Binyam Mohamed is the last detainee at Guantanamo Bay who has the right to British residency. He was born in Ethiopia in 1978 and came to Britain at the age of 16, before departing for the Afghan maelstrom in early 2001. Binyam and his lawyers say that he went to Afghanistan, and later to Pakistan, to reform himself and get over a drug habit; the struggle for self-improvement that is incumbent on every Muslim. In a familiar twist on a familiar story, American authorities say that his real goal was somewhat less prosaic and more violent.
Binyam stands accused of the following, although he has not yet been formally charged. It is alleged that he trained in a variety of weapons and explosives at one of al-Qaeda's most notorious camps; met Osama bin Laden; fought against the Northern Alliance - but not U.S. forces - in Afghanistan; and volunteered and plotted to carry out mass casualty terrorist attacks against the continental United States.
According to the U.S. government, Binyam was captured in Pakistan "on or about April 10, 2002" as he attempted to fly to London. On or about - so we do not even know this for sure. The reason that we do not know this for sure is because "on or about" April the 10th, Binyam entered the shadowy world of extraordinary rendition and ghost prisons operated by the CIA. He says that he was held in Pakistan until July of that year, and it is not known when British or American officials first became aware of him - it is routine for the Pakistanis to sit on suspects such as him for their own purposes, or to reveal that they have been captured when it is politically expedient.
Binyam says that sometime during this time in Pakistan he had a meeting with British intelligence officials, who offered him a heavily sweetened cup of tea. They told him "where you're going, you need a lot of sugar." Shortly thereafter he says he was rendered to Morocco, where he sustained 550 days of torture and interrogation, before then been sent to a CIA facility in Afghanistan where his treatment was less brutal but stretched the limit of the humane. Finally, in September 2004 he arrived at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, some 28 months after his initial arrest. Binyam had been subject to no legal procedures, had possessed no human rights, had had his penis slashed with a razor blade and endured beatings, and had been chained in a dark cell for months on end with music blaring at him.
Even at our most sceptical - say, if we were to decide not to believe any of Binyam's allegations about his treatment - we are still left with the following. Shorn of the legal protections that are in the end the only guarantee of "human rights", he had vanished from the radar until magically appearing at the other side of the world in U.S. military custody years later. Whatever happened in these years, the U.S. government does not want us to know. But they are happy to tell us that somehow in this time they acquired evidence of a list of charges against him, which they may now execute him for following a restricted hearing.
The U.S. government has felt free to treat people like Binyam how they please because they are viewed as hostis humani generis, enemies of mankind. Hundreds of Taliban and potential terrorists were picked up on the battlefields of Afghanistan and disappeared into this vortex - their own, usually Arab, governments did not want these vagabonds, and the only government in the world hospitable to them had just perished in a blaze of American firepower.
On the battlefields of Afghanistan one could at least see the logic in the claim that these men constituted the members of an opposing military group - unlawful combatants, as they became known - even if one did not agree with the treatment they received as a result. But Binyam was transferred in cold blood from Pakistani custody into that of the Americans, and quite probably to the Moroccans as he says. He had not wielded a gun against American forces and he had not committed an act of terror; he remained merely a terrorist-in-waiting. For this he received years of lonely brutalization and lost every one of his rights.
Why it sucks
Intelligence services are not supposed to be friendly. For as long as there is violence in this world and people who intend to do us harm, we need the intelligence services and we need men of cruelty within them. The battle against terrorism will require dirty tricks and it will require behaviour we would not normally condone; this, I am afraid, is a reality if we are not to simply roll over and absorb attacks. I am not opposed to the existence of the CIA in general and I am not opposed to it doing things that may make my stomach churn when it is absolutely necessary. But what cases like Binyam's make clear is that for many years of the Bush administration, the CIA has been playing a wholly inappropriate and disproportionate role.
There are basic ideas about proportionality built into the waging of war. I am not opposed to the CIA selling Osama bin Laden a poisoned kebab should they locate him, and most people - although not all - would agree with me, despite the fact this would not guarantee him a fair trial. But it has become increasingly clear that the Bush administration's CIA has not operated on the rules of proportionality that ought to govern an intelligence agency. Their sheer audacity and vast over-stepping of the role they ought to be playing has been an embarrassment to the whole western world and the values we are supposed to be fighting to protect.
To kidnap a man and subject him to years of sustained abuse on the basis of suspicions that he planned to carry out a terrorist plot is a blatant outrage. This fact is revealed by its completely arbitrary nature - because Binyam happened to be arrested in Pakistan, because he happened to be of no fixed abode and because no-one would miss him if he vanished, the U.S. was free to do with him as they wished.
People who pose much greater threats to our countries have suffered much less, and indeed the very lack of evidence against Binyam constituted his downfall - because they could not try him in a regular court with regular standards of evidence, the U.S. have had to subject him to these extraordinary procedures. This is a dangerous road to go down because it means that mere suspicion and vulnerability mark a man out for the complete suspension of his human rights and placement beyond the pale of civilization.
The audacity of the U.S. government in these actions is shown by the fact it did not even feel the need to establish a real plausible deniability. This is a simple, old rule in intelligence - if you're going to do something naughty, make sure no-one can prove you did it. But the system of extraordinary rendition and ghost prisons run by the CIA has been carried out on such an audacious scale that now no-one can possibly doubt its existence; which means no-one can doubt the systematic complicity of a branch of the U.S. government in human rights abuses. I am not saying I would approve of their actions if they had got away with it; I am pointing out that the fact they did not even feel the need to attempt to get away with it tells us something about who we are dealing with.
Better propaganda could hardly have been invented by al-Qaeda themselves. The treatment of Binyam and others like him has undermined the war on terror because it has involved the destruction of the very values we are supposed to be defending. The kidnapping and brutalization of a man who was merely suspected to be planning to do the U.S. harm in the future - and now to propose to kill him for it without an open trial - is not the war on terror we were sold. Binyam Mohamed is likely a dangerous man, but no true concept of justice who have subjected him to what he has endured - and if, at the end of the process, he dies, a small part of the United States' reputation for justice dies with him.