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The USS Peleliu. [Source: Zack Baddor / AP]Human rights groups claim that the US is operating “floating prisons” as detention facilities for prisoners taken in the “war on terror.” The groups claim that the US is keeping prisoners aboard ships such as the USS Ashland, the USS Bataan, and the USS Peleliu (see December 27, 2001), and say that the Americans refuse to admit to the existence of such detainees. The human rights group Reprieve has asked that the US list the names and whereabouts of such “ghost detainees” held aboard US vessels. The existence of the detainees has come to light from a number of sources, including statements from US military officials, information provided by the Council of Europe and other parliamentary bodies, and prisoner testimonies (see June 2, 2008).
Details of Detentions - Reprieve says the US has used as many as 17 ships as “floating prisons” since 2001. While aboard, the prisoners are interrogated, then rendered to undisclosed locations. Fifteen of those ships may have operated around the British territory of Diego Garcia, which hosts a large British-American military base (see July 27, 1971-May 26, 1973 and After February 7, 2002). According to information obtained by Reprieve, in early 2007, the Ashland was involved in the detention and rendering of over 100 individuals abducted by Somali, Kenyan, and Ethiopian forces during an upsurge of fighting in Somalia, and then interrogated by FBI and CIA agents. Those individuals have now disappeared, but many are believed to be held in prisons in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Guantanamo Bay, among other possible sites. One prisoner released from Guantanamo has retold the account of a fellow inmate’s detention: “[H]e was in the cage next to me. He told me that there were about 50 other people on the ship. They were all closed off in the bottom of the ship. The prisoner commented to me that it was like something you see on TV. The people held on the ship were beaten even more severely than in Guantanamo.” Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s legal director, says the US military “choose ships to try to keep their misconduct as far as possible from the prying eyes of the media and lawyers. We will eventually reunite these ghost prisoners with their legal rights.… By its own admission, the US government is currently detaining at least 26,000 people without trial in secret prisons, and information suggests up to 80,000 have been ‘through the system’ since 2001 (see November 17, 2005). The US government must show a commitment to rights and basic humanity by immediately revealing who these people are, where they are, and what has been done to them.”
British Officials Ask for Accountability - Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative MP who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition, says both the US and British governments must own up to their practices of rendition and “ghost detainees.” “Little by little, the truth is coming out on extraordinary rendition,” he says. “The rest will come, in time. Better for governments to be candid now, rather than later. Greater transparency will provide increased confidence that President Bush’s departure from justice and the rule of law in the aftermath of September 11 is being reversed, and can help to win back the confidence of moderate Muslim communities, whose support is crucial in tackling dangerous extremism.” Tyrie has requested that an investigation into the use of Diego Garcia as a rendition refueling stop be undertaken (see June 2, 2008). Liberal Democrat MP Edward Davey adds: “If the Bush administration is using British territories to aid and abet illegal state abduction, it would amount to a huge breach of trust with the British government. Ministers must make absolutely clear that they would not support such illegal activity, either directly or indirectly.” A US Naval spokesman says that none of its vessels have “detention facilities,” but admits that some detainees had been put on ships “for a few days” during their initial days of detention. He refuses to comment on reports that US Naval vessels stationed in or near Diego Garcia had been used as “prison ships.” [Guardian, 6/2/2008]
The British human rights organization Reprieve claims that the US has detained around 26,000 terror suspects in its network of secret prisons. It also says that several prisoners were held on a network of secret prison ships, both for detention and for interrogation sessions that were held “off the books.” The prisoners allegedly included American-born John Walker Lindh (see December 2001-January 2002) and Australian David Hicks (see July 3, 2003). Reprieve says that the US has used ships stationed off the Somali coast and off the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia to detain suspects (see June 2, 2008), including the USS Ashland, the USS Bataan, and the USS Peleliu; up to 17 naval vessels have been used, the group says. The Navy admits that its ships have sometimes housed prisoners for short periods of time, but denies that its vessels are used as long-term floating prisons. “We do not operate detention facilities on board Navy ships,” says Navy Commander Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman. Reprieve bases its claims on evidence from the US military, the Council of Europe, and testimony from a former detainee at the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. [Associated Press, 6/2/2008]
Federal Judge Richard Leon rules that the US government has unlawfully held five Algerian men at Guantanamo for nearly seven years (see January 18, 2002). Leon orders their release. Leon rules that the government’s case, based on a slender compilation of classified evidence, was too weak to justify the five men’s continued detention. The government’s case is based on a single “classified document from an unnamed source” for its central claim against the men, and the court has no way to accurately judge its credibility. “To rest on so thin a reed would be inconsistent with this court’s obligation,” Leon writes. He urges the Bush administration not to appeal the ruling, and recommends that they be released “forthwith.” Leon rules that a sixth Algerian, Bensayah Belkacem (see October 8, 2001), is being lawfully detained due to his demonstrable ties with al-Qaeda. The six are among the Guantanamo inmates who won a narrowly decided Supreme Court case recognizing their right to seek redress in the US court system (see June 22, 2008), and include Lakhdar Boumediene, for whom the Court’s ruling was named. Leon, a Republican appointee previously considered sympathetic to the Bush administration’s position on the detention of suspects, urges the government not to appeal his ruling: such an appeal could take as much as two years, and, he notes, “Seven years of waiting for our legal system to give them an answer to a question so important is, in my judgment, more than plenty.” If the government chooses not to appeal, the lawyers for the detainees expect them to be released into Bosnia, where they were arrested in early 2002. The Justice Department calls the ruling “perhaps an understandable consequence of the fact that neither the Supreme Court nor Congress has provided rules on how these habeas corpus cases should proceed in this unprecedented context.” One of the detainees’ lawyers, Robert Kirsch, says the case illustrates “the human cost of what can happen when mistakes are made at the highest levels of our government, and no one has the courage to acknowledge those mistakes.” Other detainee lawyers say the case is a broad repudiation of the Bush administration’s attempts to use the Guantanamo facility to avoid the scrutiny of US judges. Lawyer Zachary Katznelson, a member of the British human rights group Reprieve, says, “The decision by Judge Leon lays bare the scandalous basis on which Guantánamo has been based—slim evidence of dubious quality.” The case was not strengthened by the Bush administration’s pursuit of it: originally the six were charged with planning a bomb attack on the US Embassy in Sarajevo, Bosnia, but in October, Justice Department lawyers abruptly withdrew those accusations. [New York Times, 11/20/2008; National Review, 11/20/2008] The five will be released the following month (see December 2008).
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