BBC: Hundreds Escape from Afghan Prison

More than 470 inmates at a prison in southern Afghanistan have escaped through a tunnel hundreds of metres long and dug from outside the jail.  Officials in the city of Kandahar said many of those who escaped from Sarposa jail were Taliban insurgents. The Kandahar provincial governor’s office said at least 12 had since been recaptured but gave no further details.

A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the escape was a “disaster” which should never have happened. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said it had taken five months to build the 360m (1,180ft) tunnel to a cell within the political wing.

We had the support of skilled professionals – people who were trained engineers, who advised us on the digging” said Zabiullah Mujahid Taliban spokesman.  He said it was dug from a house north-east of the prison that was rented by “friends” of the Taliban, and had to bypass security checkpoints and the main Kandahar-Kabul road. About 100 of those who escaped were Taliban commanders, he added. Most of the others are thought to have been insurgents. The prison holds about 1,200 inmates.

Second jailbreak

A tunnel hundreds of metres long was dug from the south of the prison into the prison and 476 political prisoners escaped last night,” said prison director General Ghulam Dastageer Mayar.  One escapee told the BBC it had taken him about 30 minutes to walk the length of the tunnel. The escape took most of the night and vehicles were waiting at the exit point to take prisoners away.

Kandahar’s provincial authorities said a search operation was under way.  So far, only about a dozen of the prisoners have been recaptured. Police said they were looking for men without shoes – many escaped barefoot. The jailbreak is the second major escape from the prison in three years.

In June 2008 a suicide bomber blew open the Kandahar prison gates and destroyed a nearby checkpoint, freeing about 900 prisoners, many of them suspected insurgents. Presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said some of the prisoners had been found.  After that, millions of pounds were spent upgrading the prison. The 2008 breakout was followed by a major upsurge in violence.

The BBC’s Quentin Sommerville in Kabul says the escape is a further setback for security in the area, and for the fight against the insurgency. “This is a blow,” Afghan presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said. “A prison break of this magnitude, of course, points to a vulnerability.”

The Afghan politician and former MP, Daoud Sultanzai, told the BBC that the escape exposed “the porousness of our security apparatus”. The prison is under Afghan control, but the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said it was ready to provide assistance if requested by Afghan officials.  Insurgents considered to be the most dangerous are likely to be held at a high-security facility outside the US Bagram air base, north of Kabul, rather than at the Sarposa prison, analysts say.

Our correspondent says the jailbreak will be felt most in the villages and orchards around Kandahar, where Nato and Afghan soldiers spent a long summer last year fighting the Taliban. Some of the men they captured are now free again, and with the fighting season about to start their enemy has just had its ranks replenished, he adds.

Nato forces are preparing for the long process of withdrawal. The first stage is the transfer of security powers to local forces from July, but Kandahar is not among the first tranche of provinces.

Advertisements

The Guardian Guantanamo Bay Files: Al Queda Assasin ‘worked for MI6’


An al-Qaida operative accused of bombing two Christian churches and a luxury hotel in Pakistan in 2002 was at the same time working for British intelligence, according to secret files on detainees who were shipped to the US military’s Guantánamo Bay prison camp.  Adil Hadi al Jazairi Bin Hamlili, an Algerian citizen described as a “facilitator, courier, kidnapper, and assassin for al-Qaida”, was detained in Pakistan in 2003 and later sent to Guantánamo Bay.

But according to Hamlili’s Guantánamo “assessment” file, one of 759 individual dossiers obtained by the Guardian, US interrogators were convinced that he was simultaneously acting as an informer for British and Canadian intelligence.  After his capture in June 2003 Hamlili was transferred to Bagram detention centre, north of Kabul, where he underwent numerous “custodial interviews” with CIA personnel. They found him “to have withheld important information from the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service and British Secret Intelligence Service … and to be a threat to US and allied personnel in Afghanistan and Pakistan”.

The Guardian and the New York Times published a series of reports based on the leaked cache of documents which exposed the flimsy grounds on which many detainees were transferred to the camp and portrayed a system focused overwhelmingly on extracting intelligence from prisoners.

A further series of reports based on the files reveal:

• A single star informer at the base won his freedom by incriminating at least 123 other prisoners there. The US military source described Mohammed Basardah as an “invaluable” source who had shown “exceptional co-operation”, but lawyers for other inmates claim his evidence is unreliable.

