A lawsuit filed Aug. 8 against US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reveals the gratuitous cruelty inflicted on a foreign student held without charges for more than two years as an “enemy combatant” in a South Carolina naval brig, Human Rights Watch said in a press release. Although three men have been confined in the United States after being designated “enemy combatants” by President George Bush, the complaint by Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri provides the first look into the treatment of any of them in military custody.
Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a citizen of Qatar who had been studying in Peoria, IL, before his arrest, asked the federal district court in South Carolina to declare unconstitutional the severe and unnecessary deprivations and restrictions to which he has been subjected since he was placed in military custody in June 2003. Al-Marri had already initiated habeas proceedings challenging the legality of his detention as an enemy combatant. That case continues.
“It is bad enough that al-Marri has been held indefinitely without charges and incommunicado,” said Jamie Fellner, director of Human Rights Watch’s US Program. “Now we learn that his life in the brig has also been one of cruelty and petty vindictiveness. Whatever the Bush administration believes he has done or wanted to do, there’s no excuse for how they are treating him.”
Al-Marri’s complaint describes virtually complete isolation from the world. He has been confined round the clock in a small cell with an opaque window covered with plastic. He has not been allowed to speak to his wife or five children. He is allowed no newspapers, magazines, books (other than the Koran), radio or television. He is allowed no personal property. His cell contains a steel bed, a sink and a toilet. During the day, the mattress on his bed has been removed. Out-of-cell time has been limited to three showers and three short periods of solitary recreation a week—but al-Marri has frequently been denied even that out-of-cell time. Once he went 60 days without being permitted to leave his cell at all. When bad weather prevents him from going outside, he must remain in hand cuffs and leg irons during his indoor recreation. Leg irons and handcuffs are placed on him when he goes to the shower.
Al-Marri alleges that he has often been denied basic hygiene products such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and toilet paper, and that the water in his cell has frequently been turned off. He has been denied socks or footwear for months at a time, including during the winter months. Officers at the brig often lower the temperature in his cell until it becomes exceedingly cold, but they do not give him extra clothes or blankets to keep warm.
According to al-Marri’s complaint, he has not been formally interrogated for almost one year. He states, however, that when he was interrogated, government officials threatened he would be sent to Egypt or Saudi Arabia, where they told him he would be tortured and sodomized and his wife would be raped in front of him.
For more than a year, al-Marri was not allowed to speak with any non-governmental personnel other than representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In October 2004, the government finally agreed to let him have access to counsel.
According to his complaint, military officials have not permitted him to meet with a Muslim cleric, deny him have a prayer mat and threatene to punish him if he follows his religion’s requirement to cover his head while he prays (he uses a shirt for this purpose). They do not tell him which way Mecca lies, so he does not know in which direction to pray; nor do they provide him with a clock, so he does not know when to pray.
“It’s the combination of restrictions imposed on al-Marri that offends basic norms of decency,” said Fellner. “There is no security justification for them. The Pentagon apparently believes it can hold him under any conditions they choose for as long as they choose.”
Al-Marri is a citizen of Qatar who lawfully resided in the US, having come with his wife and children to obtain a graduate degree at Bradley University in Peoria, where he had earned a bachelor’s degree 10 years earlier. The FBI arrested al-Marri at his home in December 2001 as a material witness in the 9-11 investigation, and he was subsequently indicted on federal charges of credit card fraud and lying to the FBI.
In 2003, President Bush designated al-Marri an enemy combatant. Shortly before his criminal trial was to begin, the criminal charges against him were dismissed, and he was sent to the Consolidated Naval Brig in North Charleston, SC. Lawyers for al-Marri immediately challenged the president’s actions in federal district court in Illinois, where his criminal case had been pending, but the courts ultimately held that this challenge had to be brought in the district where al-Marri was presently confined. On July 7, 2004, counsel for al-Marri filed a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court in South Carolina, challenging the lawfulness of his detention. On July 8, 2005, the court ruled that President Bush has the authority to detain non-citizens who had been residing in the United States as enemy combatants.
Human Rights Watch condemns the designation by presidential order of any civilian as an “enemy combatant” when the individual was detained far from any battlefield, calling the practice a violation of the prohibition against arbitrary detention under international law.
Al-Marri is one of three men designated as enemy combatants and confined within the territorial United States. Lawyers for all three went to court challenging the detentions. The government in each case insisted the president has the authority to decide unilaterally who is an enemy combatant and that anyone so designated is not entitled to a judicial hearing.
The first case was that of Yassir Hamdi, a US citizen turned over to U.S. forces during the fighting in Afghanistan. In June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that he was entitled to his day in court; the United States chose not to proceed with a hearing and allowed Hamdi to go to Saudi Arabia, where he also held citizenship.
The second designated enemy combatant was Jose Padilla, a US citizen detained at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport upon his return from the Middle East. According to the Bush administration, Padilla had plotted with al-Qaeda to carry out terror attacks in the US. In June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled he had to bring his case before the federal district court in South Carolina, where he is being confined in the same navy brig as al-Marri. On February 28, 2005, the federal district court in South Carolina ruled that President Bush had “no power, neither express nor implied, neither constitutional nor statutory” to hold Padilla as an enemy combatant.
See our last post on the ongoing torture scandal.