A federal judge has ordered the release of a Kuwaiti man held at Guantanamo Bay and rebuked the U.S. government for relying on scant evidence, uncredible witnesses and coerced confessions to hold him for more than seven years.
In an opinion declassified Friday, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said government attorneys presented a "surprisingly bare" record during four days of classified hearings last month to oppose Fouad Al Rabiah's request for release from the U.S. naval detention facility in Cuba. She said the aviation engineer is being held almost exclusively on confessions obtained through abusive techniques and that his own interrogators repeatedly concluded were not believable.
"Incredibly, these are the confessions that the government has asked the Court to accept as truthful in this case," Kollar-Kotelly wrote in a 65-page opinion that was partially redacted to remove classified material. She called the coerced confessions "entirely incredible" and said they "defy belief."
"If there exists a basis for Al Rabiah's indefinite detention, it most certainly has not been presented to this court," she found.
Al Rabiah is the 30th Guantanamo detainee to be ordered released by a federal judge who has reviewed evidence justifying detention. Seven detainees have been denied a bid for freedom after a judge determined the evidence suggested they supported terrorism.
'It turns your stomach'
But some detainees who have won their freedom from a judge remain at Guantanamo because no other country is willing to accept them. Al Rabiah's attorney David Cynamon said Kuwait has said it would allow him to return home and he will be aggressively pushing for quick release.
"This case exemplifies everything that is wrong with Guantanamo," Cynamon said. "He's a completely innocent man and they torture him into confessing, right out of the North Korean and communist Chinese play book. It turns your stomach."
The Justice Department declined to comment on the judge's opinion.
Al Rabiah is a 50-year-old father of four with degrees in aviation studies from AST University in Scotland and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. He worked for Kuwait Airways for 20 years, was part owner of a health club in Kuwait and often traveled to impoverished countries — he said it was for charitable relief work, but government attorneys argued it was in support of terrorist organizations.
Al Rabiah argued he traveled to Afghanistan in October 2001 to aid refugees, but government attorneys said it was to be with Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks. "The evidence in the record strongly supports Al Rabiah's explanation," Kollar-Kotelly wrote, citing letters that he wrote to his family describing his travels.
Al Rabiah was captured on Christmas Day 2001, as he tried to leave Afghanistan, and detained by U.S. troops. He was sent to Guantanamo in 2002 and Kollar-Kotelly found that from the beginning of his stay, "there is no evidence in the record that anyone directed any allegations toward Al Rabiah nor any indication that interrogators believed Al Rabiah had engaged in any conduct that made him lawfully detainable. To the contrary, the evidence in the record during this period consists mainly of an assessment made by an intelligence analyst that Al Rabiah should not have been detained."
Judge: Allegations 'defy logic'
Four of Al Rabiah's fellow Guantanamo detainees made allegations against him, including that he worked with bin Laden, gave the terrorist mastermind a suitcase full of money and was a leader in the fight against U.S. forces in the Tora Bora mountains.
But Kollar-Kotelly found those allegations were not credible because they were either inconsistent or demonstrably false. She said one witness made the allegations after a week of sleep deprivation.
"It defies logic that in October 2001, after completing a two-week leave from at Kuwait Airlines where he had worked for 20 years, Al Rabiah traveled to Tora Bora and began telling senior al-Qaida leaders how they should organize their supplies in a six square-mile mountain complex that he had never previously seen and that was occupied by people whom he had never previously met," she wrote.
Kollar-Kotelly said the government withdrew its reliance on the witnesses to justify holding Al Rabiah, but interrogators at Guantanamo had used their allegations to draw a confession out of him. He initially denied the allegations, including that he ever met bin Laden, but he was subjected to "more aggressive and apparently unauthorized techniques" including sleep deprivation and threats of rendition that resulted in countless inconsistent confessions, the judge said.
"Al Rabiah's interrogators began using abusive techniques that violated the Army Field Manual and the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War," Kollar-Kotelly wrote. "The first of these techniques included threats of rendition to places where Al Rabiah would either be tortured and/or would never be found."
'No one leaves Guantanamo innocent'
The judge said the Army Field Manual says the techniques used on Al Rabiah can lead to a source saying whatever they think the interrogator wants to hear. In fact, she said, his interrogators ended up "expressly concluding that Al Rabiah was creating a ‘tale’ to ‘please interrogators.’"
Al Rabiah said in declarations to the court that he confessed to stop his abuse and because an interrogator told him that he would not be freed unless he admitted to something even though there was no evidence against him.
"My interrogators told me no one leaves Guantanamo innocent, and told me I would be sent home to Kuwait if I ‘admitted’ some of the false things I had said in my interrogations," Al Rabiah said. "The interrogators also told me that I would never go home if I denied these things, because the United States government would never admit I had been wrongly held."