US interrogators frequently clashed over the handling of detainees, with members of the Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF GTMO) in several cases overruling recommendations by the Criminal Investigative Task Force (CITF) that prisoners should be released. CITF investigators also disapproved of methods adopted by the JTF’s military interrogators.

• New light on how Osama bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora as American and British special forces closed in on his mountain refuge in December 2001, including intelligence claiming that a local Pakistani warlord provided fighters to guide him to safety in the north-east of Afghanistan.

The Obama administration on Monday condemned the release of documents which it claimed had been “obtained illegally by WikiLeaks”. The Pentagon’s press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said in many cases the documents, so-called Detainee Assessment Briefs, had been superseded by the decisions of a taskforce established by President Barack Obama in 2009.  “Any given DAB illegally obtained and released by WikiLeaks may or may not represent the current view of a given detainee,” he said.

According to the files, Hamlili told his American interrogators at Bagram that he had been running a carpet business from Peshawar, exporting as far afield as Dubai following the 9/11 attacks.  But his CIA captors knew the Algerian had been an informant for MI6 and Canada’s Secret Intelligence Service for over three years – and suspected he had been double-crossing handlers. According to US intelligence the two spy agencies recruited Hamlili as a “humint” – human intelligence – source in December 2000 “because of his connections to members of various al-Qaida linked terrorist groups that operated in Afghanistan and Pakistan”.

The files do not specify what information Hamlili withheld. But they do contain intelligence reports, albeit flawed ones, that link the Algerian to three major terrorist attacks in Pakistan during this time. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed architect of the 9/11 attacks, told interrogators an “Abu Adil” – an alias allegedly used by Hamlili – had orchestrated the March 2002 grenade attack on a Protestant church in Islamabad’s diplomatic enclave that killed five people, including a US diplomat and his daughter.

He said Abu Adil was also responsible for an attack that killed three girls in a rural Punjabi church the following December, and that he had given him 300,000 rupees (about $3,540) to fund the attacks. The church attacks have previously been blamed on Lashkar I Jhangvi, a Pakistani sectarian outfit that has developed ties with al-Qaida in recent years.

Separately, US intelligence reports said that Hamlili was “possibly involved” in a bombing outside Karachi’s Sheraton hotel in May 2002 that killed 11 French submarine engineers and two Pakistanis.  But the intelligence against the 35-year-old Algerian, who was sent home last January, appears deeply flawed, like many of the accusations in the Guantánamo files.

Some of the information may have been obtained through torture. US officials waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times at a CIA “black site” in Thailand during his first month of captivity. And little evidence is presented to link Hamlili to the Karachi hotel bombing, other than that he ran a carpet business – the same cover that was used by the alleged assassins to escape.

What is clear, however, is that Hamlili was a decades-long veteran of the violent jihadi underground that extends from northern Pakistan and Afghanistan into north Africa. From the Algerian town of Oran, he left with his father in 1986, at the age of 11, to join the fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Later he fell into extremist “takfir” groups, recruited militants to fight in the Algerian civil war, and gained a reputation for violence.

Under the Taliban the Algerian worked as a translator for the foreign ministry and later for the Taliban intelligence services, shuttling between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the runup to 9/11. Last January Hamlili and another inmate, Hasan Zemiri, were transferred to Algerian government custody. It was not clear whether they would be freed or made to stand trial.

Clive Stafford Smith, whose legal charity, Reprieve, represents many current and former inmates, said the files revealed the “sheer bureaucratic incompetence” of the US military’s intelligence gathering.  “When you gather intelligence in such an unintelligent way; if for example you sweep people up who you know are innocent, and it is in these documents; and then mistreat them horribly, you are not going to get reliable intelligence. You are going to make yourself a lot of enemies.

The Guantánamo files are one of a series of secret US government databases allegedly leaked by US intelligence analyst Bradley Manning to WikiLeaks. The New York Times, which shared the files with the Guardian and US National Public Radio, said it did not obtain them from WikiLeaks. A number of other news organisations yesterday published reports based on files they had received from WikiLeaks.

