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Abu Zubaydah, Tortured Guantánamo Detainee, Makes Case for Release

Over 14 years in American custody, Abu Zubaydah has come to symbolize, perhaps more than any other prisoner, how fear of terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks changed the United States.

He was the first detainee to be waterboarded, and his brutal torture was documented in a Senate report. He is among those held without charges and with no likelihood of a trial. The government long ago admitted that he was never the top leader of Al Qaeda it claimed he was at the time of his capture in 2002, but it insists that he may still be dangerous.

In all that time, Mr. Zubaydah, now 45, had never been seen by the outside world. That changed on Tuesday, as his calm face was beamed via video feed from the Guantánamo Bay military prison to a Pentagon conference room.

In a long-postponed hearing, he argued, through a statement read by a uniformed soldier, that he posed no threat and should be released. A profile prepared by the Defense Department, also read aloud, concluded with unsettling ambiguity that he "probably retains an extremist mind-set."

The occasion was Mr. Zubaydah's first appearance before a Periodic Review Board, convened under the military detention system to determine whether a prisoner would pose a danger if released.

Under the convoluted rules that govern inmates at Guantánamo, Mr. Zubaydah did not speak during the open part of the hearing. But in the statement summarizing his views, Mr. Zubaydah declared that he "has no desire or intent to harm the United States or any other country."

Musing about what appeared to be a still-distant prospect, he said he wanted to be reunited with his family and "has some seed money that could be used to start a business."

A dozen reporters and human rights advocates watched the live video of the 17-minute unclassified part of the proceeding. No member of the public other than his lawyers had seen Mr. Zubaydah since his March 2002 capture in Pakistan, after a shootout in which he was badly injured.

Mr. Zubaydah may have spoken during the classified part of the hearing that followed the open session and was expected to last for several hours. A notice posted afterward said he had decided he did not want the redacted transcript made public.

The review panel, comparable to a civilian parole board, is composed of representatives of six security agencies who participated in the hearing from an undisclosed location in the Washington area. It will announce, a month or longer from now, whether it recommends the continued detention of Mr. Zubaydah or his transfer to another country.

Of 779 people held at Guantánamo since 2001, 61 remain. The government says about half are, like Mr. Zubaydah so far, impossible to put on trial but too dangerous to release.

Dressed in a white tunic and wearing a neatly trimmed beard, Mr. Zubaydah, whose mental stability has been questioned by some American officials, listened attentively, resting his chin on his right hand. He did not react visibly as officials read various statements about him. The eye patch that in earlier photographs covered his left eye, injured at some point after his capture, hung from a strap around his neck. He wore one pair of glasses and switched to another pair to read a document.

Mr. Zubaydah, born in Saudi Arabia to a family of Palestinian background, became a sort of travel agent, camp administrator and facilitator for militant fighters in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, after the ragtag force of Islamic soldiers known as the mujahedeen forced the Soviet Army out of the country.

But when he was shot and taken into American custody six months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he was the first significant suspect captured in an increasingly desperate global C.I.A. manhunt. At the time, American intelligence officials wrongly concluded that he was a top-ranking leader of Al Qaeda who might have knowledge of forthcoming plots.

Flown to a secret jail set up in a hurry by the C.I.A. in Thailand, Mr. Zubaydah was first questioned by F.B.I. agents using traditional rapport-building methods. One of the agents, Ali Soufan, who spoke Arabic and was steeped in the history of Al Qaeda, later wrote that Mr. Zubaydah willingly provided valuable information, identifying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the main planner of the Sept. 11 attacks and naming Jose Padilla, an American recruited by Al Qaeda.

But because they believed Mr. Zubaydah was the No. 3 leader of Al Qaeda, C.I.A. leaders insisted that he must be holding back information. Over the protests of the F.B.I. agents, and advised by two military psychologists who had no experience conducting interrogations, C.I.A. officials decided that only extreme physical force would break him.

As soon as approval was received from the Justice Department, Mr. Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding — 83 times water was poured over a cloth covering his mouth and nose to give him the feeling of drowning, records later showed. Distressed by his suffering, interrogators told C.I.A. supervisors that they thought he had no more information to offer — only to be ordered to continue the rough treatment.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the C.I.A. interrogation program later quoted an observer at the scene who described him at one point as "completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth."

At various times, he was subjected to the other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques: confined in a cramped box, kept awake for many days, exposed to cold, shackled in uncomfortable positions and slammed into a wall.

In their profile, posted on the web this week, military authorities gave a much-modified but still rather vague description of his history. It said he ran a "mujahedeen facilitation network" in the 1990s, "played a key role in Al Qaeda's communications" and had close contact with the No. 2 in Al Qaeda at the time.

He "possibly" had advance knowledge of the attacks on American embassies in East Africa in 1998 and the bombing of the American destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000, the profile said. He was "generally aware" of planning for the 9/11 attacks, it said, and "possibly" coordinated training at a camp called Khalden when two of the future hijackers were there.

Mr. Zubaydah "most actively plotted attacks against Israel," the profile also said, was convicted in absentia on terrorism-related charges in Jordan and took an active role in discussing possible further attacks against the United States after 9/11. Though he has been cooperative in prison, he might join former colleagues in planning attacks if released, the profile said.

But Mr. Zubaydah told his "personal representatives" — the two members of the military assigned to speak with him — that he had no intention of committing terrorist acts. He "repeatedly said that the Islamic State is out of control and has gone too far," the personal representatives said in their statement. (Officials said detainees have access to live television and radio in multiple languages, in addition to two Arabic newspapers, enabling them to keep up with world events.)

One of his lawyers, Joseph Margulies, a professor of law and government at Cornell, who did not attend the hearing, said that in their conversations Mr. Zubaydah "has always been completely honest. He believes in defending Muslims who are under attack." But he "has always said innocent civilians are never a legitimate target," Mr. Margulies said.

Despite the government's shifting accusations, Mr. Margulies said, his client was never a member of Al Qaeda and has never been charged with a crime by American authorities.

"He's the poster child for the torture program, and that's why they never want him to be heard from again," Mr. Margulies said.

[Source: By Scott Shane, International New York Times, Washington, 23Aug16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 25Aug16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.