Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hope Dies at Guantánamo

By Marjorie Cohn

The following article originally ppeared in Jurist.

The tragic case of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif hit a dead end when the US

Supreme Court issued an order refusing to hear his case last week.

Latif, a Yemeni man, has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since

January 2002, after being detained while traveling to seek medical


Latif had suffered serious head injuries as the result of a car

accident in 1994, and the Yemeni government paid for him to receive

treatment in Jordan at that time. But his medical problems persisted,

and in 1999 Yemen's Ministry of Public Health recommended that Latif

undergo tests, therapy and surgical procedures at his own expense.

Unable to afford it, Latif said he left Yemen in 2001 with the help of

a charitable worker to seek free medical treatment in Pakistan. When

he was picked up in Afghanistan — on his way to Pakistan — and

transferred to US custody in December 2001, Latif had his medical

records with him.

After a kangaroo court proceeding, a Combatant Status Review Tribunal

at Guantanamo declared Latif to be an "enemy combatant." He was not

allowed to attend the hearing, nor was he permitted to see the

evidence against him. Instead of a lawyer, he was given a "Personal

Representative" — a military officer who did not represent Latif's


Four years ago, the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration's

argument that the detainees at Guantanamo had no right to contest the

legality of their confinement in US courts. In Boumediene v. Bush, the

Court upheld the habeas corpus rights of the detainees, saying they

must be given "a meaningful opportunity" to challenge their detention.

Latif petitioned a federal district court for a writ of habeas corpus.

The Obama administration opposed the petition, relying on information

from an interrogation report. Large sections of the report were

blacked out, so it is difficult to know exactly what the report says.

But we do know that, according to the report, Latif admitted to being

recruited for jihad, receiving weapons training from the Taliban and

serving on the front line with other Taliban troops. Latif said his

interrogators garbled his words so that their summary bears no

relation to what he actually said.

In the US District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Henry

Kennedy granted Latif's habeas petition, concluding that it could not

"credit the information [in the Report] because there is serious

question as to whether the [Report] accurately reflects Latif's words,

the incriminating facts in the [Report] are not corroborated, and

Latif has presented a plausible alternative story to explain his

travel." It troubled Judge Kennedy that, "[n]o other detainee saw

Latif at a training camp or in battle. No other detainee told

interrogators that he fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan, from Tora

Bora or any other location, with Latif. No other type of evidence

links Latif to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, a guest house, or a training


Particularly significant to Judge Kennedy was that the "fundamentals

[of Latif's story] have remained the same." More than a dozen

interrogation summaries and statements contained "[Latif's] adamant

denials of any involvement with al Qaida [sic] or the Taliban; his

serious head injury from a car accident in Yemen; his inability to pay

for the necessary medical treatment; and his expectation and hope that

[the charitable worker] would get him free medical care."

Judge Kennedy also reasoned that errors in the report support "an

inference that poor translation, sloppy note taking . . . [blacked

out] . . . or some combination of those factors resulted in an

incorrect summary of Latif's words." The fact that Latif was found in

possession of his medical papers when seized, according to the judge,

"corroborat[ed]" Latif's "plausible" story.

The government appealed the district court ruling to the conservative

US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which

reversed the grant of habeas corpus. The appellate court admitted that

the interrogation report was "prepared in stressful and chaotic

conditions, filtered through interpreters, subject to transcription

errors, and heavily redacted [parts blacked out] for national security

purposes." But for the first time, the DC Circuit held that government

reports must be accorded a "presumption of regularity." That means

they will be presumed to be true unless the detainee can rebut that


Judge Janice Rogers Brown, who wrote the opinion for the two judges in

the majority on the three-judge appellate panel, twisted Boumediene's

statement that "innovation" could be used in habeas corpusproceedings

into a "presumption of regularity" in government reports. Judge Brown

criticized "Boumediene's airy suppositions."

The dissenting appellate judge, David S. Tatel, noted that, in

practice, the presumption of regularity will compel courts to

rubber-stamp government detentions because "it suggest[s] that

whatever the government says must be true." He concluded that the

report in Latif's case was inherently unreliable because "it

contain[s] multiple layers of hearsay." Judge Tatel accused the

majority of denying Latif the "meaningful opportunity" to contest the

lawfulness of his detention that Boumediene guarantees.

When seven detainees whose petitions had been denied by the DC

Circuit, including Latif, took their cases to the Supreme Court, they

hoped the high court would do justice. During the Bush administration,

the Court had struck down illegal and unjust executive policies. These

included the denial of habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees,

the refusal to afford due process to US citizens caught in the "war on

terror" and theholding of military commissions because they violated

the Uniform Code of Military Justice and theGeneva Conventions.

But hope for justice died last week when the Court refused to even

consider the propriety of the appellate court's denial of habeas

corpus to those seven detainees. Henceforth, detainees who lose in the

DC Circuit cannot expect the Supreme Court to give them relief. Their

last stop will be at one of the most right-wing circuits in the

country, which overturns or delays all release orders by federal

judges if the government objects.

The Supreme Court's refusal to review the appellate court decisions in

these cases has rendered Boumedienea dead letter. Since 2008,

two-thirds of detainees who have filed habeas corpus petitions have

won at the district court level, yet not one of them has been released

by judicial order. Judge Tatel wrote that "it is hard to see what is

left of the Supreme Court's command in Boumediene that habeas review

be 'meaningful.'"

Like many men at Guantanamo, Latif went on a hunger strike to assert

the only power he had in the face of utter hopelessness — the power to

refuse food. He was force-fed for three months, which, he says, "is

like having a dagger shoved down your throat." As attorney Marc D.

Falkoff writes in his chapter about Latif inThe United States and

Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse, "[t]he United

Nations Commission on Human Rights calls this torture."

Of the 800 men and boys held at Guantanamo since 2002, 169 remain. Of

those prisoners, 87 have had their release approved by military review

boards established during the Bush administration, and later by the

Guantanamo Review Task Force established by President Obama in 2009.

Yet they continue to languish in the prison camp.

In her opinion, Judge Brown wrote, "Luckily, this is a shrinking

category of cases. The ranks of Guantanamo detainees will not be

replenished." Indeed, Obama has sent only one new prisoner to

Guantanamo. His strategy is to assassinate "suspected militants" or

people present in "suspicious areas" with drones, obviating the

necessity of incarcerating them and dealing with their detention in

court. As Judge Brown ominously observed, "Boumediene's logic is

compelling: take no prisoners. Point taken."


Marjorie Cohn is a Professor of Law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law

and past president of the National Lawyers Guild. She is editor of "The

United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse,"

released earlier this year in paperback by NYU Press.