Foreign Policy Magazine: Obama Should Assist Syrian Democracy-Protestors


The regime of Bashar al-Asad faces unprecedented and unexpected challenges from peaceful protestors demanding political change. Across Syria, citizens have taken to the streets, initially calling for little more than political and economic reforms. The regime responded with force, killing dozens of unarmed demonstrators. As in other cases across the region, regime violence has hardened the determination of the opposition, and mobilized growing numbers of Syrians to participate in mass protests. Regime collapse in Syria remains a distant prospect, but contrary to the expectations of most observers, Damascus is now in play. 

The mass protests and regime violence have left officials in Washington uncertain about how to respond. Faced with the opportunity of actively supporting an uprising against one of America’s most determined and brutal opponents in the Middle East, the Obama administration has demurred. Subsequent regime violence has not yet produced a noticeable shift in the administration’s seeming ambivalence about what to do with Damascus. Given the stakes involved in the Syrian case, caution and prudence are not inappropriate. Sooner rather than later, however, the administration will need to figure out both how much support it is prepared to offer the Syrian uprising, and what it is prepared to do, both now and in the longer-term, should this wave of protests be snuffed out.

This was not supposed to happen. For more than two months, Syria seemed insulated from the wave of popular uprisings sweeping the region. From the regime’s perspective, quiescence reflected the legitimacy it derived from its nationalist credentials and its leadership of the “resistance front.” On Jan. 31st, President al-Asad told the Wall Street Journal that despite its “more difficult circumstances than most Arab countries,” Syria was stable because its government was “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.”

Many analysts accepted the claim that Syria was stable, if not for the reasons Asad claimed. Stability was the result not of the regime’s legitimacy or its purported nationalist credentials, but its long history of brutally repressing dissent. Elsewhere in the region, mass uprisings shattered the “wall of fear” that had been carefully cultivated by authoritarian regimes over the course of decades. Not in Syria, where the mukhabarat state continued to cast a long, dark shadow. Moreover, many Syrians had internalized the regime’s rhetoric about the risks of disorder if the regime were not present to defend social peace at home, and the cause of resistance abroad, or the ease with which sinister forces might drag Syria into the conflicts and instability that surrounded it in Lebanon and Iraq. These, we believed, were the real reasons that Syria remained “stable.” 

No longer. The courage and defiance of Syrian protestors has given the lie to regime claims of legitimacy. Its nationalist identity and anti-Westernism could not indefinitely insulate it from demands for accountability — the radical and destabilizing notion that the regime might be held to account. Beginning with a tiny gathering of human rights activists in Damascus on March 16, moving south to the dusty border town of Deraa and its surrounding region on March 18, small gatherings of peaceful protestors signaled that the Syrian regime was not immune after all to the discontent and alienation that is fueling uprisings across the Arab world. 

Nor it seems, did the Syrian regime demonstrate any greater creativity or insight in how it has responded to protests than did its counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain. In his long-awaited speech on March 30, President Asad talked about learning.  “We tell them,” he said, “that you have only one choice, which is to learn from your failure, while the Syrian people have only the choice of continuing to learn from their successes.” Precisely what the Asad regime has learned from recent events, however, is unclear. Despite the President’s rhetoric, the Asad regime has adopted the same combination of repression and concession, real bullets and false promises of reform, that have failed to appease protesters in every other case in which it has been used. 

Yet the end of “Syrian exceptionalism” does not mean that the regime’s fate is inevitable.  Protests have spread well beyond Deraa, yet they remain small and scattered. Opposition groups are poorly organized, fragmented, and face formidable obstacles to coordination.  In some areas, such as Lattakia, repression seems to have forced the opposition into near silence. Protests in Syria have not yet congealed into a mass uprising. The regime could yet regain its footing, reassert its authority, even with its claims to legitimacy severely frayed. 

Violence being deployed against the opposition is stiffening resistance, but it is also taking a toll. So are the regime’s counter-measures, including not only its carefully orchestrated pro-Asad demonstrations, but its willingness to deploy the oldest moves in the Ba`thist playbook: demonizing protestors as traitors, agents of foreign powers, and enemies of the Syrian people. However ham-fisted the President’s speech appeared to outside observers, and to many Syrians, it was virtually pitch perfect in its evocation of classic Ba`thist themes: foreign plots, Syrian steadfastness, the virtues of order, and the determination of the regime to crush its adversaries and prevail against formidable odds.  Unfortunately, the courage of Syrian protesters may not be enough to prove Asad wrong.

