Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Never Ending Prosecution andVendetta::The Kafkaesque Story of Sami Al-Arian

By William Fisher

In a nationwide press conference in 2003, George W. Bush’s attorney general, the born-again John Ashcroft, trumpeted the arrest of Dr. Sami al-Arian, who he described as “the most dangerous man in the world.”

In announcing the 120-page indictment, Ashcroft charged that al-Arian and his three co-defendants played “a substantial role in international terrorism…They finance … and assist acts of terror. Our message to them is clear: We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks, and those who knowingly finance, manage, or supervise terrorist organizations.” He charged that al-Arian had been actively funding terrorist attacks in Israel as the US leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

All that was nine years ago. Nine years. And, in one form or another, Dr. al-Arian has pretty much been incarcerated ever since.

Incarcerated not in some tinpot dictatorship, but in the United States of America. The same America that prides itself on the fairness and integrity of its criminal justice system and the rule of law.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote in Salon: “Each time it appears that [al-Arian’s] plight will finally be over, the U.S. Government concocts a new process to ensure that he remains a prisoner.”

This is how it happened:

Rewind to the mid-1990s. That’s when the FBI began its decade-long surveillance of Dr. al-Arian. A Palestinian born in Kuwait, al-Arian was in the U.S.as a permanent resident. He was well-known in the Muslim Community throughout the United States, popular among his students at the University of South Florida (USF), where he was a tenured professor of computer engineering. At the same time, his reputation as a well-informed Palestinian was growing among members of Congress and advisors to President Clinton, who invited him to the White House.

Things began to turn sour for al-Arian after his university tried to fire him following his guest appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show, The Factor, on Fox News. It was clear that USF was looking for a pretext to make the al-Arian story go away. The DOJ finally indicted al-Arian on Feb, 20, 2003, and accused him of backing organizations fronting for Palestinian Islamic Jihad – a 1997 State Department-designated “Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).”

It charged al-Arian with multiple counts of conspiracies to provide material support for this organization. The mountain of wiretaps, emails, speeches, lectures, and much more the FBI collected from Dr. al-Arian, would constitute the government’s case against him.

A week after al-Arian’s indictment, University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft fired him with the backing of then Governor Jeb Bush, and pressure from a vocal segment of the “Israel right or wrong” US foreign policy establishment.
despite the Constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial, the court case didn’t begin until 28 months later, during which al-Arian was held in solitary confinement.

And despite the Constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial, the court case didn’t begin until 28 months later, during which al-Arian was held in solitary confinement. He was locked in a small, windowless cell for 23 hours each day. So harsh were the conditions of his imprisonment that Amnesty International was compelled to write US prosecutors, “calling for a review of the pre-trial detention conditions…aspects of which it said appeared to be gratuitously punitive,’ ” and a breach of international standards.

The period leading up to the trial was marked by shrill and frequently inaccurate public accusations against al-Arian. Many of the more outrageous came from Fox News and from Steve Emerson, a self-styled “terrorism expert” best known for his off-the-wall predictions of impending terrorist attacks on the homeland. Emerson runs a not-for-profit outfit called The Investigative Project on Terrorism, and also has a for-profit company that does corporate and government consulting.

Among some of his more notorious claims, Emerson told a reporter shortly after the 1995 Oklahoma Citybombing that he believed the perpetrators were likely Islamic terrorists. The reporter, Tampa Tribune‘s Michael Fechter, wrote: “More and more, terrorism experts in the United States and elsewhere say Wednesday’s bombing inOklahoma City bears the characteristics of other deadly attacks linked to Islamic militants.” Fechter now works for Emerson’s Investigative Project.

The blogosphere was also alive with right-left battles over the al-Arian case. The mainstream print press appeared to be as clueless as usual in its coverage of legal proceedings. As it struggled to understand the legalese of the courtroom, it frequently elected to write about the easier-to-understand personal conflicts of the principals in the case, or turn to accessible but unreliable sources, such as Emerson. And as for cable news, including Fox, most coverage was reduced to minimally-informative sound bites.

But the tone of the press coverage, often quoting government officials, seemed to guarantee that the post-9/11 hysteria would frame the al-Arian trial as if the government had designed it.

Fox News Channel, NBC, Media General (specifically itsTampa newspaper) and the giant radio conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications (home of Rush Limbaugh’s broadcasts) shoulder an especially heavy burden for fanning the flames of post-9/11 hysteria.

As Eric Boehlert wrote in Salon, “In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all four media giants, eagerly tapping into the country’s mood of vengeance and fear, latched onto the al-Arian story, fudging the facts and ignoring the most rudimentary tenets of journalism in their haste to better tell a sinister story about lurking Middle Eastern dangers here at home.”

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all four media giants, eagerly tapping into the country’s mood of vengeance and fear, latched onto the al-Arian story, fudging the facts and ignoring the most rudimentary tenets of journalism in their haste to better tell a sinister story about lurking Middle Eastern dangers here at home.

