release. I hoped that if she knew he was to be released she would hang in there and not go through with the divorce. I was told they would get back to me. When they didn’t I asked again but they still would not give me the OK. In Court papers I pleaded with the judge to let me tell Al-Ghizzawi’s brother and wife, telling the judge about the wife’s request for a divorce, but the judge, the same judge who has apparently decided to ignore the Supreme Court’s directive for quick habeas hearings, ignored this plea as well.

I seriously thought about disobeying the order and trying to get word to Al-Ghizzawi’s wife and then taking whatever lumps were thrown my way … however, despite the fact that the judicial system has failed Al-Ghizzawi and most of the men at Guantánamo I could not bring myself to blatantly disobey a court order. For five months I have kept this information confidential despite the injustice to both my client, Mr. Al-Ghizzawi, and to what was our rule of law … until yesterday, when the muzzle was lifted.


Four days later, and Candace has now reported that “The Muzzle Is Back On,” explaining:

On Tuesday I reported that the Government finally allowed me to discuss matters that had previously been “protected” in regards to my client Al-Ghizzawi. In fact the Government unclassified and allowed for public release a Petition for Original Habeas Corpus that I filed in the US Supreme Court. I released that Petition to the public in accordance with the Government’s designation of “unclassified.” On Friday the Department of Justice (DOJ) told me that it had made a mistake and that it had apparently violated the Protective Order (an Order that sets out the rules for the DOJ and Habeas counsel in regards to the Guantánamo cases) entered in the case when it “unclassified” and allowed for public release information in the Petition that it wanted to “protect” and that therefore I must remove my post of November 17 because of the DOJ’s mistake. I explained to the DOJ attorneys that the Petition and my Post of November 17 were widely distributed and are available at various sites on the web … they do not seem to care about that … they only care that I not report about what they are now trying to declare “protected information” … 5 days after they unclassified the material and made it available for public release.

This is of course outrageous conduct by the DOJ … in trying to declare something as “protected” after being clearly designated and distributed to the public, but what else is new? For those of you who either remember my November 17 post or have it available on your website, I originally learned of the so-called “protected” information from a public source and the judge in Al-Ghizzawi’s case still ruled that I could not discuss it. […]

This is not the end of this story. Under the Protective Order the Government must actually get the judge’s permission to retroactively keep me (and only me) from publishing and discussing the information that the Government now seeks to “protect.” The DOJ will have to file a document with the Court explaining why this now very public information should be “protected.” Ultimately it will be the judge’s decision. If you do not see my post back up that will mean that the judge agreed with the Government, that I alone cannot talk about those things that you are privy to discuss.

So there you have it. As I am not Candace, and am not prohibited from reproducing her words, I thought that this whole depressing saga was worth relating in full. I’d also like to include Candace’s parting words from the post that has been removed at the insistence of the Justice Department, as they shine a light on the Byzantine workings of the Guantánamo litigation. As Candace explained:

[I]f you hear from a habeas attorney that his or her case has been stayed you will know about the injustice that their client is continuing to suffer, you will know that the client has been cleared for release, that the attorney cannot discuss that fact and that the judge in that case has abandoned his or her duty to be a judge. You will also know that being cleared for release is just as meaningless as everything else that has been happening to these unfortunate men … because being cleared for release means nothing.

Or, as my good friend The Talking Dog explained just a few days ago:

For advocates of “hope and change” who foolishly think that with our young and handsome new President everything is somehow “better” now … I just want you to know that while the nomenclature has changed (Al-Ghizzawi is no longer an “enemy combatant” or “unlawful enemy combatant” … he is simply a poor schmuck we’re holding) … and he is “cleared for release” … the same great executive overreach with its very real and very tragic personal consequences just goes on … and on … and on …

Americans should look at Al-Ghizzawi’s story (he was simply a baker in Afghanistan, handed in to American forces for bounty money, and we just can’t bring ourselves to let him go, even as he suffers egregious medical problems) and ask ourselves, “What kind of people are we?” The fact that most of us are probably not capable of that level of introspection probably best answers the question, I’m afraid.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about my film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.


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3 thoughts on “Justice Department Pointlessly Gags Guantánamo Lawyer by Andy Worthington

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