In channeling his father’s generation of ruthless autocrats, Bashar al-Asad has dismantled the last residual hopes that somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, he might seize this moment of crisis to resurrect his self-claimed identity as a reformer. He has also thrown a large wrench into initial U.S. responses to the Syrian uprising. After the March 30 speech, the willingness of some U.S. politicians to characterize Asad as a reformer — an improbable gamble, perhaps, that by ensnaring Bashar in his own reformist claims he might be compelled to act like one — is not a viable position. It is time for the administration to re-boot its Syria policy, address the dilemma of just how much risk it is willing to take, what it will do if uprisings succeed, and how it will respond if they are successfully put down.

For the U.S., the temptation to assist in ushering in the end of the Asad regime is no doubt enormous. The possibility of tipping Syria, of supporting a transition that would not only eliminate a determined and vicious adversary of the U.S. in the Middle East, but fundamentally transform the balance of power in the region, is a prize of such vast consequence that it is hardly surprising to hear calls mounting for the Obama administration to seize the moment and actively back regime change in Damascus.

We are encouraged to imagine the possibilities such a change might bring: Iran hemmed in, its regional project in tatters; Hizballah and Hamas weakened by the loss of a leading regional sponsor and supplier of weapons; a possible democratic government in Damascus, a possible negotiating partner for Israel, perhaps even an ally of the West?  Heady stuff, to be sure. Even if such gains do not materialize, is it not in our interest to assist in removing a brutal adversary from power? Do the potential gains not outweigh the possible loses, as one prominent former U.S. diplomat to the region suggested. 

Perhaps. Yet this grand vision of a truly new Middle East rest on exceptionally wobbly foundations. This is certainly the moment for the U.S. to lend support to Syrians struggling against the Asad regime. Yet the administration should not be lulled by the sirens of regime change into acting on the presumption that things could not be worse.  Even if we acknowledge that fears of instability play into the regime’s hands, regime collapse might well be followed by a period of violent social conflict, the Lebanization of Syria, and the emergence of a regional order that is much darker and less compliant than the one held out by advocates of regime change. The growing sectarianism evident across the Gulf reminds us how quickly identity conflicts could arise in the Levant, with potentially devastating consequences. 

One critical element of such an approach must include expanded efforts to develop a coherent, capable Syrian opposition. Ultimately, the one way to respond to concerns about the instability that might accompany regime change, or the fear that what replaces the Asad regime might be worse, is to contribute to the development of a viable, democratic, alternative Syrian leadership. Rather than holding out for the vain possibility that Bashar al-Asad might bring reform to Syria, the U.S. should immediately begin to back Syria’s true democratic reformers, and strengthen the prospects for long-term regime transformation in Damascus.

Foreign Policy: The Hard Part of Libya’s Revolution


You may recall the last time the United States and its allies used military force to overthrow a hated Arab dictator. The resulting vacuum was quickly filled by anarchic looting, murderous rivalries and, ultimately, civil war. The blitheness of President George W. Bush’s administration towards post-war Iraq was quite possibly the most inexcusable blunder in the history of American foreign policy. It’s a mistake we wouldn’t want to make again.

That’s why Lisa Anderson, one of the very few American scholarly experts on modern Libya and president of American University in Cairo, recently wrote that “Any military and diplomatic intervention that will bring an end to the Qaddafi regime should be accompanied, from the beginning, by mobilization of the resources for political reconstruction.”

That does sound like a good idea. But it’s not happening. A senior official in President Barack Obama’s administration says that the situation in Libya is “much too fluid,” and the identity of the rebel leadership much too uncertain, to permit serious planning about a post-Muammar al-Qaddafi world, should the rebels actually seize power. The White House is, to be fair, a bit preoccupied, what with organizing the no-fly zone, trying to stave off chaos in Yemen and Bahrain, and attempting to assist a soft landing in Egypt and Tunisia. Most of those countries, as this official says, are of greater strategic significance to the United States than Libya is. And there is, of course, the all too real possibility that the military intervention will produce a stalemate rather than a decisive rebel victory, in which case any such planning would be moot.

