U.S. drops charges against 5 Guantanamo captives

MIAMI Tue Oct 21, 2008 5:31pm EDT

A guard tower of Camp Delta is seen at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba September 4, 2007. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

A guard tower of Camp Delta is seen at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba September 4, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Joe Skipper

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MIAMI (Reuters) - The Pentagon official overseeing the Guantanamo war crimes court dismissed all charges against five prisoners on Tuesday, including a British resident who says he falsely confessed to a radioactive "dirty bomb" plot while being tortured.

All five cases were assigned to military prosecutor Army Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who quit his Guantanamo assignment last month because he said the U.S. government had withheld information that could help clear an Afghan defendant in an unrelated case.

The Defense Department gave no reason for dropping the charges but said new prosecutors had been appointed to review the cases and could refile the charges later.

The latest setback for the much-criticized Guantanamo court system came after the U.S. government declined to pursue the dirty bomb charges in a Washington court case challenging the detention of Ethiopian-born British resident Binyam Mohamed.

Mohamed, who was captured in Pakistan in 2002, had said repeatedly in court documents that he is innocent and gave false confessions while being tortured in a Moroccan prison. He had been transferred there extrajudicially and held for 18 months before being sent to Guantanamo.

He said he was beaten, strung up by his arms and cut on the chest and penis with scalpels and told interrogators what they wanted to hear so they would stop.

The Pentagon spelled his surname Mohammed but his civilian lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, says Mohamed is correct. He predicted the charges would be refiled after the November 4 U.S. presidential election.

"This is more of the Guantanamo farce, sadly. Instead of delivering justice, the military tries to hide all the mistakes and crimes that have been committed, including 18 months of torture of Mr. Mohamed in Morocco," Stafford Smith said by e-mail.

Six military prosecutors have quit the Guantanamo court in the last four years. Some said the U.S. government sought to use evidence obtained through torture while one alleged the trials were tainted by political interference.

"The implosion of these five prosecutions painfully underscores how the Bush administration's torture and detention policies have failed to render justice in any sense of the word," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The United States accused Mohamed, who had refugee status in Britain, of training and plotting attacks on targets in the United States with Jose Padilla, a Chicago gang member once also accused by the Bush administration of plotting a radioactive bomb attack.

DROPPED CHARGES

Padilla was never charged with that crime but was convicted in a Miami court of providing support for terrorism and sentenced to 17 years in prison.

The Pentagon appointee overseeing the Guantanamo tribunals, Susan Crawford, dropped all charges against Mohamed, Saudi Arabian captives Jabran al Qahtani and Ghassan al Sharbi, Algerian Sufyian Barhoumi, and Sudanese Noor Uthman Muhammed, the Defense Department said in a statement.

They had been charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism, among other things.

The charges alleged that Qahtani, Sharbi and Barhoumi trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan then traveled to Pakistan, where Barhoumi taught the others to build remote-control detonators for car bombs to be used against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Muhammed, the Sudanese captive, was alleged to have been an al Qaeda weapons trainer at a camp in Afghanistan.

Military prosecutors have filed charges against 24 Guantanamo captives since the current war crimes court was established in 2006, but Crawford has now dismissed all charges against six of them without public explanation.

She upheld charges on Tuesday against another Guantanamo prisoner, Afghan captive Mohammed Hashim, clearing the way for his trial on charges of providing material support for terrorism and spying on U.S. troops in his homeland. Prosecutors allege he took part in at least one al Qaeda rocket attack. He would face life in prison if convicted.

The Guantanamo tribunals were established after the September 11 attacks to try non-American captives whom the Bush administrations considers "unlawful enemy combatants" who are not entitled to the legal protections granted to soldiers and civilians.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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