The impact of its battles with the US justice system on al-Arian’s family was profound. Leila al-Arian, one of three al-Arian daughters, told this reporter that “the adversity our family experienced brought us all much closer together. We had to depend on one another for emotional support.”

Leila, a journalist who lives in Washington, DC, said raising money for her father’s legal defense fund was probably the most stressful activity the family had to take on. “We knew just about nothing about raising money. Asking for financial help is a humbling experience.”

“What made it bearable – and successful – was the spirit and goodwill of so many people who offered to help. A woman in Tampa organized demonstrations in support of my father. A man in California, who had only a passing acquaintance with my father, became one of the national voices in his support. There were so many and many of them didn’t know us at all. They were just appalled by what was happening to my Dad,” she said.

Once al-Arian’s trial actually began, the prosecution called 80 witnesses, including more than 20 from Israel. Much of the government’s evidence presented to the jury during the six-month trial consisted of Dr. al-Arian’s speeches, lectures, articles, magazines, books he owned, and accounts of conferences he convened, rallies he attended, interviews he gave, and parts of hundreds of wiretapped phone calls from over a half million recorded.

When the defense’s turn came to present its case, it rested. It called not a single witness in its behalf. Its sole defense was that all of al-Arian’s written and spoken words were protected speech under the First Amendment.

After 13 days of deliberation, the jury found him innocent on eight of the charges, including the most serious, and hung on the rest, voting 10 to 2 to acquit.

After 13 days of deliberation, the jury found him innocent on eight of the charges, including the most serious, and hung on the rest, voting 10 to 2 to acquit. Two of Al Arian’s three co-defendants were acquitted completely.

The total collapse of the government’s case could only be seen as a devastating embarrassment for the Department of Justice (DOJ), which had spent an estimated $50-$80 million. Observers of the trial believe the DOJ won an expensive humiliation.

But the DOJ’s intent to re-try al-Arian led him to strike a secret plea bargain. He was desperate to avoid both the emotional and financial cost of a new trial to himself and his family. The essence of the plea deal was that al-Arian neither engaged in or had any knowledge of violent acts; that he would not be required to cooperate further with prosecutors; and that he would be released on time served and deported voluntarily to his country of choice.

In the meantime, al-Arian remained in custody pending sentencing and deportation. He expected to be freed on May 1, 2006. But the presiding judge changed the deal. He sentenced al-Arian to the maximum 57 months, gave him credit for time served, and ordered him held for the remaining 11 months, after which an April 2007 deportation would follow.

In October 2006, assistant prosecutor Gordon Kromberg violated the plea bargain terms by subpoenaing Al-Arian before a grand jury. His defense attorneys tried to block it by citing his “no-grand jury cooperation” promise. But prosecutors gutted the cooperation clause from the agreement, which was made during plea negotiations (when to prevent the DOJ from springing a perjury-obstruction trap). The defense’s motion was denied, and on November 16 Al-Arian again refused to testify and again was held in civil contempt.

A month later, the grand jury expired, a new one was convened, and al-Arian was again subpoenaed to testify. He continued to refuse, was held in contempt, and had his sentence increased by an additional year to April 7, 2008.

On March 3, 2008, Kromberg ordered al-Arian before still another March 19 grand jury, three weeks before his scheduled release and deportation. On the same day, al-Arian began his third hunger strike against the government’s continued harassment. For a man with diabetes, lack of food is life-threatening; he needs regular sustenance to avoid serious health problems. Al-Arian’s January through March, 2007 hunger strike had depleted a quarter of his body weight. His family says it gravely harmed him, and ended only at their urging.

Twenty days into his latest fast, and having lost 30 pounds, al-Arian was shuttled to various medical facilities. On March 18, he was returned to Warsaw, Virginia’s Northern Neck Regional jail ahead of his third grand jury appearance. Again, he refused to testify.

Because he refused to testify before a federal grand jury after the court held that he had no legal basis for refusing, in November 2006 he was held in civil contempt and imprisoned by a federal court judge in Virginia. He served 13 months on this charge until the court lifted its contempt order in December 2007. In June of 2008, at the behest of Kromberg, al-Arian was indicted on two counts of criminal contempt for not testifying.

In September 2008, al-Arian was released from detention on bond. He remains under house arrest as he awaits trial on criminal contempt charges

In September 2008, al-Arian was released from detention on bond. He remains under house arrest as he awaits trial on criminal contempt charges. For the first time in over five years, he was reunited with his family, but his ordeal continues. On this occasion alone, he has been waiting for his day in court for more than three years.

The Virginia grand jury that al-Arian has refused to appear before was investigating a Herndon, Va.-based think tank, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), and its alleged terrorism financing and support networks.

The government claims IIIT gave money to a PIJ-related think tank in Tampa that al-Arian once ran. During the mid 1990s, this think tank employed several PIJ members, the government said, including Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, who left Tampa in 1995 for Syri at to assume leadership of PIJ. The PIJ affiliations of Shallah and others were acknowledged by al-Arian in his plea agreement.

