By: Human Rights Watch
A lawsuit filed today against U.S. 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. 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,
Illinois, 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
U.S. 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
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 on occasion he has been denied basic hygiene products
such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and toilet paper. When not provided with
toilet paper, he has had to use his hands to clean himself after he defecates,
and it has taken more than an hour before soap was brought to him so that he
could wash his hands. 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
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. Military personnel guarding him would not talk to him other than to give
him orders. In October 2004, the government finally agreed to let him have access
Al-Marri is a devout Muslim. According to his complaint, military officials
have not permitted him to meet with a Muslim cleric, do not let him have a prayer
mat and 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 also claims he has been denied appropriate care for medical and mental
health symptoms he has developed while in the brig. Prolonged solitary confinement
pushes the boundary of what humans can psychologically tolerate. It can cause
serious mental damage.
Al-Marri is a citizen of Qatar who lawfully resided in the United States, having
come with his wife and children to obtain a graduate degree at Bradley University
in Peoria, Illinois, the same university from which he had earned a bachelor's
degree 10 years earlier. The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested al-Marri
at his home in December 2001 as a material witness in the investigation of the
September 11 attacks, 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, and 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,
South Carolina. 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. Holding someone in military custody without charges because
of such a designation constitutes a violation of the prohibition against arbitrary
detention under international law. By treating al-Marri as an "enemy combatant,"
the Bush administration made an end-run around the due process and other constitutional
guarantees of the U.S. criminal justice system.
Human Rights Watch disputes the government's contention that the laws of war
permit holding al-Marri indefinitely and without charges. Those laws are not
applicable outside areas of armed conflict and where there is no direct connection
to an armed conflict. In the case of a civilian detained within the United States—whether
or not affiliated with any terrorist organization—international human
rights and constitutional law require that he be formally charged and given
a fair trial before a civilian court.
Al-Marri is one of three men whom President Bush has designated as enemy combatants
in the U.S. campaign against terrorism and who have been confined within the
territorial United States. Lawyers for all three went to court challenging the
lawfulness of their 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 commit terrorist
acts in the United States. 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.