Guantánamo prisoner, cleared of war crimes, remains in solitary confinement

A month after a federal court set aside a 2008 tribunal’s war-crimes conviction of a former Osama bin Laden aide, he remains isolated as a convict in a maximum-security prison at Guantánamo.

Army Col. David Heath, who runs the guard force, said in an interview last week that, absent a specific order to change the status of Ali Hamza al Bahlul, the Yemeni who for a time was bin Laden’s public affairs officer, remains a convict. Bahlul was convicted of making al-Qaida recruiting videos.

Guantánamo’s other 115 captives are considered “detainees,” and kept in a variety of statuses and five different types of lockups – including the six former CIA captives who await death-penalty trials by military commission and two who have provisionally pleaded guilty but not been sentenced.

A nine-officer military jury convicted Bahlul in 2008 of conspiring with al-Qaida, solicitation and providing material support for terrorism, and sentenced him to life in prison after a four-day, no-contest trial.

Bahlul had his U.S. military attorney mount no defense but at one point declared he had aspired to become the 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, something not alleged by the prosecution. At sentencing, he waved paper airplanes and boats he had fashioned to demonstrate his contempt of the proceedings that included a screening of his recruiting video that used a crude dramatization of the 2000 USS Cole bombing.

Civilian courts vacated those convictions in two sets of rulings that found those charges, as prosecuted, did not constitute war crimes. A federal appeals court in Washington struck down his last conviction, on conspiracy, June 12. The Justice Department has not said whether it will appeal that ruling.

Bahlul, who is considered a compliant convict, remains the lone captive on the Convicts Corridor of the maximum-security Camp 5 prison, Heath said. Heath has received no specific order from his military chain of command to move him. If so ordered, Heath said, he would then consult with the captive to see whether he was interested in joining other medium-security, cooperative captives in a communal cellblock.

“If he reverted to detainee status, given his compliancy level, he would be entitled to communal,” Heath said.

On Sunday, Bahlul’s Pentagon appeals attorney, Michel Paradis, declined comment on the situation pending instructions from his client.

An undisclosed number of other compliant captives voluntarily live in solitary cells, military commanders say, rather than join the majority living in groups of a dozen or more who pray, eat, watch TV and play some sports together with the exception of two hours of daily lockdown in individual cells.

Bahlul arrived at Guantánamo on Jan. 11, 2002, meaning he has spent nearly half his time here as a convict, segregated behind a steel door with a slit through which guards pass books and meals. He has had no neighboring prisoner to converse or pray with through the walls for nearly 20 months.

Canadian convict Omar Khadr was repatriated in September 2012, and the U.S. sent home a Sudanese convict in December 2013, leaving Bahlul alone on the cellblock.

Only five of the 780 or more captives held here since 2002 were convicted and sentenced as war criminals. There are two men among the remaining 116 captives who have pleaded guilty to war crimes, but they have not been sentenced and so are not considered “convicts.”

If he is moved off Convict’s Corridor, Bahlul would become the first former war criminal returned to the general detainee population. Other Guantánamo convicts whose convictions were overturned were already free in their home countries – Australia, Sudan, Yemen – when the United States declared them not to be war criminals.