At the time, his attorney, Professor Jonathan Turley, called the Justice Department’s ploy “a classic perjury trap used repeatedly by the government to punish those individuals who could not be convicted before an American jury.”

Obama’s prosecutors proved to be as ruthless as their predecessors. For example, DOJ asked the Court to deny a defense motion, filed 18 months earlier, to dismiss criminal contempt charges. Three previous DOJ motions were rejected.

This time, Holder prosecutors not only requested denying the defense’s dismissal motion, but asked Judge Brinkema to reverse her earlier decision letting al-Arian’s attorneys present evidence in case of trial.

In March 2009, she backed the defense’s request to file a motion to dismiss al-Arian’s charges, saying she’d rule later at further hearings, and expressing concern over government “bait and switch” tactics: “where Dr. al-Arian and his counsel were assured that, if he agreed to plead guilty (to one minor charge), he would not be subject to any further involvement with the DOJ beyond his deportation following the completion of his sentence.” Bush prosecutors reneged on the agreement and Obama’s lawyers followed suit. Judge Brinkema has never ruled on this request.

Al-Arian’s former appeals attorney, Professor Peter Erlinder, a former president of the National Lawyers Guild, said:

“The prosecution of Dr. Sami al-Arian was a blatant attempt to silence political speech and dissent in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. The nature of the political persecution of this case has been demonstrated throughout all its aspects, not only during the trial and the never-ending right-wing media onslaught, but also after the stunning defeat of the government in 2005, and its ill-advised abuse of the grand jury system thereafter.”

Others who have followed the al-Arian case are equally critical. For example, Lawrence Davidson, professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania, told this reporter, “Bush thoroughly corrupted the Justice Department by stacking it with Christian Fundamentalists on the one hand and rabid Zionists on the other.”

He added, “The al-Arian case is a classical case of injustice and ideological corruption of the justice system. The judge (appointed by Bill Clinton) as well as the prosecutors should be disbarred. Everyone on the government side acted unethically, if not illegally.”

There is at least one further irony in the seemingly endless prosecution of Dr. al-Arian. Early in his trial, the judge ruled that information concerning the Israeli-Palestinian dispute could not be admitted as evidence. Yet that dispute is at the very center of the case and of al-Arian’s life. Were there no Israeli-Palestinian dispute, there would be no trial.

One wonders why al-Arian and not someone else? Glenn Greenwald gives a plausible explanation:

“In reality, al-Arian has been persecuted for one reason only: because he’s a Palestinian activist highly critical of the four-decade brutal Israeli occupation.”

This article originally appeared on the pages of the Prism Magazine website.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Who'll Have the Last Laugh?

By William Fisher

Andrew Rosenthal, the editor of the editorial pages for the New York Times, was practically ecstatic. He wrote: “Over the last several years, two private military contractors linked to prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib have been pleading for the same treatment afforded to Pentagon execs. CACI and L-3 have asserted that their wartime activities are beyond the review of courts and have claimed “absolute official immunity” from litigation. But on Friday, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled 11-3 that lawsuits against CACI and L-3 can proceed to a discovery phase.”

Likewise, Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who helped argue the case on behalf of Abu Ghraib detainees, said it was finally “an opportunity for victims of torture at Abu Ghraib to tell their stories to an American court.” It might also shed some light on the Bush administration’s practice of outsourcing warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan to independent contractors.”

But will this case in fact provide “an opportunity for victims of torture at Abu Ghraib to tell their stories to an American court?”

Or will the Obama Administration, like the Bush lawyers before it, once again turn to the so-called “State Secrets Privilege” to get this case thrown out of court? Given its past performances, that would seem to be the logical culmination of this prosecution. Both the Bush and Obama legal teams have invoked “state secrets” on numerous occasions, proclaiming that revelation of any piece of the evidence in this case would subject the entire case to public scrutiny, thus revealing classified material whose disclosure would compromise U.S. national security.

As a result, we may find a human rights organization like the American Civil Liberties Union in the awkward position of defending contractors as they deny attempt to deny any public access to descriptions of activities the contractors will be desperate to suppress.

If the judiciary takes its customary position vis a vis the state secrets privilege, the contractors will have little to fear. Evidence needed to gain a conviction will likely never be heard in court because it is precisely the evidence that the government will contend compromises national security.

Meanwhile, legislative efforts to introduce changes into the state secrets law have come to a screeching halt, like just about everything in Congress at this time. There is unlikely to be any progress before the election.

Kidnapped in Macedonia, Tortured in Afghanistan, and Dumped in Albania: The Forgotten Case of Khaled Ed-Masri

By William Fisher

To the pitifully few who have followed him over the years, Khaled El-Masri is the man who arguably holds the world’s record of unsuccessful attempts to get his “day in court.” He has knocked on courtroom doors all over the US and some overseas venues as well, and has each time been rebuffed.

