Vacates 2 of 3 Charges in Guantanamo Conviction
July 15, 2014
The al-Bahlul decision shows why creating a substandard system of justice, with new rules and charges never before contemplated by a US court, was always a bad idea. Continuing with the military commissions at Guantanamo is not worth the very real risk that verdicts may get overturned on appeal.
Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel

(New York) – A US appeals court’s ruling on July 14, 2014, has dealt a major blow to the legitimacy of military commissions and should dissuade the Obama administration from further using the commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects, Human Rights Watch said today.

The decision by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in al-Bahlul v. United States invalidates two of three charges against Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman al-Bahlul, who was convicted at Guantanamo Bay. The court vacated charges of material support for terrorism and solicitation in the military commissions system, and called into question whether the third charge, of conspiracy, is also viable. 

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

Human Rights Watch has long opposed the use of military commissions at Guantanamo to prosecute people accused of terrorism offenses. The military commissions fail to adequately protect attorney-client privileged communications, allow introduction of coerced evidence, and use rules that block the defense from access to information essential to the case – such as the treatment of the detainees currently facing trial while in secret CIA custody.

Al-Bahlul is one of eight defendants convicted by the military commissions at Guantanamo. 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.

Al-Bahlul was accused of charges associated with being Osama bin Laden's “media secretary” and making recruitment videos for Al-Qaeda. He and Hamdan are the only two detainees convicted in the military commissions whose cases went to full trial. But al-Bahlul refused to put on a defense in his case in protest. Al-Bahlul’s conviction had been upheld by the Court of Military Commission Review, a newly created appeals court for the military commissions: it was that court’s decision, as well as a DC Circuit panel court decision, that the appeals court reviewed.