Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari national and US resident, arrived in the USA with his wife and five children on 10 September 2001. They lived in Illinois where al-Marri attended Bradley University for his graduate studies.
Circumstances of detention
Three months later, al-Marri was detained. At first the government held him on a material witness warrant. Then it charged him with making false statements to the FBI as well as with credit card fraud. But then, less than a month before al-Marri's trial, the government dropped all the charges against him and declared him an enemy combatant. He was then handed over to the military.
Treatment during detention
For the first seventeen interrogation-heavy months, his captors barred him even from talking to his attorneys. Since that time, Al-Marri has been confined, round the clock, in a small cell with an opaque window covered with plastic. He has no contact with anyone from the outside world other than his attorneys and occasional visits from representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
He has not been allowed to speak to or see his wife and five children. Letters to and from his family are heavily censored and delayed. He is not allowed any newspapers, magazines, books (other than the Quran), radio or television. He is not allowed to have any personal property. His cell contains a steel bed, a sink and a toilet. During the day, even the mattress on his bed is removed.
Out-of-cell time, in the rare event he gets it, has been limited to three showers (in leg irons and handcuffs) and three short periods of solitary recreation a week. Once he went 60 days without being permitted to leave his cell at all. If bad weather prevents him from going outside, he must remain in handcuffs and leg irons during his indoor recreation.
Al-Marri says that on occasions he has been denied basic hygiene products such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and toilet paper. He says he has had to use his hands to clean himself after he defecates, and that it has taken more than an hour before soap was brought to him so that he could wash his hands. The water in his cell has frequently been turned off. He has been denied socks or footwear for months at a time, including during the winter months. Officers in the prison often lower the temperature in his cell until it becomes extremely cold, but they do not give him extra clothes or blankets to keep warm.
Al-Marri’s treatment remains entirely at the whim of the authorities. His lawyers maintain in court documents that his immediate environment—from adjusting the lights to turning the water supply on and off in his cell—has been “deliberately manipulated to degrade him” and that no rules or regulations govern his treatment in custody.
A complaint filed in the US federal courts in August 2005 described how al-Marri’s physical and mental state had deteriorated due to his conditions of confinement. His symptoms included “sharp and debilitating tingling pains in his leg, vision problems, including seeing flickering lights and white spots … constant headaches, back pain, dizziness, uncontrollable tremors … and ringing in his ears.”
He says he has been denied appropriate care for medical and mental health symptoms he has developed while in prison.
Al-Marri, a devout Muslim, complains that military officials have not permitted him to meet with a Muslim cleric, do not let him have a prayer mat and punish him if he follows his religion’s requirement to cover his head while he prays (he uses a shirt for this purpose). They do not tell him the direction of Mecca, so he does not know in which direction to pray; nor do they provide him with a clock, so he does not know when to pray.
Problems of detention
Dubbed a “sleeper agent” for Al Qaeda, al-Marri is the only person on the American mainland still held as an enemy combatant. He was effectively disappeared by the Pentagon and has been confined to a solitary cell. Initially deprived of legal counsel, al-Marri has yet had no charges laid against him.
Until 2006, the US government pursued the idea that it could detain ‘enemy combatants’, wherever they were in the world indefinitely. Al-Marri’s lawyers argued that as he was being detained in South Carolina, he had the legal right to challenge his continued unlawful detention. Jonathan Hafetz, one of al-Marri’s lawyers, said at the time, “[T]he president has announced that he can sweep any of the millions of non-citizens off the streets of America and imprison them for life in a military jail without charge, court review, or due process. It is unprecedented, unlawful, and un-American.”
By the end of 2006, both conservatives and liberals had joined together in calling for al-Marri to have the legal right to challenge his detention. According to Harold Koh, who is currently the Legal Advisor to the US Department of State and the author of US drone policy, “This involves the executive branch changing the rules to avoid challenges to its own authority. Serious legal scholars, regardless of political bent, find what the government did inconsistent with any reasonable visions of the rule of law.”
On 11 June 2007, in al-Marri v. Wright, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that al-Marri must be released from military detention and either freed or actually charged and tried in a civilian court. However, in a rehearing, the court reversed its decision. On 15 July 2008, the Court voted 5-4 that the government has the right to hold Al-Marri as an enemy combatant in military detention. It also ruled that al-Marri had the right to refute his detention in federal court.
After years of struggling with the courts, al-Marri was eventually charged with terrorism. Rather than fighting the system that had detained him without charge for so long, in 2009 he chose instead to plead guilty in the hope that he would be granted an early release and repatriation back to his country of origin, Qatar. In the words of his lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg, he only agreed to the plea bargain because, “…he wanted to go home.”
Despite his guilty plea and numerous agreements by the US authorities that Ali would be released in early 2015, he still remains detained until this day.
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