This Wednesday he will try one more time. He will pursue Justice in the Grand Chamber of the European Court, which will hold a hearing on May 16, 2012. At the last hearing of this case, Macedonia entered an unbroken series of denials – no, it did not collude with the CIA to kidnap El-Masri from Germany. No, it did not seize his passport and force him to spend a month in a Macedonian hotel, interrogated without a lawyer, without contact with his family, and without the foggiest idea of why he was being held.

What El-Masri is seeking from the Macedonians is a fullblown investigation into his kidnapping and abuse. And while he is waiting, there are grim signs that El-Masri, the human being, is continuing his descent into chaos and confusion.

But even Macedonia’s denials – whether true or not – don’t begin to paint even a remotely accurate picture of what has happened to this Lebanese-born German citizen. To understand how he has come to where he has come to, it’s necessary to go back in history to a time when the never-ending black clouds began to gather over El-Masri’s head.

Rewind to 2004:

The Open Society Justice Initiative, (OSJI), which is El-Masri’s counsel for the Macedonia case, charges that the Macedonians stopped him at the border, confiscated his passport and other papers, and held him without charge for 23 days, accusing him of being a member of Al-Qaida.

They then drove him to the capitol’s Skopje airport and handed him to a CIA rendition team who flew El-Masri to Kabul as part of the U.S. “Extraordinary Rendition” program, where he was detained for four
months. The government of Macedonia denies any involvement in his abduction.

Every attempt at justice has failed. El-Masri seeks an investigation to discover the truth.

The following is based on notes prepared by The Open Society Justice Initiative.

On December 31, 2003, Khaled El-Masri traveled from his home in Ulm, Germany, to Skopje in Macedonia, by bus. When he reached the border, Macedonian law enforcement officials confiscated his passport and detained him for several hours.

He was then transferred by armed officers in plainclothes to the Skopski Merak hotel in Skopje, where he was detained for 23 days, guarded at all hours by rotating shifts of armed Macedonian officers. The curtains were closed day and night, and he was not permitted to leave the room. He was interrogated repeatedly, and told to admit that he was a member of Al Qaeda.

His frequent requests to see a lawyer, translator, or German consular official, or to contact his wife, were denied. When he once moved toward the door and attempted to leave, three of his captors pointed pistols at his head and threatened to shoot him. He went on hunger strike to protest his innocence.

On January 23, 2004, seven or eight Macedonian men entered the hotel room, handcuffed and blindfolded El-Masri and placed him in a car. He was driven to Skopje airport. He was removed from the vehicle, still handcuffed and blindfolded, and was led to a building. Inside, he was told that he would be medically examined. Instead, he was beaten severely from all sides with fists and what felt like a thick stick.

His clothes were sliced from his body with scissors or a knife, leaving him in his underwear. He was told to remove his underwear and he refused. He was beaten again, and his underwear was forcibly removed. He heard the sound of photographs being taken. He was thrown to the floor. His hands were pulled back and a boot was placed on his back. He then felt a firm object being forced into his anus.

El-Masri was pulled from the floor and dragged to a corner of the room. His blindfold was removed. A flash went off and temporarily blinded him. When he recovered his sight, he saw seven or eight men dressed in black and wearing black ski masks. One of the men placed him in a diaper. He was then dressed in a dark blue short-sleeved tracksuit and placed in a belt, which was connected to chains that attached to his wrists and ankles. The men put earmuffs and eye pads on him, blindfolded him, and hooded him.

El-Masri was then marched to a waiting aircraft, with the shackles cutting into his ankles. Once inside, he was thrown to the floor face down and his legs and arms were spread-eagled and secured to the sides of the aircraft. He felt an injection in his shoulder, and became lightheaded. He felt a second injection that rendered him nearly unconscious.

The men dressed in black clothing and ski masks were members of a United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “black renditions” team, who were operating under the U.S. “extraordinary rendition” program.

Flight records show that on January 23, 2004, a Boeing 737 business jet owned by a U.S.-based corporation, Premier Executive Transportation Services, Inc., operated by another U.S.-based corporation, Aero Contractors Limited, and registered by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration as aircraft N313P, flew El-Masri from Macedonia via Baghdad to Afghanistan.

The same plane has been identified as being involved in other rendition flights. El-Masri was detained in conditions that were inhuman and

degrading, beaten by armed guards, subjected to violent and prolonged interrogations, force-fed following a 27-day hunger strike, and denied medical treatment. He was never charged, brought before a judge, granted access to German government representatives, or allowed to communicate with his family or anyone else in the outside world. He lost some thirty kilograms while in detention.

On May 28, 2004, El-Masri’s belongings were returned to him, including his passport, and he was flown on board a CIA-chartered Gulfstream aircraft with the tail number N982RK to a military airbase in Albania called Berat-Kuçova Aerodrome. On arrival he was driven in a car for several hours and then let out and told not to look back.

Almost immediately he was arrested by the Albanian authorities and driven to Mother Theresa Airport near Tirana where he was put on a commercial flight to Frankfurt. When he arrived at his home in Ulm, Germany, he learned that his wife and children had relocated to Lebanon, not having heard from him for more than four months.

