Appeals Court Ruling Challenges Legitimacy of Military Commissions For Guantánamo Prisoners

Monday, July 21, 2014
Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman al-Bahlul (photo: Department of Defense)

The Obama administration’s use of military tribunals to convict terrorism suspects held at Guantánamo Bay has been challenged by a Washington federal court.


The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals this week threw out two of the three convictions for Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman al-Bahlul, the former media secretary to Osama bin Laden. Al-Bahlul, a native of Yemen, claimed that he wanted to participate in the September 11, 2001, hijackings, but that bin Laden wouldn’t let him because his public relations skills were too valuable.


A military commission had found al-Bahlul guilty of supporting terrorism, solicitation and conspiracy. But the appellate court, in a unanimous decision, invalidated the first two convictions, saying they weren’t considered war crimes prior to the Military Commissions Act of 2006. and the court majority questioned the third. There is “little domestic precedent to support the notion that material support or a sufficiently analogous offense has historically been triable by military commission,” the opinion said. The en banc ruling affirmed an earlier decision by a three-judge panel of the court.


The ruling could mean that other detainees’ convictions could come into question.


“The al-Bahlul decision shows why creating a substandard system of justice, with new rules and charges never before contemplated by a U.S. court, was always a bad idea,” Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a press release. “Continuing with the military commissions at Guantanamo is not worth the very real risk that verdicts may get overturned on appeal.”


HRW has long opposed the commissions, claiming they provide inadequate protections for attorney-client privilege, allow coerced evidence to be used at trial, and employ rules that prevent defense counsel from accessing important information related to the case.


Eight detainees have been convicted using the tribunals, including al-Bahlul. HRW says all but one of the eight were convicted of at least one of the three charges at issue in al-Bahlul.


 “It is unclear how the al-Bahlul decision will affect many of those prior verdicts, though in one of the cases, that against Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the decision appears to entirely invalidate his conviction in 2008 for the sole charge of material support for terrorism,” the group said.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

US: Court Undercuts Military Commissions’ Legitimacy (Human Rights Watch)

D.C. Circuit Snarls Law on Military Tribunals (by Jack Bouboushian, Courthouse News Service)

Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman Al Bahlul v. United States (U.S. District Court, District of Columbia) (pdf)

Bin Laden Media Aide Wins Reversal of Terror Convictions (by Sophia Pearson, Bloomberg)

Guantánamo Military Board, for First Time, Orders Continued Imprisonment without Trial for Detainee (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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