Detainee remains in limbo

Even as the Pentagon resumes pre-trial hearings in the 9/11 case, the military is still dogged by what to do with its lone war court convict

09/23/2008 3:12 PM

07/30/2013 5:26 PM

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Some days, America's lone convicted terrorist here amuses himself by calling out ''All rise,'' like a court bailiff, as guards pass his cell.

Mostly, Salim Hamdan passes the time with photos of family from home in Yemen.

It's been six weeks since a military jury made Hamdan a war criminal for working as Osama bin Laden's $200-a-month driver in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon has yet to say precisely when his 66-month prison sentence ends. Or where he will go.

What to do with Hamdan illustrates how much the Pentagon is still improvising war-on-terror detention policy -- six years after the Bush administration opened the prison camps here in remote southeast Cuba.

For now, he is segregated, the only prisoner in a corridor set aside for convicts at Camp 5.

But until someone else is convicted at the first war crimes tribunals since World War II, Hamdan, 40, is a category of one.

''A Detainee Socialization Management Plan will be implemented,'' says Army Maj. Rick Morehouse. The goal: ``To avoid linguistic isolation and solitary confinement.''

So the military says it will offer Hamdan ''Movie Night.'' Guards say soccer and nature videos are popular with many detainees.

Also, the military plans to send Hamdan a government-hired linguist each day for what Morehouse calls ''social conversation'' and allow him four, three-hour visits a week.

Why it has taken so long to implement the program -- or when it will start -- the military will not say.

PROBLEM AT A TIME

''One reason why you don't see a lot of long-term planning for this issue is that the commissions process itself has really been lurching from one problem to the next,'' says Columbia University law professor Matthew Waxman, the first of three deputy assistant secretaries of defense for detainee affairs to serve the Bush administration.

He was not surprised to learn about the dilemma of what to do about Hamdan. Earlier planning had focused on multiple convicts, he said, not just one.

At issue is how to interpret the Geneva Conventions, an issue that has dogged this offshore detention and interrogation center from the start.

On the one hand, the treaty that seeks to regulate warfare worldwide forbids holding prisoners of war in the company of convicts.

But above all the conventions are meant to make sure captives are held humanely. Which is why prison camp commanders have insisted for years that there is no such thing as solitary confinement at Guantánamo. Even for a category of one.

''This has been a make-it-up-as-you-go-along system from the very beginning,'' says Miami defense attorney Neal Sonnett, who watches the Guantánamo trials for the American Bar Association.

Perhaps planning has ''hit snags,'' suggested Waxman, noting the trials envisioned in the months after 9/11 to offer ''swift justice'' were met by ``a series of legal challenges and diplomatic objections that not only slowed it to a near standstill but made it difficult to plan ahead.''

Moreover, he said, the trials have at times been at odds with other administration goals since Sept. 11, 2001 -- gathering intelligence on al Qaeda and building coalitions with nations like Britain that from the start derided the Guantánamo trials.

Hence, the CIA kept the alleged 9/11 plotters in secret custody for years, slowing the progress toward the complex conspiracy trial of alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators.

Mohammed and three of the men were back at the war court Monday. But alleged 9/11 go-between Ramzi bin al Shibh, 36, refused to leave his cell.

ORDERED TO APPEAR

The military judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, ordered guards to force bin al Shibh from his cell and into court at 9 a.m. Tuesday -- unless a note from his co-defendants persuades him to come voluntarily.

Pentagon officials are improvising, too, when it comes to Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators, who are also segregated on the base to keep secret CIA interrogation techniques.

This week, prosecutors are issuing them ''Toughbooks,'' rugged laptops loaded with evidence to be used at their future capital trials. Still to be decided is whether the prison camp commander will set up a Top Secret hot line -- linking the 9/11 accused to the Arlington, Va., offices of U.S. military lawyers assigned to defend them.

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About Carol Rosenberg

Carol Rosenberg

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Carol Rosenberg reports on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the place, policy, people, war court.


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