Following a complaint from El-Masri, prosecutors in Munich opened an investigation into his allegations in June 2004. During the investigation, German officials verified from eyewitnesses that El-Masri did indeed travel to Macedonia by bus at the end of 2003, and that he had been detained shortly after entering that country.

Prosecutors also confirmed from stamps in his passport that he entered Macedonia on December 31, 2003, and exited on January 23, 2004. They conducted scientific tests of his hair that proved that he had spent time in a South Asian country and had been deprived of food for an extended period.

On December 6, 2005, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice that the United States had accepted that it had made an “error” in Mr. El-Masri’s case. On January 31, 2007, the German Prosecutor filed indictments against thirteen CIA agents for their alleged involvement in the rendition.

At about this time, other ominous signs began to appear to suggest that the US was working at the highest levels of the German Government to ensure that the prosecutions against the 13 CIA agents never went forward.

And, at the same time, news items began to appear in the local German press regarding El-Masri’s alleged criminal activities. CIA sources and others close to the prosecution, who requested that their names not be published, are said to have instigated a smear campaign against El-Masri. One of the consistent accusations was an El-Masri was a Muslim fundamentalist and a senior member of a terrorist group.

“That's bogus,” says Scott Horton, counter-terrorism expert who writes for Harper’s Magazine. He explains, “Though the ‘good El-Masri’ has been involved in petty crime and has been diagnosed by court-appointed shrinks as having sociopath tendencies, the shrinks also believe that much of this psychopathology is attributable to his being held in abusive confinement by the CIA. This has been reported in the German press.”

And, given his ordeal, how could it not be so?

El-Masri was convicted of arson against a warehouse in his hometown and sentenced to two years probation because he had no criminal record. Later he was charged with a rage-filled physical assault that injured Mayor Gerald Nuremberg, the mayor of New-Ulm, Germany. The court found that while El-Masri’s rage could not be solely attributed to his CIA ordeal, that adventure did have a profound impact on his behavior.

Before his Macedonian adventure, El-Masri sold used cars and also worked as a green grocer. Now he was in prison, unable to live a normal life. His family had left him. El-Masri was coming unglued; he was falling apart at the seams.

Moreover, a set of WikiLeaks disclosures of confidential documents has caused an uproar in Europe by showing that U.S. officials pressured Germany and Spain to derail criminal investigations of Americans.

The more than 2,500 State Department cables that the anti-secrecy group has provided to news organizations since November include accounts of three cases that shed new light on U.S. responses to allegations of wrongdoing by its agents abroad:

-- The El-Masri case itself; after German prosecutors issued arrest warrants for 13 CIA agents allegedly involved in el-Masri's abduction, a February 2007 cable quoted the deputy U.S. chief of mission in Berlin as advising a German diplomat to "weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the U.S." if the agents were prosecuted; the German government withdrew the warrants five months later.

-- The case of four Spanish residents who said they were tortured by U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay before being released without charges and returned to Spain.

-- A Spanish judge announced a criminal investigation in January 2009 into whether six lawyers in President George W. Bush's administration had approved torture. They included former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo, the UC Berkeley law professor whose memos as a Justice Department attorney authorized the near-drowning technique called waterboarding.

-- WikiLeaks cables from April and May 2009 said Spanish officials were being warned about the case by diplomats from the Obama administration and by a visiting U.S. senator, Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who allegedly told Spain's foreign minister that the prosecution would have "an enormous impact on the bilateral relationship." The Miami Herald has reported that Martinez was carrying that message for the Obama administration.

The documents also quoted U.S. diplomats as urging Spain to transfer the case from Judge Baltasar Garzón, known for far-reaching investigations of suspected international law violations and for criticism of U.S. policies.

The cables described Garzón as a "publicity-loving" jurist with an "anti-American streak" and said Spain's chief prosecutor was trying to remove him.

Spain's government has since suspended Garzón for allegedly exceeding his authority in another case.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament have undertaken inquiries into the collaboration of European governments with the CIA “extraordinary renditions” program. Their inquiries corroborated the details of El-Masri’s rendition in its entirety, including his secret detention and interrogation in Macedonia and Afghanistan.

In the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the director of the CIA, unknown CIA agents and several corporations seeking compensation and declaratory relief for violations of El-Masri’s rights. The US courts dismissed the complaint on the basis of the “state secrets privilege” on the ground that “the very subject of the litigation is itself a state secret.” The U.S. Supreme Court declined to accept jurisdiction.

Those cases came to be known as Jeppesen DataPlan, a company that is a subsidiary of The Boeing Company, and specializes in flight planning and logistical support services for aircraft and crews, including those used by the CIA to transport victims to U.S.-run prisons or foreign intelligence agencies overseas, where they were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques and torture.

In the Jeppesen case, five British residents – all of whom were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay – sued Jeppesen for assisting the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with logistics for the flights to Afghanistan and CIA secrets prisons where they were held incommunicado and tortured. The men claim they were victims of the U.S. “extraordinary rendition” program – and that Jeppesen was complicit in the process.