The good news is that Libya is not Iraq. The country’s tribal divisions should not prove as insuperable an obstacle to national unity as Iraq’s Shia-Sunni-Kurd divide. And should the rebels somehow overthrow Qaddafi, they will have the legitimacy which comes of winning an insurgency, as the Iraqis placed on the throne by U.S. power did not.

But one of the fundamental lessons of Iraq is that things will be worse than you think. Not only does war unleash all manner of latent enmity and violence, but decades of abusive treatment by a ruthless dictators fuels pathologies that only fully manifest themselves when the lid of control pops off. Pro- and anti-Qaddafi tribes could square off against one another; Qaddafi could unleash the jihadists he once trained to wreak violence both at home and abroad. So you wouldn’t want to bet on a happy outcome in Libya — you’d want to do whatever you could to help deliver one. And it behooves those of us who have argued for the intervention now under way to give serious thought to what form that help should take.

The United States will not be the occupying power in Libya as it was in Iraq, and thus will have far less leverage, and far less responsibility. The Libyans will be calling the shots. But thanks to Qaddafi’s malevolently whimsical vision of a nation without a state or state institutions, whoever inherits the country will need an enormous amount of outside help.

Larry Diamond, a Stanford scholar who served with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and was a leading advocate for intervention in Libya, says that the most directly relevant lesson of Iraq — and of Afghanistan, for that matter — is “security trumps everything.” People won’t accept a new political order if they may pay with their lives for doing so. It’s impossible to know right now where those threats may come from. But since Libya will have no foreign troops to stop looting or score-settling, the United States or others will have to train Libyan forces in what Diamond calls “democratic policing.”

Encouraging local capacity is thus more important than devising and importing elaborate solutions. The key lesson, Bodine concludes, is, “Wherever possible, work through existing institutions.” Unfortunately, Libya has very few institutions at all. Outsiders might have to let the new rulers work out their own political problems in their own way, but nevertheless provide enormous amounts of technocratic help.

But who should those outsiders be? The United States has learned painful lessons about the limits of its credibility in the Arab and Muslim world, which is one reason why Obama has kept the American footprint as small as possible. Why, then, contemplate an American-led effort to rebuild Libya, especially one that U.S. taxpayers are not about to fund? When Libya was freed from colonial rule in 1951, it fell under the tutelage of the United Nations, which helped organize a provincial assembly and draft a constitution. Perhaps the U.N. needs to return to Libya and play something of the administrative role it did in post-conflict states such as Kosovo and East Timor. James Dobbins, a former senior American diplomat now at the RAND Corp., has argued that U.N.-led state-building efforts have generally proved far more cost-effective than American ones.

Libyans, who preserve a national memory of the hated colonial experience under Italy, however, may view even the U.N. as a neo-colonial force. Lisa Anderson suggests drawing on the resources of the global South, on states such as South Africa and Chile that have made the transition from dictatorship to democracy. One possible source of institutional — but non-state — support, she notes, would be the Club of Madrid, a group of former heads of state of democratic countries. That would be, she says, a “twenty-first century solution” to the problem of state-building.

I’m not quite convinced that a country that missed out on 20th century state-formation is ready for 21st century solutions. Still, all these issues are worth debating. What is not worth debating is whether, having decided to intervene in Libya, the international community has both an obligation to prepare for the post-conflict situation and the capacity to do something about it. The fiasco in Iraq does not demonstrate that outsiders are helpless to shape such chaotic settings, but rather that you need to pay close attention to their very complicated realities, and approach them with due humility. If they ever do reach Tripoli, the Libyans whose heroic resistance to Qaddafi we are now apostrophizing are going to turn around and say, “Help us.” And it will not be enough to give Donald Rumsfeld’s cynical shrug and say, “Democracy is messy.”

Four NY Times Journalists Detained by Gadafi’s Authorities Tell Story

Published in NY Times.


The Libyan government freed four New York Times journalists on Monday, six days after they were captured while covering the conflict between government and rebel forces in the eastern city of Ajdabiya. They were released into the custody of Turkish diplomats and crossed safely into Tunisia in the late afternoon, from where they provided a harrowing account of their captivity.

Like many other Western journalists, the four had entered the rebel-controlled eastern region of Libya over the Egyptian border without visas to cover the insurrection against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. They were detained in Ajdabiya by forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi.

