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Context of 'February 16, 2009: Attorney: Handling of Al-Marri Case Will Signal Obama’s Approach to Terrorist Detentions'

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Lawyers for alleged enemy combatant Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri (see December 12, 2001) file papers with the court asserting that al-Marri was systematically abused by FBI and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) interrogators while in military custody. Al-Marri continues to be held in the Naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina (see June 23, 2003). Additionally, al-Marri was told that cabinets full of videotapes of his interrogations exist, according to the legal filings. Al-Marri has been in federal detention, without charge, since 2003. The New York Times has reported that about 50 videotapes of interrogation sessions with al-Marri and fellow detainee Jose Padilla (see May 8, 2002) were recently found by Pentagon officials (see March 13, 2008). DIA spokesman Donald Black admits that one tape shows al-Marri being gagged with duct tape, but says that al-Marri brought that treatment upon himself by chanting loudly and disruptively. One of al-Marri’s lawyers, Jonathan Hafetz, says that the treatment al-Marri has been forced to endure is far worse than anything Black describes—al-Marri, Hafetz says, has been subjected to stress positions, sensory deprivation, and threats of violence or death. “On several occasions, interrogators stuffed Mr. al-Marri’s mouth with cloth and covered his mouth with heavy duct tape,” says the legal filings. “The [duct] tape caused Mr. al-Marri serious pain. One time, when Mr. al-Marri managed to loosen the tape with his mouth, interrogators re-taped his mouth even more tightly. Mr. al-Marri started to choke until a panicked agent from the FBI or Defense Intelligence Agency removed the tape.” [United Press International, 3/13/2008; Washington Post, 3/31/2008]

Entity Tags: Donald Black, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, Defense Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Jonathan Hafetz, Jose Padilla

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Jonathan Hafetz of the American Civil Liberties Union calls the case of alleged al-Qaeda detainee Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri (see June 23, 2003) a key test of “the most far-reaching use of detention powers” ever asserted by the executive branch. Al-Marri has spent five years incarcerated in the Charleston Naval Brig without being charged with a crime. “If President Obama is serious about restoring the rule of law in America, they can’t defend what’s been done to Marri. They would be completely buying into the Bush administration’s war on terror,” he says. Hafetz, who is scheduled to represent al-Marri before the Supreme Court in April, compares the Bush administration’s decision to leave al-Marri in isolation to his client’s being stranded on a desert island. “It’s a Robinson Crusoe-like situation,” he adds. Hafetz says that among the issues to be decided is “the question of who is a soldier, and who is a civilian.” He continues: “Is the fight against terrorism war, or is it not war? How far does the battlefield extend? In the past, they treated Peoria as a battlefield. Can an American be arrested in his own home and jailed indefinitely, on the say-so of the president?” Hafetz wants the Court to declare indefinite detention by executive fiat illegal. He also hopes President Obama will withdraw al-Marri’s designation as an enemy combatant and reclassify him as a civilian; such a move would allow al-Marri to either be charged with crimes and prosecuted, or released entirely. Civil liberties and other groups on both sides of the political divide have combined to file 18 amicus briefs with the Court, all on al-Marri’s behalf. The al-Marri decision will almost certainly impact the legal principles governing the disposal of the approximately 240 detainees still being held at Guantanamo.
Opinion of Former Bush Administration Officials - Former Bush State Department counsel John Bellinger says of his counterparts in the Obama administration: “They will have to either put up or shut up. Do they maintain the Bush administration position, and keep holding [al-]Marri as an enemy combatant? They have to come up with a legal theory.” He says that Obama officials will find it more difficult to put their ideals into action: “Governing is different from campaigning,” he notes, and adds that Obama officials will soon learn that “they can’t just set the clocks back eight years, and try every terror suspect captured abroad in the federal courts.” Former Attorney General John Ashcroft calls keeping al-Marri and other “enemy combatants” locked away without charges or trials a “sound decision” to “maximize the national interest,” and says that in the end, Obama’s approach will be much like Bush’s. “How will he be different?” he asks. “The main difference is going to be that he spells his name ‘O-b-a-m-a,’ not ‘B-u-s-h.’”
Current Administration's Opinion - Obama spokesman Larry Craig sums up the issue: “One way we’ve looked at this is that we own the solution. We don’t own the problem—it was created by the previous administration. But we’ll be held accountable for how we handle this.” [New Yorker, 2/23/2009]

Entity Tags: John Ashcroft, Barack Obama, American Civil Liberties Union, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, Bush administration (43), US Supreme Court, Obama administration, Jonathan Hafetz, Larry Craig, John Bellinger

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Federal prosecutors charge Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, the only “enemy combatant” held on US soil (see June 23, 2003), with criminal terrorism charges. Al-Marri is charged with two counts of providing material support to al-Qaeda and conspiring with others to provide material support to al-Qaeda, according to a press release from the Justice Department. He faces a maximum jail sentence of 30 years. US Attorney Rodger Heaton says: “The indictment alleges that Ali al-Marri provided material support to al-Qaeda, which has committed horrific terrorist acts against our nation. As a result, he will now face the US criminal justice system, where his guilt or innocence will be determined by a jury in open court.” Such a decision takes al-Marri out of the military commissions system and places him in the US criminal judicial system. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is representing al-Marri’s Supreme Court challenge to the “enemy combatant” designation, but criminal charges will not necessarily resolve that issue. Part of the discussion of whether to charge al-Marri centered on the evidence against him: al-Marri’s lawyers claim that much of the evidence against their client was obtained through harsh interrogation techniques and torture, which would render that evidence inadmissible in a US court. Some of the evidence may also be too sensitive to reveal in open court, having been gathered through classified intelligence operations. Lead counsel Jonathan Hafetz says: “[T]he decision to charge al-Marri is an important step in restoring the rule of law and is what should have happened seven years ago when he was first arrested (see February 8, 2002). But it is vital that the Supreme Court case go forward because it must be made clear once and for all that indefinite military detention of persons arrested in the US is illegal and that this will never happen again.” Amnesty International’s Geneve Mantri calls the decision to charge al-Marri “another crucial step in the right direction,” and adds: “If there are individuals who pose a real threat to the United States, the best, most effective means of dealing with them is the current system of justice. There are a number of outstanding questions about how the detainee cases will be reviewed and what the approach of the new administration will be, but Amnesty International welcomes this as an indication that they have faith in the US justice system and rule of law.” [US Department of Justice, 2/27/2009; Washington Post, 2/27/2009; American Civil Liberties Union, 2/27/2009] The ACLU wants the Supreme Court to ignore the criminal charges and rule on al-Marri’s petition for habeas corpus rights; the Justice Department says that the criminal charges render al-Marri’s lawsuit moot. [Lyle Denniston, 2/26/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Amnesty International, American Civil Liberties Union, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, Geneve Mantri, US Supreme Court, Jonathan Hafetz, Rodger A. Heaton

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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