The judge rejected the ACLU’s claim that “abundant evidence” was already in the public domain, including a sworn affidavit by a former Jeppesen employee and flight records confirming Jeppesen’s involvement.

The state secrets privilege is an evidentiary rule created by United States legal precedent. Application of the privilege results in exclusion of evidence from a legal case based solely on affidavits submitted by the government stating that court proceedings might disclose sensitive information that might endanger national security. Most legal scholars believe that when the privilege is invoked, it applies only to a suspect piece of evidence, and not to the entire evidence introduced.

United States v. Reynolds, which involved World War Two military secrets, was the first case that saw formal recognition of the privilege. It proved an embarrassment to the government as it vindicated the position taken by the plaintiffs.

In April 2009, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court dismissal of the case, ruling that the government cannot invoke the state secrets privilege to dismiss the entire suit, rather, the privilege can only be invoked with respect to specific evidence. The case is remanded back to district court. This was the first and only near-victory achieved by the plaintiffs – but it didn’t stand very long.

By December 2010, the ACLU filed a cert petition, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the lower court's decision dismissing the lawsuit. In May 2011, the Supreme Court denied the request to hear the lawsuit.

Following a claim of "state secrets privilege", the court rarely conducts an in- camera examination of the evidence to evaluate whether there is sufficient cause to support the use of this doctrine. This results in court rulings in which even the judge has not verified the veracity of the assertion. The privileged material is completely removed from the litigation, and the court must determine how the unavailability of the privileged information affects the case.

In April 2008, the ACLU filed a complaint against the United States with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This action is still pending.

In Spain, prosecutors have investigated the operations of the CIA rendition team that rendered El-Masri, whose itinerary included a stop in Palma de Mallorca before proceeding to pick him up in Skopje. In May 2010, a Spanish prosecutor asked a judge to issue international arrest warrants against members of the rendition team.

The government of Macedonia has been asked numerous times to explain what happened to El-Masri: by the German prosecutors, Spanish prosecutors, the PACE inquiry, and the European Parliament inquiry.

On October 6, 2008, El-Masri filed a formal request with the Office of the Skopje Prosecutor to carry out a criminal investigation of his illegal detention and abduction and to bring criminal proceedings against those responsible. The request alleged that unnamed personnel of the Macedonian Ministry of the Interior were responsible for the unauthorized deprivation of his liberty and for the crime of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The prosecutor took no action until the statutory time limit for commencing a criminal case expired in early 2009.

On January 24, 2009, El-Masri filed a civil lawsuit for damages against the Macedonian Ministry of Interior in relation to his unlawful abduction and ill treatment by MoI personnel in January 2004. The civil case is still pending at the Basic Court Skopje II.

The civil proceedings, however, are not capable of providing effective remedies for the violation of El-Masri’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Open Society Justice Initiative assisted Macedonian lawyer Filip Medarski to litigate the case through the Macedonian courts, and is acting as co-counsel before the European Court of Human Rights in a case that was filed in September 2009 on El-Masri’s behalf.

In October 2010, the European Court communicated the case to the Government of Macedonia. In January 2012, the case was referred to the Grand Chamber of the European Court, which will hold a hearing on May 16, 2012.

The government of Macedonia is responsible for illegally detaining El-Masri for 23 days in the Skopski Merak hotel, without charge and without bringing him before a Judge, in violation of Article 5 ECHR (liberty and security).

Macedonian government agents stood by and did nothing while El-Masri was ill-treated by the CIA rendition team in a process that was designed to break his spirit, in violation of Article 3 (torture and inhuman or degrading treatment). In addition, Macedonia knew that by handing El-Masri to the CIA he would be flown to Kabul where there was a real risk that he would be detained without trial and in conditions that were inhuman, in further violation of Article 3 (torture) and in violation of Article 5 ECHR (liberty and security).

The Open Society Justice Initiative charges that “there has never been a proper investigation into how El-Masri was detained in Skopje and then handed over to the CIA, in violation of the requirement to undertake an investigation into violations of Article 3 ECHR (torture).”

Despite many attempts, it continues, “El-Masri has been unable to get a criminal court in Macedonia to hear his case, in violation of Article 13 ECHR (right to remedy).”

The Open Society adds that “Macedonia is hiding its role as one of the European governments that were secretly helping the CIA rendition program. El-Masri and society as a whole have a right to know the truth.”

People familiar with the case believe that El-Masri is close to his psychological breaking point. He is said to still have hope that he will be exonerated and his tormentors will be held to account, but that hope is fading fast.

Followers of the El-Masri debacle have been heard to speculate about what the US reaction would be if Iran, rather than Germany or Macedonia, was playing the puppet master in this geo-kabuki theater.

Well, maybe they have a point. How long would it be before the neocons
were demanding drone strikes at the Iranian Supreme Court?

This article originally appeared in Prism Magazine

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Justice Delayed? Justice Cancelled?