The journalists are Anthony Shadid, The Times’s Beirut bureau chief, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting; two photographers, Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario, who have extensive experience in war zones; and a reporter and videographer, Stephen Farrell, who in 2009 was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan and was rescued by British commandos. After The New York Times reported having lost contact with the four last Tuesday, officials with the Qaddafi government pledged that if they had been detained by the government’s military forces, they would be located and released unharmed.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, wrote in a note to the newsroom that he was “overjoyed” at the news. “Because of the volatile situation in Libya, we’ve kept our enthusiasm and comments in check until they were out of the country, but now feels like a moment for celebration,” he wrote. “We’re particularly indebted to the government of Turkey, which intervened on our behalf to oversee the release of our journalists and bring them to Tunisia,” Mr. Keller added. “We were also assisted throughout the week by diplomats from the United States and United Kingdom.”

A clearer account of the four journalists’ capture and detention has come to light now that they have been released. The four had been covering fighting near Ajdabiya last Tuesday when they decided that the battle had grown too dangerous for them to continue safely. Their driver, however, inadvertently drove into a checkpoint manned by forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi. By the time they knew they were in trouble, it was too late.

“I was yelling to the driver, ‘Keep driving! Don’t stop! Don’t stop!’ ” Mr. Hicks recalled in a telephone interview from the hotel where he and the three others were recuperating. “I knew that the consequences of being stopped would be very bad.” The driver, Mohamed Shaglouf, is still missing. If he had tried to drive straight through, Mr. Hicks said, the vehicle certainly would have been fired on. In any event, the soldiers flung the doors to their gold four-door sedan wide open so quickly that they had little chance to get away.

As they were being pulled from the car, rebels fired on the checkpoint, sending the four running for their lives. “You could see the bullets hitting the dirt,” Mr. Shadid said. All four made it safely behind a small, one-room building, where they tried to take cover. But the soldiers had other plans. They told all four to empty their pockets and ordered them on the ground. And that is when they thought they were seconds from death.

“I heard in Arabic, ‘Shoot them,’ ” Mr. Shadid said. “And we all thought it was over.” Then another soldier spoke up. “One of the others said: ‘No, they’re American. We can’t shoot them,’ ” Mr. Hicks said.

The soldiers grabbed whatever they could get their hands on to tie up their prisoners: wire, an electrical cord from a home appliance, a scarf. One removed Ms. Addario’s shoes, pulled out the laces and used them to bind her ankles. Then one punched her in the face and laughed. “Then I started crying,” she recalled. “And he was laughing more.” One man grabbed her breasts, the beginning of a pattern of disturbing behavior she would experience from her captors over the next 48 hours.

“There was a lot of groping,” she said. “Every man who came in contact with us basically felt every inch of my body short of what was under my clothes.” Their captors held them in Ajdabiya until the fighting with the rebels died down. Soldiers put the four in a vehicle and drove them out of the city around 2 a.m. One threatened to decapitate Mr. Hicks. Another stroked Ms. Addario’s head and told her repeatedly she was going to die. “He was caressing my head in this sick way, this tender way, saying: ‘You’re going to die tonight. You’re going to die tonight,’ ” she said.

Their vehicle stopped repeatedly at checkpoints, each time allowing for a new group of soldiers to land a fresh punch or a rifle butt in their backs. The first night they spent in the back of a vehicle. The second night they spent in a jail cell with dirty mattresses on the ground, a bottle to urinate in and a jug of water to drink.

On the third day they were on the move again, this time to an airfield. Mr. Shadid, who speaks Arabic, had overheard one of the soldiers saying something about a plane, and the four assumed they would be flown somewhere. As they were loaded on the plane they were blindfolded and their hands were bound tightly with plastic handcuffs. “I could hear Anthony at this point yelling ‘Help me!’ ” Mr. Hicks said, “which I learned later was because he had no feeling in his hands.” In a rare show of mercy, a soldier loosened the cuffs.

They landed on Thursday in Tripoli, where they were handed over to Libyan defense officials. They were transferred to a safe house, where they said they were treated well. They were each allowed a brief phone call. That was the first time since their capture two and a half days earlier that their whereabouts became known to their families and colleagues at The Times.

Their disappearance had kicked off an intensive search effort. The Times canvassed hospitals and morgues, beginning a grim process-of-elimination search. The paper also turned to a variety of people on the ground who might have heard or seen something — local residents, security contractors for Western businesses, workers for nongovernmental organizations. It also notified American diplomats.

