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Obama's Guantanamo Is Still a Legal Black Hole

Prisoners at Guantanamo have been caught between two competing systems since Obama took office last January, and the result has been confusing.

When it comes to dealing with the thorny question of how to close Guantánamo, the remaining prisoners have been caught between two competing systems since President Obama took office last January, and the result, to put it mildly, has been confusing.

Under President Bush, prisoners were cleared for release by military review boards, established to review the supposed evidence against them, and to determine whether they constituted an ongoing threat to the U.S. This appeared to be a maddeningly arbitrary system, but it led to the release of hundreds of the prisoners.

In June 2008, the Supreme Court added a second layer of review, of a more substantial nature, when it gave the prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights; in other words, the right to challenge the basis of their detention in a U.S. court. This right had been established by the Supreme Court in June 2004, leading to the filing of habeas petitions on behalf of the majority of the prisoners, but these were all stalled when Congress submitted to the President's wishes and passed legislation that purported to strip the prisoners of these rights, in the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

Guantánamo and habeas corpus under George W. Bush

Following the Supreme Court ruling in June 2008, District Court judges began hearing the prisoners' habeas corpus petitions, and the prisoners secured, for the first time, an objective review of what the government claimed to be evidence proving that they were connected to al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban. The result was a disappointment for the government, although it came as no surprise to those who had been studying Guantánamo closely, and who knew that the majority of the prisoners had been seized by America's Afghan and Pakistani allies, at a time when substantial bounty payments were being offered, and that the majority of the supposed evidence against the men came from their own interrogations, or those of other prisoners, which were often conducted in conditions where torture, coercion or bribery were prevalent.

From October 2008 to January 2009, 23 prisoners won their habeas petitions, and just three cases were won by the government. In the case of 17 Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province), the government gave up all pretense that they were "enemy combatants," having established, soon after they were seized in December 2001, that their only enemy was the Chinese government, and having suffered a humiliating court defeat shortly after the Supreme Court ruling last June. A judge also dismissed the government's claims against five Algerian-born Bosnian citizens, who had been kidnapped by U.S. agents from Sarajevo in January 2002, in connection with a non-existent plot to bomb the U.S. embassy, and the case against a Chadian national, who was a child at the time of his capture by Pakistani police in a raid on a mosque in Karachi.

In both cases, the judge -- Richard Leon, an appointee of George W. Bush -- dismissed the government's supposed evidence by ruling, in the case of the Bosnians, that a supposed informer was unreliable, and in the case of the former child prisoner, Mohammed El-Gharani, that unreliable witnesses in Guantánamo (whose unreliability was known to the authorities) had concocted a fictional story about him.

Judge Leon also ruled that the government had established a case against one of the Bosnians -- in connection with purported plans to recruit men to fight in Afghanistan -- and against two other prisoners with supposed connections to the Taliban or al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but it was a poor start for the government’s defense of its rationale for holding men for seven years without charge or trial, and these same problems resurfaced under Barack Obama.

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