By William Fisher

The time is late Autumn 2006. A middle-aged African American inmate sits in the jail cell in Arizona he has occupied for 24 years.

He has little reason to hope he’ll ever see the outside of this prison again – except for one possibly monumental new development – the perfection of a new approach to DNA testing that was not available at the time of his conviction.

He has requested the DNA tests and has heard rumors that such advanced testing is being done in his case – but he’s heard all the jailhouse rumors before and tends to minimize their value.

According to the Innocence Project, On June 22, 1981, Catherine Schilling, a 21-year-old Georgetown University student, was found raped and murdered in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. She was nude and had been shot five times in the head.

The Project reports that on July 20, 1981, Gates, 30, “was arrested for failing to appear in court on an unrelated case. Gates, who had been arrested six times for robbery and assault between 1980 and 1981, gave up a hair sample as part of a processing procedure.”

It’s what was done and said about hair samples and other forensics in the years ahead that would reveal enough lying and corruption to blow the lid off the so-called state of the art FBI Laboratory and force it to forfeit its reputation as the gold standard among forensic crime labs.

The Innocence Project reports that Gates was charged with the rape and murder after a police informant, Gerald Mack Smith, claimed that he and Gates were drinking in the park when Gates said he wanted to rob the victim, but when she resisted, he killed her.”

The Project added, “Smith later picked out Gates’ photo. He was paid $50 for the initial tip and $250 for picking out the photograph. In all, Smith would be paid $1,300 for his help on the case.”

Trial records and memoranda to this reporter from trial observers at Gates’ trial in 1982, reveal that key testimony came from FBI forensic analyst Michael Malone who said that Gates’ pubic hairs were “microscopically indistinguishable” from hairs found on the victim’s body.

On September 16, 1982, Gates was convicted. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.

In 1997, a scathing internal review of the FBI laboratory was conducted by the DOJ Inspector General, who found that Malone and other analysts made false reports on cases across the country and performed inaccurate laboratory tests.

In January 2002, the U.S. Justice Department sent a letter to prosecutors in the case, informing them that Malone’s lab report was not supported by his notes and advising them to determine whether the defense should be notified. The defense was not notified.

In 2007, Gates sought DNA testing again. Two years later, the request was granted and the tests, conducted on a sample of biological evidence found at the District of Columbia medical examiner’s office, eliminated him as the killer and rapist.

So a grievous miscarriage of justice was arguably corrected, albeit far too late. Nonetheless, it was a bittersweet moment for Gates, who was released on December 15, 2009 – after 27 years in prison.

On December 18, 2009, the charges were dismissed. Gates was given $75 and a bus ticket to Ohio.

But the joy for the system was short-lived. The reason is that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people had possibly been unlawfully tried and sentenced partly based on the junk science that applies to all forensics, with the exception of DNA. In Gates’s case, the analysis of his single hair was the only physical evidence introduced in court, and thus probably heavily responsible for his conviction.

In the many other trials that took place across the country before, during and after the Gates case, the approach to forensics had not changed. Forensic “scientists” were still intent on stretching a flimsy spandex shield over a mountain of unscientific interpretation.

The use of unscientific evidence to obtain convictions was not limited to Malone, according to Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, considered to be the premiere whistle-blower in this whole sordid episode.

It was Whitehurst and his colleagues, lawyer David Colapinto, and the staff at the National Whistleblowers’ Center, who kept this story alive. Dr. Whitehurst originally exposed forensic flaws that may have led to many wrongful convictions, as reported in last week’s Washington Post front-page story. For years, Dr. Whitehurst has urged the Justice Department to act on systemic flaws that he witnessed while serving as the top explosives expert in the FBI Crime Lab. The NWC and Whitehurst assisted the Washington Post in its investigation into the Justice Department's failure.

In response to the widespread outrage and condemnation of the FBI lab and Dr. Whitehurst's original whistleblower disclosures, the Justice Department formed a Task Force to review thousands of cases impacted by Dr. Whitehurst's allegations and to determine if any individuals were wrongly convicted.

Although the Justice Department and FBI pledged to correct their mistakes, documents obtained by the NWC through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suggest a government attempt to suppress embarrassing mistakes at the expense of innocent defendants, lawyer Colapinto said.

As reported by the Washington Post, convicted defendants were left uninformed of serious flaws in the forensic evidence presented in their cases long after the Justice Department had confirmed that serious problems existed, according to Colapinto.

When he left the FBI Crime Lab in 1998 after 16 years of service, Dr. Whitehurst vowed to continue his work to find all the defendants harmed by the FBI's misconduct. It was then he established the NWC's Forensic Justice Project.

Whitehurst said, “The (Washington ) Post came to us after the Washington DC Public Defender Sandra Levick proved Gates innocent with DNA evidence. It was only after I got out of the FBI that I started researching the Malone cases. I have a tremendous file that the Post also has that will show you the over 1800 files we have identified where Malone was involved.”