The State Department got word Thursday afternoon that the journalists were safe and unharmed, in a phone call to Jeffrey D. Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, from an aide to Abdullah al-Senussi, the head of Libyan military intelligence and the brother-in-law of Colonel Qaddafi, Mr. Feltman said.

But the arrival of the four journalists in Tripoli was just the beginning of three days of frustrating, increasingly tense negotiations conducted by a State Department consular officer, Yael Lempert. Libyan officials kept changing their demands for the conditions of the journalists’ release, and an allied coalition, including the United States, began bombing Tripoli to enforce a no-fly zone. Several Libyan agencies were involved in the negotiation, which added to the confusion.

First the Libyan government demanded that an American diplomat come to Tripoli to take the journalists, State Department officials said. The United States, which closed its embassy in Libya last month, refused. After initially resisting, the Libyans agreed to allow the Turkish Embassy to act as an intermediary. The release was scheduled for Sunday but was delayed until Monday because of the bombing. The four were turned over to Turkish diplomats Monday afternoon, and were driven to the border with Tunisia.

While Monday was a day for celebration and relief at The Times, other news organizations covering the conflicts in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world have not been so lucky. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 13 journalists are either missing or in government custody. The missing include four from Al Jazeera, two from Agence France-Presse and one from Getty Images. In addition, six Libyan journalists are unaccounted for, the group said.

Others have died. A Libyan broadcaster was killed Saturday while covering a battle near Benghazi. A cameraman for Al Jazeera was killed in the same area on March 12, the first death of a journalist in Libya during the current conflict.

The Guardian: Obama Lifts Suspension on Gitmo Trials


Barack Obama  has given the green light to resume military trials of terror suspects detained at Guantánamo Bay, making a sharp departure from his election promises to close the camp and bring America’s fight against terrorism back into the remit of civilian law.  The US president lifted a suspension on so-called “military commissions” which he had imposed on his first full day in the White House. By so doing, he permitted the revival of trials conducted by military officers, with a military judge presiding.

Obama also signed an executive order that moved to set into law the already existing practice on Guantánamo of holding detainees indefinitely without charge. The president sought to sweeten the pill among civil rights and liberal groups of the resumption of two of the most widely criticised aspects of George Bush‘s war on terror by emphasising that he still wished to see Guantánamo close. When he came into office in January 2009, he repeatedly promised to have the campclosed within one year. It was set up in the wake of 9/11 in 2001 and thereafter the war in Afghanistan.

As another sweetener, he also defied Republican opposition and said he would continue to allow terror suspects to be tried in federal civilian courts, known as Article III courts, on the US mainland. “I strongly believe that the American system of justice is a key part of our arsenal in the war against al-Qaida and its affiliates. We will continue to draw on all aspects of our justice system including Article III courts to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened,” he said.

But civil rights groups condemned what they saw as a decision that flew in the face of the president’s earlier promises to close the camp. “The irony could not be more pronounced,” said Wells Dixon, a lawyer with the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR). “He came into office saying it was one of his national security priorities to close Guantánamo, yet he has now become one of the first presidents to codify a policy of indefinite detention.”

Critics see the resumption of the military trials as confirmation that Guantánamo will be closing no time soon. Under the executive orders allowing detention without charge, there is an in-built review process that allows cases to be reconsidered after the first year and then every four years thereafter. CCR said that was in itself a tacit admission that Guantánamo would remain a place of extra-judicial detention. Dixon said that the four-year reviews were also, in legal terms, strikingly similar to the so-called combatant status review tribunals set up by the Bush administration in 2005 and struck down by the supreme court as essentially unconstitutional in 2008. “This is creating a bureaucratic morass that will achieve nothing legally but will ensure Guantánamo remains open,” he said.

Some relatives of victims of the September 2001 attacks said that they were also disappointed by the resumption of military trials. Colleen Kelly, whose brother Bill Kelly Jr died in the Twin Towers on 9/11, said that she knew all too well how important it was to protect all people, not just Americans, from the threat of terrorism. “There are some seriously dangerous people being held in Guantánamo Bay, I think the world understands that.

