Alleged 9/11 plotter’s torture takes center stage in Guantanamo hearings

Phoebe Leila Barghouty
Phoebe Leila Barghouty - Special to Al Arabiya English
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As the 28th pre-trial hearings come to a close for the five alleged planners of the September 11th, 2001 attacks, the defense team for Ammar al-Baluchi used time on Thursday to argue that the United States’ withholding of key information regarding the government’s notorious torture program makes the court proceedings inherently unfair.

Though al-Baluchi himself, according to the court, chose not to attend Thursday’s hearing, his defense team came ready to argue passionately on his behalf. Alka Pradhan, human rights counsel for al-Baluchi, took to the podium to remind presiding judge, Colonel James Pohl, that the abuse experienced by her client is not something either party should allow themselves to gloss over. The enhanced interrogation techniques used on al-Baluchi at CIA black sites are a key facet of the case - not just a minor detail.

In lieu of allowing the defense team to access the top-secret original documentation of the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program - which includes details on torture techniques used on detainees while they were secretly held by the CIA - the judge allowed the defense to access approved summaries of this information. These summaries, Pradhan argued, not only provide a purposefully vague account of her client’s time in CIA custody, but they are riddled with inconsistencies. Additionally, only a very small portion of the promised documents have been handed over to the defense.

“There is no way we can rely on the summaries,” Pradhan said in court, “there is just no way.”

Visibly frustrated by Pradhan’s persistence on the topic, Judge Pohl reminded Pradhan that the purpose of the summaries, which he authorized, is to give the defense team as much information as they need, without compromising national security.

All members of the defense team hold top-secret security clearance, the highest level determined by the US government. Theoretically, this means that the documents in question are not beyond the team’s security clearance level. Still, while the defense argues that they require all the details of al-Baluchi’s detention from his capture to his arrival at Guantanamo, the prosecution seems determined to limit the defense’s access to this information.

Pradhan and her colleagues argued that it is impossible to construct any meaningful timeline of al-Baluchi’s from the limited information they’ve been given. While prosecution attorney Jeffery Groharing took the floor to claim that no significant edits or mistakes were made to the summaries to mislead the defense, Pradhan kept her argument consistently centered around the inhumane practice of torture and the unfairness of withholding information useful for al-Baluchi’s defense.

“Torture is the nasty center of this case,” she said before judge Pohl.

When Pradhan attempted several times to list detailed examples of factual discrepancies from the summarized documents, Judge Pohl appeared to meet some of these attempts with impatience.

“I don’t want to hear it twice,” he said at one point. Later, he ironically urged, “we’re kind of beating all this to death.”

In the closing presser for the week’s hearings, lead counsel for al Baluchi noted that “it has been said torture is the original sin of the military commissions, and this week was certainly a vivid exhibition of that principle.”

While it’s unlikely that the judge will make a ruling on Pradhan’s argument any time soon, it is clear that many members of the defense team feel that their clients are not receiving the due process thought to be guaranteed by the law. Pre-trial hearings like this week’s have been ongoing for several years. It is unclear when an official trial will begin.

Al-Baluchi faces several charges related to facilitating and financing the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the United States. It is believed that he was arrested in 2003, and tortured at CIA black site Cobalt in Afghanistan. He is currently being detained indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay.

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