Sandra Levick found out about Gates as a result of a DOJ disclosure made to Gates' prior attorney that DOJ was looking at Gates' case as a result of the 1997 DOJ Inspector General report on FBI Lab practices and alleged misconduct raised by Whitehurst. DOJ never provided any further notification to the prior attorney about what happened. The judge appointed the Public Defender Service and the case was assigned to Levick.

Whitehurst adds, “The (then) Inspector General, Michael Bromwich, has publicly spoken in anger that nothing was done beyond the IG report about Malone. There are potentially thousands and thousands of victims of this subjective practice.”

However, the DOJ put together a Task Force, presumably to follow up on the IG investigation into the FBI Lab practices and to investigate and identify the other inmates convicted based on inaccurate forensic evidence. That Task Force convened for eight years (between 1996-2004) and the consensus among knowledgeable observers is that is achieved zero.

The Task Force first said it would fully examine all the cases that might have been infected by false evidence. Then they came up with about 250 cases, and announced they would only do paper reviews of the cases, not going back to examining evidence. They sent these paper assessments to the prosecutors of the respective cases, leaving it at the prosecutors’ discretion as to whether to share the information with defense counsel.

As Gates’s lawyers were never notified, hundreds of other defense lawyers were passed over as well.

The Task Force also consistently ignored instructions from presiding judges to send their reports up the food chain to their superiors.

Now Sandra Levick is writing to the D.C. judges requesting the assignment of a judge to sit for whatever remaining cases there are. She wrote:

“The investigation that the United States has thus far conducted (at least insofar as is known to undersigned counsel) has not been adequate to the task. It has been too narrow in scope, too one-sided in execution, and the results have been too slow in coming. Moreover, as more fully set forth in our letter of April 14, 2010 - to which the government has never responded – the investigation and its initial results lack transparency and an opportunity for meaningful adversarial or judicial oversight.”

“First, the government's investigation remains incomplete even by its own narrow terms. The United States reported on March 12, 2010, that there were "more than one hundred additional names.”

“Second, the United States has not responded to our request for a broader investigation to include all cases where the prosecution relied on FBI microscopic analysis of hair or fiber without DNA testing to obtain a conviction. As is more fully set forth in our letter of April 14, 2010, hair or fiber microscopy has been proven too lacking in a scientific basis and too unreliable to support the kind of testimony that was used to convict Mr. Gates and, it is feared, many others. This is so whether or not the individual examiner's integrity has been called into question as was Mr. Malone's.”

“Third, the United States has not responded to our request for a more transparent investigation and a greater opportunity for adversarial testing and judicial oversight. As is discussed at length in our April 14, 2010, letter, the United States risks repeating the failures of the DOJ Task Force and the United States Attorney's Office to apprise Mr. Gates of the results of the OIG Report by yet again resorting to a secret inquiry with respect to others who may have been affected.”

The court ordered DOJ to turn over its review of Gates case to Levick. DOJ never had transmitted the report to the prior attorney even though it had been completed many years before as part of he review of lab cases resulting from Whitehurst's allegations about the lab.

As it turned out, DOJ had conducted a paper review of Malone's work in the Gates case, but the review was not conclusive and no trial transcripts existed. Levick then asked the court for an order to locate the original hair evidence in Gates case for DNA testing. When the sample was later found the DNA test ruled out Gates thus contradicting Malone's testimony that the hair evidence matched Gates. As a result, the court released Gates in late 2009.

that “Malone's misconduct in cases was known in the FBI dating back to the 1980s and the knowledge that Malone was testifying falsely in many cases became more widespread as a result of Dr. Whitehurst’s whistle blowing and the subsequent IG investigation. DOJ was certainly on notice of the magnitude of the problem by the mid-1990s.”

Of the inmates and former inmates who were convicted with unlawful evidence, it is safe to say that no one knows precisely how many there are or where they are. Nor does the government appear to have any plan to identify them and provide new trials or rehearings. Some doubtless died in prison. Others have been paroled. But whistleblowers believe the bulk of prisoners continue to be prisoners.

And they vow to keep up the pressure until justice is done.

The FBI laboratory has once again assumed a position of credibility, largely based on DNA, the only scientific tool anywhere in the forensics lab. It is now located in a state-of-the art complex at Quantico Virginia.

But for those who pay attention when our government fails, the thousands of unlawfully convicted prisoners remain as a grim legacy caused by lies and corruption and faux science that will haunt the lab forever.

Steven Aftergood, editor of the Government Secrecy Report for the Federation of American Scientists, summed up the situation this way:

"It’s an astonishing, scandalous story. What we have is a systemic failure. It’s not just the FBI lab itself that failed, which it did, egregiously. So did the Justice Department, by withholding its knowledge of the matter from those who could have acted on it. So did congressional oversight, and so did the courts, by failing to demand and deliver accountability. The price was paid by those who were wrongfully convicted."

He added: "I would like to see some congressional involvement in charting a path forward, which should include providing remedies for past errors and developing new mechanisms for preventing future errors."