But I think there’s also a huge opportunity here being missed to show the world that not only does the US talk the talk, we walk the walk also.” She said that the past nine years since 9/11 showed that the criminal system of justice had proven to be fully robust enough to deal with difficult terrorism cases. “There have been more than 170 successful anti-terror prosecutions in civilian courts since 9/11, which to me suggests they work.” Some 172 detainees remain in Guantánamo, of whom fewer than 40 have been earmarked for trial in either criminal courts or military commissions.

Before the military commissions were suspended by Obama, only a handful of cases were ever fully processed under them. Most of them involved guilty pleas, such as that of the Australian David Hicks who was returned to Australia after his conviction. Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, was convicted by military tribunal in 2008 and was returned later that year to Yemen to serve the remainder of his five-and-a-half-year sentence.

RIP Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Christian Minorities Minister slain by terrorists


Self-described Taliban gunmen have shot dead Pakistan’s minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, an advocate of reform of the country’s blasphemy laws, as he left his Islamabad home. Two assassins sprayed the Christian minister’s car with gunfire, striking him at least eight times, before scattering pamphlets that described him as a “Christian infidel”. The leaflets were signed “Taliban al-Qaida Punjab”.

Bhatti’s 22-year-old niece Mariam was first on the scene. “I rushed out to find his body covered with blood. I said “uncle, uncle” and tried to take his pulse. But he was already dead,” she said at Bhatti’s house, extending a bloodstained palm. The sound of wailing women rose from the next room. Bhatti’s assassination was the second killing of a politician in Islamabad over blasphemy in as many months, following the assassination of the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer outside a cafe a few miles away on 4 January.

Dismayed human rights activists said it was another sign of rising intolerance at hands of violent extremists. “I am sad and upset but not surprised,” said the veteran campaigner Tahira Abdullah outside Bhatti’s house. “These people have a long list of targets, and we are all on it. It’s not a matter of if, but when.” The only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, Bhatti had predicted his own death. In a farewell statement recorded four months ago, to be broadcast in the event of his death, he spoke of threats from the Taliban and al-Qaida.

But he vowed not to stop speaking for marginalised Christians and other minorities. “I will die to defend their rights,” he said on the tape released to the BBC and al-Jazeera. “These threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles.” Lax security did not help. Witnesses and police said Bhatti was travelling with just his driver when he came under attack less than 50 metres from the Islamabad home he shares with his mother.

A small white car carrying gunmen blocked his way. After an initial burst of fire they dragged Bhatti’s driver from the vehicle, then continued firing through a side window. “It lasted about twenty seconds,” said a neighbour, Naseem Javed. “When I rushed out I saw the minister’s driver standing by the car, shivering, and his niece weeping and shouting.”  “They fired 25 bullets,” said a police officer beside a bullet-pocked pavement, holding a handful of brass Kalashnikov bullet cases.

As they left the gunmen flung pamphlets on to the road that blamed President Asif Ali Zardari’s government for putting an “infidel Christian” in charge of a committee to review the blasphemy laws. The government insists no such committee exists. “With the blessing of Allah, the mujahideen will send each of you to hell,” said the note.

Last November Bhatti joined Salmaan Taseer in championing the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death last November for allegedly committing blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad. “This law is being misused,” Bhatti told Open magazine at the time. “Many people are facing death threats and problems. They’re in prison and are being killed extra-judicially.”

The government later distanced itself from the blasphemy reformists, repeatedly stressing that it had no intention of amending the law, leaving Bhatti and Taseer politically isolated. Now that both men are dead, angry supporters say the government bears some responsibility for not protecting them politically, if not physically. “The government distanced itself from anyone who took a stand on blasphemy. I blame them for being such chickens,” said Abdullah.

Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch said Bhatti’s death represented “the bitter fruit of appeasement of extremist and militant groups both prior to and after the killing of Salmaan Taseer”. The embattled Christian community also voiced concerns about its safety. “We feel very insecure,” said Bhatti’s brother in law, Yousaf Nishan. “In this society you can’t open your mouth, even if you want to say something good, because you’re afraid who you might offend.”

The assassination raised fresh questions about the safety of Sherry Rehman, a parliamentarian who also championed reform of the blasphemy laws, and who has been in semi-hiding since January. She was not available for comment. Friends said she may have gone into hiding again, fearing for her safety.